Recently, I had an opportunity to review in my home a Sonos Digital Music System and walked away pleasantly surprised… and wanting more. Sonos offers a flagship digital music receiver (DMR) which supports playback of non-DRM’d WMA, MP3, and AAC (iTunes) music among others on any set of speakers or any AV reciever in your home. Often compared as the “iPod” of Digital Audio Receivers, the idea is that you can set these up wired or wirelessly in your home and they create a “mesh” network- enabling you to play music from your PC, Network-Attached Storage, or streaming Internet for starters. All of this can be controlled with a dandy remote control. Here are my thoughts.
Out of Box Experience
The device arrived mid-last week in three boxes- two contained speakers, the third contained both Sonor recievers and the controller. Packaging was natural cardboard with a muted Sonos logo. When you’re using a $1499 system, you might hope for a bit more fanfare. However the muted tones help to reinforce the simplicity the product is designed around.
A simple step by step guide starts with connecting the speakers. Each Sonos unit contains its own amp, however you can connect via RCA jacks (3- Left, Right, Subwoofer-Optional). I was a bit surprised to not find a S/PDIF optical or even coaxial digital connection but hey, at least I can pipe it through my home theater. Giant speaker termination plugs (spring loaded for your convenience) are on the back.
Software setup was among the simplest I’ve ever seen. A simple 4-step process takes you through building the system index and pretty quickly. It’s a shame the device doesn’t use Windows Media Connect as an option as well.
Pairing the device with the network couldn’t have been easier. Press two buttons on the device within two minutes. Even if your receiver and PC are in different rooms (as mine are) you can get there within two minutes. (Unless you have an enormously large house in which case you get no sympathy from me). Press two buttons and you’re done- paired configured et al. No entering key codes or anything, no WEP or SSID codes- it all just works… provided one of the units is wired.
Speaking of wired- the Sonos has a 4-port ethernet switch on the back which can be used when wired to connect other home AV components (Xbox 360 or MCE PC anyone?). The switch seems to be of good quality as well.
Controlling from the Desktop
Once you’re set up, the software is simple and easy to use, though does have a decidedly “Real” feel to it. Sonos relies heavily on the concept of a single queue of music in everything you do. The equivalent of an order-list in a jukebox, this may be useful for some, but can get a bit annoying until you get the handle of how to dump a currently playing queue for new music.
The system does a good job also of bringing in your playlists. It appeared to have a problem with Smart Playlists (perhaps doesn’t query WMP for the results) but static playlists work fine. Internet radio station listings were meager and left me feeling we’re looking into the wasteland of radio stations that didn’t die after the whole licensing debacle a couple of years ago. You can manually add your favorite MP3 and WMA-streamed stations, but my favorites are behind evil popups and proprietary stream players. Ick.
I didn’t spend a lot of time on the desktop interface however I did notice another nice touch- automatic updates of the software were seamless.
The Sonos Controller
Take a 5G iPod, now go back to the 3G, turn it sideways, make it bigger than it seems, and you have the Sonos controller. What a design. Sonos has been around for a long time, and may actually pre-date the iPod in their design. The device does an excellent job of displaying details and as if some twist of irony, the jog/scroll wheel is exactly the same dimensions of the iPod. It contains a touchpad and center push button. Three “soft-keys” appear below the display for context-specific control. I did find myself wanting a bit more with the display and UI however. The response rate is a bit sluggish, no doubt due to 2-way wireless so I’ll give it some slack.
In some sort of Pavlovian response, I did expect the UI to work like an iPod which surprised me. I found myself wanting to use the jog to control audio volume (a feature I detest in the iPod because if I dont lock it, I whammy myself on the audio when I pick it up). So it is funny that I would expect the same here.
Again, you have queueing as the method for audio control. One big design issue I have with the UI is the warning dialog you get with DRM’d music in a playlist or individual tracks. It splashes a grey rounded box on your screen, moves to next non-DRM’d song but the DRM notification still shows leaving you wondering if you committed some offense from which the device has wrested control and you have been shamed into the 5 second penalty box. The system should be smart enough to remove DRMd files from the index during first setup- just notify the user you’re doing this so they wonder why certain beloved songs don’t show up.
Multi-zone audio is an interesting idea. The concept is you have two (or more) Sonos receivers in multiple rooms and want to play music rather, the same music in multiple rooms. Synchronized. Sure, you can get a receiver that supports this, but Sonos does it wirelessly. I have one in the Living room, another in the Family room. The whole first floor becomes wrapped in music- something I significantly discounted as a valued feature until I experienced it. I’m envisioning Christmas morning, my son coming down in his closed-toe PJs to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” wrapping him like a blanket. I also cheated a little and got three zones going – by plugging the Sonos into my home theater receiver (Denon AVR-3803) which supports multi-zone audio, I can pipe Sonos music outside on the patio via outdoor speakers, in the family room and throughout the living and dining rooms. This would be great for next years’ summer parties.
Line-In from other sources – a Real Geek Treat
A little-known feature I discovered is the ability to use the line-in source on the Sonos (again L-R RCA connectors) to pipe other music sources into the house. This was a real benefit as I can pipe my Media Center in and I can listen to subscription music anywhere in the home. Another way I plan to use this is at our neighborhood Super Bowl party this year- live play by play will be piped around the house, much to my wife’s chagrin.
Each Sonos receiver supports an additional line-in so if you have other audio sources (ok LP and 8 track lovers, here you go) you can plug them in here as well. Of course, you can plug your Portable Music player in as well. I could definitely see my father getting into this were the price point lower.
Sonos has built a fantastic product that could easily “own” the Digital Audio Receiver space with a few improvements. It’s in a class completely it’s own vs. the Roku Soundbridge (which I also like quite a bit) but stumbles on basic playback for me personally due to the lack of support for subscription music from iTunes or PlaysforSure services (disclosure: I work for Microsoft). Technical support is fantastic and highly responsive- a Friday 7pm inquiry into why PlaysforSure wasn’t supported was returned with a quick response by Saturday at 9am! (Net-net, technical issues I’m forwarding to the team who works on this). I’m not sure the price equals what’s delivered in terms of the product experience, but I’m also not a hard-core audiophile. But I would imagine Sonos will make some updates to their product line soon.
My biggest wish in terms of features would be for an add-in for MCE owners which would add another zone via the MCE PC for playback. I have to imagine this is possible.
- Simple in setup, design and function
- Amp and DMR all in one, with ethernet switch to boot
- Multi-zone sync’d audio support
- Wireless, rechargeabe controller
- Line-in multi-zone distribution
- Supports Real Rhapsody service support
- No PlaysforSure DRM download or subcription support (or iTunes for that matter)
- Lack of S/PDIF output
- Controller could be updated with higher res screen, faster innards.
- No smart rebuilding of index like WM Connect 2.0 offers when new music is added
- DRM’d files show up but cannot be played
- No support for Sync’d audio add-in for MCE – this would be a big hit for me!
Have an opinion? Share your thoughts on the Sonos below.