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The Whole House iPod (Revisited)

About a year ago, we wrote about an incredible new whole-house audio system that is priced (literally) tens of thousands of dollars below the cost of a comparable "turnkey" system that you typically would purchase from a home audio consultant. You can read the rest of the (initial) story toward the end of today’s article. We decided to revisit the World of Sonos because there have been some incredible developments in the last 14 months, and today the company announced a new partnership with Sirius satellite radio. So here’s an update.

For those that are new to Sonos, you basically buy a little $500 Wi-Fi box for each room in your home or office where you want to play music. You plug in a pair of speakers and connect to your NAS-savvy music library. We recommend dLink’s DNS-323 which provides RAID1 mirrored SATA drives in any size you desire (about $180 delivered from NewEgg plus SATA drives). Be sure the drives you pick are on dLink’s compatibility list! If you happen to use Comcast for your broadband service, you also receive a free Rhapsody subscription which can be played (through a Windows PC) on every Sonos system in your house for free. For the rest of you, the Sonos system also supports streaming audio from more than 300 Internet radio stations, also free. And last but not least, beginning today, you can add all of the Sirius radio stations on the planet (80+ channels) to every room in your house for just $2.99 a month assuming you already have Sirius playing away in your car. If not, it’s still only $12.99 a month.

There are few companies in the world (much less the United States) that provide flawless hardware and software, free software updates (that always work), and regular updates that consistently add value to your initial purchase. Sonos is at the top of that very, very short list. Run, don’t walk, to add this system to your home or office. You’ll thank us for years to come. Enjoy!

And, our original article last year went something like this…

We thought we’d digress today and tell you about an incredible whole house audio system. Yes, there’s the iPod for private listening and there are some streaming audio solutions for those that want music in one or two rooms of a home or office. But what if you want music (different music) available in every room of your home. Well, until now, you could look at spending $20,000 to $50,000 for a very proprietary solution such as Elan’s Home Systems. It’s no accident that you won’t find any pricing on their web site.

As luck would have it, we just moved into a new home that was prewired for audio and video in eight rooms including recessed ceiling speakers in all the rooms. While this is an expensive proposition when retrofitting an older home, it’s fairly reasonable during new construction, and many builders now include it as part of the cost of a new house. The gotcha, however, is adding the multi-room amplifier, the audio devices to produce the music, and the touchpanel control units in each room. Can you spell outrageously expensive! In round numbers, you’re looking at $5,000 for installation of a suitable amplifier, $1,500 to $2,500 for each ultra-proprietary touchpanel display, and another $10,000 or more for the audio sources. These include CD jukeboxes, iPods with infrared remote access, a multi-channel XM radio receiver to the tune of $1,500 plus XM radio fees of nearly $30 a month (for three channels) forever, and loads of consulting fees at $100+ an hour. Each of the touchpanels or keypads is manually configured to match the audio components you purchase so that you can switch audio sources, adjust volume, and skip songs in each room. The double-gotcha is that despite having spent tens of thousands of dollars on this system, you have no ability to adjust anything down the road without another $100 an hour service call from the installer. So just pray they’re still around, or you’re basically stuck with your initial setup forever. A $500 magic box is used to configure the touchpanels and keypads, and, NO, you can’t buy one. It’s not sold to consumers, just dealers. Ouch!

You should be getting the picture of why we went shopping for an alternative with a bit more flexibility. That’s when we stumbled upon an incredible product called the Sonos Digital Music System. In a nutshell, you have a self-contained system unit in each room where you want music. It includes an optional amp for connection to a pair of speakers, wired and wireless networking, and a user and streaming audio interface that is as good or better than the iPod. Then you add as many touchpanel control units to select music and music sources as your budget can afford. There are also PC and Mac versions of the touchpanel which won’t cost you a dime. Each touchpanel can control every zone (aka room) in your home. What you don’t need with this system is a house prewired for audio because each unit lets you connect directly to a set of speakers or an external amplifier if desired. You also don’t need a wired network throughout your home. Only one of the Sonos units needs to be connected to a wired network. The rest of the devices automatically configure themselves to communicate wirelessly with the other system units and controllers scattered throughout your home. If you buy the starter pack with two system units including amps and one controller unit, you’re looking at $1,200 which works out to roughly $500 per system unit and about $200 for the controller. That’s roughly one tenth the cost of a functionally similar controller unit from Elan except you can configure the Sonos controller while a dealer has to configure the Elan unit … at $100 an hour.

