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Sonos’ Frantic Flailing Illustrates the Stupidity of Smart Tech

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Sonos’ CEO has issued a statement in an attempt to clarify an earlier controversial announcement. This week, the smart speaker manufacturer Sonos announced that May 2020 would mark the end of free updates and upgrades for certain older products. Customers who wished to continue using those products are free to do so — but if you have any newer Sonos products in your sound system network, there’s a catch. After May 2020, you’ll either have to forgo all future updates for your newer Sonos hardware or create two separate networks, one for legacy devices and one for your newer speakers.

To be fair, some of the uproar on the internet was driven by misunderstanding. Sonos has pledged that you’ll be able to use legacy devices after May 2020, just not on the same network as your other Sonos products. This got twisted into “Sonos will force you to buy new hardware if you want software upgrades” in some corners of the internet. Sonos CEO Patrick Spence has written a blog post to set the record straight on several points:

We are working on a way to split your system so that modern products work together and get the latest features, while legacy products work together and remain in their current state. We’re finalizing details on this plan and will share more in the coming weeks.

While we have a lot of great products and features in the pipeline, we want our customers to upgrade to our latest and greatest products when they’re excited by what the new products offer, not because they feel forced to do so.

There’s a line in The Verge’s reporting on this topic that I found particularly interesting. Chris Welch writes: “Sonos has insisted that these products, some of which are a decade old, have been taken to their technological limits.” Those are his words, not Sonos’, but it’s an accurate summary of what the company has said. It got me thinking about my own stereo solution.

Two Kinds of People

My current living-room sound system is a bit different from any product Sonos sells. It’s built around Advent Loudspeakers like those pictured in the feature image above. The image below is for the Small Advent Loudspeaker, but it’s actually the best fit I’ve found online for what my speakers looked like when new(er) and with their front covers in a bit more pristine condition than mine currently are. Both Advent images are from VintageAudioExchange:

Scale this up a bit and you’ve got what I own, in the same finish.

I don’t know when the Advent Loudspeaker went on sale beyond “the early 70s,” because they launched so long ago, Google doesn’t know the exact launch date. (Here’s a Stereophile review from January 1971.) My version of these speakers don’t look nearly as nice — time has not been kind to that veneer wood — but they still sound beautiful. I rebuilt them in 2002 with factory-original parts. Modern systems often combine small satellite speakers with a single subwoofer; large loudspeakers like this integrate an 12-inch woofer and tweeter in the same box.

The speakers I own and use today are the first speakers I consciously remember hearing. I don’t mean that they’re the same brand, make, or model. I mean they’re the same speakers. My father bought them before I was born and gave them to me when I turned 18. I still have the Pioneer SX-3600 receiver that paired with them and it also still works, though I’ve since upgraded to a more modern receiver courtesy of my colleague, David Cardinal.

The very first song I consciously remember hearing? Harry Chapin’s “30,000 Pounds of Bananas,” off the Greatest Stories Live album. The record player and receiver sat inside a little white cabinet my father carefully drilled holes into, so he could run the wiring out of it.

I made a mistake several years ago and put them into storage. They languished for a few years while I made do with other solutions. A few weeks before Christmas, I finally bit the bullet, hauled them out of the garage, and rebuilt the sound system and media center PC in the living room. I’d been using a standard 5.1 “subwoofer + tweeter” system of the sort that’s popular these days around the $ 100 – $ 200 price point. It’s a good set of speakers. I can’t complain about it.

But my eyes teared up the first time I heard those Advents again, after years of silence. There’s a not-so-subtle difference between using old-fashioned speakers and more modern systems. Advent Loudspeakers don’t have the subsonic, rattle-your-bones capability of a subwoofer but the mids are better than anything you get from a tweeter / subwoofer system today. Subwoofers are great for thumping bass and movie soundtracks, but if you want to actually hear people singing, they fall short of ideal.

My Advents are 45-50 years old. Even when new, they didn’t qualify as “the best” speakers — they were designed to be very good, midrange, affordable speakers. I have no doubt that some of you own audio systems that utterly outclass my own, though I have a vague plan to build a 7.1 sound solution using them as the front pair, then adding a subwoofer underneath it, just for fun.

My Advent Loudspeakers are the best speakers for one and only one reason: My father gave them to me.

I thought of all this when I read Welch’s summary of Sonos’ position. According to Sonos, a speaker they built just 10 years ago has reached its “technological limits.” It made me think about the way we’ve allowed companies to arbitrarily define what “technological limits” are, and what they look like, and how easily that phrase gets tossed about by companies to justify bricking hardware, removing features, or preventing customers from repairing their own equipment.  It’s an issue that’s much bigger than Sonos or any single company. It even impacts the US military.

If Sonos had existed in the mid-to-late 1970s and my father had chosen to buy a speaker from it, there would have been nothing to pass on in the first place. Long before I turned 18, that speaker would have reached its technological limits and been discarded. In this alternate reality, instead of heaving two large, unwieldy boxes into my tiny Ford Escort before setting off for my junior year of college, I would have had a much smaller box.

But if I had, that smart speakerSEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce wouldn’t still be in service either. It would have been pushed to its technological limits in the years since I graduated from college. A few weeks ago, instead of blowing the dust off my Advent Loudspeakers, I might have gone to Best Buy or Amazon and bought a new Sonos system. It might sound better than my Advents. It certainly offers features they don’t have. Turns out, it’s really hard to get a 50-year-old speaker to play music without a wire being involved somewhere in the process.

But if I had, there would be nothing to even consider leaving a future little Hruska. It’s those danged technological limits again. Gotta keep up. Gotta catch up. Out with the old and in with the new, even when the old isn’t broken and the new isn’t necessarily better.

I’m very grateful to have grown up in an era when our electronics were so stupid, we didn’t have to worry about surpassing their technological limits in just a single decade. My Advent Loudspeakers are still capable of filling my living room with a wall of sound so vibrant, it feels like you could reach out and rest your hand against it. When they do, it’s hard to imagine they’re technologically limited at all. Sometimes, if I’m listening to the right music, and I close my eyes, I can still hear the warm hiss of the record player — a noise decried by purists and audio lovers, but that sometimes fits a song for reasons I can’t explain.

But I bet you know which song it is.

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