Once in a while a product comes along that is so innovative and well designed that it separates itself from the crowd. The Sonos Digital Music System (Media Server) is one such product.
This system is not the first to use digital media at its foundation. It is not the first to use wireless technology to distribute the media (although they did design their own implementation of a wireless mesh network). It is certainly not the first to offer a whole-house audio distribution system. However, what the folks at Sonos have done is to take those technically advanced components, and turn them into a consumer-friendly, highly functional, and fun system to have.
Read that again. How often can you use the terms consumer-friendly, and highly technical to describe the same product? The answer is not often enough, which is one thing that makes this system so unique in its field. As you will see, the Sonos system may be the product to finally bridge the gap between geek and non-geek, between parents and their kids, between rich and not so rich by making available to everyone the wonders of distributed music throughout your entire home.
Set-up and Configuration
My review system matched the Sonos introductory system (as depicted on their website http://www.sonos.com) which includes two Sonos ZonePlayers and a Sonos Controller. Right from the moment I first unpacked the Sonos ZonePlayer I saw how streamlined the installation process would be. I am technically inclined, so when I set up a system such as this, I always wonder what it would be like for a newbie. Let’s just say that anyone who sets one of these systems up probably already have far more challenging pieces of technology installed in their home (a network, digital music library, etc.), so it should be a breeze.
The documentation is quite easy to follow. Sonos includes both a quick start diagram as well as full documentation for those that have the discipline to read before setting it up. The first steps are wire it in to your Ethernet network, and connect it to either a preamp/receiver or direct to your speakers. For my initial player installation, I connected the standard L/R RCA jacks to my receiver. With the second ZonePlayer, I hooked up my Boston Acoustics reference speakers to the unit’s 50 watts-per-channel internal digital amplifier. I was impressed with the clarity and power of the sound given the small power rating on the amp. This was my first experience using a digital amplifier in my home system, and I liked what I heard.
At this point, there are two ways to proceed. You can configure everything directly from the dedicated CR100 controller, or, if you have a Windows or Macintosh computer, you can install the Sonos Desktop Controller software. The latter is preferable and easier in my opinion. The software basically looks a like the physical controller in a software format.
The wizard-driven installation was a cinch. At its conclusion, the system automatically checks the Internet for updates, and if there are any, it will download them. You then register your system, which allows you to receive online documentation, updates, new downloads, etc. The final step before you can begin listening to music is to add the paths to your music files into the software so it can begin indexing all your music.
Your digital music library can be located on a networked computer, a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device, or any combination of those places. This actually was a quick process. As a point of reference, I have around 40GB of music, and indexing only took about a minute.
The next step is to have the Sonos software find the initial ZonePlayer. The software should automatically locate the player, and ask you to press the mute and volume up buttons at the same time in order to verify that it is the right player. It will then ask you to give it a logical name. There are quite a few preconfigured names that make sense for most households, such as living room, master bedroom, and patio, but you can enter your own as well. Subsequent ZonePlayers are added the same way, although you can add them wirelessly instead of having to plug them into your router.
Setting up the controller is quite simple as well. The first time you power it on, it asks you if you already have installed the desktop software and configured your ZonePlayers. Since I had already done this, all I had to do was go to one of my ZonePlayers, press the mute and volume up keys at the same time (as I had with the software), and voila, the controller integrated itself into the system.
You also have the ability to connect an external source using a standard set of RCA cables. Since the Sonos ZonePlayer has its own amplifier, this can be quite handy. Additionally, in the configuration menu you can choose an icon for the source, and an input level. This is also a nice touch since you don’t have to worry about the volume being overly loud or quiet when you switch to the line in source.
The Sonos Music System is capable of running 32 distinct zones, which is more than most people have rooms in their house. Of course, that doesn’t mean you are limited to spaces inside your house, since you could easily install one of the ZonePlayers with a set of outdoor speakers on your patio or pool deck and have all of your music there too!
A ZonePlayer can be placed up to 100 feet from the nearest additional unit, depending upon what materials are in between. Unlike a regular WiFi home network, the Sonos system uses a mesh technology, which is much like a peer-to-peer network. Instead of all units accessing each other through a single wireless access point, each unit has its own antennae hidden in the feet of the unit, and they can all talk directly to each other. The controller simply connects to the network by accessing the strongest signal it finds. The best part is that the whole operation is totally transparent to the user. You don’t need to know anything about wireless networking to get this system up and running.
