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Sonos, Alexa, and Spotify: An excruciatingly slow evolution

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Perhaps no one was more excited than I was by the official announcement that Amazon’s Alexa would work with Sonos speakers. And now, almost two weeks later, no one may be as frustrated as I am.

It had been more than a year since Sonos, realizing it had badly missed the boat on voice-powered speakers, announced a partnership with Amazon to integrate with Alexa.

Great! I am the ideal target for this. I own two Sonos Play:1 speakers. And I have an Amazon Echo and Echo Dot.

It seemed insane that these gadgets didn’t already work together. Occasionally, I even looked at buying various hubs that might allow them to work in tandem.

Instead, I waited. And waited. And waited. Until finally the announcement came in early October: Sonos was introducing a new speaker with Alexa baked in. But it was also releasing a “beta” update that would allow current Sonos owners (like me!) to download a firmware update and begin using the Alexa features.

Thus began a slog to connect all these devices.

First, I downloaded the firmware update. So far, so good.

Then I added the Sonos skill to the Alexa app on my iPhone and logged into Sonos to allow them to link.

Then I told Alexa to discover the devices — and it did indeed find my two Sonos speakers.

Okay, that may not sound like much. But it took about 30 minutes, when all was said and done, thanks to the need to recover some forgotten passwords.

And then…well, not much.

I hadn’t realized that Spotify would not work with Alexa on Sonos at this point. I’m a pretty big Spotify user. It had taken Spotify and Sonos a loooooooong time to agree to add functionality that let me play directly from the Spotify app onto Sonos without having to use the Sonos app to control the speakers.

It appears they still aren’t playing well with others.

I can play Spotify directly on my Amazon Echo devices. And Amazon and Sonos say Spotify is “coming soon” to this integration, though I have no idea if this is a technical issue or a music licensing issue or just a corporate pissing match. But for the moment, it means the whole Sonos-Alexa integration remains pretty useless for me.

Most other voice-activated Alexa functions will still just play through the Echo devices.

For the moment, Sonos-Alexa works with the following music services:

  • Amazon Music
  • Pandora
  • iHeartRadio
  • TuneIn Radio
  • SiriusXM

Now, I do have a Pandora account, which I added to Sonos and Alexa, so I can play stations via Alexa on Sonos. Amazingly, this works despite the fact that I live in France and Pandora is not officially available here. We’ll see how long that lasts. But to get into my Pandora account I need to use a VPN. If that works, I could upgrade to its paid services, but I really don’t want to pay for a second music service.

As for Amazon Music, my wife has a Prime account, but the Alexa app doesn’t offer the option of logging into her account to access her music. So Amazon Music is also essentially useless for the moment.

Finally, Amazon announced a multi-room control for its devices and an API that would let other devices leverage the feature. As far as I can tell, however, Sonos doesn’t work with this feature, either. (If I’m wrong, please drop me a note. I’ve spent some frustrating moments researching this, but it doesn’t appear possible yet.)

So I’m still waiting for this to evolve. The problem, really, is that I have gadgets from several brands. I’m still hoping that at some point I’ll be able to directly use Alexa to control my Samsung TV. I’m not betting it’s going to work with Apple TV anytime soon, though.

To be clear, I understand that this is the kind of thing we must classify as a “First World problem.” I’m not throwing a tantrum or insisting that some grand injustice is being inflicted upon me.

Rather, this all serves as a reminder why the continually overhyped smart home remains, for the most part, a distant dream. The ease and convenience it promises bumps up against the reality that our homes tend to be a mishmash of gadgets that have no idea how to talk to each other. (I have a remote control unit for the heater in our apartment that ought to sync up with a voice-activated service, but I’m sure it never will.)

It’s hardly a source of pain. But it’s amazing that the companies trying to bring us the future can’t seem to figure out how to make it happen collectively. It’s their turf wars, more than any technical issues, that will keep the pace of evolution excruciatingly slow.

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