New Gadget: Sonos Digital Music System

Sonos System

Santa (OK, it was really my Jewish wife) brought me a wonderful new toy for Christmas: the Sonos Digital Music System. Our good friends Sam and Rebecca were in town all the way from Wales, and Sam helped me set it up on New Year’s Eve, just in time for the dinner party we were hosting.

I’ve run through several products in an effort to find a perfect multi-room digital audio solution for my house, including the Turtle Beach Audiotron, the SlimDevice’s Slimp3 Player, TiVo’s Home Media and Apple’s AirPort Express. Each of these solutions has significant flaws in their design and/or usage model. Sonos comes as close to ideal as any system I’ve tried. I’ve been reading about Sonos since before their product introduction at last year’s CES, and David Cowan gave it a plug a while ago that spurred me to walk into Magnolia in Palo Alto and give it a try. Finally, my friend Andrew Gray bought one a while back and he’s run through more digital audio gear than me, so his hearty recommendation really pushed Sonos across the finish line.

I quickly abandoned the AudioTron because it wasn’t Macintosh-friendly and because it had limitations on the number of songs it could handle in its index. AirPort Express and iTunes/AirTunes didn’t quite work for me either — although it handled the multi-room problem in a decent way, it forced the use of iTunes as a playback interface, and when you are in the living room or kitchen, you don’t necessarily want to lug your Powerbook around — it is a clunky remote control. TiVo for music is OK, but I don’t have (and don’t want) a TV in every room I want to listen to music in. And while I’ve been a satisfied Slimp3 user for a couple years (I have four of them), ultimately the two-line text-only UI is just too limiting.

Sonos has the best usage model of any of the digital music systems I’ve encountered. The controller is wireless and handheld and has a rich user interface that can display album art and comes complete with a iPod-like scroll wheel for navigating a large music collection. And the controller can easily handle multiple zones or can merge zones together for a house-wide “party mode”. The UI on the player is simple enough that a novice can figure it out and this led to real-time manipulation of the playlist by various guests at our dinner party.

Setting the system up was quite simple and I’m already looking forward to buying a few more nodes (Zone Players in Sonos-speak) to bring music to the back deck and into the master bedroom. As a geek, I really like the fact that each Zone Player is a self-configuring node in a wireless mesh network that routes music around the house, expanding the network coverage with every node added.

So by now I hope it is obvious that I really like this product and would recommend it to others. That being said, there a few things that bug me after having spent a few days with the system. I think the system is a little on the expensive side, which may limit the appeal to gadget freaks and high-end consumers. The components feel very substantial and are obviously well-engineered, though I think they may be a bit over-engineered.

While I like the simplicity of a two component product line, I’d really like to see Sonos offer a Zone Player that did not include an amplifier and also offered a digital audio output option. While most of the zones in my house require an amplifier to power the speakers, my main home-theater system in the family room has its own amplifier and audio processor and it is frustrating that I had to pay $500 for a Zone Player that contains an amplifier and A/D conversion that I’ll never use. I suspect that almost every Sonos owner has at least one zone in their house where the built-in amplifier is superfluous. I’d be a happy guy if there was a $200 ZonePlayerLite that did this for me.

The controller unit needs to be recharged on a regular basis and comes with a rather cheesy AC adapter to accomplish this task. Sonos now sells a good-looking and much more convenient charging cradle, but asking me to pay an extra $50 for the charging cradle after I’ve spent well over $1000 on a system makes me feel nickel-and-dimed.

Finally, the music queue paradigm that Sonos uses takes a little bit of getting used to and it doesn’t always behave as one would expect, and it took me a while to figure out how to add an entire album to the queue. And when I merge playback zones, the music stops streaming on both zones and the queue that was built up disappears, at which point I have to rebuild a queue and restart the music. Ideally I’d like to see the queue persist and simply have the zones continue streaming music rather than stopping, which is surprising, not to mention aurally jarring. Also, the software-based controllers which work quite well on both the PC and Mac platforms are handy, but why can’t I stream music to my PC using the client software?

And a last suggestion to the good folks at Sonos would be for them to offer a rich meta-data integrated service that would automatically download cover art, lyrics, liner-notes, reviews and other relevant data to enhance my music listening and browsing experience. Since the controllers have such a rich UI, this would be very cool indeed. And who wouldn’t like the option to browse a music collection by cover-art, which returns some of the visual and tactile pleasures of the bygone days of music tied to physical media.

Way to go, Sonos! I’ve listened to more music at home over the past few days than I have in quite a while.

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