MUSIC IN THE AIR...
Every once in a while you come across a new gadget that seems to go beyond the sum of its hardware and software parts and scores an emotional hit. This feeling is often described with words like "cool", "magical", "I gotta get me one of these", or "another one from Steve Jobs?" OK, I made the last one up, but you get the drift.
Many of you probably felt it when, depending on your age, tried the first Atari, Nintendo, Mac, Apple Powerbook, Palm Pilot, Blackberry, and of course the iPod, to name some of the few.
Well, after having read about the Sonos music system (click images for larger picture) announced last fall, understanding the key components that went into it to make it work, reading the glowing tech media reviews (Mossberg and PC Magazine here) along with the gadget-freak, and linux-head recommendations, and now having finally ordered, installed and used the system, I can add Sonos to the above list of products without hesitation.
In a nutshell, if Apple had invented it, one could describe the system as enabling multiple members of a household to play different music from the same digital store of music on a computer/hard-drive in a home, using "wireless color iPods" in different rooms. It's especially cool, if like me, you've already gone through the trouble of legally ripping hundreds of CDs lying around the house, and digitally storing them on a computer hard drive, primarily to play them outside the house on an iPod.
As a bonus, you can also wirelessly stream different internet radio stations, or music subscription services like Real's Rhapsody system (over 1 million tracks from free to $15/month). using your existing broadband cable modem or DSL connection. As I'll explain later, this was the combination that got me to order and set up the system...and it works like oreos with milk. Time magazine has good, detailed reviews on both the Rhapsody service, and the Sonos system, and praises how well they work together.
As an ADDITIONAL bonus, (I'm beginning to feel like the Ginsu knife guys) you also get to plug in and listen to the CD player in the living room player downstairs, upstairs through your bedroom speakers wirelessly. You can also plug in any other music source through jacks, like a satellite radio (XM/Sirius) receiver and share it through the house. Caveat: you do need to connect the system to speakers in every location, either existing or ones you can buy from Sonos. In most cases, I already had a hi-fi system, so it was easy to plug Sonos into them.
The base system, which gives you two "Zoneplayers" and one Controller retails for around $1200, expensive, but not if you compare it to the cost of a traditional in-the-wall wiring through the house for an on-demand music system. They're using that price umbrella because they can from early-adopter customers, much like how the Internet telephony companies like Vonage initially priced their all you can eat telephone services under the telco price umbrellas. The prices will likely come down for this and other similar products as the technologies go mainstream.
Each Zoneplayer is basically a 50-watt amplifier and Wi-fi transmitter/receiver that talks to other zoneplayers in other rooms through a wireless proprietary "mesh" architecture. You connect the first Zoneplayer via Ethernet to your main music store on your PC or network attached storage device (NAS), and then can connect to up to 32 Zoneplayers ($500 for each) either wirelessly or through an Ethernet network. You can have multiple "controllers" in the various rooms, but they do get expensive at $400/pop. Well, Walt Mossberg did call it the "Lexus" of wireless home music systems.
The controllers, or as I call them, the "wireless iPods", even though they don't store the actual music, are pictured here, and are about the size of three iPods slapped together side by side. There's a big color screen and an iPod like scroll wheel to navigate around your music and your network (please, Apple/Steve, don't sue them...they're good guys).
The whole system looks and feels solid like, well, an iPod...and it shouldn't be surprising since the devices are apparently manufactured and assembled by the same company in Taiwan that does the iPods.
For me, the controllers are the real reason to get this system. The ability to see and access ALL your music collection on a color screen anywhere in the house, along with almost limitless access to music from the Internet, and see the album art in most cases, wirelessly, is...well, at the commercial goes, "priceless"...not quite, but it helps rationalize it, especially to your spouse.
The thing that makes it most worth it, is that it's easy to set up and use...and it works. The "Out of Box" (OBE) experience is also very good, i.e., the experience of opening the box of components, reading the instructions for their set up, and one's ability to put it together in a relatively short time. Considering the amount of networking voodoo the product does, this is impressive at this early stage of the game.
In fact, I did the whole installation without cracking open the manual, but only referring to the "quick start" chart and fiddling with the controllers and desktop software.
I know I'm supposed to mention a negative or two, but even their customer service was good. I didn't need to call them, but did anyway to see how they perform. A salesperson picked up and spent 15 minutes answering questions clearly and knowledgeably about the ability of the system to tap into the Rhapsody music subscription services and Internet radio.
In fact, the thing that got me off the bench and order the system came after the announcement last week of Sonos supporting the Rhapsody music subscription system by Real Networks. I've been a Rhapsody fan for some time, and I especially like the "share the music" user-generated play lists that allow me to listen to full tracks of music that various users have put together in lots of clever playlists...it's a terrific music discovery vehicle. iTunes has a similar feature, but you're limited to hearing only snippets of music.
As a mainstream music customer, I'm not the ideal target market for Apple's iTunes service, although I do use it. I don't rabidly go to iTunes several times a week looking for the latest and greatest music, listen to the short clip and order it for under a buck by the bucketful. I have ordered a few tracks, but in the end it all seemed way too much work to keep track of it all, especially on multiple PCs, laptops across several networks and locations.
For some time I've preferred the convenience of services like Yahoo!'s Launch music service, that provides access to lots of Internet radio stations from any PC and/or location. It allows me to listen to a greater variety of music, across more genres, than traditional radio, and allows some amount of music discovery, which then results in my buying the physical CDs or albums online.
Please bear with me while I elaborate...
Om Malik and Rags Gupta have been engaged in a good-natured debate on the cons and pros of Internet radio and subscription services in their respective blogs recently. For those interested, the links are listed sequentially here with Om's Business 2.0 commentary, followed by Rags' response here, rebutted by Om here, and then countered by Rags here. Clear?
Like most mainstream users, I'm lazy on this front, or as Rags would kindly say, a "passive" user. First, I think buying a la carte music tracks definitely has its place, much like buying individual CDs used to be, thanks to Steve Jobs, Apple, and iPod/iTunes in that order.
Most people will continue to do that, especially as the price per track drops from $.99 to $.30 or less, as it's likely to do as the music industry takes out the current $.60 plus subsidy for packaging and distributing physical CDs that it uses to protect that distribution channel and revenue stream.
However, Internet radio and subscription services, which until recently have been in the early development and adopter stages, are finally coming into mainstream relevance with broadband adoption in the home, along with wireless home networks and devices like Sonos and presumably Microsoft's Media Center PCs soon.
With consumers already used to paying monthly fees for cable content, it's not a big stretch to paying $10-15/month for music. A big difference is that in cable, due to local cable monopolies, there historically been only one source to choose from, with some competition from satellite, and soon from the telcos, and eventually the Internet.
With Internet music subscription services now, (and likely Internet video subscription services later), consumers will have multiple choices, which is a GOOD thing, especially if the subscriptions include the new cell phones/PDAs that are also music players. The challenge for the content providers will be to get to scale before competitors do, especially in the case of markets that are national and eventually global.
Real's Rhapsody, and the new Napster subscription service, will soon be joined by expected offerings from Yahoo!, and presumably Microsoft, AOL and others. Apple with iTunes may have to add subscription to their a la carte service soon. Add to this new start ups that like Mercora, that have a legal peer-to-peer Internet radio sharing service, and you've an increasingly rich set of offerings for mainstream consumers.
And home networking systems like Sonos start to give a real taste of the possibilities. Now if only Sonos could also allow me to stream my photos and videos around the house, I can cancel that order for additional Microsoft Media Center extenders...