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I recently wrote a piece called, “The Stream that Snuck Up On You.” It got batted around the Internet a bit, and – according to the letter I got – was read by the founder of Sonos.

This resulted in me getting a very nice package of Sonos gear.

Sonos never asked for anything (review, etc.) in return for this gear. UPDATE: Sonos has graciously provided the equipment to me for a long-term test of the experience. That said, I’m gonna give it a review.

Sonos Review

Overview
Sonos makes mutli-room wireless music streaming products. I’ve been aware of Sonos for some time, but never pulled the trigger on the system for two (related) reasons:

First, the price. To get up and running, you’re looking at a minimum of ~$400. The newly introduced Zone Player S5 gets you in the game; so long as your Internet connection/router is in the same room as where you want the device.

If you want to put the S5 (or any other Sonos equipment) in a room where there’s no router, you need the ZoneBridge. This will run you $100.

For every other room you want music (assuming you have either the ZoneBridge or the S5 connected to your Internet connection) you can either buy more S5s, the $350 ZonePlayer90 (which allows you to connect to your powered speakers or otherwise amplified equipment), or the $500 ZonePlayer120 (which contains a 55w/channel amp, so you can just attach speakers).

So, however you cut it, you’re looking at a minimum of $350 per additional room where you want music.

I strongly urge Sonos to introduce a ~$150 small speaker option that can be used in kitchens or bedrooms. The current product array really doesn’t offer a solution for kitchens or bedrooms (too big/too expensive), and these rooms are where a LOT of music is (or would be) consumed.

The second reason I’ve not taken the Sonos plunge was because I’ve been able to cobble together a multi-room wireless solution using a combination of Airport Expresses, iTunes/Airfoil, and M1 Audio Monitors.

With this set up, each room runs you about $200 (AEs and Monitors both being around $100 each). Of course, if you have your own speakers already, you can just get the AE, and you’re rocking for $100. I’ve got AEs scattered all over the house, and use the audio out jack to plug into boomboxes, etc.

Price aside, it’s not a perfect A/B comparison between the AE/powered speakers v Sonos.

In virtually every category except for price, Sonos has the advantage over the AE approach.

Multiple Zones
The most emphatic difference is that with Sonos, you can have different music playing in different rooms (“zones” in Sonos parlance). In other words, the kids can be rocking the Jo Bros in their room, while I listen to Horace Silver in the den. Importantly, both the Jo Bros and Horace Silver are being pulled from the same source.

To accomplish this same trick with AE you’d need multiple sources (i.e. multiple iTunes libraries on different computers). Switching between the two is a pain.

Interface/UX
The second key distinction is ease of use. The Sonos iPhone, iPad, and Desktop Apps are all KILLER; far easier to navigate than even the revamped iPad Remote App. This is VERY significant when it comes to basically anyone other than me operating the music in the house. It takes zero tech savvy.

Robust Connectivity
The third key distinction is connectivity. For whatever reason, I’ve never been thrilled with the AE connectivity. One of the units always seems to start blinking yellow at the wrong time (i.e. when you want to use it). The Sonos connection just seems more robust. Additionally, there’s less lag between time of remote press and music switch on Sonos than on the AE set up.

Multiple Music Sources
The fourth – and for many, the most significant – key distinction is that the AE/iTunes set up is limited to the music in iTunes and Internet radio stations (though even getting those to work is sort of a drag).

Sonos expands greatly on what you can stream through your speakers. In addition to all music on your hard drive and Internet radio (which is less wonky than the iTunes version), you can also access:

    Pandora
    Last.fm
    iheartradio
    Napster
    Sirius
    Wolfgang’s Vault/Daytrotter (Disclaimer: I am an advisor for Daytrotter and Wolfgang’s Vault)

It’s hard to understate the significance of these many streams. We all hit a wall with our iTunes library, no matter how vast, and to be able to use the same controller to switch over to Pandora, Wolfgang’s Vault, etc., … well, it’s amazing.

