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Backstage: Sonos Digital Music System, reviewed (updated)

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By Jeremy Horwitz

Editor-in-Chief, iLounge
Published: Saturday, February 19, 2005
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picHas Sonos developed the home stereo of the future? If we were betting, we’d say “yes” - at least, something very much like the company’s new Digital Music System will soon come to replace the oversized stereo components that have dominated home audio for decades. Given the success of the iPod, it seems only natural that hard disk-based music players will become more common, and they’ll be accessed using iPod-like menuing systems, existing speakers and headphones, and soon enough, wireless technologies.

While Apple is focusing on the portable music market, Sonos has used these technologies to develop a decidedly iTunes/iPod-influenced high-end in-home audio system made for a very specific audience. If you’re a member of this audience – music lovers with their own homes and some extra cash – definitely read on. If not, you may still want to learn about the future of digital music in your home, because Sonos definitely has the right general idea, and we’re sure to see the same concept implemented elsewhere in the near future. Click on Read More for our full review of the Sonos Digital Music System, including its iPodesque remote control and Mac miniesque ZonePlayer receiver/transmitter units.

[Updated Editor’s Note: We’re happy to report that Sonos has just posted to the Internet an updated Mac version of the Sonos Setup Assistant that resolves the Mac compatibility issue we noted in our earlier review. The revised Assistant is discussed inside in an update to the review.]

The Concept

California seems to attract a disproportionate number of future-focused individuals and companies, and Santa Barbara-based Sonos, Inc. fits right in. Like a number of other music-focused technology startups, Sonos has made three assumptions that are likely to become even more accurate over the next few years: first, increasing numbers of music lovers will pack away their CDs, tapes, and vinyl in favor of digital music files; second, those digital files will live on a hard disk someplace; and third, people will want to listen to the music in different rooms of their homes with minimal hassles.

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Back in 2001, Apple made similar assumptions with the iPod, but focused entirely on a portable platform; consequently, the iPod replaced the Walkman. But the Walkman was never a home stereo component, and the iPod has similarly fit uneasily into home stereo systems, which traditionally employ large speakers and oversized metal boxes stacked vertically in shelves, racks, or home A/V cabinets. While serious music lovers have been frothing for an iPod-like home stereo package, Apple has only hinted at its plans for home stereo integration. Wireless connectivity seems to be in the cards, but it’s still unclear whether the Mac mini or an iPod will be at the center of a home stereo.

That’s where Sonos has stepped in. Borrowing a number of Apple physical and user interface design cues, the company is now offering standalone audio components called ZonePlayers ($499) that easily connect to stereo speakers, hard disk-based music collections, the Internet, and even each other. Essentially, each ZonePlayer replaces your old stereo amplifier, receives, distributes, and plays music, and even synchronizes wirelessly with other ZonePlayers to create music “zones? throughout your home or other building. You buy a color-screened, iPodesque wireless remote control ($399), then use it to visually control the playback of your music through any set of ZonePlayer-equipped speakers you have.

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The hassle-free wireless concept is key to Sonos’ appeal. Historically, high-quality distributed in-home audio relied on networks of cables, which in turn required holes in your walls, floors, and carpets. By contrast, Sonos lets up to 32 ZonePlayers share and distribute audio using wireless 802.11g connections, and no connecting cables are required between them.

Therefore, Sonos is offering almost exactly what people have wanted from Apple – iPod-style wireless control of iTunes, or a way for the iPod to wirelessly broadcast its songs to one or more stereo systems. The ZonePlayer solution offers a serious alternative, substituting a remote for the iPod, a new piece of software for iTunes, and lacking only support for Apple’s proprietary formats.

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The absence of Apple participation is unfortunate, but for early adopters and PC-centric users, it won’t be a show-stopper. ZonePlayers can play back any song in MP3, unprotected WMA, WAV, or unprotected AAC format without a problem. Only protected WMA files and Apple’s specially encrypted files, such as iTunes Music Store downloads, won’t work; Sonos is working on adding Rhapsody support by March, and will add protected WMA support as well. For the time being, there’s a vague way around the protected audio limitations – namely, connect your iPod or competing device full of protected downloads to the ZonePlayer’s line input port using a stereo audio output cable. Once you press “play? on the iPod, however, you can’t use the Sonos remote control to switch songs.

