RealTime IT News

Sonos Digital Music System

A new category of Wi-Fi media device is emerging. Call it Wi-Fi hi-fi. One of the first products appeared last summer—the Sonos Digital Music System from Sonos, a start-up in Santa Barbara, Calif. We finally had a chance to review the Sonos products recently.

(In the meantime, SkipJam, another start-up, has begun rolling out a line of very similar Wi-Fi hi-fi gear. A few traditional consumer electronics manufacturers, including Onkyo and Kenwood, also have Wi-Fi products.)

These are not media gateways like the products from network and computer peripheral manufacturers such as D-Link, Linksys, Creative Labs and others. The Sonos Digital Music System is a complete multi-room music listening system that incorporates Wi-Fi and mesh networking technology to stream music stored on a PC and Internet radio stations—but it also includes its own amplification. You don't need any other stereo equipment if you have a Sonos system.

The system plays MP3, WMA, AAC (MPEG4) and WAV files and the firmware is upgradeable to support future audio formats (FLAC perhaps?) The Internet radio function only supports MP3 stations, which is a shame because there are lot of good WMA and Real Player stations out there. Some gateway products, such as Squeezebox from Slim Devices, do a more complete job on Internet radio.

Sonos's idea is that you place a ZonePlayer ZP100 unit ($500) in each room where you want music and plug ordinary unpowered speakers into them. Sonos also sells speakers that supposedly match the sonic characteristics of the ZonePlayer. (The company didn't send us the speakers.) Then you use the Sonos Controller ($400), an oversize remote control with a big color LCD and an interface reminiscent of the iPod, to control ZonePlayers in any room in the house.

It's possible to have the same music playing on all the ZonePlayers—Sonos refers to this as party mode—or different music playing in every room, or the same music in some rooms but different music in others.

The ZonePlayers are also Ethernet switches with four RJ-45 ports. It's not clear under what circumstance you would want to plug in other Ethernet devices, but you can if you want.

The first ZonePlayer you install, which controls the Sonos mesh network, is supposed to go in the room where your Wi-Fi network router is located, and it connects to the router via an Ethernet cable. This is the one major flaw in the product's design, and my only serious reservation about it.

First, why would you want a stereo system in the room where the router is located, which is almost certainly a room with a PC? The whole point of Wi-Fi media streaming is to get the music out of the room with the PC and into rooms where you want to listen to music. And second, why, if you have a product with Wi-Fi built in would you want to tether it to the router?

The answer to the last question apparently has to do with the way Sonos implements its in-home mesh networking which makes wireless connections between ZonePlayers to relay commands from the Sonos Controller. There is an "unsupported" set-up method that uses a Wi-Fi bridge so you can place the first unit somewhere other than the room with the network router. I was unable to test this.

The Sonos equipment looks neither like traditional stereo equipment nor like network equipment. The ZonePlayers are about the size, shape and weight of two bricks. There are volume up/down and mute buttons along with a status LED on the front panel. On the back, you'll find input/output ports, including bare-wire speaker out ports, analog audio in—for connecting a CD or DVD player—and RCA jacks for right/left analog audio out, and a subwoofer.

Since you control the system with the Sonos Controller, you could easily place the ZonePlayer out of sight, even on the floor under a chair.

The elegance and simplicity of design is carried over to the Sonos Controller, which is really the heart of the system. It's about the size and weight of one of the new Windows Portable Media Players, with a similar size color LCD—3.5 inches diagonal. It has a rechargeable but not removable battery. You recharge it by plugging it into a wall socket with the provided power cord.

To the left of the LCD are volume up/down and mute buttons. Below it are three soft keys that change depending on what you're doing. To the right is an iPod-style circular touch pad for scrolling through menus and music track lists. Above the touch pad are hard buttons for accessing the Zones menu—the list of ZonePlayers—and the music library. Below it are Play/Pause and Skip back and forward buttons.

The Controller lets you select tracks from the music library on your PC, start, stop, pause, skip forward and back in tracks and create and play playlists. It also lets you select zones—rooms with ZonePlayers in them—to control. You can link two or more zones, or all zones. When you link zones, the same music plays in those rooms.

The documentation is good and set-up was reasonably simple and trouble free. It is slightly more complicated than setting up a Wi-Fi gateway, but well within the abilities of even fairly inexperienced users.

The software installed on the host PC includes a Desktop Controller application that mimics the handheld Sonos Controller, but makes it easier to do things like setting up playlists. It also includes the Sonos Setup Wizard which configures drivers and guides you through setting up the hardware. The latter process requires pressing a sequence of keys on the front of each ZonePlayer when instructed, but is otherwise automated.

The Wizard also guides you through the process of adding music shares—folders on your host PC or any other computer on your network that contain music. Once you add music shares, the tracks are added to the Sonos music library, which uses the tags attached to the tracks to organize them in the library by artist, album, genre, etc.—just as with Wi-Fi media gateway products and software such as iTunes and Windows Media Player.

Selecting and playing music using the Sonos Controller is very much like using an iPod. There are a few extra buttons, and the color LCD lets you see album art if you downloaded it when ripping the music. Otherwise very iPod-like, which was undoubtedly Sonos's objective.

The Sonos system does let you listen to streaming Internet radio stations as well. You can use the 70 or so preprogrammed stations, or add more MP3 stations by entering the URL of the stream in the Desktop Controller interface on your PC.

The real measure of the Sonos Digital Music System, even more so than with media gateway products, is how it sounds. You're paying $900 or more now for what amounts to a mini stereo system—as opposed to $150 to $200 for a media gateway. It had better sound pretty good, and the Sonos system does. It's very crisp and natural sounding. Rated output is 50 watts minimum RMS per channel so you get plenty of power for all but the largest rooms.

When I tested it with just the bookshelf speakers that had been connected to a stereo receiver I was using with a Wi-Fi media gateway, the Sonos system sounded light on bass. Plugging a subwoofer into the ZonePlayer gave it the oomph it was missing, and made it sound significantly better than the set-up with the media gateway and receiver.

Is the Sonos system worth the price? Maybe. It especially makes sense if you want the multi-room capabilities, although then you're looking at buying ZonePlayers and speakers for each room. Sonos does have two bundles. One includes two ZonePlayers and a Sonos Controller for $1,200. The other adds two sets of Sonos loudspeakers and costs $1,500.

If you already have an up-to-date conventional stereo system you like, consider purchasing a Wi-Fi media gateway instead and running extension speakers to other rooms. It's not quite the same, but it's a lot cheaper.