I've tried several different ways to play my computer's MP3s on speakers around the house, but each one fell short in some significant way. Either the wireless range was too short, or it interfered with my WiFi, or the system's controls and interface were so clunky that it was too much of a hassle to use.
Experiencing the Sonos after struggling with these other systems for years was astonishingly pleasant. Finally, somebody has done digital music right. Sonos is a beautiful system that matches Apple's products in terms of slickness and ease-of-use. I got the Sonos ZP80, a package that comes with with two ZonePlayers — white cubes that are approximately the size of a Mac Mini. These can be connected into any stereo, radio, or home theater system. The ZonePlayers don't require an AC adapter — the power supply is built in, so all you have to do is plug the ZonePlayer into the wall. One ZonePlayer must be directly connected to your home router, but the other ZonePlayers can communicate with the system wirelessly. (There is a way to use Sonos completely wirelessly, but it's an unsupported feature.) You can use up to 32 ZonePlayers on one network.
The controller looks and acts a lot like an iPod, with a 3.5-inch full color display and a touch wheel. It has a motion detector, so it comes to life when you pick it up, and a light sensor to illuminate the buttons when it's dark. Even with these energy-saving features, the battery life isn't great. I have to recharge the remote controller every two or three days, but that's a small price to pay for having complete control of your home music system in your hand.
I've set up several wireless networks over the years, and each time, I got snagged on some arcane configuration detail that had me running to Google for help. Not so with the Sonos. I installed the Sonos software on an old eMac I keep running in the laundry room. (Sonos works with Mac and Windows). The software slurped up all the MP3s on the machine as well as the iTunes playlists. (Sonos can't play songs purchased from the iTunes music store, because Apple does not allow other hardware makers to decode the DRM it uses to scrambles the songs with. No matter -- I don't buy songs from the iTunes music store because I don't like being prevented from playing my music on non-Apple players. People are nuts to buy music from the iTunes store, if you ask me.)
I attached one of the ZonePlayers to my Ethernet router and pressed two buttons on it. The Sonos software recognized it and prompted me to give it a name (I chose "TV Room"). I attached the other ZonePlayer to my home stereo system, pressed the buttons, and Sonos asked me to give it a name ("Living Room"). I also got a ZonePlayer 100, which has a built-in 50W amplifier, and a pair of speakers, and I put that in the kitchen and called that zone "Kitchen."
I was expecting that there'd be more to the set-up process, but that was it. I didn't need to consult the manual to use the controller because the interface, controls, and display are very well-thought out. It's very easy to select any one of the three zones and start playing music. You can have different playlists going in different zones, or you can link zones together to play the from the same queue. You can control the volume of each Zone separately, or all at once.
You can play Internet radio with Sonos, and add stations that aren't already on its list. It also plays Rhapsody if you have a subscription. I don't, but I'm considering it now. I'm also considering getting a 500 GB NAS hard drive to store the music that the Sonos system plays.
My wife usually complains when I introduce a new technology into our lives. This is the first thing since TiVo that she really digs. My daughters like it, too -- I have a playlist for my seven-year-old and one for my three-year-old. I'm listening to as much music as I did when I was in college. Sonos really has brought back music into my life. Link
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. His new book is Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects