Multiroom Magic with Sonos Page 2
I thought the Sonos Controller 100 was about as cool as cool could get when it first came out. In fact, I still think it’s pretty cool. Or at least, that’s how I felt until Sonos overnighted me the company’s first review sample of the Controller 100’s replacement, the new Controller 200. Wow! What an awesome improvement. The new model is so well designed, it begs to be played with. It’s also less than two-thirds the size of the original, so the Controller 200 is easy to hold and operate with one hand. Gone are the Controller 100’s scroll wheel and low-resolution (240-by-320) LCD screen. The Controller 200 is built around a higher-resolution (640-by-480), higher-contrast touchscreen. You can enter text directly via the onscreen keyboard (when searching for an artist name, for example), which makes it infinitely superior to the previous scroll-and-click method. To scroll through a song or artist list, you just slide your finger up or down the screen. Anyone who has used an iPhone or iPod touch will be instantly familiar with the way the Controller 200 operates. The only hard keys are the mute, volume up and down, and zone buttons across the bottom. The rechargeable battery is now user replaceable, and the charging cradle is included rather than being an option, as it was with the Controller 100. The icing on the cake is that, at $349, it’s $50 cheaper than the Controller 100. Once it’s available, the Controller 200 will take the place of the Controller 100 in the Bundle 150. The new package will be called the Bundle 250 ($999).
With the introduction of the Controller 200, Sonos also released its Sonos Software 3.0. The most significant new feature of the software update is Info View, which provides access from the Controller 200 to music information—such as artist bios, similar artists, and upcoming events (if available)—when you listen to Rhapsody or Last.fm.
In October 2008, Sonos released a free Sonos Controller for iPhone app that lets you control any or all of the ZonePlayers in your system directly from an iPhone or iPod touch in the same way you can with the Controller 200. (An iPhone or iPod touch won’t expand the SonosNet mesh network.) A new version of the app will add the Info View feature. For current and future Sonos system owners who own an iPhone or an iPod touch, downloading the free app is almost like getting a $349 rebate check from Sonos.
A Streaming Good Time
Once you get your controllers up and running, you can do what you most likely bought the system to do—that is, you can access your digital music library and play music in different zones in your home. About the only audio file formats the system doesn’t support are Apple FairPlay DRM-protected and WMA lossless, so format conversion shouldn’t be an issue for most people. But you don’t have to listen to your own music. You can also use the Sonos system to directly set up online accounts for audio subscription services, such as Rhapsody, Napster, and Sirius Internet Radio. Pandora, which used to be available only by subscription, is now free to Sonos system owners, as is Last.fm and 25,000 radio stations via Sonos Radio.
The analog audio inputs on the back of each ZonePlayer let you listen to a local source—maybe that iPhone you’re using as a Sonos Controller, for example—right there in that zone. But each ZonePlayer can encode the incoming audio and stream it to any other ZonePlayer in the system. In my case, I connected the Zone2 output of my Onkyo A/V receiver to the ZonePlayer 90’s input and used it to stream audio (compressed or uncompressed) from the AVR’s XM tuner to the ZonePlayer 120 located in my office. (You don’t need to sign up for an additional service.) As if that weren’t cool enough, the ZonePlayers’ audio inputs are auto sensing, so listening to a particular zone’s line-in source only becomes an option on your controller’s menu if that ZonePlayer senses that a source is plugged in.
None of this would matter if the sound quality suffered, but that’s not the case here. Of course, a lot depends upon file formats and the encoding bitrate of your digital collection, as well as your choice of online music sources. But whatever the signal quality, the Sonos system will do it justice.
On a lark, I decided to hook up the amp in the ZonePlayer 120 to a pair of BG Z-92 floorstanding loudspeakers and use the subwoofer output to drive BG’s BGX-4850 THX Ultra2–certified in-wall subwoofer. Yes, it was a bit of overkill, but the ZonePlayer 120’s little 55-watt amp sounded amazingly good at a moderate volume on these very revealing speakers. You shouldn’t expect it to rock the foundations of your house—heaven help us if it did that to this one—but you certainly shouldn’t be shy about pairing up the ZonePlayer 120 with a good pair of bookshelf or on-wall speakers.
My Network Has Fallen, and It Can’t Get Up
It’s one thing to yak on and on about how simple a system is to set up and use, but what happens when the system setup isn’t as easy as 1-2-3? Inevitably, it’s going to happen, whether it’s an incompatible router, issues with Internet service via satellite (my unfortunate case), or incomprehensible firewall settings. That’s when it’s customer support time; and, as many of us know, this is when most consumer electronics companies go horribly wrong.
For starters, Sonos’ massive Website is fabulous, not only in terms of raw content, but also in its presentation. Information is easy to find, and it’s written in a manner that’s easy to comprehend with plenty of explanatory diagrams and screen shots. For example, although iTunes will download artwork, it doesn’t automatically embed the artwork into the music files’ metadata. If you’re using iTunes as your main media program, you’ll need to use third-party software to embed the images in order to view cover art on the Sonos handheld or Desktop Controller. A page on the Sonos Website walks you through the entire process. It even provides the download link for a suggested program that will do the trick. I don’t particularly care for the small, light-blue font that the Sonos Web folks use for large blocks of text, but it’s hard to fault the site for anything else.
However, a Website is no substitute for a real human being with real expertise. In my dealings with the Sonos support staff, I found them to be equally impressive. Granted, it’s possible they put the only two good people they have on my case since this was a review, but I think that’s unlikely. While we couldn’t solve all of my problems—satellite Internet is unfortunately a royal pain in the ass, for example—Clay took care of a couple of other network issues and, in the process, discovered a looming-but-unrelated problem with my main computer. I don’t think that’s a normal part of the customer support program, but it shows that the guys know more than just how to read a customer support flow-chart script. Interestingly enough, during the course of our troubleshooting, Clay told me that I had both of the system’s ZonePlayers and one of the controllers sitting in the same room only a few feet away from each other. (Fortunately, he didn’t know that I wasn’t wearing pants while I was talking to him on the phone. At least, I hope he didn’t know.)
So No? So Yes
I’ve seen lots of gear over the years, and I’ve had the chance to look at it from many different value/performance perspectives (as a consumer, salesperson, etc.). I certainly haven’t seen it all; but looking back over everything that I’ve either plugged in, pushed a button on, or otherwise eyeballed or touched, I can’t think of another product that’s so impressive or compelling when it comes to form, function, and performance. Not only does the Sonos system do what it says it will—that is, make multi-room audio easy—it does it with gear that looks and sounds great, is a joy to use, and works consistently and reliably. If you’re even remotely interested in multi-room audio, Sonos is the system to start with. Most likely, it’ll be the one you end up with, too.