Information for visually impaired Sonos users

It appears Sonos is about to become less useable by screen reader users. The CEO should stop it now, but here’s how to protect your investment if he doesn’t

Jonathan Mosen Posted on 04/05/2024 Posted in accessibility, commentary

What is Sonos?

Sonos develop a series of high-quality smart speakers. They are known for their ability to stay in sync throughout your home when the speakers are grouped. Sonos speakers come in a range of form factors, from portable devices all the way to soundbars.

You can send content to all current Sonos speakers via Apple’s AirPlay, and some support Bluetooth. But integral to the Sonos experience is its dedicated app. It is used to add speakers, configure services, set alarms, modify system preferences, search across streaming music services, add frequently used radio stations and more.

Because the app is critical to the operation of a Sonos network, those of us who are blind and have invested in the ecosystem have done so based on trust. We trust that Sonos will act responsibly, and not release an update to their app which, at worst, would turn the investment blind people have made into unusable paperweights. We rely on Sonos to keep their end of the bargain and ensure that their updates adhere to good accessibility practices so their apps are accessible with screen readers such as VoiceOver on Mac and iOS, Talkback on Android, and various third-party screen readers for Windows.

Unfortunately, it appears that Sonos is about to breach that trust significantly, with a new app scheduled for release on 7 May.

This article outlines the problem and why it is such an egregious act of bad faith on Sonos’s part. It then discusses how blind people can hopefully protect and preserve access to the speakers they have paid for, at least in the short term.

Seeking answers from Sonos

In late-April, Sonos announced a complete rewrite of their mobile apps, due for release on 7 May. The separate tabs at the bottom of the app will be gone. Instead, everything will happen on a single screen the user can organise to suit their preferences.

There are certain triggering keywords for those of us who’ve been in the accessibility advocacy space. When Sonos talked of the app being “rewritten from the ground up” and a “new look and feel”, that prompted questions at best, rang alarm bells at worst.

Immediately, the Living Blindfully email box started receiving email from anxious Sonos users, wanting to know whether accessibility had been taken into account.

Some years ago, I wrote a book about Sonos which was responsible for some blind people getting into the ecosystem. I have beta tested for Sonos on and off. But the public announcement was the first time I had heard that work was underway on a new app.

My hope was that capable blind people had been involved from the early design stages of these new apps, because even if you know a tiny bit about accessibility, you will know that it’s far easier to build it into the foundation of your app rather than try to retrofit it later. Plus, the latter approach usually means accessibility isn’t done for the initial release. That has the effect of turning blind people into second class customers. I was cautiously optimistic given Sonos’s consistent commitment to accessibility in recent years. It is that commitment which has encouraged many blind people to embrace the platform.

Hoping for the best but fearing the worst, on 25 April I wrote to Sonos’s CEO, Patrick Spence, asking if accessibility had been taken into account when designing the new app. I explained the anxiety that was beginning to emerge in the blind community given that no mention had been made by Sonos of accessibility in any communication on the new app.

I also invited him, or a representative of Sonos, onto Living Blindfully so we could talk about Sonos’s ongoing commitment to accessibility.

I did not receive a reply to that email, and of course it is Patrick’s prerogative not to reply. I wrote to him because he has been helpful in the past. I then sought answers on the Sonos Subreddit, and was pleased that another blind Sonos user had beaten me to it with a question about screen reader accessibility. The very helpful Sonos staff member answering questions on the Sonos subreddit didn’t have any immediate answers for us on accessibility, which gave me yet another sinking feeling, but he did undertake to research the matter and get back to the two of us who had asked this question.

The response was as follows.

“At launch, the new Sonos app will have basic support for screen readers. We know we have some work to do in this space, and the team wants nothing more than to make sure everyone can enjoy Sonos. Put plainly, accessibility is very important to Sonos.”

Subsequently I have come to understand that this response is the standard response being posted on social media to any blind person who asks this question.

The representative then offered to connect me with someone from the Research Team.

Based on the experience of a tester, I believe Sonos has overstated the accessibility of the new app, and I will return to that later. But let’s separate the platitudes from the actions.

Sonos claim that accessibility is important to them. Is it really? If it is, why are Sonos wanting blind people to talk to their research team at a time that is too late to influence the first release? User experience research for blind customers ought to have been conducted at the same time as it was for everyone else. Through their actions, or rather their inactions, Sonos is saying that blind people who paid good money for their products must just hurry up and wait.

I know there will be many devoted blind Sonos users who will provide quality advice to their research team despite us being an afterthought. But right now, blind people have a problem, and Sonos has a bigger one. If they go ahead and release this app and it substantially impedes our access to what we paid for, Sonos could be in breach of consumer law and disability rights law.