From Sonos’ standpoint, the best way around iPod and iTunes limitations is obvious: keep your music on a non-iPod hard drive, and don’t use protected digital music files. Rip your CDs in the universal MP3 format or use unprotected WMA/AAC if you must. If you’re willing to do this – and many people are - you’ll get the most out of the Sonos system.

Aesthetics in Brief

To say that the Digital Music System riffs on Apple’s design philosophies would be an understatement. Each ZonePlayer is an aluminum and white plastic box with lines highly similar to Apple’s recently released Mac mini computers, only a fair bit larger and heavier. Mac minis measure 6.5” x 6.5” x 2” and weight under 3 pounds; ZonePlayers are 10.2” x 8.2” x 4.4” and 10 pounds. The back of each Sonos box features four Ethernet ports (with status lights), chromed spring-loaded left and right speaker terminals, analog audio inputs and outputs, and a switch to toggle between power standards. But for the absence of glossy clear acrylic and Apple logos, the ZonePlayers could be the Mac mini’s home stereo twins – of course, Apple in this case was later to the game.

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Each ZonePlayer features only three buttons, all on a small front panel: mute, followed by + and – volume controls. Power goes on instantly when the unit is connected, and status is indicated through a multi-colored flashing light hidden beneath the mute button. Four blue rubber foot pads and multiple top- and bottom-mounted passive cooling holes are the only decidedly non-Apple features of the design. It’s an attractive and clean implementation of a good idea, and the rare electronic component that makes Apple look like the cloner rather than the clonee.

But the cloning relationship reverses when you look at Sonos’ remote control. While its aluminum top surface and white plastic body and buttons nicely match the ZonePlayers, it’s hard not to think of the iPod when you see it. Most conspicuous is a scroll wheel just like the 3G iPod’s, including a central action button, while volume and mute buttons have been moved off to the left of a 3.5”, 320x240 pixel backlit color screen. Three menu-specific buttons sit under the screen, while buttons for menu, backward, play/pause and forward sit in iPod-familiar locations. Two new buttons, Zones and Music, sit astride the menu button.

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The remote includes a top port so that an included power cord can recharge its battery, as indicated by a power light on its top and front right surfaces. There are also bottom terminals for a recharging dock, which isn’t included. Blue rubber padding on its back provides surface and hand grips.

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Interestingly, the remote turns on automatically whenever you pick it up, thanks to an internal motion sensor, and when it does, its brilliantly backlit screen and menuing system are sure to impress. Depending on your perspective, its menus look either like a mix of the iPod photo with the default Mac OS X backdrop, or a parallel to the Microsoft/Creative media center interfaces that have emerged over the last year. It’s hard not to like the interface, especially its bigger-than-iPod photo album art photos and multi-layered windows. The design is good enough overall that any home with a Sonos system and multiple family members will probably have more than one of these remotes, too.

Grouping the Components

Our review system consisted of two ZonePlayers ($499 each), two sets of Klipsch speakers (MSRP $299/pair, available for $199 and up), one remote control ($399 each), and a Buffalo brand 120GB networked hard drive (MSRP $399, available for $210 and up). Arguably, you don’t need all of this gear to enjoy the Sonos experience. If you already own one set of speakers, store all of your music on a PC, and only want to play your music in one room of your house, you could conceivably get some value out of the Sonos experience with a single ZonePlayer and nothing else.

But more likely than not, you’ll want to build a system with at least two ZonePlayers, one remote control, and a separate hard drive. Absent the hard drive, you would keep one ZonePlayer tethered to your computer, which needs to be turned on whenever the Sonos system is playing music. And absent the remote control, you would need to control each ZonePlayer’s playback from your PC with a monitor-based interface. Finally, without a second ZonePlayer, you would just be listening to music in one room – which you could probably do without the ZonePlayer at all. Many people would sooner just use Apple’s AirPort Express wireless audio receivers with their iTunes-equipped PCs or Macs and get the same general functionality.

