Recommended: Sonos Digital Music System

by Michael Alderete on 3/20/2007 · 3 comments

Sonos SystemWe bought a Sonos Digital Music System back in September 2006, and I’ve been meaning to write about it for a while. It’s a terrific product that has us listening to music far more regularly than we ever did. What’s more, it works pretty well with audiobooks that we’ve imported into iTunes or purchased from, which is nice for listening to them when we’re moving around (e.g., in the kitchen), when an iPod and headphones might get in the way.

Sonos ControllerThe Sonos system has been thoroughly written up in a number of articles and reviews, including Dan Frakes in Playlist (probably the most complete explanation of the system), David Pogue in the NYT and Walt Mossberg in the Wall Street Journal. But I think the best overview of the system and its advantages over competitors comes from Louis Rossetto writing at Cool Tools. Louis is one of the original founders of Wired Magazine, and his review provides more context than others I’ve read, which is essential in understanding why the $500 Sonos ZonePlayer is so much better than the $100 AirPort Express with AirTunes.

With so many good reviews, I’ll just add a few of my own notes:

  • The system provides a wonderful out-of-box experience. Like an Apple product, unpacking is An Experience, with well thought out package design and gorgeous quick-start explanations.
  • The Mac OS X software is terrific, it’s a standard application, no installer necessary. (I really appreciate that, and it stands in stark contrast to the Mac software for TiVo, which I decided I didn’t trust enough to install).
  • On first run it checks to make sure you have the latest release of the software, and will download the newer version if you don’t. This is also true of the firmware in the Sonos hardware, which will automatically upgrade itself (you just need to confirm it’s OK).
  • Running the assistant to set things up, it automatically detected my firewall settings, and gave exact instructions for what to do next, with instructions clear and simple enough they would pass the proverbial grandmother test. This was also true when I installed the Windows version of the software on Rochelle’s (now decomissioned) PC.
  • The other steps in the process were similarly easy to just follow along as the software lead me.
  • Most importantly, it was able to use my iTunes music library, natively and automatically.

That’s not to say that the Sonos Desktop software isn’t without flaws. It’s not iTunes, either in flexibility or in usability. But if you set up your playlists in iTunes, the Sonos can make use of those, so it gets the job done. You’ll want those playlists for your iPod anyway, right? And of course, it won’t play music purchased from the iTunes Store.

At any rate, for having music playing regularly, throughout the whole house, the Sonos cannot be beat. Highly recommended.

Charlie Little March 29, 2007 at 6:33 pm

The Sonos seems like a strong product for whole-house audio, and the design is first rate. When I made my purchase of a media streamer a few years back, it seemed the Sonos was going to cost me quite a bit more than the Slim Devices SqueezeBox I ended up with, although that may depend on whether you already have pre-wired room speakers and amplification or not.

Did you compare the Sonos to Yamaha’s MusicCast, or other amplified and ala carte solutions?

Alderete March 29, 2007 at 7:44 pm

@Charlie: Hi Charlie! Yes, the Sonos is definitely more expensive than the SqueezeBox — though the SqueezeBox is more comparable to the non-amplified Sonos ZonePlayer 80 which, at $350, is significantly less expensive than the ZP100. It depends on your usage plans which is better; if you’ve already got a good audio system, the SqueezeBox may fit in better, and has that nifty display.

At the time I bought the Sonos, we had actually disconnected our stereo system, no room for it, in favor of one of those compact systems. It was far from excellent, but it did the job while cooking. But we don’t really have one room where we would do most of our listening; the rooms in our house are all pretty small (perils of a Victorian), so we tend to roam. Hence my desire to have a decent, compact, and synchronized system in many rooms. The Sonos was perfect for that, and we’re still extremely happy with it.

Another difference between the SqueezeBox and Sonos is the display and remote control. The SqueezeBox has a terrific display on the player, and a very ordinary remote control. The Sonos takes a different approach, and puts all the display stuff into the controller (pictured in the hands above), which is far more sophisticated (and far more expensive). The controller is fantastic, allowing you to navigate your entire music library, displaying playback information, etc. It’s where half or more of the magic of Sonos is, and can roam with you throughout the house. So a display on the players is not really necessary.

I think if we lived in a house with a “great room” or other central living/activity area, a SqueezeBox attached to a good stereo system could be a better way to go. But for our little pocket rooms and activity patterns, the Sonos is perfect.

Markus March 11, 2008 at 12:37 pm

I’ve been seriously looking at getting one of these and you’ve just swayed me over!

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