Gaming my Listening

It’s easy to understand the affinity that Millennials and  younger feel for vinyl records. Since they came of age with those bloodless CDs, the album cover art and fuzzy, skipping records holds undeniable romantic allure. Those of us who grew up the generation before or earlier may hold fond memories of record albums, but we also remember the downside. Going to college I’d plop my crates of record albums, low-end all-in-one Marantz stereo, and giant speakers into the back of my parents’ Volare (with fake wood paneling) and then lug them up to my dorm room.

The Plymouth Volare – workhorse of the 70’s

Even then, I was a convenience seeker and I stacked records on the spindle so that five could play consecutively without my having to get up to change them. I remember the chagrined looks from the audiophiles across the hall who babied their records, cleaning them religiously and wouldn’t stack them in their wildest dreams. Needless to say, we never swapped records, and I was limited to the small, scratched music collection within my domain.

Stacked Records – the ultimate audiophile no-no

Fast forward to today. To those of us who started with music emanating from a needle scratching the grooves in a spinning disk, digital music is miraculous. We all slavishly ripped our CDs (which had replaced our records) to mp3’s and felt like we held the world in the palms of our hands. Then Napster opened (and soon closed) the door to music swapping/pirating and the landscape changed once again. For the first time one’s personal music collection seemed quaint compared to the promise of the entire world of music at our disposal. Pandora made an early entry to the music streaming scene and enabled us to create channels designed to coerce their “music genome project” to play music we like. I have always found Pandora maddening because I know exactly what I want to hear and don’t want some algorithm to choose for me.

Spotify filled my need like no other and I’ve been with them since the beginning. Now, if I want to play the soundtrack of La La Land, I just play it. If I want to listen to Copacabana (maybe I’m a Fanilow, maybe I’m not – what’s it to you?) it’s there for me. Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist of 30 songs is, perhaps, my very favorite feature of the service. Each week on Monday, Spotify’s machine learning algorithm puts together this playlist that is exactly what I want. Furthermore, the playlist enables me to select the album of a song I like, play it, and then listen to music of similar artists — happily going down rabbit holes. Although I pay for the service, each time I navigate through scads of music I feel the greed of unlimited access and that I’m getting something for nothing. The only downside of Spotify is that I’m unable to play it through my stereo and don’t like listening to music through headphones from my computer.

Spotify Discover Weekly – This is the best!

When I learned that Sonos had integrated with Spotify, it warmed my Tyranny of the Cord heart. Sonos builds wireless speakers in various sizes and shapes that range from expensive to very expensive. I started small with a two-pack of Sonos Play:1 speakers and set them up in our living room and dining room. The out of the box experience was great – Sonos has a mobile app that I loaded onto my iPad and the setup was mostly a matter of naming the speakers (“living room” and “dining room”) and connecting them to our wireless network.

These pack a punch and it’s about 6″ high

One of the coolest thing about Sonos is that you can specify the music that each speaker plays. For example, if two different people are listening in two different parts of a house, each can play different music. There is also a party mode where all speakers are put into a single group to all play the same music. It’s all configurable via a mobile or desktop app.

Sonos Speaker Grouping – Party Mode!

Sonos will connect to various music sources and stream the music to the speakers. Naturally, I chose to stream Spotify. The first thing I noticed is that Sonos’s Spotify embedded implementation lacks much of the great functionality of the native Spotify user interface. It wasn’t long before Sonos and Spotify joined forces to create Spotify Connect, which recognizes Sonos speakers directly from the Spotify User Interface. This is magic … when it works.


Choose Sonos speakers directly from Spotify

I could engage in a long diatribe about Sonos connectivity or Sonos-Spotify connectivity, but it’s not worth it except to note that it’s been a struggle. Occasionally, Sonos speakers will disappear from the wireless network for reasons I’ve never understood. Sonos technical support is friendly and responsive, and takes a snapshot of the error conditions so that they can analyze them. The suggestion is usually to either choose another wireless channel or to power off/on the speakers.  The more pernicious problem is when Spotify can’t connect to the Sonos speakers; when there are integration problems it’s difficult to know who to blame – Sonos or Spotify. Although these connectivity issues are usually resolved with some futzing around, stopping and restarting things, it’s annoying to waste time on something that Sonos/Spotify should understand and address. For me, the joy of the integration when it works mitigates the hassle of dealing with the problems.

Sonos recently released speakers with built-in Amazon Alexa voice recognition, enabling one to verbally instruct the speakers what to play. Voice recognition is very appealing to many people, but not to me. I’ve found little use for my Amazon Echo Dot, but have not yet rolled out any smart home doodads. Undoubtedly, many of you readers have used these technologies with more sophistication and creativity than I have – please share your practices!

6 Replies to “Gaming my Listening”

  1. Thanks for the cool music update for those of us who love music and work from home- I would like to suggest you send this listening post to one Ryan Atallah. He will most definitely have some smart home doodads to share, being the Millennial of the century…those are some pretty cool speakers! But I think I love the station wagon the best….and will hang on to all my vinyl records forever!

  2. That Volare is da bomb! I had joined the record of the month club and had quite a collection in college. It was stolen out of the back of my dad’s station wagon packed.and parked in Boston’s Back Bay. As a result, I brought very few records into our marriage, which my wife’s collection more than compensated for! After years of flea marketing, our collection has dwarfed my old one, to which my millenial daughters have since added. 🙂

    I like the simplicity of the Spotify/Sonos connection as a convenient alternative, especially since we’ve never had much of a stereo system. We do have plenty of ways to still enjoy wax/vinyl, from an old Edison, to a Victrola, to the portable record player we take camping.

    1. That must have been a sad day when your records disappeared! I too was a proud Columbia Records member and it was the source of my Foreigner and Styx albums, among other winners!

      I had no idea you were such a closet hipster with all the vinyl! Nor did I know that you’ve retained a museum of music players!

  3. Oh yeah, and also another pun for you — this post of yours could be aka Tyranny of the (Re)Cord!

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