“Senic’s MoodPlay is the digital turntable for Sonos you didn’t know you needed.”
- Excellent build quality
- Matches Sonos products
- Easy to set up and use
- Works with any Sonos device
- Expensive to buy and expand
- Can’t associate MoodBlocks to speakers
I will argue with you for hours over which sounds better — vinyl or digital. (It’s digital; deal with it.) What I will acknowledge without hesitation, however, is that the experience of pulling an album from a shelf, placing the needle on the record, and then getting lost in the artwork and liner notes has yet to be replaced by a streaming equivalent. But Senic’s MoodPlay — a 249 euro (about $270) wireless accessory for Sonos music systems — is the first time anyone has come close.
Instead of albums, you use colorful NFC cards. And instead of a turntable, you use the MoodPlay, an NFC reader that doubles as a Sonos remote control. (And, yes, it kind of looks like a turntable).
This physical way to experience digital music doesn’t come cheap. But after spending two weeks playing with the MoodPlay, I think its good looks and thoughtful design will help it find a home with well-heeled Sonos fans. Currently, Senic only ships the MoodPlay to EU countries and the U.K., but it promises it’s working on adding more locations in the near future.
What is a Senic MoodPlay and what are MoodBlocks?
If you own a Sonos system, you know that there are two main ways to control it. Most people will reach for their phone (or tablet or computer), fire up the Sonos app, and use its excellent interface to find something to play, whether that’s an album on Apple Music, a playlist from Tidal, or one of the stations provided by the built-in Sonos Radio service.
The other way, which is becoming increasingly popular thanks to the number of Sonos speakers with microphones, is to use a voice assistant like Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, or Sonos’ homegrown Sonos Voice Control to do the same thing.
The MoodPlay introduces a third way. By placing a MoodBlock (a nearly 3-inch by 3-inch NFC card) on the central stand of the MoodPlay, a preprogrammed music selection will begin playing on any Sonos speaker or component in your house, even the company’s discontinued models.
Once the music is playing, you can use the MoodPlay’s knob to play or pause and control the volume, while its integrated touchpad lets you use swiping gestures to skip forward or backward.
MoodBlocks come in two flavors: preprogrammed from Senic to play only one thing (e.g., Sonos Radio Hit List) or “creative blocks” — the NFC equivalent of a blank tape. You use your phone and the MoodBlocks app to program them, and these creative MoodBlocks can be reprogrammed an unlimited number of times for free.
The MoodPlay itself actually is optional: you can program MoodBlocks with your phone, and also use it to read MoodBlocks, which has the same result as placing one in the MoodPlay.
Senic has clearly hitched its wagon to Sonos’ star. But the company’s head of marketing and sales, Kristoff Doneit, tells me future development could expand the MoodPlay’s reach beyond the Sonos ecosystem.
Like a record player for Sonos
As a Sonos owner, I was skeptical of the value of the MoodPlay — after all, it’s dead easy to control Sonos from the dedicated app. But one scenario made me rethink that reaction: having guests over.
Since the MoodPlay can control a Sonos speaker directly, friends don’t need to join your Wi-Fi network and they don’t need to download and configure the Sonos app on their phone just to be able to play music on your system. With a sufficient number of MoodBlocks, they’d have access to your albums and your turntable (to use the record player analogy), giving your Sonos system the kind of shared experience traditional hi-fi systems have always provided.
If you have a Sonos system at your place of work, your coworkers and customers could enjoy that same level of control.
What can MoodBlocks play?
In theory, any song, album, artist, playlist, station, or podcast that you can access via the Sonos app can be programmed onto a MoodBlock. However, for the time being, it’s a much more limited selection: only music from Apple Music and Spotify Premium is supported.
Senic says that you “store” music on a MoodBlock, but that’s not exactly accurate. Instead, by programming a MoodBlock, you’re encoding a link to the music — not the music itself.
When you place a MoodBlock on the MoodPlay, it’s the same as if you had browsed to that content within the Sonos app and hit play, just much faster.
Will MoodBlocks work with any phone?
No, your phone needs to be NFC-capable. In the iPhone world, this means an iPhone 7 or newer with iOS 14 or newer. Android owners will need to figure out if their phone is NFC-capable (it almost certainly is), and you’ll need Android 8 or newer installed.
Senic MoodPlay: what’s in the box?
Senic includes everything you need to get started, including the MoodPlay, a USB-C power cable, a power adapter, one preprogrammed Sonos Radio MoodBlock, two creative MoodBlocks, and a sticker pack for labeling your creative MoodBlocks.
Honestly, three MoodBlocks is the equivalent of the inkjet printer that comes with 200 sheets of ink — it’s just enough to prove the concept for you, but not nearly enough to exploit the MoodPlay’s full potential. And since additional creative MoodBlocks are sold in packs of five, for 30 euros ($32), things start to add up fast. Preprogrammed Sonos Radio MoodBlocks are even more expensive at 7 euros ($7.70) each.
More than one friend who saw it assumed it was a Sonos product.
Senic was kind enough to also include a white Table Stand — a small block with three grooves that lets you display three MoodBlocks. At 15 euros ($16.30) each, you could spend a small fortune to display your entire library. Senic also makes a 10 euro ($10.88) aluminum rail that sticks to a wall and also has room to display three MoodBlocks.
Senic MoodPlay: design and controls
Just like Sonos’ speakers, the MoodPlay comes in two color options: black on black, or black on white. In both guises, the 7-inch by 7-inch device looks like it was designed in Sonos’ offices — that’s how closely it hews to the company’s aesthetics. Even the indicator LED is shaped like the ones Sonos uses on all but its most recent products. More than one friend who saw it assumed it was a Sonos product.