How bad is it?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the firsthand experience to answer that question directly. I have refrained from writing this post for as long as I can, since a Sonos representative did indicate they’d let me take the app for a spin. That hasn’t happened yet, and time is running short.

I feel therefore that I must raise the alarm based on the user experience of someone who has tested the app.

On Mastodon, I communicated with a blind person who said he is so overwhelmed by how suboptimal the new app is on iOS with VoiceOver that he doesn’t know where to start in terms of giving feedback to Sonos. Does that sound like “basic accessibility” to you?

I encouraged him to try to tell me what’s wrong, and this is what he came back with.

“For starters, it is really, really clunky and inefficient. The area where you can see your system, there are 3 or 4 swipes to get between each individual speaker, 5 depending on if it has a battery or not. There’s a button in the main nav bar that says system, but that button goes nowhere, from what I can determine, swiping through lists is basically impossible. They don’t properly scroll, and will randomly just jump you to the top of the screen. By randomly, I mean quite often. Next… You can’t explore the screen by dragging your finger around it. At all. This just simply does not work. It acts as if the screen is blank. There’s no way to navigate the different subsections of the main screen, because of this and just because it’s just all in one huge linear sweep.

There’s so, so much more, but I guess these would be my worst issues.”

I have no reason to doubt this tester who is a competent and happy user of the present Sonos iOS app.

I should add that a much-touted new feature is that Sonos is releasing a web-based app. This tester says that it is completely inaccessible.

It seems apparent then that Sonos has given scant attention to screen reader accessibility throughout this project, and that they are about to inflict a materially inferior experience on the blind community while they go and do more research.

A test of ethics

After learning about how bad things appear to be, I wrote once again to Patrick Spence, so far without receiving a reply, highlighting the seriousness of this issue. For blind people who purchased Sonos in good faith, this situation is nothing short of a debacle and a travesty. I am calling on Patrick Spence to do the decent thing, protect Sonos’s brand as a company that cares about accessibility, and put the new app’s release on hold until it is at least no worse than the current app. Treating paying customers in this way just because they’re blind is offensive and wrong. It is also technically inexcusable. Were I Patrick, I would be demanding to know from the person responsible for this project why they have placed Sonos in this invidious position. When you have people already using your products, you don’t do something that makes that product materially worse, and you don’t treat these paying customers as so unimportant that you’ll deliberately choose to get around to it sometime after the damage has been done.

Precautions blind people can take

Sadly at this point, I have lost any confidence that Sonos believes blind people have the right to equal treatment, so I suspect the release will happen on 7 May. I would love to be proven wrong.

There are some steps you can take to protect your Sonos equipment so you can still use it. I am writing these instructions from the perspective of an iOS VoiceOver user. If you use Talkback on Android, hopefully you can extrapolate the equivalent steps.

First, you’ll want to disable automatic app updates. Open Settings on your iPhone, Navigate to App Store, and double tap. You’ll then need to locate the heading that says “Automatic Downloads”. Under that Automatic Downloads heading, you’ll find an option called “Automatically Install App Updates”. Ensure that is turned off. Once you do so, it will be necessary to manually approve every update that gets installed on your iPhone. So from then on, you’ll need to go into the app store, choose “My Account” at the top of the screen, then pull down to refresh by swiping down with three fingers until voiceover says “refreshing content”. The moment that the Sonos app is there, you won’t be able to double-tap the “Update All” button anymore, because that will cause the Sonos app to update. So until this issue is behind us, you’re going to have to be very careful not to double-tap that button.

For the moment, there is a second thing that I would suggest doing, because it is not clear to me whether once the firmware on your Sonos speakers updates, it’s going to require the new app. We don’t want a situation where your speakers update themselves automatically and you are forced to download the less accessible app. To avoid this from happening, open the lovely accessible current Sonos app. Double-tap the Settings tab at the bottom of the screen, then double-tap System. Locate the “System Updates” button towards the bottom of the screen. Double-tap it, then you’ll find a toggle switch called “Update Automatically”. For now, toggle that to off just in case new firmware for your speakers is going to force this app update on you.


It is such a shame that disregard for accessibility from a company can literally overnight turn equipment you’ve paid for and used for years into a nightmare. I have fifteen Sonos devices as part of my network at the moment, so it represents a significant upheaval. This was absolutely avoidable with good UX design practice and proper engagement with the blind community at the right time. The right time was at the very beginning of the project.

Assuming Sonos doesn’t do the right thing and pull this release until it is accessible, I will be placing the new app on a test device and putting it through its paces. If the tester’s findings are confirmed, then I suggest it’s vital that we band together to protect our investment and get this wrong righted as quickly as possible.

If you are a tester of the new apps with a screen reader, I would love to hear from you. And if Sonos does provide me with access to the app, I will update this post.

Happy listening.
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