I feel a little like the guy selling the Ginsu knives on television: "but there’s more." Boy, is there! Not only is the sound of the systems downright incredible (depending upon your speakers, of course), but the variety of available music sources is going to make you want some of these in the morning. Each system unit can stream audio from almost any music source imaginable. This includes MP3’s stored on your PC, Mac, or our latest discovery, a $150 network-attached storage (NAS) device. You also can play Shoutcast streams, either your own or those available for free over the Internet. Another option is to map a file share from a Sonos unit to a Mac or PC. It takes about 10 seconds. Sonos units also can play music from Rhapsody. And, if you’re lucky enough to be a Comcast broadband subscriber like us, a Rhapsody streaming audio subscription with about 50 music channels is yours for free! Just login to your Comcast account and download the Comcast Rhapsody software to any Windows PC. Rhapsody Stations are every bit as good as XM or Sirius channels with one important difference. There’s no additional monthly charge to Comcast customers for as many simultaneous streams as you care to play. That’s quite a contrast from Elan’s three XM streams solution which means three rooms with XM radio and no more … for $30 a month … once you buy your $1,500 Elan XM receiver. With Rhapsody, you won’t need a receiver at all, just an old clunker PC sitting in the corner with the Rhapsody application running. It can be used for other tasks as well. At the moment, we have my daughter’s game PC running Rhapsody with four simultaneous streams playing in seven zones of the house. You can double up zones with the click of a button using any Sonos controller. In addition to all these music sources, you also can connect an old-fashioned analog audio device (like a CD jukebox or an iPod) to each system unit. Music from these sources can be streamed to any combination of rooms you choose, just like traditional Shoutcast streams or Rhapsody stations. The only thing missing with analog device streams is the album art, but it still sounds great.

There are some other reviews of the Sonos system which are worth a look. Check out David Pogue’s article in the New York Times, the Home Theater View, Audioholics, Playlist Magazine, and PC Magazine. Then you’ll want to run, don’t walk, to buy at least one for yourself! You can purchase units from Sonos and most of their dealers with a 30-day money-back guarantee. We installed eight systems with four remotes in just over two hours. We haven’t quit listening since. Now you know why we’re running a little behind on the Asterisk® and TrixBox articles. Enjoy!

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  1. As a systems integrator, I must say that the Sonos system is nice (especially for retro work where the house isn’t pre-wired for distributed audio). But, there ARE other traditional distributed audio systems out there other than ELAN that cost significantly less and in my view deliver excellent performance. Some of which cost LESS than the Sonos system. For instance, Nuvo sells a 4 source, 4 room system for $999. The package comes with an 4 room/4 source amplifier/controller and 4 wall mount keypads. A similar Sonos system would cost $2,200 (4 in-room amp and 1 lcd controller) and that’s before speakers which at say $130 a pair $520 for a total of $2,720. I charge roughtly $2,500 for a full Nuvo 4 room package including the $999 package listed above, along with speakers, and installation. Granted, I didn’t include the pre-wire cost (~$600). But, even with those costs you are very comptetive price wise with a sonos system. I would not dismiss the traditional wall keypad/in-ceiling/in-wall distributed audio systems.

    Having a traditional system has numerous advantages over a Sonos system. No box or bookshelf speakers clutering up a room. Everything is mounted into the wall or ceiling. The ability to integrate home automation products into the distributed sound system (i.e. door bell mute), integrating intercom capabilities, etc.

  2. I really like the integration of Sonos, however a less expensive alternative that integrates well with Asterisk is the squeezebox (wired and/or wireless). It can be used with PC,UMPC or nokia 770 or N800 as a fully featured remote. Hez.ca has a script where asterisk tells the squeeze box to turn down the volume and display the name and number of the incoming call. There have even been mods to the squeezebox to enhance the audio quality.

  3. Buyer’s beware! Sonos does not work with a satellite isp(wildblue). So before you buy one and install it, I will save you the frustration and the several hours talking to a Rhapsody tech in India(you won’t be able to understand them,trust me)then speaking with a Sonos tech,then e-mailing the CEO of Sonos,only to have them tell you that their system won’t work for your application.How disappointing!

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