The main plinth is made from a mineral material that looks and feels like a high-end quartz kitchen countertop. Though relatively small, it has some heft to it at just over 17 ounces. On its underside, a set of four inverted-cone, rubber-tipped aluminum feet keep it firmly anchored.
The plastic control knob is the one element that doesn’t keep pace with the luxe feel of the MoodPlay — a knurled aluminum would have complemented the rest of the design better. Still, it has an indexed rotation, with each click corresponding to a tap or a press of the volume controls on a Sonos speaker, making it perfectly intuitive. Pressing down on the knob is the equivalent of the play/pause function on a speaker.
Under the LED indicator is a short horizontal gray line — this is the touch-sensitive area used for swiping. Again, it works just like the track-skipping swipes on a Sonos One or Sonos Five, with a left-to-right swipe skipping forward a track and right-to-left taking you back to the start of a song. Do two of these gestures in rapid succession and it will skip you backward to the previous track.
In practice, I experienced the occasional delay for all of the MoodPlay’s actions. Dropping a MoodBlock into the cradle didn’t always kick off the assigned playlist immediately, and there were also momentary gaps between swiping on the touchpad and hearing the expected next track.
It was hardly a deal-breaker, and I have a feeling it will improve over time. I don’t think it’s an inherent quality of the hardware as much as it is the software that could do with some tweaking.
The physical nature of the MoodBlocks makes it tempting to think of them like CDs, or game cartridges that need to be kept in the MoodPlay’s cradle in order to play your chosen music (ask your parents, kids). But once I’ve inserted them, they’ve served their purpose at least as far as playback is concerned. You can remove them as soon as your music is playing and nothing will be interrupted. In fact, the MoodPlay’s actual NFC reader is located in the base of the cradle — simply tapping a MoodBlock on or near the cradle is enough to trigger playback.
The only reason to leave a MoodBlock inserted is as a reminder of what’s playing, although, as I’ll get to in a moment, that’s a task to which creative MoodBlocks aren’t especially well-suited.
Senic MoodPlay: setup
In keeping with the MoodPlay’s dedication to Sonos’ design philosophy, getting the device set up is very easy. The MoodBlocks app guides you through the process, which involves powering up the MoodPlay, connecting it to your Wi-Fi network, and then assigning it to a default Sonos speaker. The first time took me about three minutes; the second time took me less than one.
You can go back into the Settings portion of the MoodBlocks app at any time to reassign the default speaker, but sadly, there’s no ability to pick from any Sonos speaker groups you may have created in the Sonos app. However, if your default speaker was previously grouped with other Sonos devices, that grouping will remain intact when you begin playback from the MoodPlay.
Another small disappointment: MoodBlocks can be programmed with content, but not with speakers. In other words, you can’t have one MoodBlock that plays piano jazz in the kitchen and another that plays death metal in the bedroom.
Senic MoodPlay: programming MoodBlocks
This is also remarkably easy. To program a creative MoodBlock, you start by opening the dedicated app for the specific music service where your track, album, etc., is located. At the moment, that means Spotify or Apple Music.
If you’re a Spotify Premium user (sorry, the free tier won’t work), you can pick an album, playlist, radio playlist, song, or artist. On Apple Music, it’s a more limited selection: albums, playlists, artists, or Apple radio stations.
Each of these items has its own unique link. Once you find it and copy it, you return to the MoodBlocks app and use the Save to Block tab to complete the process, which is as easy as holding a creative MoodBlock to the back of your phone. If you’ve ever reloaded a transit pass or used tap-to-pay with your phone, it’s just as easy as these activities.
One small caveat here: the copied links from Apple Music and Spotify aren’t the links that get written to the creative MoodBlocks. The MoodBlocks app converts the links into Senic links which it then hosts on its cloud servers. This means that, in theory, if Senic ever shuts down its cloud service or goes out of business entirely, your MoodBlocks could be rendered useless.
Here’s something that Senic would probably prefer not to share, given that part of its business model is selling MoodBlocks: you can use generic NFC cards with the MoodPlay too. I ordered some from Amazon to try, and they worked.
The MoodBlocks app won’t let you program a non-MoodBlock NFC card directly, but you can use many free NFC apps to read the content of a MoodBlock and then write it to a generic NFC card. If you want to create a large library of favorite music, this is a much more cost effective way to do it. It might also fix a problem that Senic has yet to fully solve — remembering what you’ve programmed onto a MoodBlock.
The included labels are a step in the right direction, but I doubt generic terms like classical, morning, or charts are going to be descriptive enough unless you’re in a doctor’s waiting room. Senic doesn’t include blank labels or sell them on its site.
The labels also take what is otherwise an attractive way of showing off your music and cheapen it. They look like the promotional stickers that music labels and record stores use to plaster all over albums. They’re easily removed, but not easily reused.
The next album you buy could come with its own MoodBlock.
At $270, the Senic MoodPlay isn’t a small investment, especially when you consider the added cost of acquiring a sufficient number of MoodBlocks to make owning one worthwhile. I expect many Sonos users will scoff at the idea of paying so much for what essentially is a wireless remote control that doesn’t add any new features or functionality.
However, its tactile nature, the quality of its materials, and its elegant, Sonos-esque presentation are undeniable. Being able to interact with streaming music using a physical set of cards and an ersatz turntable isn’t just a novelty — thanks to Senic’s careful design, it’s also fun and easy. Judging from the reaction I got from friends and family who tried it, I think the company has a winning formula.
But Senic’s work has only just begun. It needs to offer more types of creative MoodBlocks — the current gradient collections are a good start, but they aren’t for everyone — and it needs to add compatibility for other streaming services. It also has to figure out how to let people buy hard-coded MoodBlocks that link to (and feature the album art of) their favorite albums. Only then will the MoodPlay live up to its full potential as the turntable for the streaming era.