The Sonos system functions on the 2.4 GHz spectrum, just as many cordless phones, microwaves, and other WiFi equipment, so interference must be taken into account when locating your wireless players. You can change the channel on the system if you find that there is radio interference (just as you can with a cordless phone system). A wired unit is only limited by the Ethernet specification, which is roughly 100 meters (or 328 feet).
Sonos has included support for a wide variety of audio formats, such as MP3, WMA (non-lossless), AAC (MPEG4) but not iTunes purchased music, WAV, AIFF, FLAC, and Ogg Vorbis. This array of encoding options makes it compatible with most people’s music libraries. In addition, you can also import playlists from iTunes, MusicMatch Jukebox, Windows Media Player, and WinAmp. Track information is taken from the standard ID3 tags, and, if there is album art in the metadata for your music files, it will display that as well. Not only does the Sonos system support your own music collection, it allows you to stream Internet radio stations and Rhapsody content as well. These are key features that extend the functionality and enjoyment of the system exponentially.
The zone concept of the Sonos system is incredibly well thought out. Each zone player can be controlled independently with the main controller. You can play 32 different things in each of the 32 different zones if you are so inclined. There is also a “Party Mode” which allows you to instantly send the same content to every player. As the name suggests, this is perfect if you have a large gathering at your house and want to make sure the music is seamless from room to room. There is also a zone group configuration that allows you to put various zones in your system into groups for central control. It is as easy as a few clicks of the controller to add or remove ZonePlayers from zone groups. The beauty of this setup is the immense flexibility you have. You can group all the players together for listening, yet maintain separate settings for each player’s equalization and volume settings.
The handheld controller is a solid, well-designed device. It makes you feel like you are using a large, incredibly functional MP3 player. It has a crisp QVGA (240×320) LCD screen, making it easy to navigate. Its layout is uncluttered and intuitive. To the left there are volume and mute controls. The volume controls work both with the amplifier and line outputs. To the right there are your standard music navigation buttons (Play, Pause, Forward, Back), a Zones button that allows you to quickly bring up your various zones and select which one you want to control, a Music button that lets you quickly jump between your “Now Playing” screen and whatever menu you were previously in, a Back button, that takes you one step back in the menu tree, and a Scroll wheel with a center button.. The wheel is used for scanning up and down through your library, much like you would find on an iPod. The center button is basically your OK button. Finally, under the screen are three soft buttons that do different things based on the menu you are in at the time.
The Sonos Experience
This is what it’s all about . . . the actual experience with the system. There are a lot of positives about the Sonos system, but it’s the performance where it should and does shine. The first night I sat down to use the Sonos system, I figured I would just listen to a few tunes to get familiar with the interface. Like many of the jukebox applications out there, the Sonos system allows you to search by Artist, Album, Composer, and Genre. You can also search through the actual folder structure as it appears on your computer or NAS. This is quite useful, especially if you have lots of music with bad or missing ID3 tags. I was very impressed by the elegance and ease of use of the Sonos controller, both at the hardware and software levels.
Using the scroll wheel is much like the massively popular iPod; however, Sonos did add one thing that makes a world of difference: the Power Scroll. This is one of the simplest yet smartest additions to any navigation scheme I have seen. As I stated earlier, my library is quite large. Sometimes scrolling all the way down the alphabetically arranged library can be frustrating. Enter the power scroll feature. When you enter a category, such as Artist, the left soft button becomes the Power Scroll button. Press it once, and a new menu pops up with the letters of the alphabet. Simply scroll to the first letter of the artist you are looking for and the library instantly jumps to that letter. That is a huge time saver, and makes the experience substantially better.
While playing your music, you may find that you want to continually add tracks to the playlist on the fly. Simply locate the track, artist, or album and add it to the queue with the appropriate soft button, and it is instantly appended to the bottom of the playlist. You can also remove tracks from the queue if you change your mind. The queues can all be saved, so you can use them again later or transfer them to a different zone. Think of the possibilities. If you are listening to your queue out on the patio and it starts to get cold and you want to go inside, simply save your queue, go to your living room, load the queue up in that zone and resume playing. If you want to get even trickier, and continue playing the queue completely uninterrupted, you can link your destination zone to the zone you are currently in, and when you get there, the queue will be playing in sync to the one you left!
