(This is a big one, so get a drink, a snack and strap in ...)
Ever since i can remember, i have loved the idea of a connected home. Various services available all over the house for a wonderful deeply satisfying experience. I have had a wired plus wireless network at my house for many years now and have experimented with various setups in my quest for seamless media availability. I have had my share of lemons but i think i have finally found my peace. For video that has come with the Popcorn Hour A-110 and recently for audio i have found it with Sonos. I will write about my popcorn hour experience at a later date but this time its all about the Sonos. While the popcorn hour is more of a geek product that needs tinkering, the Sonos system is really for the normal consumer.
I have been eyeing the Sonos products for a couple of years now and the delay in taking the plunge has been mostly economic as they they certainly arent cheap (both in price and quality). Finally this month i was able to jump on the Sonos bandwagon and setup a 2 zone system at my house.
A small description of what a connected audio system is before i continue with my experience. A connected audio system is one which has capabilities of connecting with a wired or wireless home/office network in order to access content that is available on the network or to access the internet and take advantage of the many content services available there. There are many connected systems in the market and each tries to bring their own uniqueness to the solution.
Sonos does it by making good quality products that work well and are a cinch to setup. That is certainly a very important factor for success, many systems out there make the setup overly complicated and as a result consumers shy away from them, they end up with the techie users who can mess with the setup. The majority of the consumers however would like something thats truly plug and play, especially on the higher end of the scale. The experience i had with the Sonos has been amongst the easiest setup ever, probably one step away from switch on and go.
Sonos is a multi zone system, meaning you can define different rooms/areas as different zones and can manage them independently. You can then either play separate music in the different zones or you can group them to play the same audio in the entire group. Something that works very well when you have a party or something, all your zones could be playing the same music. I chose to setup a 2 zone system, one for my living room and the other in the formal drawing/dining room. The way the Sonos works is that at-least 1 unit needs to be plugged into your network if you want to access media thats on your network or the internet. The rest of the sonos equipment sets up an independent wireless network of its own for communicating between themselves. I could have chosen to keep my system out of my network but that would have defeated the whole purpose.
Neither of the rooms i chose had ethernet connectivity so i had to also get an other unit that could be plugged into my wired network which was in a different room. For this purpose Sonos also makes a unit called a Zonebridge, which solely works as a bridge between your wired network and the Sonos wireless network. In other words it lets the entire Sonos system access your wired network. The Zonebridge has no player capabilities so its cheaper than the others and also it can be concealed out of sight, its listed at $99.
For the players, Sonos makes 2 types, the Zoneplayer 90 and the 120. The difference in the two being that the 120 has a built in amplifier and the 90 does not. The 90 is meant for rooms where you either already have a music system or plan to get a complete audio setup. The 90 then simply sends the audio to your setup through a standard RCA connectivity or through an optical/digital jack. The 120 is meant to be a separate unit where you can simply connect speakers directly to it and you are good to go. You can connect upto 4 speakers to the 120 and those are driven by the built in amp. This means that the 120 is also more expensive than the 90, the list price for the 120 is $499 while the 90 is for $349. I picked the Zoneplayer 90 for both my zones as i had independent music systems in both zones. In my living room i had just installed a Yamaha Soundbar YAS-71 as i wanted something sleek and compact. While in the formal drawing room i had a Bose Lifestyle 25 system. The Yamaha soundbar is a great unit for rooms where you don't want an elaborate setup, it plays a simulated surround sound through one long bar that has multiple speakers in it and a separate subwoofer. One of the Zoneplayers is connected to this through an optical cable. The Bose system has a non functional CD player so i needed something to play audio through it and the zoneplayer 90 fit the bill perfectly. Its connected through a standard RCA audio cable that comes with the Sonos. Its important to mention here that the Sonos equipment is dual voltage so while it was purchased in the US where the standard voltage is 110 volts, it auto switches to the Indian 220 volts (rather 90-300 so a stabilizer is needed).
