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Do we really need another streaming music service?
Even if it’s free?
Audio brand Sonos just launched Sonos Radio, an ambitious new service that offers access to 60,000+ radio stations worldwide, along with a collection of artist-curated radio stations (Thom Yorke, Brittany Howard, David Byrne, etc.), 30+ exclusive stations that attempt to subvert genres and focus more on moods (Sunset Fuzz, La Movida, Cruise Control), plus a dedicated new channel called Sound System that also offers up a music hour every Wednesday guest-hosted by the likes of Angel Olsen, JPEGMAFIA, Phoebe Bridgers, Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Vagabon.
The key point, though, is that this is a Sonos exclusive. Meaning, if you don’t have the brand’s speakers (oh, look, they’re offering deals this week!), you don’t have access to the Sonos Radio content.
Does it matter? Sonos is a great speaker system, but they already offer 100+ streaming services through their devices. And that includes TuneIn, iHeartRadio and Napster (formerly Rhapsody), which help power the back-end of the Sonos Radio service.
We spent the first two days of the Sonos Radio service checking out different features and channels. Our thoughts:
Set-up: It took a day or so for the new Sonos service to appear in my app (apparently it wasn’t an all-at-once rollout — if you’re unsure, it’s v 11.1 on iOS … and whatever your operating system, the app should be touting Sonos Radio front and center). Once you’ve updated, go to the “Browse” tab and Sonos Radio should be the first selection.
What you’re getting: 60,000+ radio stations around the globe and 30+ Sonos-curated channels, all for free. The selling points, however, is Sound System — the flagship Sonos station — and channels curated by cool indie/underground music artists.
Once you get away from the Sonos Presents stations, you can choose from Local Radio, Featured stations (BBC Radio 1, ESPN, KCRW, Radio Disney, etc.) and a catch-all Browse Radio section divided into music, news/talk, sports and locations filters. Within the music genres, the Sonos stations get priority listing.
- Everything sounds great, particularly the Sonos curated stations and Sound System. “Radio” is misleading, as everything on these channels is crystal clear, there’s no background interruption and no DJ that’s going to talk over songs (even on Sound System, the hosts separate the interview and song intros from the music itself).
- The Sonos app — where you control everything — features a clean, minimalist layout. It’s far easier to navigate than TuneIn, IHeartRadio and other like-minded radio/music services.
- They only have one artist station right now, and that’s Thom Yorke. No surprise, his station is a soundtrack of glitchy, cool, proggy, obscure and discordant tunes with artists ranging from The Mahavishnu Orchestra to Tierra Whack; it certainly does feel like you just crawled into the Radiohead singer’s mind. That said, early on the station (dubbed “In the Absence Thereof…”) played a song by a group called Errorsmith from an album called Superlative Fatigue, and that title is a pretty apt description of Yorke’s channel. You probably won’t last more than an hour at a time here.
What kind of worked:
- The Sonos curated stations were hit or miss. Cruise Control was an interesting update on yacht rock, and somehow mixed LCD Soundsystem (“Someone Great”) with Stevie Nicks, Steely Dan and “You Are the Woman.” It kind of worked! Sunset Fuzz (No Joy, Toro Y Moi, Sharon Van Etten, etc.) is your indie/electronic crowdpleaser, and the ambient instrumentals that make up More Minimal were great as background noise while I was working, without sounding like Muzak.
- Sound System, the Sonos flagship channel, is a different beast than say, Beats1, but it shares the diversity and anything-goes spirit of Apple’s radio station. A five-song playlist earlier today featured, in order: Clark, Bad Bunny, DIIV, Kacey Musgraves and Stephen Malkmus, which was a little jarring but also made me want to keep listening. What could possibly follow those songs? (It was Danny Brown.)
What needs work:
- The first thing you’re gonna hear on Sound System is the weekly new music hour with the guest musician (this week: Angel Olsen), and it takes about 15 minutes of typical radio interview to get to the tunes. Speaking of which, a setlist in the app or song IDs would have helped me dive deeper into Olsen’s cool playlist; if you miss her spoken intro to the song, you’ll never know what she played.
- The rock-focused curated channels left me indifferent. There’s plenty of good music with guitars being made in 2020, but most of the rock channels leaned on 80/90s nostalgia.
- If you use the app to find terrestrial radio, there’s not a lot of information to help you guide you through those 60,000 stations. If you want to know more about, say, “Classic Rock 102.9 MGK,” you’ll have to do some Internet digging on your own.
- You also can’t divide those broad terrestrial radio station categories (rock, classical, pop) into subgenres, so if you have particularly granular tastes, you’ll have to skip around. And unlike some radio-focused apps, you won’t see song titles playing unless you click on the channel and let the app play.
What we don’t know:
- Clicking on Sonos stations didn’t immediately start the channel — I had to click on it, then hit play (whereas local stations kicked right in on one click). This might be an early glitch.
As this is a free service (minus the hardware), you can’t click through to the next song if you don’t like something — unless you want to keep changing stations. So in a way, this is just like old-school radio, albeit with an adventurous playlist.
The good news is that whatever you play is gonna sound great, and there are enough well-curated channels in the Sonos biosphere that you’ll most likely (outside of mainstream rock) find a station that’ll suit your mood. And if you don’t? Again, you have 60,000 other stations and 100+ streaming services that’ll still work just fine with your speakers.
Sonos Radio isn’t a game changer, but it’s a nice, free add-on to your home audio system … if that system happens to be Sonos.
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