Sonos and Alexa, now for Niles…

It seems like I’m on a continuous journey of how to play music at home.  It all started when we built our ranch back in 2003-2004 and I had the bright idea of doing a whole-house A/V system.  Our timing couldn’t have been worse.  Components were not network aware.  IR, Coax, and RS-232 were the technologies of the day.  There were no smartphones or wireless controllers, let alone something like an Amazon Echo, to control the system.  It was so primitive!  And expensive.  Better options started to appear almost before we moved in, but it was too late.

Over the years I’ve ripped most of the old system and wiring out.  Gone are the Escient Fireball music server, the Sony CD Jukebox, the video distribution system so you could control the Escient remotely (basically IR repeaters would send the commands to the Escient, but you needed to display its UI on a TV).  What remains is the Niles built-in speakers, wall panels, and a Niles ZR-4630 Multi-Zone Receiver.  Years ago I hooked a Sonos Bridge (now called the Connect) to the ZR-4630, so we could play all that Sonos goodness throughout the house.  Of course, controlling this is still a bit of a pain.  You have to use an old Niles panel to select the Sonos to play in that zone, then control the Sonos with your smartphone.  And you may have to play with the Niles volume controls as well as those on the Sonos.  So not quite that simple, but better than the previous setup by a mile.

Today I linked my Sonos account with Alexa.  The Alexa app discovered the Bridge and I said “Alexa, play the Bill Joel channel from Pandora on the Media Room” and lo-and-behold…nothing happened.  Well it did happen, but I had to jump up and press the button (still labeled CD for the old Fireball) to route the Sonos to my office.  And then beautiful music was coming through the ceiling speakers.

Like others, I found the announcement of Alexa support for Sonos very confusing.  The focus of the announcement was the new Sonos One, which is basically a Sonos Play:1 enhanced with far-field microphones and Alexa support.  It looks like a really nice device, and if I had a room calling for really music-focused “Echo” I would go for the Sonos One instead.  The confusion was that the announcement made it sound like you needed a Sonos One to use Alexa.  Either that Alexa only could control the Sonos One, or that one Sonos device in the house had to be a Sonos One to control the others.  Fortunately that isn’t true, you can control existing Sonos devices on your network with Alexa today.

Despite our whole-house system we have been using Echos as standalone music devices at the ranch.  My wife tired of the complexity of using the Niles panel (which in the kitchen/family room has some weird legacy dynamics) and the Sonos app.  She liked the simplicity of an Echo and put one in the kitchen.  Now she can just walk in and say “Alexa, play The Beatles” and she has music.  There is also a weird legacy dynamic in the exercise area because we’d run out of zones on the ZR-4630.  So there is a separate legacy amplifier that had two zones itself, and well….  I will spare you the details, but it is very hard to get music into the exercise area.  I finally just put an Echo in there too, and now I can tell Alexa what to play from the Elliptical.  As well as do all the other great things Alexa supports.

If only I could control the ZR-4630 with Alexa!  Ok, that’s not going to happen given it is a 14 year old device.  So I checked the Niles website and can’t find any indication they have an Alexa-compatible replacement.  The only Alexa-compatible multi-zone receiver I know of is the Denon Heos Drive, and it is only 4 zones.  I need at least 6, preferably 7.  Given the rapid adoption of Alexa I probably don’t have to wait too long for additional multi-zone options.  Either that or I finish ripping out the whole house system and go for an entirely wireless (Sonos or Denon, for the moment) system.

Talk about first world problems.


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