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Hence, Sonos is marketing the ZonePlayer as a multi-room, remote control-driven solution, and noting that its Digital Music System does two things that Apple’s AirPort Express does not do: once a hard disk or computer is connected to one ZonePlayer, you can create separate playlists and have them running in separate rooms from different ZonePlayers, all spooled from the same hard disk. You can also have one playlist, and run its contents simultaneously in all rooms at the same time: a “linked? party mode for the person who entertains guests by filling an entire house with one stream of audio.

Making the Connections

Setup of the ZonePlayers was impressively simple. There’s no separate power supply, so the detachable wall cable was as easy to connect as can be, and plugging one ZonePlayer into speakers was similarly a breeze. Sonos’ pressure-based speaker cord terminals are amongst the best we’ve ever used when making speaker cord connections, and there’s also the option to use the ZonePlayers’ analog stereo (and subwoofer) out ports.

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As noted earlier, four Ethernet jacks on the back of each ZonePlayer give you the option to connect with wires to multiple storage devices or a wired home computer network. Under the best circumstances, one of those wires will go directly to a networked hard disk full of music, and you’ll never deal with a computer. Sonos’ instructions for using the standalone networked disk were simple to follow, and in our tests, the connection process worked effortlessly – a few obvious button presses did the trick. Similarly, connecting your ZonePlayer to Sonos’ remote control takes a few button presses and several minutes, but little real effort or skill. Anyone could do it.

Connecting two ZonePlayers to each other is similarly easy. With a few button presses – and no wires – the ZonePlayers find each other and form a network with individual names. You can change the names with your computer or the remote control, thereby setting up music “Zones? labeled “Living Room,? “Dining Room,? or whatever you prefer.

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We underscore that this easy setup contrasts markedly with that of wired audio distribution systems, which often require the paid work of professional installers, say nothing of physical drilling of numerous holes. High-bandwidth wireless solutions such as Sonos’ eliminate these hassles, costs, and physical scars to property altogether.

Connecting a computer full of music to the Sonos system may or may not be as easy. The good news is that 97% of the population – namely, PC users - will find the process almost as smooth as those using separate networked storage drives. You connect your ZonePlayer to either a wired router or directly to your PC, and share music directly from that computer’s iTunes or other music directory. Sonos’s software makes PC sharing almost effortlessly easy – just plug in the included Ethernet cable, insert an installation CD, and press a few buttons. An on-screen, expanded version of the Sonos remote control appears, and you’re on your way to easy wireless music enjoyment.

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If the ZonePlayer is linked into an existing home computing network with Internet access, it’s also able to do one other cool trick: Internet Radio. The remote control and PC interface give you full access to a large variety of pre-sorted stations, and again, they can be broadcast throughout all the ZonePlayers. Unfortunately, if the ZonePlayers are operating in an environment detached from a home Internet-connected network, Internet radio won’t be available – only the linked local music storage library.

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When we originally tested the System with our Macintosh computers, we had issues with the Sonos-to-Mac sharing process. The installation CD required an Internet download of a new Setup Assistant application, after which two different Macintosh computers running two different versions (10.3.7 and 10.3.8) of the Mac OS X operating system failed to share their files with the ZonePlayer hardware. We followed and rechecked the directions, and spoke with Sonos Technical Support - the same problem was reproduced on their end, too. In fairness to Sonos, we gave the company a few days to see if it could come up with a Mac-compatible solution – hence the initial delay in our review - but as of late Monday, February 14, the company estimated that it needed two weeks to get a solution fully tested and available.

Impressively, however, the company quickly fixed the problem, and had replacement software available for general download on Friday, February 18, beating its own estimates. Better yet, the problem was completely fixed. The revised software worked perfectly, though it required a bit of Firewall fine-tuning that we didn’t have to go through on our PC. When loaded, the new Setup Assistant located and properly shared our test music folders, quickly indexing their contents and making them available for access via the Sonos remote control. Unlike the PC version of the Sonos software, the Mac version doesn’t yet include an on-screen remote control alternative to the Sonos handheld hardware, but we generally view that as a moot point.

