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A Bold New Way to Listen to Music
on July 14, 2010
A few months ago, I decided to upgrade my music system. I began looking at CD "jukeboxes" that could load my entire collection. Along the way, I discovered the world of wireless music systems, and began researching them. Sonos seemed to be well-received, so I finally made the decision to purchase a ZoneBridge and a ZonePlayer 120. This setup has fulfilled every expectation I had for a new music system, and more. It's an easy and pleasant way to listen to music you already own, and to discover new music.
Below is my review of all the main benefits I see to this amazing system.
1. System Setup
Sonos offers many hardware options, but they all have a few things in common. A Sonos ZoneBridge connects to your computer - it "indexes" music on your hard drive and connects to the Internet for music services (more on that later), then it beams all this to a ZonePlayer, which is hooked up to speakers somewhere else in your home. It creates a wireless network dedicated just to music and does not interfere with other wireless devices. You can add more ZonePlayers, and they all pick up the same wireless signal and allow you to listen to your collection in multiple locations throughout your home.
The ZonePlayer 120 has standard jacks for directly connecting speakers. You can also hook up an ethernet cable, if you want to stream music through a wire instead of using the wireless signal. Finally, the ZonePlayer 120 allows you to connect an analog device using standard RCA cables. For my setup, I just hooked up two speakers.
To get ready for this system, you must rip all your physical CDs into a music library. This is the most time-consuming part of the process. But there is nothing unusual here. You can use iTunes to rip CDs into your library, just as you normally would. To get the best sound quality from the Sonos system, you should rip everything using "Apple lossless" format (instead of MP3). This is really easy to do in iTunes. Lossless is not required (you can use MP3s if you want) , but it's better because you'll get CD-quality sound.
After you rip all your CDs into an iTunes library, you run the Sonos "Desktop Controller," which comes free with Sonos systems. This is one of the easiest and most intuitive software applications I've ever used. Just tell it to set up your music library. It finds your iTunes collection and "indexes" it in the Sonos system. Depending on the size of your collection, this may take a little while. With my collection of about 400 CDs, indexing takes about three minutes.
After that, there is an automated process where the software "locates" your ZoneBridge and ZonePlayer. On your computer screen, it literally shows a picture of the devices with arrows pointing at the buttons you need to press. In less than five minutes (seriously) the Sonos Desktop Controller can have the whole system done and ready to go.
Other than that, you just decide whether you want to use one of Sonos' remote controllers, or get the free Sonos app which runs on the iPhone or iPod Touch. I use the free app, and it it works great: I turn on the iPod Touch, click the "Sonos" icon, then scan my entire music collection and play anything, within a few seconds.
2. The Listening Experience
Of course, easy set up does not matter if the system doesn't sound good. Well, Sonos sounds great. The music that plays through the ZonePlayer is CD quality (remember to rip in Apple lossless format). It's as simple as that.
There is about a three-second wait time when you first click on the icon on your controller, as the Sonos systems starts up. But after that, you can run through your collection without delay. I like how my music collection is suddenly organized alphabetically by artist, album, or track names. If you're like me and have a large collection, this indexing of your music is itself a great improvement over looking through hundreds of CDs for the one you want! Of course, the accuracy of your index relies on the album and artist data you provide when ripping your CDs into your iTunes library.
Once the music starts to play, it just works. I've never had interruptions due to wireless connection problems. While the music plays, you see album artwork on your controller, plus the standard play/pause/forward/rewind functions we're all accustomed to. You can also create playlists.
3. Music Discovery
Of course, having your entire music collection easily accessible is great. But the Sonos system goes much further. I was pleasantly surprised after I started using my Sonos system to see some excellent music discovery options I had not known about before.
Through the Sonos system, you can access Pandora (the free Internet radio service) and play it through your stereo speakers.
You can also access radio stations from around the world and play them live over your stereo system. I've enjoyed cruising my local radio stations, or stations from around the world. You can find stations in obvious places like the US, Europe, Africa, and South America. But you can also find them in remote areas of the South Pacific, Asia, Antarctica (I'm not kidding), and places you may have never heard of before. It seems as though almost every corner of the globe is represented in this system. If you find a station you like, you can bookmark it as a favorite. It is important to point out that when you play a radio station through this system, it is not a canned pre-recorded program. You're hearing the actual broadcast, exactly as it would be heard by a "regular" radio.
You can also take out a subscription to an online music service. I chose Napster for $60/year. At any time, in about a minute or so, I can locate artists, albums, or tracks and play them on my stereo system. The sound quality of Napster is not quite the same level as the lossless files ripped from my CD collection, but it's very good. You can bookmark your favorite albums or artists to play them easily each time you start the Sonos system. Napster even has some interesting spoken-word "albums" like poetry readings and stories. You cannot create CDs from Napster music, but I use it all the time to hear enough to decide if I want to buy the actual CD, which I then rip into my library.
There are numerous other music services available through the Sonos system. All of them show up right on the main menu of your controller.
4. Product Support
The Sonos system often feels overwhelming when you're first looking into it. When I began reading about it, I was confused about all the different ZonePlayers, could not tell what I really needed, and did not know about the sound quality of the equipment. For me, it was great having the Sonos user forum, a group of customers helping each other. There are a lot of patient people there who are willing to help you understand what the Sonos system is all about. After purchasing the system, you may have a question or two about options and possibilities, and the user forum is great for all of this.
As you can see, I'm a big fan of what Sonos has done with their music system. It really has opened up all kinds of listening possibilities. I can play music easily and at high quality levels, and I even see my own collection better now - sometimes noticing CDs and songs I had forgotten about!
I recommend this system strongly to people who want to modernize their music library but keep the same music quality they are accustomed to with CDs.