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The Whole House iPod

While the dust settles a bit in the TrixBox world, 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. This ‘sounds’ great (no pun). Do you know how this solution would compare to a system like pluto, which packages media, home automation and asterisk? Or another way of putting it, can we interface Sonos with trixbox?

    [WM: You’re reading my mind. No Linux software yet, but stay tuned and keep an eye on their forums. The company is very responsive to user requests so it shouldn’t be too long. All of the Sonos software is self-updating … just like TrixBox and freePBX.]

  2. The Sonos is a great product, but anyone looking for a home audio streaming solution should also look at the Squeezebox from http://www.slimdevices.com. I have two of them and am very happy and I’m unaware of any major functionality that the Sonos has that Squeezebox lacks. The Squeezebox doesn’t have the fancy "ipod look" of the Sonos, but it’s less expensive and more hacker friendly. Each player costs $249 (wired) or $299 (wireless). You don’t need to buy anything else as long as you have a PC (any OS) to run the free (open source perl) slimserver that takes care of library indexing, web server, media streaming etc. Slim Devices doesn’t offer an amplified solution so you need to connect to a receiver or something. They also don’t have a fancy ipod-like controller. Your Squeezeboxes are controlled either via the included old-fashioned remote, or via the web interface. Ward will probably like the fact that there is already a skin to access the web interface from your Nokia 770 (http://wiki.slimdevices.com/index.cgi?SlimserverAndNokia770).

    There is also a free open source java soft player that will run on any PC and let you access the same server. One of the big benefits of Slim’s architecture is it’s extensibility. There is an active development community writing plugins to do things like read RSS feeds or get weather graphics on the device’s front panel. An example of the power of plugins is that there is the ability to play ANY internet radio stream (including ie Real Audio) with a plugin that transcodes everything through mplayer. I can imagin an asterisk integration that would let users listen to voicemail through a squeezebox.

    Both are good products, but I suggest you check out both before deciding.

    [WM: By all means, try both. You can always return the Sonos unit(s). But, once you try the Sonos devices (especially the remote), you’ll never settle for a Squeezebox. Don’t forget to factor in the cost of an amp for each room in which you wish to use a Squeezebox. And then there’s the problem of finding sufficient real estate in each room to store all the components.]

  3. I looked at the sonos pretty carefully…even ordered one to play with.
    The controller is GREAT – even water resistant and since I have put speakers in showers, that is nice.
    At the end of the day I owned too much DRMed music from the itunes store and felt like the price tag on the sonos was too high.
    I’m using a nokia 770 as a controller for my Airport zones (currently running 7 here at home)
    Write ups at:
    It runs about $300 a zone, and you miss some of the sonos’s features, but you can get the basic functionality.

    Of course, no I’m totally into SACD and DVD-Audio which means I’m back to buying dual-discs and ripping them…so I may look at stripping the DRM from my itunes stuff and going to the sonos.

  4. You failed in your article to explain any details of WHY Elans system is more expensive, and superior. I hope that your readers don’t walk away from this site thinking that they are getting a 50k dollar Elan style system from your pieced together system. I am not knocking your ideas, I just think that your article unfairly beats up Elan’s products. An Elan touch panel can do EVERYTHING that you have mentioned here and tons more. I know because I am an Elan dealer. My systems usually run about 60k to 120k and would blow your mind. If you are ever in the phoenix area feel free to email me and I will show you a few systems.

    [WM: We’ve had the Elan tour. We weren’t suggesting there was anything wrong with the systems other than cost. The Sonos system is anything but a "pieced together system." And, yes, we would hope the Elan touchpanel had similar functionality. After all, it costs 10 times as much. If you don’t believe our recommendation, visit a Tweeters or HiFi Buys and take one home for a test drive. You’ve got nothing to lose… and you could even become a dealer.]

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