Sonos Nearly Perfects Home Audio

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Sonos Nearly Perfects Home Audio

This summer more Americans than ever are conserving cash by taking staycations and in doing so, many are looking to add nice touches to their homes to make their lives more comfortable. A new 3D TV may be one way to go about improving the house but another is boosting the capability and functionality of your sound system.

For many months I have been enjoying the Sonos multi-room music system which uses WiFi to stream many different types of audio throughout your home. What made me decide to go with Sonos myself was their introduction last winter of an all-in-one "boom box" style stereo which looks like something Apple or Bose would make. The Sonos ZonePlayer S5 once available in white only and now in black allows you to have a portable stereo system which works wherever there is AC power.

Before I go on you should know the entire premise of the Sonos audio solution is that you can liberate your music from particular devices by allowing a centralized media server which can be a laptop or simple PC. In addition the system hooks into virtually all radio stations from ones which are Internet-only like Pandora and Last.fm to satellite to many AM and FM stations.

Using the system you can set an alarm which wakes you to any station you choose from Satellite to a custom station on Pandora. You can also have the alarm play music only for a specified amount of time and have it apply to multiple zones. You can also wake to a random selection of music from a playlist. If you like Pandora will likely love waking to it. In addition, Sonos has an application which functions as a remote control which runs on computers, iPod touch devices, iPhones and soon iPads (currently you can use the iPhone software on your iPad). The system taps into iTunes songs and MP3s which reside on any or all computers in your home. You can listen to music by track, artist name and search radio based on station, program or personality. This last point should not be taken lightly as you will find radio personalities are playing on some obscure station at virtually any time. This means you can find the content you like much more easily - in fact I am unsure how else I would be able to rapidly find radio content of my choice if I didn't have Sonos.

When ordering the system I was a bit confused I must acknowledge and I will try to clear up the challenges I went through right off the bat so you won't have them. In order to get the Sonos music players to function wirelessly, one of the units must be connected to the Internet via an Ethernet connection. Once this is done all other players are able to stream music without needing Internet access. If you need to have music in more than one room or you want to listen to music in a room which has no Internet connection, you need two devices. The Sonos ZoneBridge 100 is a basic device which is the Sonos equivalent of a WiFi access point or  AP - it connects to the Internet and is relatively inexpensive - allowing you to "light up" your home with music. At $99 the device also functions as a bridge which can be used to extend your music playing to a distant location.

Moving up the cost curve the Sonos ZonePlayer 90 at $349 functions as a Sonos-enabled preamp - which basically means if you have a separate amplifier which could be part of a home stereo or AV system you can play all Sonos music through it. You can also opt to connect this unit to Bluetooth speakers as many of them are already infused with an amplifier.

At $499 the Sonos ZonePlayer 120 adds an amplifier to the model 90 mentioned above meaning it can plug directly into traditional speakers. The ZonePlayer S5 costs $399 and is the basic amplifier included equivalent of the 120 but with the speakers and "Bose-like" enclosure I mentioned above.

The sound of the system is very good - the S5 does not have the fidelity or dynamic range of the $1,100 Bose Acoustic Wave music system II but at $399 is a far better value due to the wireless integration with your music library and seamless radio connectivity.

Sonos CR200 in action

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There is also a physical remote control the Sonos Controller CR200 which resembles a chubby iPhone 4 without the capacitive skin-sensitive touch screen of the Apple-based product. What this means is you have to lock it before putting it in your pocket or who knows what sort of controls you might accidentally press. What is really cool about this control is its motion sensing which means it goes to sleep and turns off its screen until it senses it is being picked up or moved. Subsequently it is pretty good on battery life lasting a few days with light use. The controller also has Twitter integration which allows you to quickly share what music you are listening to or you can even use the microblogging service to communicate with a range of other devices and services. I use it so send myself reminder messages via Twitter's direct message function - I just type dm @rtehrani [message].

Sonos CR200 Vs. iPhone 4 thickness comparison

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The obvious question is does it make sense to purchase the Sonos Controller CR200 when you can get the equivalent functionality with free software on a mobile device. After all you can get an iPod Touch for as little as $200 and the Sonos remote starts at $290. Obviously the iPod does a tremendous amount more than just control your stereo but then again the CR200 has a real mute button as well as real volume controls and a real home button. When you want to adjust the volume quickly when the phone rings for example it is quite handy to have a real remote.

