by Bill Snyder

Make Your Home a Digital Music Hall

Dec 21, 2009
Data CenterEnterprise ApplicationsMobile

If digital music is an important part of your life, the Sonos wireless music system can fill every room in your house with high-quality sound -- without a house-remodeling project.

Meet Jae Malone, the “Download Queen.” Malone, who lives outside Hartford, Conn., has the largest collection of digital music of anyone I know; she may even qualify for a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.

At last count she had 60,000 songs (nearly half a terabyte) on various hard drives and an astonishing 200,000 songs in her Rhapsody online library. (More about the new mobile options for Rhapsody and Pandora later.)

You’re probably not as obsessive as Malone. But if digital music is an important part of your life, her elegant solution to filling every room in the house with high-quality sound may be right for you.

For all her musical savvy, Malone is not one to drill holes in walls and snake cables around her house. Instead she opted to buy equipment from Sonos, a young, Santa Barbara, Calif.-based company that offers a way to build a wireless, multiroom sound system without engaging in a costly remodeling project.

Sonos: Modular and Multiroom

Until recently, Sonos was rather expensive, though it’s still not cheap. The company recently introduced a new standalone player and the ability to control the system via an iPhone, innovations that have dropped the entry point significantly.

Start with the new Sonos $399 ZonePlayer S5. It’s a one-piece system that plays music from the hard drive of your PC or Mac, and from a number of different Internet services, including Pandora, Rhapsody, lastFM, Napster and Sirius. Its five speakers are powered by five dedicated digital amplifiers, and the system is equipped with two tweeters, two mid-range drivers and one subwoofer.

I couldn’t take one home to test, but I did check out an S5 at a Best Buy in San Francisco. Despite being in a large room filled with the noise of monstrous TVs and home theater systems, the sound was strong, rich and clear.

If you’re happy listening to your music in the same room that houses your broadband router and you have an iPhone—you’re done. The S5 plugs into the wall and into your router. But, if you want to use your S5 in a different room, you must purchase a $99 ZoneBridge, which plugs into the router and broadcasts a signal to one or more S5s. That brings the cost to over $500 after sales tax and shipping charges.

If you have an iPhone, a free app allows you to control the S5 or any of the other Sonos components. If you don’t, the cheapest alternative is to control the system from your computer—Sonos provides the software. The third control option is very pricey—a $349 remote. The controller is pretty cool, with a nifty little screen and other goodies; but still, that’s a might pricey remote. (A Sonos product manager told me the company has no plans at the moment to use other smart phones as controllers, but that could change.)

To add a room to your system, buy another S5, plug it into the wall, and you’re good to go. Installation, by all accounts, is simple. Sonos also offers a number of bundles that allow you to buy unamplified players ($349) to plug into stereo or home theatre systems, or an amplified player ($499) that plugs into speakers.

One very slick feature that works with any of the control options is the ability to play different music in different rooms and adjust the volume of each component independently.

And because Sonos players and bridges become network devices, company technicians can (with your permission) see how the device is performing and diagnose problems, a particularly handy feature when something, somewhere in your home is causing interference.

Incidentally, Malone says that on the rare occasion she needs tech support (it’s free), the service has been excellent and she can even call back and speak to the same tech.

Internet Music Goes Mobile

Malone doesn’t own an iPhone, but if she did, she’d have a number of choices that would let her take Internet music along for the ride.

I’ve become a fan of Pandora, an Internet service that lets users create their own private Internet radio stations. You start by picking a genre and then “seeding” it with the names of artists you like. In my case, I created a station I titled “Piano Jazz” and seeded it with artists including Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum and Bud Powell. But the station also plays other artists whose work is related to my picks. You can create more than one station, and share them with other users by simply sending them a link.

I generally listen to Pandora on my laptop, but when I’m out and about I can listen to Pandora on my iPhone 3G S anywhere I have a decent 3G or Wi-Fi connection. Since I already own an adapter that plugs into my car radio, I can hear Pandora on the road.

Pandora is free for up to 25 hours a month, though you have to listen to the occasional brief commercial. For $36 a year, the commercials go away and so does the 25-hour limit.

Rhapsody claims to have more than 6 million tracks on that great server in the sky. Since September, subscribers have been able to access all of that music from an iPhone; support for the Android and Blackberry is coming soon, the company says. The charge for going mobile is $2 a month on top of the basic charge of $12.99 per month.

Napster has said it will offer mobile service, but no date has been set for the launch, as will Europe-based Spotify, when it comes to the United States.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him via e-mail here.