A Visit To Sonos

"I don't get why some audiophiles still think that saving data using a lossless compression scheme like FLAC or Apple Lossless sounds any different than an uncompressed CD file," says Sonos founder and VP of Sales and Marketing Thomas S. Cullen between bites of white fish shish kebab. "It's just mathematics, and the results are sonically identical, but you save half the space on your hard drive."

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Sonos VP Thomas Cullen does a demo.

We're taking a break for lunch, and Cullen is animated while he talks. In fact, he appears to be an animated blur the entire time we are with him. He has every right to be: Sonos is a new company in a hot part of the consumer electronics market (music servers and wireless audio distribution and control), and sales are hopping.

Cullen also cares about the quality of the sound his products produce, and understands that Stereophile readers would be loathe to compress an audio file just for a little convenience or to save some hard disc space. So, along with discussing which Grateful Dead live recording sounds best, we're taking a detour to talk about music servers, and the pluses and minuses of various codecs used to store music on them.

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Outside Sonos' Santa Barbara Headquarters.

What They Make and Where It's Made
Sonos doesn't make music servers, but they do make products that can take your digital collection stored on either a computer or stand-alone hard drive (more on that last option in a minute) and wirelessly play it anywhere in your home or business. And on top of that, they've got the coolest Wi-Fi remote control in the business to help you run it.

They've also got a great place to work, and we're visiting to take a look around and get a feel for what Sonos is up to. The first thing one notices about company headquarters, located in downtown Santa Barbara, California, is the quiet and efficient, yet informal atmosphere—almost like a library. Employees dart about softly in T-shirts and shorts, and everyone is helpful—with a smile.

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Especially helpful is Sonos PR person Thomas Meyer, who organized the visit and introduced me to technical product manager Jonathan P. Lang. Where Cullens is the rabbit springing to market, Lang exhibits steady, measured patience as he puts the products through their turtle-like testing paces before being seen by the public.

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Lang is testing, testing, testing . . .

Lang sets up a demo and sticks a controller in my hand, noting that "it's so easy to use, we just encourage people to jump right in." Both Lang and Meyer emphasize that a simple, direct interface is one key to the success of Sonos. Anyone familiar with an iPod will understand it instantly; others might ponder for a minute. But only a minute.

Right away I'm selecting music and hearing it around me. Lang shows me how to move tunes from system to system (there are two stereos in the room) and how to control what is heard in the reception area too—we must be driving them nuts as we switch from Miles Davis to MC Solaar, pumping the volume up and down with glee.

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Jonathan Lang holding all of Sonos' current products including the larger ZP100 50Wpc amplified ZonePlayer.

The New ZP80
Today, the company is focusing our attention on the new ZP80, which is essentially a sophisticated wireless digital preamp for each room where you want to tie your music server into an existing audio system. Meyer and Lang figure this is what will appeal to Stereophile readers since it allows for the use of any combination of audiophile selected speakers, amps, preamps, converters. In fact, John Atkinson is currently living with a ZP80 and will review it in an upcoming issue of Stereophile magazine.

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The Sonos Controller remote and ZonePlayer 80 (ZP80).

What groups the ZP80 with similar products like Stereophile's previous favorite digital streaming gadget, the Apple Airport Express (2005 Product of the Year Editor's Choice), is that it can wirelessly pass digital streams straight to the digital to analog converter of your choice. This means you can set up a music server anywhere in the house, and then run its uncompressed PCM data straight to your big bucks DA coax or optical input . It will also stream MP3, WMA, AAC, Ogg Vorbis, and Audible encoded data for those that like crunching their tunes, and convert any of these formats, compressed or not, to either PCM digital or back to analog and out a pair of RCA jacks on the back of the ZP80.

Unlike the Airport Express, however, the ZP80 and its amplified sibling, the ZP100, have the well-designed wireless Sonos Controller (with an off-the-scale Spouse Acceptance Factor) that works with them to make it easy to control your music server no matter where you happen to be in the building. In practical use, this difference makes all the difference, especially if you've got a lot of music on a hard drive and don't want to keep popping over to the PC to select at tune.

The ZP100 (essentially a ZP80 plus a 50Wpc amp), can be combined with just a pair of speakers in a remote room to make it go. And unlike a system based on the Airport Express, you can add up to 32 ZP80s or ZP100s to your network and run different programs to every room. Sonos products also configure as a mesh network and can play files in perfect sync, meaning that each one you add extends the reach of every ZonePlayer to the entire network, and they will keep time with each other—not a trivial engineering feat.

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Inside the 50Wpc ZP100. Note the hefty toroidal transformer! Sonos reminds us that the Sonos warranty is void if you open up any of the Sonos hardware.

That's the good news, and with a deal already completed with the Rhapsody online music service and web radio, there are plenty of ways to get music into the system. With one glaring exception: due to a restrictive DRM wrapper that controls Apple's AAC format, songs purchased from the iTunes music store will not stream through the system. You can still use the iTunes application to rip and store your CDs (Apple Lossless is suggested), but those measly compressed files that Apple sells are not licensed to play through something like the Sonos network—yet.

Eliminate the Middleman: Here's the Best Part
But I'm not sure audiophiles are going to care about iTunes purchases since you can rip CDs without any loss and then store them on a computer, or on a network drive—what Sonos calls "network-attached storage" or NAS. This is the cool part: The Sonos can run multiple streams directly from a NAS without a computer being on or even connected. Just hook up the drive's Ethernet port to any ZonePlayer, and the Sonos system finds the music files and updates your playlists. Of course, you'll need a computer to rip music to the hard drive in the first place, but you can then take the PC or Mac away and leave the drive running 24/7 in your audio equipment rack.

For audiophiles, this means you can put your toe in the water and try a server, buying a couple Sonos products and a hard drive for around $1k, and adding it to your turntable, CD/SACD/DVD-A player system just like any new source component. Or you can abandon all physical media and jump straight into a fully controlled, stand-alone server-based system that can stream to any room in the house.

While we were visiting their offices, Meyer and Lang were careful to keep us away from several particular work benches and whiteboards—they promise that there are even more exciting developments for audophiles in the works, the first of which we should hear about in a couple of months. We'll let you know as soon as we find out.

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