After playing around in my library, I tried out some Internet Radio. I never really enjoyed Internet Radio before, mostly because of poor quality of the streams, and tons of broken links in any directory I used. Sonos keeps their radio directory up to date and will update the directory on the system automatically. The stations are grouped into categories, making it easy to find something to your taste. You can also easily add any radio station by entering its URL. Sound quality depends directly on the streaming rate of the individual station. Most of the ones in the Sonos directory had a rate at which they sounded as good as standard FM radio.
A few days later, I received my trial Rhapsody subscription so I could review the integration between Rhapsody and the Sonos system. Rhapsody is one of the new breed of subscription music services that allows you to have unlimited access to their entire catalog of music for a monthly fee. The catch is that you never own the music, and can only play it through programs or systems that recognize their digital rights management (DRM) scheme. As soon as you stop paying for the subscription, poof! The music is gone.
Once I set up my Rhapsody account, I launched the application on my PC. There are two main components of the Rhapsody service that integrate into your Sonos Music System. First is your Rhapsody music library. One of the advantages of a subscription model is that you never have to take up valuable disk space and time downloading and storing the actual files. Your library can exist solely on the Rhapsody servers, and when a track is accessed, the music is streamed to your player. In the Rhapsody interface, adding music to your library is as simple as clicking on a track or album. As soon as you add content to your library, it becomes available on your Sonos controller. You can create playlists in your Rhapsody application that also become instantly available on your Sonos system. The great thing is that in the Sonos system itself, you can integrate music from both the Rhapsody service and your own music library in your Sonos playlists and queues.
The Rhapsody radio stations are the second component. These are similar to the Internet Radio stations I discussed above; however, there are a few differences. All of the stations are created from content in the Rhapsody catalog. There are more stations than in the Internet Radio station menu, and many of them are categorized differently or more specifically than by a broad genre. For instance, instead of just a Jazz channel, there are channels like Jazz Nightclub, Jazz Vocal Standards, and Jazz: Cool and Hot. Having a young child, I found the Children’s Music channel particularly useful. I suppose this is a lot like having satellite radio or music channels on your cable system, but since it is integrated into your Sonos music system, it is much more convenient to access. You can quickly appreciate why a monthly subscription costing roughly the equivalent of a single store-bought CD is a bargain.
Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay to this system is that it made music-listening an engaging, active experience again for me. I listen to music in many places at all different times: at work, at the gym, at home. However, I rarely devote my undivided attention to music anymore. The Sonos Music System actually caused me to explore my available music as I hadn’t done in a while. That first time I sat down with Rhapsody integrated into the library, I must have spent over 3 hours just playing music, new and old. I would listen to stuff I had never even thought to listen to before. I hate buying CDs on a whim and then being stuck with a coaster I find completely unappealing. With the unlimited access of a subscription music service, you can listen to anything you want, and see if you like it without incurring the cost of buying a CD everytime you want to try a new artist or genre.
Being able to do this and then listen to it all through the Sonos system was an absolute blast. This is actually one area I could see Sonos developing further by adding more functionality. You can’t actually add and explore the Rhapsody service from the controller, and you probably wouldn’t want to without a proper keyboard anyway. Yet, if they released a device that had a keyboard or other quick text input ability, and you were able to do all of your browsing right from the controller, it would be that much more entertaining. Nevertheless, the bottom line is that this system, as is, made music-listening and discovery incredibly FUN.
The other wonderful thing about the overall Sonos experience is that it extends beyond your home. There is a wonderful online forum at the Sonos website where you can find information about various setups, post questions about the system, contribute ideas for future revisions, and much more. The folks at Sonos participate and often take the comments and try to implement improvements based on them. I found the forum very useful in getting more detailed information about the system. Sonos is definitely smart to have an open dialogue with their customers. It certainly inspired confidence in me that they are passionate about their product, and want to continue to innovate and make their products better for their customers.
In case you couldn’t tell from the review, I absolutely loved the Sonos Music System. It is a completely elegant solution to a highly technical challenge: that of distributing your entire digital music library wirelessly throughout the house, while making it both easy as cake to use, and affordable to the masses. Best of all, it is a joy to own. The people at Sonos have really hit the mark with this product, so much so that I hesitated to let the FedEx man take the system away!