Technology

BusinessWeek


There are few products I've tested that I've enjoyed as much as the Sonos Digital Music System. When I looked at it a little over a year ago (see BW Online, 4/31/05, "Beaming Music from Basement to Attic"), I was blown away by the simplicity of the setup, the elegance of the design, and the ease of use. The Sonos system is so well designed that BusinessWeek deemed it a worthy entry into our list of Best Products of 2005. Put simply, the Sonos system is the best way to play the digital music sitting on your PC throughout the house.

For its second act, Sonos hasn't missed a beat. The Santa Barbara (Calif.) startup launched two new products for the system and updated its software to make a good thing better.

Let's start with what Sonos already does. The original system includes a shoe-box-size device, called a ZonePlayer or ZP100, that costs $500. It's a digital audio receiver that connects to a PC through a router on your home network. Only one ZonePlayer need be connected via wire. Others connect wirelessly with each other, creating a network that can zap music all over your home. Because ZonePlayers have their own amplifiers, users can connect speakers directly to them.

NEAT FIT. As nifty as that is, the real magic is in the $400 paperback-book-size controller. It looks a bit like an oversize iPod right down to the scroll-wheel navigation mechanism. But the device doesn't just let you riffle through the tunes on your PC. It lets you choose what song to play on which ZonePlayer, so the kids can rock out to Green Day in the playroom while you listen to Bruce Springsteen in the kitchen. You can link up to 32 different ZonePlayers. And you can tune into Internet radio stations as well.

If there was an obvious next step for Sonos, it was figuring out a way to fit the system into stereo systems that users already own. Because the original ZonePlayers included amplifiers, it made little sense to plug them into existing systems that already include amplifiers. That meant for many customers, the two systems stood as separate silos of music.

Enter the ZP80. This little gizmo is the size of a music box. It has all of the capability of the original ZP100, except that it doesn't have an amplifier. The size makes it easy to slip the gadget right next to a stereo receiver and make it part of an existing system. And cutting out the amp doesn't just reduce the size; it cuts the cost as well. A ZP80 costs $350.

FUNCTION VS. FORM. Since the launch, Sonos has added a neat software trick, too: It has partnered with RealNetwork's Rhapsody subscription music service. For $10 a month, subscribers can pick and choose from any of Rhapsody's 2 million songs. For most subscribers, those songs are tethered to their PC. Not Sonos users. They can pump any Rhapsody song to any room in their house. And they can play different Rhapsody songs in different rooms at the same time. Pretty slick.

As clever as the Sonos system is technologically, it's equally slick looking. But the original controller had one awkward feature: It recharged by connecting to an adapter that plugged into an outlet. Functional, yes. Attractive, no. So Sonos introduced a $50 charging cradle. Users can even mount it on a wall.

With all the improvements, there's little left to gripe about. But there are a few drawbacks.

GOOD, NOT PERFECT. First, I'd love to be able to search and select from Rhapsody's entire library using the Sonos controller. Right now, users have to add songs to their Rhapsody library from the PC before they can play them on the Sonos system.

I also wish Sonos would let me turn my PC into one of the 32 possible zones. I can control and manage my music from my PC. But I can't play any of it over my PC's stereo speakers using the Sonos software.

And last, I'd like to see the Sonos bundles packaged better. Sonos customers can buy two ZP80s and a controller for $1,000, or two ZP100s and a controller for $1,200. Chances are, though, most folks would want one ZP80 to connect to an existing stereo system and one ZP100 for another room where there is no stereo. But no such bundle exists.

Still, my wish list amounts to a few quibbles. The Sonos system remains the best way to play music from your PC through your entire house. And the new products and features add distance to the already yawning chasm between Sonos and its rivals.


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