For a while now I've been trying to get away from CDs completely and go all digital. CDs are so antiquated, like powdered wigs and pantaloons. Stacks of little plastic disks, rolling around cluttering up things, getting scratched, lost or just being in the wrong room and I don't feel like getting up.
My first attempt at going all digital, I had a Omnifi DMS1 plugged in to my home stereo, and it would serve music streamed from my Windows PC running a Rhapsody client and a SimpleCenter MP3 server. I bought the Omnifi from Woot.com for $80.
In theory it was a great setup, almost everything I wanted in a music system. Digital music nirvana on the cheap!
But in practice, it was unreliable and irritating. The Omnifi would hang frequently, requiring a device reboot (hold the power button for ten seconds, then wait). The remote for it was basically useless, poor range and no easy way to scroll through music.
The Omnifi DMS1 "Lil' Rage inducer"
On the PC, the Rhapsody client would hang occasionally and disconnect frequently from the Rhapsody service, requiring someone to walk upstairs to the computer and click the "log in" button. The only part of the setup that was reliable was the SimpleCenter MP3 Server software, it pretty much always worked.
Let Me Tell You About Rhapsody
Ah Rhapsody. Rhapsody rocks, except for when it sucks, which is often.
I've been using Rhapsody for 3 years now so I obviously like it. I get access to millions of songs for one a small monthly fee. I don't own them, but as long as I pay my fee, it's almost like I do.
The problem is the Rhapsody client has generally been like a crazy person who can't stay on their meds. It can't get started, crashes, logs out, asks the same damn question over and over again ("Would you like to import your MP3 library?" For the millionth fucking time NO!).
But it gave me access to tons of music, so I couldn't stay mad for long. And in fairness, the current version of the Rhapsody client has been treating me a lot better lately. Maybe this time it's changed for good. Not like all those other times.... and broken promises.
DRM, the thing that makes Rhapsody great! (not sarcasm!)
I've heard it argued DRM is bad for the consumer. I disagree. DRM, is just a tool. When used correctly, DRM is very good for the consumer.
It's clearly bad when the record companies "sell" DRM encumbered music. When a I "buy" a music CD that means I own it. And in owning it I rightfully believe I should have unlimited, unfettered use of that 'NSync album. The convenience of buying music instantly on my home PC is ruined by the pain of not being able to pipe "Bye bye bye" to my home stereo or copy it to my computers and music players. It sucks and it makes me jump through hoops to listen to a downgraded version of something I "own". This DRM is bad for me, the consumer.
So when is DRM good for the consumer? When it's used for a service, not a product. It allows vendors to "lend" the product to the consumer who, fully understanding this is a service that can be terminated at any time by either party, is never found to be unable to use his rightful possessions.
In the case of the Rhapsody service, DRM gives me convenient access to literally millions of songs. It's not net radio, where the song list is out of my control. It's on-demand access, music played when I want it played, in any order, as many times as I like. I don't own it, but as long as I pay my monthly fee it's almost like I do.
Being DRM music there are of course limitations. I can't burn the music to a CD. I can't copy it to most MP3 players (no iPod). I have to use the special Rhapsody client to listen to it on my computer, which sucks compared to iTunes.
So I've been both a fan and hater of Rhapsody and digital home music for a while. It's nice when it works, it's hell when it doesn't. My simple system felt like it was held together with duct tape and bubble gum, but the DRM wasn't the weak link.
Sonos: Digital Music that Won't Make Hulk Mad
I've had the Sonos system for about month now, but I was excited about it before I got it. I'd heard many good thing and I knew it had built-in Rhapsody integration and talks to directly to the service through the internet. It promises to take those 3 million songs and actually make playing them a pleasant experience.
And it does make things pleasant. I've experienced far fewer fits of rage since we've switched over.
The loaner system I've got is the Sonos 130 Bundle, includes a very nice remote control and two "Zone Players", the ZP80 and ZP100. You can add as many remotes and Zone Players to the system, adding a new player or controller takes, literally, 30 seconds. Turn it on and press a few buttons and you're done. It's honestly amazing how little configuration and setup it requires, it does all the work for you, wirelessly (like magic).
Sonos 130 Bundle "Serenatizer"
The ZP80 player has line-out outputs only, so it must be hooked up to an existing stereo or self-powered speakers. The ZP100 adds a built-in amplifier and it is also good bit bigger and heavier than the ZP80. Both seem like very high quality units. The 130 Bundle also comes with a crapload of different cables to hook the Zone Players up to other things. They make fine additions to my extensive collection of unused cables.
The Sonos Controller is the remote used to control the Zone Players. It's got a big color LCD display, a scroll wheel and uses wifi so it works anywhere in the house. The interface is fast and intuitive. With it I can manage the zone players, navigate music collections, create playlists and anything else I need to do.
