Gadget MD: The Sound of Sonos

This is the latest installment in my ongoing series about my trip to visit a friend who just moved to Silicon Valley a.k.a. “Nerd-ville.” Any cross-country move is chock-full of uncertainty and emotional peril, especially for the kids. But the real angst in the home has focused on one thing only: technology.

Would Comcast of Atherton be better or worse than Cablevision of the East End? Actually, that’s a trick question; even Kazakhstan has to have better cable service than Cablevision.

More importantly, would he be able to replicate his New York home audio and TV setup, without paying a fortune? The answer is an emphatic yes—thanks to a fantastic product named Sonos.

Sonos is a WiFi-based music distribution system that does zoned music the smart way. Each unit is about the size of an Apple TV or external hard drive. You connect it to your audio receiver, and very quickly you create a network of music zones that link to speakers throughout your home.

Yes, I wildly oversimplified what it takes to “connect” to your receiver, but the basic concept is very easy. Instead of hiring a team of contractors to hard-wire your home and program over a week, my audio pro was able to install the entire system in a single afternoon.

It gets better. Sonos is flexible. Want to add music to another room or to your backyard? Just add another distribution box. Planning to move in a year or two? The entire system can move with you; there’s no hard-wiring and no proprietary music drive.

Let’s talk about the user interface, which is absolutely essential for a good home audio system. Yes, those bulky Crestron panels of 10 years ago were easy to use. They were also very expensive. Just replacing the battery costs almost $200. Even worse: the channel layout was hard-coded and needed professional updates. Ka-ching!

With Sonos there’s no remote control or hardware that can break. The control system is an app that’s easily installed onto any computer, tablet or smart phone. Any device can access and broadcast music from multiple sources: a computer, your phone, hundreds of internet radio stations, and all the music streaming services such as Pandora and Sirius.

iTunes playlists transfer with ease. You can group different zones of your home together, to play kids music in the basement while you listen to the Rolling Stones in your kitchen and bedroom. You can change music groups and favorite channels in seconds, from any location in your home—no AV professional required. The system even automatically updates your music library whenever you change it in iTunes.

Let’s be clear: User interface is the true game changer in technology. iPhones didn’t take over the world because they were new; there were dozens of seemingly great smartphones and PDAs before them. iPhones ruled because they are incredibly simple to use. That’s why Samsung and everyone else copied the icon layout—and willingly paid billions in damages when Apple sued for patent infringement. Now, almost all phones have the same basic layout.

But I digress. The point here is simple: the Sonos UI does for home audio what the iPhone did for portable devices.

What about price? A product this great must cost a fortune, right? I can’t give exact numbers, because no two audio systems are the same. Let’s just say that my entire Sonos system cost about the same as ONE of those plasma TVs from 10 years ago. So for those keeping score at home: better system + fewer hardware components + killer UI + no wiring + portability + exponential savings = home run.

If you’re even thinking of upgrading your home audio system, I strongly recommend checking out the sound of Sonos.

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