A couple of months ago, I got it in my head that I’d find an old record player for my apartment. Pull out a small handful of records I’d acquired over the years, and get them cranking. Start a bit of a vinyl collection of the albums I really loved.
Of course, I didn’t want to give up the streaming services; I wanted the 2 modes of music to live together in harmony. Digital and physical.
Therein lies the dilemma. How do you get these two to play along together nicely?
Well chief, you gotta go Sonos.
As nerds, we’ve all had digital music collections for a few years now. A motley collection of MP3s and AACs of varying quality, cribbed from around the web and usually loosely assembled in iTunes.
Now, you and I both know that this once-treasured collection of files has been gathering the digital equivalent of dust in the last 2 years, because you got Spotify. Or Pandora. Maybe Google Music. Perhaps Deezer. Probably not JB Hifi NOW Music.
The ease of streaming music made us all feel pretty good. It was instant gratification: we could listen to (mostly) whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted!
However, I also noticed that a few people were starting to go in the other direction. Toward vinyl, and back toward a more analogue and deliberate approach to their music. Buying physical albums of their favourite records. Old and new record players, and 2-sided albums that require flipping halfway through.
Rummaging through record bins. Liner notes! Jack White special edition Lazaretto with secret tracks under the label!
If you’ve looked at a multi-room speakers before, you’ve definitely heard of Sonos. It’s the speaker ecosystem that does multi-room, multi-service wireless music streaming. You can walk through your house and have all your speakers playing the same thing. It’s great. I’m not gonna dig right into the whole thing, but trust me, it’s great.
So most Sonos speakers are fed music, and output it, right? Pick Spotify song in the Sonos app, hit play. A Sonos speaker (like a Play:1, Play:3 or what have you) starts playing it. Simple.
In other words? They allow a record player to speak Sonos. Put on a record in one room, listen to it in any room.
It’s the dream that was only previously achievable by wiring up a house with crazy-long speaker cable runs and complex input switching. In 2015 though, we can ditch the wires, and do the inputs with a phone app.
Good job future.
Chain of Command
Once I decided this was what I wanted, I needed to figure out which bits go together to make this work. See, every record player setup looks roughly like this:
Record Player -> Phono Preamp -> Stereo Amp -> Speakers
You probably know what every part of that is except for the Phono Preamp (I didn’t). Turns out, a turntable produces a phono output level signal, which you need to convert to a line level signal before it works with a stereo.
Add in a Sonos Connect, and the chain looks like this:
Record Player -> Phono Preamp -> Sonos Connect -> Stereo Amp -> Speakers
Here’s the rub: these separate components can be bundled together in a variety of configurations. It’s up to you to decide how you take that chain and assemble it.
As an example, you could pick up a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC Phono USB, which is both the record player, and the phono preamp bundled together.
Plug that bad boy into a stereo and you’re good to go. However, it’s also pricey, clocking in at around $769 for just the player. For audiophiles that’s a drop in the bucket, but for me just starting out? Yikes.
You could buy a older stereo amp, which usually have the phono preamp input built-in. Here’s the stereo amp I grew up with, a lovely Akai AM-U33 which is still hooked up to my folks record player to this day.
This is the way that many vinyl-lovers have their setups rigged, an older stereo amp that was made around the same time as the player itself. However, I wanted something that I didn’t have to turn on manually all the time, and something a bit smaller and less power-hungry than these old amps.
It was then that I turned to the Sonos Connect:Amp — available for around $849.
This little unit does double-duty as both a decent stereo amp and Sonos Connect box in one. It meant that I could use an older (and cheaper) record player, pick up a dedicated preamp (I chose the Pro-Ject Phono Box for $179), and if I ever wanted to upgrade I later I wouldn’t be tied to amps with phono inputs only.
So in the end, here’s what the setup looked like.
Sony 1100 Turntable -> Pro-Ject Phono Box -> Sonos Connect:Amp -> Speakers
Now we were getting somewhere.
Let’s take a look at the bit you wanted to see ever since this post started: the back of the box.
So the most important bit; the inputs. The Sonos Connect:Amp has 2 analogue inputs on the back. The record player plugs (via RCA plugs) into the phono preamp, and the preamp plugs into the Sonos.
The dual ethernet ports allow this box to function like a 2-port 10/100Mbps switch, so you can passthrough a wired connection if that’s your thing.
I’m using wireless, because my router is a fair distance away from the box. Your mileage may vary.
The speaker connections are actually spring-binding posts, which means you don’t have to futz around with Banana plugs or the like to plug in your speakers. You just push down on them and they expose a hole, which you slide the exposed speaker wire into. I’ve never had an amp with them before; they’re quite nice!
Once you’ve got that all plugged in, you’re all set.
The Sonos auto-detects a line-in connection, and is good to go immediately. By the way, it’s really satisfying to lay the needle down and have a record crackle to life.
Though most of the Sonos functions are driven by the apps, the front of the Connect:Amp has just the right amount of hardware controls. You’re always gonna want to turn up or down and mute via buttons on the box.
I really like the way it looks too. It’s just one small unit, about the size of two tissue boxes, that combined with the preamp can just be kept out of the way. The record player itself can sit front and centre.
Onto the software: the Sonos app (I mostly use the iPhone app, but it works for iPad, Android, Windows and Mac) has been getting extra features all the time. I really dig it.
When you’re using the record player it auto-detects the line in and flips it over to that. However, it just treats the line-in like another music source.
You can hook up just about any music service to it (even the new Tidal if that’s your thing), and even mix-n-match them. Want a playlist with half Spotify and half from your own collection? You can do it.
I use Tunein all the time to stream Triple J around the house too. Works great.
My only ding against it would be that I use Pocket Casts for podcasts (of course), and there’s no way for me to send that to the Sonos just yet. A minor hitch in an otherwise flawless system.
The multi-room support (a big part of why I wanted this) is super-simple. You tap the room name up top, and optionally turn on or off rooms as you please. You can also independently control the volume for each room.
You’ll notice I won’t put a bunch of fluffy words here on how great it sounds, because I have no chops for audiophile descriptions of amp performance. I don’t know what a ‘bright soundstage’ is. I wouldn’t know if this has ‘sparkling highs’, ‘balanced mids’ or ‘defined bass’. My speakers aren’t the best anyway.
But you know what? To me, it sounds really solid. Like, you won’t be disappointed with the way it sounds. It sounds as good as those speakers have ever sounded.
A word on the multi-room part of Sonos: I have a few Sonos speakers in my apartment now, and when you set them all to the same source, and walk from one room to another, the experience is utterly seamless. Everything’s in sync. It’s still one of those “I can’t believe this works as well as it does”-type feelings. Doubly-so when it’s a record.
If you’ve got Airport Express/Extreme, you can definitely use AirPlay to achieve a similar thing, but I’ve never found it to be reliable enough to count on, both in sync and in reliability of streaming.
Sonos does its handshake directly with the service in question — no device intermediary. I feel this helps reliability, because in several weeks of use (and tens of hours of streaming) I’ve only had one or two hiccups.
Vinyl? But Whyyyy?
So at this point, you’re probably thinking… hey, you stinking hipster! Do records sound better? You hipster!
I don’t know if I can answer that (see also: thoughts on meta-contrarianism, hipsters don’t exist, being a hipster is dead). To me, they sound nicer than the digital equivalent. Less precise, but more substantial. If that makes any sense.
Maybe I’m projecting. Maybe it’s an audio placebo. Who knows.
If you’re looking for a logical reason to own a record player in 2015, I don’t know if I can give you what you need. It’s less convenient, it’s more expensive, you gotta flip records all the time.
I love it.