Sonos ZonePlayer: The gadget that upgrades the digital music revolution

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, February 7, 2010; G05

It's always seemed to me that there's been something missing in the digital music revolution.

Sure, we've all got iPods, and we can download music from Amazon or iTunes. Some of us are even getting attached to free streaming services such as Pandora and And for those of us living out of broadcast range of our favorite radio stations, it's possible to log in and listen online.

So we can listen to any music at any time, as long as we're close to some kind of a computer. But step out of the room, and the music stops. Getting that Internet radio stream to your home stereo and playing that content throughout the house has rarely been an easy or graceful process. Companies have tried to bridge that gap for years, but there hasn't been a solution that has really grabbed me until now.

Thanks to the ZonePlayer S5, from Sonos, a Santa Barbara, Calif., company, I can listen to Web-streamed music pumped out through a small collection of wirelessly connected speakers all over my house. With a few taps on an iPhone app, I can listen to a radio station from another country in my home office, while everywhere else my personalized music channel streams through the Web-based service Pandora. I'm no audiophile, but the sound has impressed the folks I know who care about such things.

There aren't a lot of drawbacks associated with checking out gadgets as part of your job, but there is this: Every once in a while you get hooked on a device, and end up spending money that maybe you shouldn't. I've forked over for three of these things, and I'm sure I'll order another one or two this year. As slick as it is, a warning is in order: The ZonePlayer S5, at $399 a unit, isn't cheap.

For that investment, you get a solid little audio device that comes with five built-in speakers; basically, it looks like an iPod speaker system but without an iPod dock. As for buttons or dials, there's a volume switch and a mute button, and that's it. One of the units is plugged directly into my home's router, while the others are simply plugged into electrical outlets. There's no Sonos application as yet for competing devices such as the BlackBerry or smartphones that use Google's Android software, but Sonos users can also control the system through software available for Mac or Windows computers.

Fire up the Sonos iPhone app, and you get options: Listen to music parked on your hard drive or log on to some of those popular Web music services. Generally speaking, you can mostly do the same tweaks on your iPhone as if you were logged on to those services at your computer. Click on a "thumbs down" icon while listening to a track on a Pandora station, and you won't hear that song again. Lately, I've been listening to a classic rock station based in London; I'm a fan because it plays a wider selection of music than what I'm used to hearing on the local stations.

It's a pretty cool feeling to be able to pull up just about any band name or radio station when guests come over and toss out the name of their latest favorite group or a hometown station that always played a good mix of music. Conversely, if somebody brings a music player to your home, you can simply plug it into the back of one of these speakers. Thanks to the ZonePlayer's ability to broadcast to other units, you'll hear the music all over the house.

Sonos says that about two-thirds of its customers also subscribe to pay services such as Rhapsody and Sirius, which are also compatible with the ZonePlayer's controller software. But, with all the free content the device can access, I'm not looking for more monthly fees just yet.

Plus, having spent $400 per unit, I'm feeling a little broke. Believe me, I don't much like spending money, but this gadget performs a trick I'd wanted for years -- and does it well. In the tech world, Sonos is a little like Apple: detractors say that there are other devices that do the same tricks for less, but fans say that you get what you pay for.

Don't expect the company to slash prices anytime soon. Sonos hasn't spent any money marketing the gizmo, which was introduced late last year, and it has had a hard time keeping it in stock. Over the holiday season, I regularly noticed when logging on to the company's Web site, that Sonos couldn't complete orders for its device.

"I lost a lot of tears over that, let me tell you," said Sonos chief executive John MacFarlane. "But it's a good problem to have."

Overall, considering all the nifty tricks that the ZonePlayer S5 can do for the music fan, the controller handles things fairly well, but I'm still left a little confused sometimes. The device comes with access to 25,000 Web-streaming radio stations, and trying to find good stations from all these offerings is sometimes a bit of a chore; it's a bit like trying to surf the Web without a Google or a Bing. You know there's good stuff to listen to out there, but how to find it?

MacFarlane said his company is still tweaking the software and music navigation tools. "As far as we've come, we haven't come far enough on the complexity front," he said.

It isn't the kind of admission you typically hear from an executive, but I guess I'll put that on the list of things I like about this company and its device.

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