Why? From where we stand, the best use of the Sonos Digital Music System platform isn’t PC- or Mac-dependent. Serious music lovers should consider going all out - get the networked hard disk and at least one remote control instead of using your computer for these purposes. These optional components make the system more modular, don’t require you to keep a computer turned on all the time, and – assuming you’ve pre-dumped your music onto the networked disk, which is easy - simplify the Sonos installation even more.  The only thing you may give up by doing this is Internet Radio, and only then if you haven’t linked the ZonePlayer at some point into your existing home network. We consider the tradeoff entirely acceptable.

Playback and Performance

With a computer or networked storage drive connected, we found that the Sonos system performed perfectly under almost all circumstances. Not only was the setup straightforward, but accessing music was highly iPod-like in almost all respects - use of the remote control was considerably easier than the standard infrared and RF-based home stereo and iPod remotes we’ve tried. Because of the scroll wheel and properly organized menus, Sonos’s remote was actually more intuitive than many of the screened programmable remotes we’ve used, though admittedly limited to a very specific purpose. Sonos could win over even more people by expanding its remotes to control even more home stereo (and video) components.

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Music quality from the system was as good as we could have hoped – thanks to a 50-watt Class D amplifier, and when used with quality speakers, you’ll find a ZonePlayer’s output powerful and indistinguishable from the original source material, for better or worse. Audiophiles especially will appreciate that ZonePlayers let users choose to encode their wireless audio streams in WMA or WAV format, either compressing or conserving audio data for specific listening and distributing applications. And there’s only a brief caching delay before music begins to play back through a ZonePlayer from the attached hard drive – less of a delay by far than trying to pull a random CD from a 20 or 500-disc jukebox and select its track for playback. Disconnecting the hard drive in the middle of play – not recommended – shows that the ZonePlayer keeps a 5-10 second cache of audio stored up.

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Playing songs from multiple playlists is incredibly easy. You select the Zone you want to control with the remote’s Zones button, then go into your music list and select the song or playlist you want to hear in that Zone. Next, switch to a different Zone and start a separate song or list going. That’s it – and it works. If you want to play the same song in multiple Zones, you can use one of the three bottom contextual buttons to link multiple (or all) Zones to each other, and the same song will immediately start to play across the specified rooms.

Connecting to multiple music libraries was also simple. Storage devices are added by a simple directory selection process either through the PC interface or with the remote control, and in any case connect through Ethernet cables. A single optimized index of all songs is created, alphabetized, and made available for the remote control to use in an iPod-familiar fashion.

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Our single hiccup in the properly connected system came once when we used a wireless 2.4GHz telephone at the same time as the Digital Music System was on: the phone worked, but like our wireless computers, the system couldn’t make remote-to-ZonePlayer wireless connections. This is an unfortunate conflict flaw that’s common to all of the 2.4GHz products we’ve tested, and microwave ovens often create issues in the same way. Thankfully, it’s fairly easy to work around with a channel-changing feature integrated into the Sonos remote menus, and by avoiding conflicting 2.4GHz devices.

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As our review hardware was limited to a set of two ZonePlayers, we haven’t tested the system’s practical scalability to Sonos’ 32-unit maximum, but we suspect that the devices will work well in a larger-sized network. Office-, home-, and outdoor location-wide sharing shouldn’t be much of a problem – and certainly not as much of one as it would have been with old-fashioned cabling.

Conclusions

iLounge Backstage doesn’t assign letter grades to covered products, but our general impressions of the Sonos Digital Music System are favorable. Aesthetics, ease of connection, and ease of daily use all are strongly in Sonos’ favor, counterbalanced only by a steep price tag for a multi-room installation.

In truth, while some may focus disproportionately on the price, we don’t consider it to be a deal-breaker for most of Sonos’ target audience. Comparable multi-room installations of older stereo components would be considerably more expensive, far less versatile in terms of their access to a huge, well-organized music library, and most likely far larger physically, besides. Sonos replaces stand-alone amplifiers, CD players, cassette decks, and turntables with a single box that – once set up - performs almost identically and requires far less switching between media.

Hard-core techies are quick to point out that there are alternatives to Sonos’ system available: for the same price as a ZonePlayer, as one example, you could buy a low-end Dell PC, and for some additional cost, you could load it up with media player software, buy a separate remote control, and keep it turned on all the time to spool music to some speakers. They’ll even note that the Dell – equipped with software such as SageTV – would spool movies and photos in addition to music. 

