The great boon of digital music has been the ability to play what you want when you want it. Thanks to innovations such as Apple Computer's (AAPL) iPod, which stores your entire music library, there's no need to go rummaging through CD racks to find a particular disk. Now a new wave of innovation allows you to transport that same music to any room in the house.
Devices that beam music from a PC to a stereo system aren't new. But in general, they have been difficult to set up, prone to crash, and not particularly good at searching out specific songs. Then came Sonos. The Digital Music System from this Santa Barbara (Calif.) startup blends the sound quality of a fine stereo system with the elegance of an iPod. In fact, the paperback-book-size wireless controller that manages the system looks a bit like a large iPod, complete with a touch-sensitive scroll wheel to navigate through the music library on your PC.
Sonos can connect to your existing stereo system, but the beauty is that it doesn't need to. The heart of the system is a bread-box-size device called a ZonePlayer, a digital audio receiver that connects to a PC through a router on your home network. Only one ZonePlayer needs to be wired directly to the router. With that one connected, you can beam music files to a collection of identical ZonePlayers in other rooms over a Wi-Fi network that's built right into each box. And since each Sonos player includes a 50-watt amplifier, you can use it as a stereo just by connecting speakers to the box.
IN GEEK-SPEAK, the Sonos approach is known as a peer-to-peer mesh network. Because digital songs bounce from one player to the next, creating a mesh of wireless signals blanketing the house, the tunes heard on the ZonePlayer in the bedroom sound just as clear as those on the one wired to your PC router in the study. You can link up as many as 32 players -- but it won't be cheap. Each ZonePlayer costs $499, and each remote controller is $399. (Sonos also bundles two ZonePlayers and a remote for $1,199.)
I tested three ZonePlayers in my house: one in the living room, one in the kids' playroom, and one in the master bedroom. More often than not, we synchronized the devices so that the same song was playing at the same time in every room. But one night, we invited friends for dinner. The system made it easy to let the kids rock out to the Foo Fighters in the playroom while the grownups listened to Lucinda Williams in the living room.
One of the niftiest parts of the Sonos system is the wireless controller that manages the whole setup. It has a beautiful 3.5-inch color LCD screen that shows the artist, track name, and album art when music is playing. Press the "music" and the "zones" buttons, and you can pick different songs for different rooms or sync up the music in other zones. You can add Net radio stations and navigate among them with the controller.
The system, which works with Windows (MSFT) and Apple computers, is easy to set up. You connect each ZonePlayer by holding the box's mute and volume buttons down together. Using borrowed Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 5 speakers, which run $16,000 a pair and pump out 2,500 watts of power, I got a whole new sense of the cash register that opens Pink Floyd's Money. (You may not need BeoLabs, but for great sound, don't skimp on speakers.)
Some may gripe that the system is unable to play music that is copy-protected, which includes all songs purchased legally through MSN Music store or iTunes Music Store. But for people who have built up their music libraries by copying CDs they already own, that won't be a big problem. Even Sonos' pricing scheme seems reasonable, when you consider that a high-end, multiroom sound system can easily set you back $2,000. Sonos does so much more than conventional stereo systems -- and does it with style.
Steve Wildstrom is on vacation.
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By Jay Greene