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Whole Home Audio with the Sonos Music System

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If you are a music lover then over the years, you’ve probably longed for the ability to listen to music throughout your entire home or perhaps the ability to play different music in different rooms of your home.

In the marketplace today, there are a numerous home audio systems which use a combination of hardware and software to accomplish this goal.

Over the last decade I have personally tested and reviewed many wired and wireless audio streaming solutions from such vendors as Apple, D-Link, Logitech and Roku in an effort to find the perfect solution. Unfortunately, after considerable testing, I was not completely satisfied with any of them.

Last summer, while researching new iPhone and iPod touch apps, I discovered a new controller application from Sonos which promised users the ability to turn their iPhone or iPod touch device into a Sonos music controller.

At the time I discovered the new app, I was streaming audio to my home theatre and living room via an Apple TV and an Airport Express from my computer using iTunes. The Apple software and hardware solution for streaming music was the best solution I had found toda date but I was still searching because it did have some major weaknesses such as the inability to send multiple audio streams to multiple devices.

In addition, I found that Apple iTunes software crashed on a regular basis which resulted in lost metadata and required me to uninstall and re-install the application after every crash.

The release of the free Sonos iPhone app was significant milestone because it meant iPhone or IPod touch owners could save a considerable sum of money on a Sonos music system by using their iOS device in place of the $400 Sonos music controller.

I was well aware of the Sonos line of products for several years but had decided against it because of its high cost. A three zone setup with controller could cost over $2,000 prior to the iPhone app being introduced. In addition to the high cost, I had avoided Sonos because there were no Sonos retailers in Canada. In case of warranty issues or technical problems, I wanted to know that I could deal with a trusted local retailer rather than someone over the internet!

Thankfully by mid-2010, one such trusted retailer was selling Sonos in Toronto.

After finishing my research, I concluded that Sonos would be a superior solution to iTunes for my whole home audio needs. Please note that research led me to believe Sonos was superior for my whole home audio needs. For budget minded consumers and for consumers who have less robust needs, the much lower cost of using Apple Itunes and Apple hardware may outweigh the benefits of using Sonos. Readers should do their homework before making any final decision.

The following are some of the primary reasons why you might select one system over the other.
  • Sonos – Advantages of the Sonos system include the ability to direct multiple audio streams to multiple devices; a superior remote; ability to adjust volume by location; Sonos Mesh network reduces bandwidth usage over homes existing Wi-fi net; the availability of amplified devices such as the Z5 mean you don't have to have a separate amplifier for each zone.
  • itunes / Apple devices – The primary advantages of using iTunes and Apple devices is cost. An Airport Express sells for $119 in Canada vs. $400 for a Sonos Zone Player 90. Other advantages: the iTunes software has some nice usability features such as Genius playlists and Apple TV has the ability to stream video.
Sonos Software and Hardware

In order to steam music to your Sonos hardware, you will need a repository for your music. In most homes, this will be your Windows PC or Mac computer. Tech savvy users can also use a Network Attached Storage (NAS) as their music repository.

Whether you use a PC or NAS for your music repository, you will need to install the Sonos Desktop Controller software on your computer. This Controller software is used to catalogue all of your music and to program your Sonos Hardware so it knows where to find the music repository. The software is free when you buy the Sonos Hardware.

The Sonos hardware line-up consists of the following items:

Sonos ZoneBridge ($119 CDN) - The ZoneBridge is an optional piece of equipment and is only required if your house doesn’t have Ethernet wiring or your router is in a room where you don’t want music. The ZoneBridge physically connects to your router via Ethernet cable. Once connected, the Sonos styem to create its own wireless mesh network, which operates independently of your present Wi-Fi network.

Sonos S5 ($479 CDN) - The S5 is a device which connects to your Sonos network via Ethernet or the Sonos mesh network. Inside is 5-driver speaker system which is individually powered by 5 dedicated digital amplifiers and includes 2 tweeters, 2 mid-range drivers and 1 subwoofer for high-quality sound that rivals much larger, more complicated audio equipment.



ZonePlayer 90 ($399 CDN) - The ZonePlayer 90 (ZP 90)connects to your Sonos network via Ethernet or the Sonos mesh network and then to an amplifier or AV Receiver. Once the Zoneplayer 90 is set up as a Zone in your Sonos controller software, you can immediately begin streaming audio to the device.



ZonePlayer 120 ($599 CDN) - The ZonePlayer 120 (ZP 120) is virtually the same as the ZonePlayer 90 except that it adds a built-in digital amplifier so you can connect it directly to a pair of speakers rather than an amplifier or AV Receiver.