I've got the ZP80 in my living room hooked up to AUX inputs on my main home entertainment system, and the self-amplified ZP100 in my bedroom hooked up to bookshelf speakers.
The system uses the existing network and each zone player has a built-in ethernet hub. BUT even though all the Zone Players are wifi enabled, at least one player needs to directly connect to your home network via a regular ethernet cable. I'm not sure why it can't connect via its built in wifi but I suspect it's to reduce support calls.
This limitation would have been a problem for me since my cable modem and AirPort Extreme is in a different room from where I wanted to use the Zone players. Fortunately I already had HomePlug network adapters, which use 120v household wiring for the network conduit. The HomePlug adapters are cheap and I highly recommend them when you can't use wifi (like connecting your Zone Players to your home network). All you need to do is plug one into your network router and another into the Sonos player and you're in business.
To play your own MP3 files, all you need to do is put them on a shared SMB drive on your network and point the Sonos system at them. The Zone Players will index your shared music files and organize them in the Sonos UI, even from multiple machine and network shares. Then it's easy to browse all your music files in one list on the remote and pipe it to whatever Zone Player you wish.
But the killer feature of the Sonos is the Rhapsody integration. Unlike my previous setup, I don't need anything else to use the Rhapsody service. The Sonos includes a built-in client and it communicates directly with the Rhapsody service, so I don't have to worry about keeping Rhapsody on a PC running and signed in. I don't need a PC at all!
Well, that's not completely true. The handheld remote sucks for finding and playing Rhapsody music you haven't already added to your library and playlists. For that, it's far easier to use the Rhapsody client or the Rhapsody web site and add music to your library (mostly because of the lack of keyboard or efficient text inputting). But once added to your "library", then its a snap to browse your chosen music and artists and play it from the remote control. This is one area I'd like to see some improvement in, mostly because I so dislike the Rhapsody client.
I really love the ability to link zones together in a party mode. With just a couple of clicks I can synchronize all the Sonos players on the same playlist, so the whole house is filled with the same music. It's great if I am doing house work or anything else where I'm not just sitting in a single room, and no more turning up the volume too loud downstairs just so I can hear the muffled music upstairs. It might not seem like that big a of deal, but it's something both my wife and I really like.
Another cool thing is the ability to set an alarm that plays music you select, so you can get woken up to whatever playlist you wish. You have lots of options for setting up playlists and scheduling. It's actually easier than setting our real alarm, so my wife and I have been using the Sonos instead.
I usually choose "Amish Paradise" by Weird Al. Wakes me up real good.
There is a Sonos client for both Windows and Mac which controls the Zone Players. It works just like the remotes and I use it almost as often as the handheld remote. The PC clients are a little more full featured than the handheld with the same look and feel. And unfortunately, like the handheld remote, browsing the full Rhapsody catalog is more trouble than its worth, you're still better off doing that with a browser on the Rhapsody site.
Sonos also can play streaming music from free internet radio stations. It already has bunch of radio statiions pre-listed, and you can add more manually, but I haven't tried that yet.
I have tried the Pandora integration, which I really like. Pandora is streaming radio that customizes the playlists based on your preferences. To create a new "radio station" you specify a single artist, then it plays songs from that artist and other similar artists. As music plays, you can tell it you like or dislike the song that's playing, and it will continually customize the playlist to be more to your liking.
I created a Pandora radio station based on DJ Krush, and it send me lots cool dark and lonely flows. Yo! But unlike Rhapsody, I'm not sure I'm willing to pay for it.
So far the most annoying thing is occasionally the Rhapsody stuff doesn't work, it will give some error message when trying contact the remote service. I blame Rhapsody (Real Networks) because the same thing happens with Rhapsody's own PC client. Fortunately it doesn't happen often and the Sonos can still play my local mp3 files.
A more serious glitch was when the main Zone Player reset itself suddenly and I had to go through the process of re-initializing it as if it were new. We just had a thunderstorm and lost power a few times, so it might be related to that. Since then I've had no other problems with the Sonos players.
The glitches, in the scheme of things, are very minor. It's remarkable how little the system itself gets in the way and just works.
It Brings Me Music. Lots and Lots of Music.
The hardware and the software feel like high-end equipment, more like Bose or Apple products than something you'd find at Target. It has a emphasis on simplicity and usability. My wife has had no problems using it and I've not needed to refer to the manual once. Not even during setup.
What can I say, I really like the Sonos system. I already want to get more Zone players. You can find cheaper systems, but you'll likely just end up frustrated and maybe even enraged. That's not a good thing. Unless you want to get enraged, but when it comes to music usually people rely on a pulsing beat and aggressive lyrics to get that feeling. I use my Sonos to get enraged the right way.
Posted July 22, 2007 4:31 PM