Backstage: Sonos Digital Music System, reviewed (updated)

Has 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.

pic

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

Latest News