By Alan Graham
I've been a fervent Sonos user for well over three years, and with all honesty I can't even think of a single piece of technology, outside of computers, that I've gotten so much value from day after day.
And while that has been my experience, the major complaint I've heard over time from others, was the system costs too much. Because of that, many people turned away and set their sites on other cobbled together solutions which were either nowhere near as capable or as nice.
Since then times have changed and there is a whole new landscape of devices now available that give people some similar Sonos functionality. The Squeezebox Duet starts at $399 and is getting great reviews. Then there's the Apple TV which is even less ($229) and now has a free application available for the iPhone and iPod that make it pretty compelling as a music solution.
Today, however, Sonos may have made price less of an issue for those who want an alternative to the walled Apple DRM nightmare, and on the other hand want to dip their foot into the Sonos pool, but don't want to spend $400 on just the controller alone. Rejoice! Sonos has just released a free iPhone/iPod app that controls their system, meaning you can get started with a Sonos system for about $350.
Regardless of what platform you are attracted to, I thought I'd give you a peek at the application in use, and to do that I decided to compare the Sonos app to the Apple TV/Airport Express and their free Remote app, as it might give you some insight into how both solutions look at and handle music. Not to mention that most iPhone/Touch users have probably tested or tried out the free Apple Remote app. First Impressions
I have to say that even from the first beta, the Sonos app had all the spit and polish you'd generally see in an application that Apple would deliver (kudos to great guidelines and dev tools from Apple), and if anything is a perfect example for any iPhone developer on how to build an application. The graphics, screen colors, button placement, and animations are crisp, clean, and stunning. As for function, it is highly responsive and there are no delays between touching a control and the Sonos response.
Setup is remarkably simple. Just download the app, and when you launch it for the first time, it will request that you push two buttons on any one of your Sonos devices. Within a second it is connected and ready to roll in about a minute.
The Apple approach is a little more involved in that it requires some passcodes and pairing with iTunes and Apple TV, but for the most part, it is also quite easy and painless.
Launching the Apps
Both apps launch quickly and are ready to go in about 5 seconds and both are speedy and good at keeping a persistent connection.
Both apps scroll quickly and flipping through a list of tracks or artists is easy as pie. However, browsing music libraries on the Sonos app is superior than Apple's application. For one thing, Sonos has incorporated the quick jump feature that Apple has in their Contact/iPod application, where you can click on a letter and jump directly there. In addition, Sonos has a nice additional touch in that as you scroll down the alphabet, they present a large icon in the middle of the screen to tell you exactly which letter your finger is resting on.
Main Playback Screen
Both apps have an excellent main screen for music playback. A strength for the Apple Remote, is that they show album cover art in almost full screen, while the Sonos app has it smaller and slightly askew. I suspect this is to fit in some additional features and feedback, including Next Track, Mute, Add Track/Album to Library (Rhapsody Feature), and Queue controls. If artworks isn't that crucial to you, then Sonos wins out on this as it adds a number of features the Apple app lacks and should have.
If you are familiar with Sonos, you know that this is one of its great strengths. Although many systems can do "multi-room" playback of tracks, Sonos hands down does it far better. You can connect up to 32 Sonos devices to your home audio system, play the same track (with no gap in playback - at different volumes), play different tracks, and unlike most systems that tax your wireless home network by connecting to the same wireless signal, Sonos uses their own proprietary signal so that all the music played is over their wireless network, not yours. The Apple TV/Airport Express devices all work over your existing wireless connection and are affected by things like network traffic.
As for controlling those devices, however, the Sonos wins here as well. While both apps allow you to see different devices in your home, the Sonos treats each "zone" independently, which gives you the ability to not only link zones/rooms quickly, but jump back and forth between them. So far on Apple TV and iTunes, this is a clunky process that they should re-examine. For example, if you have one track playing in one room and decide you want to unite two rooms and play the same track, you first have to go back to one of the rooms, stop its playback, and then to back to the original room you started in and link them again.
Another example of how the Sonos app shines is individual zone volume control. In addition to jumping between zones, changing the volume of a number of connected zones is easily done individually or as a group, a feature Apple lacks, as it is all or nothing.
One problem I have with Apple and iTunes is that it lacks a real queue, and instead forces you into using playlists. This is a real hassle especially when dealing with a remote application. Again, Sonos shines here as it not only has playlists, but also has real queue functionality, including deleting tracks on the fly, drag and drop reordering with your finger, and saving a queue as a playlist.
Search function works about the same on both applications, however Apple does have a nice feature in that it searches against all your media, including TV shows and movies. However, there is one aspect to this that makes me want to give an edge to Sonos once again. While searching your own library is simple on both, Sonos also has built-in support for multiple music solutions like Pandora, Rhapsody, XM, and both Internet and local radio. Not to mention that Sonos can pull music from 16 different music sources in your home including NAS drives, a local computer, and iTunes libraries (Sonos doesn't however support Apple DRM) on multiple computers. Sonos doesn't see your library as a single folder, but can pull from just about anywhere in your home.
In fact this is where the two systems start to diverge and Sonos starts to actually run circles around the Apple TV. Now don't get me wrong, I own an Apple TV and I love it, but as a music device it lacks in some key areas that have more to do with Apple's walled system.
While Apple does support many audio formats, their DRM and lack of support for other audio partners like Pandora, Rhapsody, and LastFM, for example, keeps me from investing any further into Apple's iTunes store, outside of video. In fact I'd say 90% of my daily audio use comes from Rhapsody and Pandora, two remarkable services I couldn't imagine being without.
Odds and Ends
Battery life is pretty good, although when using my phone as a controller at home, I turn off the 3G setting which seems to be a huge improvement in longevity.
Almost all features in the iPhone beta I've been using are replicated from the Sonos handheld controller or their desktop software, with the exception of Clocks and Alarms. Not a big deal and I'm sure we'll see that either in the finished product or a future version.
The Sonos iPhone/iPod app is outstanding and with the exception of the fact that unlike my Sonos handheld controller...it isn't water resistant (can't take the phone in the shower) and the Sonos controller has a far superior battery, it actually works better than the $400 controller Sonos makes. For one thing the touch screen makes certain tasks like scrolling and typing effortless. The form factor is smaller and if you can operate an iPod, you can operate the Sonos app. Some features seem slightly unintuitive, but only due to the fact that I'm already so use to the other controller, I have a tendency to get confused between them.
However, if you already have an iPod Touch or iPhone and you are thinking of investing in a multi-room audio system, or just want to buy something that will likely take care of your needs for years to come (but are worried about the price), I recommend you buy a Sonos ZP90 (no amp - $349) or ZP120 (amped - $499). With the new free app, this might just be the best gateway into the Sonos system yet.