Speakers Should Last Decades, but Sonos Wants to Convince You Otherwise

A first-generation Sonos Play:5 speaker, sitting on a white table.
If you have this first-gen Sonos Play:5, it’s about to stop getting updates. Photo by Nan Palmero/Flickr.

15 years ago, Sonos changed the whole-house audio game. No longer did you have to run a complex grid of speaker wire through your walls and ceiling: with a few wirelessly connected tabletop speakers, you could play music throughout the entire building right from your phone. At least, until Sonos decides to stop supporting them.

That day is now here, and people are livid.

In an email sent to owners of its older speakers, Sonos noted that all products released between 2005 and 2011 will stop receiving software updates in May 2020. Sonos says these older speakers and amplifiers “do not have enough memory or processing power to sustain future innovation,” and that “over time this is likely to disrupt access to services and overall functionality.”

In other words: they’ll keep working, until they don’t. And if you have any newer Sonos speakers hooked up to the system, those won’t receive updates until you disconnect all the old ones. But if you trade them in, you can buy new speakers for 30% off, so it’s a win for everyone Sonos!

People have rushed to Twitter with hot takes, ranging from “Sonos is giving us all the middle finger” to “Sonos deserves credit for supporting these devices as long as they did.” And to an extent, sure: 10 years is a long time to receive software support for an internet-of-things product, if the competition is any indication.

The problem is, 10 years is a pathetic amount of life for a speaker.

Speakers (and other audio equipment, like receivers and amplifiers) are some of the longest-lasting products you can buy. They’re fairly simple, designed to stand the test of time, and don’t change as fast as most technology, so upgrades aren’t necessary.

These are my speakers:

A set of speakers set up in a home theater setting.
My Energy Connoisseur tower speakers, which work with most standard receivers, amplifiers, and cloud music services.

I’ve had them for, coincidentally, almost 10 years—they’ve traveled with me to 6 different apartments and houses, and have integrated with multiple wireless music services as the internet evolved.

When I first got them, I had them hooked up to an old receiver and an Apple AirPort Express, allowing me to AirPlay music from iTunes. Later on, I swapped that out for a Chromecast Audio for use with my Android phone, and these days, I have them hooked up to an Echo Input for voice control with Alexa (plus a newer receiver for Dolby Atmos compatibility).

As I hopped from one cloud service to another, I never had to buy new speakers for hundreds (or thousands) of dollars—all these cloud dongles cost less than a Ben Franklin each (I bought the AirPort Express used). If one service gets shuttered or a new, attractive service pops up that isn’t supported by old gear, I don’t have to worry: my speakers will work with anything I plug them into. There is nothing the manufacturer could do to stop my speakers from playing music, and eBay has plenty of replacement parts should one of my woofers blow out unexpectedly.

Newer Sonos speakers, like this Play:1, have no analog inputs to speak of. Photo by Nan Palmero/Flickr.

The first-generation Play:5—likely the most popular of the products being deprecated by Sonos—has a 3.5 mm (“stereo”) jack, which means that it can at least continue to work as a “dumb” speaker. This was a smart move on Sonos’ part, and builds a future into the product when they know the cloud service won’t last forever.

But here’s the problem: many of their newer speakers have no 3.5mm jack, no terminals for speaker wire—not even Bluetooth. Now that we know where Sonos’ products are headed, the future looks bleak. Once those speakers become deprecated, they won’t become dumb speakers like the first-gen Play:5. They become very pretty, expensive, useless bricks.

Sonos will apparently be releasing some workaround in May that allows these old speakers to run on an isolated network, independent of new speakers running updated software. But you probably won’t get the same whole-house audio that you bought the speakers for, and as Sonos’ service evolves, their cloud capabilities will likely diminish more and more. And if someone decides they don’t want the speakers anymore—as many will—they can either sell them (so someone else can make use of their limited life) or put them into Recycle Mode (which renders them inoperable and unable to be reactivated). That 30% discount requires enabling Recycle Mode, so Sonos is literally pushing people to brick and trash their old devices by making their old devices obsolete.

The company has made a big deal about sustainability this year, releasing their first Sustainability Report and blogging about how they use less plastic in their packaging. But if your products aren’t designed to last, you aren’t being sustainable—you’re contributing to a growing, global, and galling e-waste problem. And a speaker manufacturer should know better.

Update: Following backlash, Sonos has released a statement on their website. It doesn’t really change anything about their approach, or mention anything new (apart from a promise for security updates for old speakers). But it’s…there.