Whole house music system

Music playing simultaneously in every room of your house is a luxurious experience, and decidedly different from a song playing in a single room. Music in a room is a dim, blurry sonic echo if you’re not in front of the speakers. But music everywhere is an environment that envelopes you as you go about your day. Of course to get this experience, you could run speaker wire to a second room and connect up a second set of speakers, but that’s not the same enveloping sonic goodness of a whole house system.

Used to be whole-house music systems were only for the very rich. You needed a rack of amplifiers (two channels for every room), a pre-amp, switcher, control unit, and then in-room controllers either hand-held or built into the walls, plus cabling from the speakers in each room homerunned back to the equipment, which probably needed its own closet because there was so much of it, it was so loud, and so hot. Crestron, Niles and others have made good money catering to this rarefied market. But the systems are pretty bespoke (there is no standard OS, the equipment is not interchangeable, you need an installer to set them up, you had to destroy walls to run cables, etc.), they were inherently less reliable than mass produced equipment, and they were, as I said, so expensive (as in $20-50K and up for equipment alone, plus design and installer time in addition) that only the wealthy could afford them. Oh, and none of them can connect to the consumer music server standard that we all use and love — iTunes. That’s right, they all use proprietary or non-Apple servers.

That was then. But now if you want a whole house music system, you have a much lower cost, more reliable, and more functional alternative: Sonos. It isn’t cheap, but it’s a lot cheaper than the previous bespoke solutions. It’s dead easy to install — literally anyone can do it. It connects seamlessly to the iTunes music library, as well as giving you access to internet radio stations. And it’s just completely thought out. Sonos is one of the two best consumer electronic products ever created, the other being the Garmin Nuvi.

Sonos comes in two flavors: with and without amplifiers. Either can connect via ethernet or wirelessly to your computer with its iTunes library (you can also use other libraries if you want). The Sonos unamplified units — smaller than an Apple Mini — mate with amplifiers (or receivers) you probably already have that are connected to speakers. The Sonos amplified units (think the size of a big old family bible) drive speakers where you don’t already have amps. Both type of units talk to each other via a mesh network. You can lash up to 32 of the beasts together if you’re so inclined. The sound across the entire network is in perfect sync. (Airport Express, in contrast, has a limit of, I believe three units, because it can’t handle the data in way that can keep the units delivering the sound simultaneously without lags). And the fidelity is exemplary — I rip all my music to Appleloss, and every room is playing music as if the CD is present, not ripped to a server at the other end of the house.

How easy is it to set up? You can install the software and set up half-a-dozen of these units in an hour. Once installed, the systems are rock solid. And if you ever have problems, online and telephone support is conscientious, even exemplary. You get the feeling they really want you to have your system working right, and for you to be happy.

You can control the whole system from your computer, selecting music and playing it in one, all, or a combination of rooms, at different volumes for each room. For instance, you can play different music in each room; or you can play music from your iTunes library in one room, or an internet radio station in another, etc. A better way to control the Sonos system is with the Sonos wireless handheld controller, which has a scroll wheel like the iPod and a color LCD screen which provides all the functionality of the Sonos computer software. You don’t need one per room — per floor is more like it.

Sonos is a lot cheaper than the old bespoke whole house system. Two unamplified players with one handheld controller will run you $1000. You still need an amp and speakers for each player. Or you can buy two amplified players (and the amps are decent 50W units) and one controller for $1200. Each extra controller will run $400, each unamplified player $350, and each amplified player $500. And Sonos has a deal with Rhapsody where you can subscribe to their million song library for $10 a month (sound quality is only mediocre MP3, but being able to sample virtually all current releases for ten bucks a month is pretty compelling).

Sonos: Not cheap, but an entirely more affordable luxury than whole house music systems used to be.

-- Louis Rossetto 01/18/07