As i mentioned earlier the install is super easy, you simply launch the included software application on your computer (both Windows and Mac are supported), press a button on the Zonebridge/Player and in a few seconds it becomes part of your Sonos network and you can access it from the software. For any technology product targeted towards general consumers, to succeed it needs to be built with the age old KISS principle (Keep It Simple and Stupid) and Sonos has done that perfectly and with great sophistication. One of the first things i did was to rename the zones to correspond with where they were placed, for easy usage. So one is called "Lobby" and one is called "Drawing Room". Sonos lets you setup and manage upto 32 zones, i must remember that when i win the lottery :). So with my zones setup i needed to provide them with audio sources. Again this is done very easily either through the remote (which i will cover below) or through the Sonos desktop application. I use a network attached storage unit from Buffalo to store my audio and i was able to add its shared folder to the Sonos media library. It starts to scan the folder right away to build the details into its library. I don't like it when applications or products decide they can do a better job than you in organizing media (i am talking about you itunes grrr.) and i like to keep my media in my own folder structure that makes it easy for me to find my media. I was very happy to find that amongst the standard listings like Album, Artist, Genre, the Sonos also lists my music by the folder structure it lies in. This in my mind is a HUGE deal and i am able to use my media just like how i want it. Next come online media services like Rhapsody (which is not available in India), Napster, Sirius, Last.fm, Pandora etc for which you need internet connectivity on your network. These are all paid services (last.fm and pandora are free though) and you really don't need to subscribe to these if you don't want to. You get another feature that makes your media library almost unlimited, the online radio. Sonos has partnered with Radio Time, a service that gives you an unbelievable 25,000 radio stations to choose from and stream to your Sonos player. It also has many local radio stations so you could be listening to local radio from different countries and cities. Not only that, you can add your own favorite stations to the list and listen away in any of your zones :). I did get Sirius and i will talk about that in a future post.
Now we come to the control. The Sonos system can be controlled in various ways, the easiest and the one that comes with the system is the desktop application. It covers both Windows PCs and Macs and offers almost the same experience between the two. I use both types of computers at home and the application is very well built and easy to use. Full points to the Sonos user experience team. You can install the application in more than one computer and not only will it let you control each zone, it also tells you what is currently playing in each. The next kind of controller is another software based one, its an ipod app. Available free from the Apple itunes store, it can be installed on an ipod touch or an iphone for a fantastic experience in controlling your Sonos system. Kudos to Sonos for making this excellent app available free, they realize their money is coming from the systems and apps like these given free are adding to the users joy and control in using their system. Finally, the best way in my opinion to access the Sonos system is to use a hardware remote. They had a great remote the CR 100 which was easy to use and very powerful but they recently added the CR 200 which really raises the bar to a whole new level. Learning from the ipod app experience they created a touch screen remote which has a brilliant large screen and you can control each part of the Sonos system with the flick or touch of a finger. It connects to the network wirelessly and really uses the screen real estate and touch control very effectively. It has a user replaceable rechargeable battery and comes with a dock where it charges. It kinda looks something like an ipod sitting in its dock and thats what people think it is. Then you pick it up and it comes to life, it has a motion sensor built in :). I can go on and on about the remote but i will cease here and say that it has to be one of the most brilliantly crafted controllers i have seen for ANY product. High quality in its build and in its user interface.
So i will end here and say again that anyone looking for a connected audio experience would find it hard to find a product as well made as the Sonos. I didn't get into finer detail like the fact that all Sonos equipment has built in 2 port ethernet switches, while it may seam pointless to some, it is a life saver where you have only one cable which is already being used for something else. I must also add here that they have a great website which offers tons of information before you buy anything. The manuals that accompany the products are paper manuals that are very high quality, something you would expect from a costly electronic product. The hardware itself is beautifully finished and gives the feeling of a high end product. The Sonos support is also supposed to be great though thankfully i haven't needed it so far :).