If Sonos adds rdio, I’ll be pretty well fulfilled.

You simply can’t stream this amount of stuff from the Apple Remote. You can, of course, stream from a desktop using Airfoil, but it’s SO nice to have it all controllable from one device.

If Sonos is able to keep adding great sources like Wolfgang’s Vault to their stream, they may very well succeed in rising to my challenge to create One Player to Rule them All; an interface that serves all the musical needs. It needs to be a big part of their strategy going forward.

Minor Features
The above are all BIG differences when you play a lot of music. There are also some subtle, but nice, elements of the Sonos set up:

Line in and line out options. So you can, for instance jack a turntable or other line in device into the Sonos players. This allows you to control the volume, etc. remotely. They even let you label this line in whatever you want (e.g. “turntable”), which is a nice touch.

Alarm. You can program any Sonos device to wake you up with whatever music you have on your hard drive (or what you’re streaming). (See what I mean about them needing a unit for the bedroom?) Sure, you can – conceivably – pull this off with a Mac, but I never trust that it will work.

Ethernet pass thru. On each device there are two Ethernet jacks, so you can use one to add connected devices (NAS, for example)/expand your Internet connectivity. This is also great for our increasingly crowded routers.

Things That Aren’t Quite Right
I really have very few complaints beyond what I mentioned above (price, a smaller unit for bedrooms/kitchens, addition of rdio as a stream).

There are a few things, however, that currently seem like afterthoughts, that with a bit of effort could really help expand the market for Sonos.

First, they have a terrible social integration in the apps. You can, for instance, connect your Twitter account, but when you tweet out what you’re listening to, the autogenerated copy is just sort of odd:

“[artist] is playing all over my house.”

So, if, as I did, you have the Meat Puppets, uh, playing all over your house, that’s what it says, “Meat Puppets is playing all over my house.”

Beyond the weird grammar, talk about a missed opportunity to brand the company, let alone get more followers. How about, tossing in an “@sonos” or even a hash tag (#sonos). Better yet, a link where people who see the tweets could learn more about Sonos.

This leads me to my next complaint/suggestion. A high-end product like Sonos attracts a customer base who tend to be passionate about the stuff they buy/use. They feel elite, and they want to talk with others who use it, as well as share what their using with others.

While I’m not suggesting Sonos create some sort of social network, but they should create a compelling space where Sonos users could connect/share with others, using music as their social object.

I got into my Sonos system really fast (perhaps this 1600 word review is a clue), and yet got bored with the Sonos web site quicklyt, and found nowhere else to go to see what other Sonos users were listening to/how they were using their systems.

At the very least, provide a platform to allow those who want to connect to do so. UPDATE: I found the Sonos forum; seems pretty active. I could not, however, find a Sonos Facebook presence.

A Note about Apple’s Forthcoming moves
One concern I imagine many will have when considering whether to rush out and buy a Sonos system is the forthcoming upgrade to Apple’s iOS.

The new version, iOS 4.2, which is scheduled to be available in November is due to introduce Airplay. The Airplay functionality, in theory, will allow you to stream music from your iPad/iPhone to Airplay equipped devices; either devices connected to AEs or – and here’s where it might get interesting – to devices that have built the technology into the hardware; a set of speakers, for instance.

It remains to be seen if Airplay will be limited to iTunes, but even if it’s not, and you can stream, for instance, Pandora from your iPad to Airplay equipped components, you’ll still need to switch out of whatever app you’re currently streaming from (iTunes, for instance) and into the Pandora app before you can stream. Multi-tasking and background operations will help, but it’s not the same as having it all in one UI, ala the Sonos app.

Bottom Line
If you’ve got the money, get a Sonos system.

It does feel indistinguishable from magic in much of its usability. In fact, things like the above-referenced half-baked Twitter gesture stand out so much primarily because they break the otherwise magical spell.

There’s room for improvement — smaller, less expensive devices, more streams, better social integration/community — but it’s pretty killer.

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