In our view, while the extra functionality would be a welcome addition to a system such as this, any built-it-yourself option largely misses Sonos’ point and value: mainstream customers don’t want the hassle of splicing together computer parts and software, don’t want huge PC cases all over their homes, and when labor costs are included, probably couldn’t get all the various components put together for much less than Sonos’ prices. The Digital Music System offers audio simplicity and convenience in a comparatively small, physically attractive, and easy-to-use package. Those who need multi-room broadcasting and can afford it – including the cost of remote and networked hard drive - should consider it a viable and impressive digital music server alternative. Everyone else should keep watching. Sonos is blazing a trail, and similar technologies are sure to become increasingly important over the next two years.

[Editor’s Note: Originally posted February 15, 2005 at 1:15AM PST, this story was updated February 18, 2005 to reflect fixed Sonos software for the Mac OS X platform.]

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Comments

1

Any recommendations for NAS drives?  Would it really be easy to upload 200GB of data via ethernet to NAS (I haven’t seen any models that offer firewire)?  I’ve heard conflicting reports on several models in terms of Mac compatibility.

Posted by Merkin in New York on February 15, 2005 at 7:32 AM (PDT)

2

I use a Buffalo Linkstation with 250 Gb drive along with Sonos. Works great. I have about 170Gb worth of music (35K tracks). It definitely took awhile to copy the data over the ethernet (most of a day). But once that’s done, access it suitably quick.

My PC sees the drive fine; my Mac seems to have a little trouble, but I haven’t bothered to troubleshoot, as I use sonos to manage my music library….peter

Posted by peterj on February 15, 2005 at 9:00 AM (PDT)

3

hey non-us sonos fans, looks like someone is shipping zone players outside of the us on ebay

Posted by ssf805 in santa barbara on February 16, 2005 at 8:30 AM (PDT)

4

I have it working perfectly with my mac mini!

See photos: 

http://lisaandbrian.com/?album=205

Posted by bsugar in San Francisco on February 19, 2005 at 5:19 PM (PDT)

5

Merkin: We liked the Buffalo drive we used. And do you seriously have 200GB of data to send to it?

Bsugar: Yes, it’s working entirely now. Sonos updated the software that was having a problem, and now everything’s copacetic.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on February 19, 2005 at 10:04 PM (PDT)

6

Here’s a thought - the new Buffalo Linkstation (300GB) has a wireless feature.  Can the sonos connect to the router via the wireless Buffalo link and thus be able to stream internet radio?  If anyone has tried this out let me know. 

Posted by dhanson in NYC on February 22, 2005 at 10:31 AM (PDT)

7

I checked out the details of the Linkstation 300GB but can’t find any info on the wireless feature.  If the device connects to your network where your music is stored, then you should be able to connect a ZonePlayer to it and it would work.  Please provide a link to more info on the new product.

Posted by rhoster on February 22, 2005 at 7:56 PM (PDT)

8

Here’s what I was talking about:

Buy.com

Posted by dhanson in NYC on February 24, 2005 at 9:53 PM (PDT)

9

Its the Buffalo HD-H300LAN

Just Froogle it.

Posted by dhanson in NYC on February 24, 2005 at 9:54 PM (PDT)

10

Actually its really unclear - I see on other sites that it isn’t.  Well someone should make one of these things with a USB 2.0/ firewire for uploading the data and standalone wireless adapter as well.  No more wires!

Posted by dhanson in NYC on February 24, 2005 at 9:59 PM (PDT)

11

Then again why cant we attach the NAS device to the router and attach of of these to the sonos:

http://www.linksys.com/products/product.asp?grid=33&scid=38&prid=558

I have my replaytv setup this way and it works pretty good.  That way you don’t have to waste one sonos by wiring it to the router on your home network.

Posted by dhanson in NYC on February 24, 2005 at 10:07 PM (PDT)

12

I think I found the only stand alone NAS wireless device made by TEAC:

http://www.teac.com/DSPD/Microservers.html

It may be better to have the NAS wired directly to the sonos, and the NAS wirelessly connect to your home network.  that way the wireless connection can crap out and you still have your music to play.

Posted by dhanson in NYC on February 24, 2005 at 10:11 PM (PDT)

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