Sonos Controller 200 ($399 CDN) – A full colour Touch screen device used to interact and control your music system.



Equipment wise  you will need to buy a Zoneplayer or S5 for every music zone or listening area in your home. For my home, I chose two Zoneplayer 90’s and one Zoneplayer 120. The first ZP90 would be hooked up to the AV Receiver in our basement, the second ZP90 to the AV Receiver in our family room, and finally the ZP120 would be connected to a set of speakers in our living room.



Set Up

One of the great things about the Sonos music system is how easy it was to set-up. Following the Quick Setup instruction guide, I had the system up and running within minutes. The most time consuming part of the install was pulling out the A/V receivers so I could run an optical cable from the ZP 90 to my Receivers.

In my case, I had purchased three zone players so during set-up I created three zones: Home Theatre, Family Room and Living Room. With three zones, our family can now play a different audio streams in each zone.

Since the physical setup and implementation was so straightforward, I am not going to detail it here, however, there is one hardware requirement that you should be aware of before investing in the Sonos music system.

The requirement is that at least one ZonePlayer must be physically connected to your home network via Ethernet cable in order for Sonos to create its proprietary mesh network. If you are placing your ZonePlayers in rooms where there is no Ethernet connectivity then you must buy the Sonos ZoneBridge and physically connect it to your router. If you buy the $119 ZoneBridge then all of your Zoneplayers can connect wirelessly to the network.

Using the Sono Wireless System

Once the Sonos system was physically setup and the Sonos Controller software was installed, operating it was a breeze.

Once I ensured that everything was operating correctly, I put Sonos to the torture test. I handed the iPhone to my ten year old son and my wife and asked them to play music in the living room.

They found the interface very intuitive. From the music menu they selected Music Library and then searched for an artist. Once they found a band, they were presented with a list of albums and clicked on the artist they wanted to play.

The trickiest part for all of us was identifying the three zones and understanding that we could search and select music for each zone. We made some mistakes along the way but after ten minutes of pressing links and experimenting, we pretty much had things figured.

Soon we figured out how to group zones so one music stream could play in all three zones and how to create playlists of their favourite.

Our family quickly figured out how to use the Sonos system using the iOS app. Our conclusion was that if you know how to rip music CD’s to your computer and know how to operate media software like iTunes or Windows Media player then you should have no problem operating the Sonos System.

I do have two significant complaints, however about the Sonos software.
  • First, while I am not a huge fan of iTunes, one feature I do love and find is indispensible is the Genius Playlist feature. Select a song, click the Genius button, and iTunes makes a playlist of songs from your library that go great together. When you have 11,000 songs in your music library, Genius is a great way to quickly create a playlist of 50 or 100 songs that work together. Unfortunately Sonos has no such feature which almost made me take the system back until I came up with a workaround. The workaround is to create Genius playlists in iTunes and then import them into Sonos.
  • The second major complaint is how poorly the search feature is implemented on Sonos. Before you search the controller forces you to tell it whether you wish to search by Artists, Albums, Composers or Tracks. This becomes a major pain when you type a song name and get zero results and then realize that the default search is by artist. In 2011, users should not have to tell Sonos what category they are searching on. Users should be able to input a search string and then have Sonos come back with search results organized by song and/or artist.
The most important part of any music system is sound. Most of the music being streamed in our household is ripped at a bit rate of 256 kps or higher, with the bulk being lossless. We found the quality of sound to be excellent. The ZP120 which has its own amplifier was quite capable of driving two bookshelf speakers in our living room and sounded great.

My opinion is that the quality of sound from your Sonos system will be dictated by the bit rate of your digital music collection and the quality of your amplifier (if you use a ZP90) than by the quality of the Sonos components.



Summary: Sonos Music System

Our home, which includes two adult, one tween, and one teenager has been using the Sonos system now for over five months now with few problems. Despite the lack of a Genius feature and a lousy search engine, it’s a wireless home audio system which I can recommend to any digital home owner who wishes to wirelessly stream audio from their computer to the rest of their home.

Discuss the Sonos Music System in Digital Home’s HTPC and Media Extenders forum .
 


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I have been using Logitech Squeezebox system (Classic and Radio) for a couple of years now with no major complaints. The system requires a more tech savvy person to install and configure, but once set up is fantastic. The Logitech solution supports higher sound quality than Sonos (24/96 high-res formats, like FLAC), has app support, including an iPhone app: iPeng, can be controlled via WIFI on your network, various models available, etc.. and is less expensive than Sonos
Bottom line is: do your homework, check them both out
 
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