You Say You Want a (Music) Revolution?
If you want to see how technology has affected culture, just look at what's happened to music. From MP3s to the Apple iPod and the iTunes Store; from the original Napster through Kazaa and the RIAA lawsuits, the digital revolution changed how we experience music in just about every way.
But one big step remains for most of us: Getting those MP3s out of the iPod and into every room of your house. I recently tried two systems that aim to do that – the Sonos Multi-Room Music System and the EOS Wireless Music System. One is kinda pricey, the other is dirt cheap. One is terrific, the other one sucks hard. Can you guess which I liked better?
Full disclosure: I love the Sonos. It's one of my favorite gadgets of all time. Because they totally get it. They understand what consumers want most from digital music is something that sounds great and works straight out of the box without a lot of hassle. (Memo to Microsoft: You might want to try that some time.)
I tested the Sonos Bundle 150 ($999), which lets you spread the musical wealth from your PC or Mac to two rooms of your house. I also used a Soundbridge ($99) to connect the system to my WiFi router. I connected the ZonePlayer 90 to the receiver in our home theater room and the Zone Player 120 to a pair of Sonos speakers in the family room. I installed software on my PC that rounded up all the music on my home network and corralled it into my music queue. (Everything, that is, except for songs I bought from iTunes that still have the old DRM scheme – the Sonos can't unlock those, though you can do it manually via software like doubleTwist or Noteburner.) I pressed the buttons on each ZonePlayer to connect them to the network. And I was done.
Total setup time: Less than 30 minutes.
That alone is impressive. But the Sonos also plays Rhapsody, Sirius Satellite Radio, Napster, Pandora, and thousands of Internet radio stations, as well as music from line-in sources like a CD player. You select tunes using a paperback-sized LCD-based controller, which looks like an iPod on steroids and is easily the niftiest remote I've ever used. You can add more rooms by adding more ZonePlayers ($349 to $499 each) and you can play a different music source simultaneously in every room. I could switch from my music queue to Sirius to Pandora and back with virtually no lag. I'm still not sure how they manage to pull that off.
Wait, it gets better: This morning Sonos added support for Last.FM and an applet that lets you use your iPhone to select music instead of the wireless controller. You can watch a video of the latter at the Sonos site.
And, oh yeah, it sounds terrific. I'm no audio snob, but I've tried dozens of gizmos for broadcasting music from your iPod across a room, and I've yet to find one that tops the Sonos.
The sad news is that even at $999, the Sonos is still a tad out of my price range. So, enter the Eos Wireless Music System. At $250 for a two-room setup it's a fraction of the cost. It doesn't need a WiFi network or a broadband Net connection, and it's even easier to install.
Plug in the Eos Base Station and pop an iPod into its dock (or attach another portable media player to the auxiliary jack). Plug a shoebox-sized Eos Wireless Stereo Speaker into an AC outlet in another room. Turn the knobs on both units to “on” and hit “play.” Sound flows from the base station to speakers up to 150 feet away. You can connect four speaker units ($130 apiece) to every Base Station, spreading the joy of music throughout your house and even outside for less than $700.
That's the theory, anyway. It didn't quite work that way in real life.
“It's like listening to music on a bad cell phone connection,” my wife volunteered as she begged me to turn the damned thing off. The same MP3 files that sounded crisp and deep on the Sonos sounded tinny and anoxeric on the Eos. Worse, merely walking near the speakers caused the sound to occasionally cut out.
The Eos has other problems, too. Take the iPod or iPhone away, and nobody else can listen to music (and while you're using it, your iPhone won't ring). The speakers have extremely short power cords, which limits where you can put them and/or forces you to run extension cords around your house. That didn't make me popular with the missus either.
Was I doing something wrong? Possibly, but I can't imagine what. The Eos Web site gives tips on tweaking the music to make it sound better, but the mere fact I'd have to troubleshoot this is reason enough for me to say, no thanks.
To paraphrase Emma Goldman, what good is a revolution if there is no dancing? Eos is easy and affordable, but you can't dance to it. The Sonos, on the other hand, me singing an entirely different tune.