Sonos running on its own CR200, the iPhone 4 and Andronos software running on HTC Incredible

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Android users shouldn't fear as there is a free program called Andronos which approximates the functionality of the Sonos controller and the iPod software. When starting the software initially it crashed on my HTC Incredible. Before trying again I decided to configure my system for syncing with software by briefly pressing the volume up and mute buttons simultaneously on any Sonos device. After doing this I launched the Andronos software and it now works fine and recognizes the Sonos devices on my network.

What I love about the system is not only its connectivity to so many platforms but its connectivity with so many music services such as Rhapsody, Sirius, Napster, Pandora, iheartradio and last.fm. It is also great to be able to create music zones by connecting music from different rooms together. If you are listening to something you like in the kitchen you can quickly add the bedroom to the zone and then remove the kitchen... This is a simple way to transfer music from room to room. The system works very well but hey - it's WiFi which means once in a long while music may stop playing for reasons which aren't clear and sometimes you need to reboot a device or two. Also, sometimes there is perceptible latency and/or jitter.

What concerns me a bit is the price of the system - somehow although I feel this is a fantastic stereo system and it never ceases to amaze me, whenever I use it, I feel I am getting overcharged. The S5 is fairly reasonable in price at $399 and the ZoneBridge 100 at $99 makes sense as well.

The cost of the ZP90 and ZP120 somehow make me uncomfortable and the remote control which I consider indispensible hurt me to purchase at $349. Actually I spent less on this unit because I purchased a bundle - the Sonos Bundle 250 which provides this remote with a ZP90 & ZP120. In addition I picked up a ZB100 because I have Internet access in a room which I don't need to listen to music. All told this cost me about $1,100 but as I recall I saved only a few dollars purchasing on Amazon.

In addition to my concern about price is the fact that the units are not discounted - meaning the retail price is more or less the price. Bose and Apple subscribe to this same philosophy but when I buy products from these companies I am paying for massive multimillion dollar marketing budgets and expensive stores which ooze success from their pores.

Sonos on the other hand is pretty unknown and has zero brand in my head. The company's products are incredible however - Apple could learn from them and so could Bose. In fact if one of these two companies doesn't buy Sonos soon I would be very surprised.

BTW if you are an exec at a carrier, software or tech company you should be checking out how Sonos performs its magic and try to keep your product interfaces as simple to use.

As an example of what Apple can learn from Sonos - when you plug your Sonos players into your home network and they start working - they auto-update themselves. Apple products require you to plug them into a PC to achieve the same functionality. To let you know how bullet-proof Sonos has made their products - they tell you not to unplug their devices when you are upgrading the firmware. I ignored the warning and expected the device to stop working when power was restored. Guess what - it worked fine.

Sonos running on iPad, CR200, iPhone 4 and HTC Incredible

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A few weeks ago the company pushed out new firmware updates and this one wasn't very successful as it somehow erased my playlists and erased all my saved stations on Pandora. I am not sure how this happened but I wasn't too happy about it.

As room for improvement I wonder if there should be a way to play YouTube videos and other web-based audio through the system. Currently the Sonos software on a computer will connect with MP3 files but there is an abundance of Flash-based content on the web which would ideally be streamable through Sonos components. Now there is an input on the S5 and the other units for example which will let you stream from a local source but such content is only available to the local component.

In summary - I love Sonos. It has liberated my music. It is the way music should be. It is also the way video should be. If you buy this system you get what you pay for - it will give you the equivalent of an in-home wired system at a fraction of the price. Yes I complained about cost but this company gives you solid value. Of course I would always request better sound quality from the S5 without seeing the price inflate too much. Moreover I am a huge Slacker radio fan and this service doesn't work on Sonos. The custom Sonos iPad app is coming out soon and I just can't wait to give it a whirl. In conclusion - if you want an awesome in-home wireless music system and can afford a Sonos solution you will be very happy. Once you get yours, you may decide to take a staycation or two solely because you just can't bear to be away from the music.



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