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Distributing Digital Audio

Last month we received our anxiously awaited Sonos Digital Music System. After our initial reviews and those of our first few customers, its a system well worth the wait.

In general, the press has been very favorable toward the Sonos system (for pricing and an overview of how the product works, visit, and we strongly agree those reviews. This system is as dramatic an improvement to the distribution of audio digital entertainment content throughout the home as the Kaleidescape Digital Video System has been to the residential distribution of high-quality DVD content. Both share several important characteristics.

Outstanding User Interface. The Kaleidescape Digital Video System has won numerous awards for its intuitive, graphic user interface. Video distribution solutions benefit from the fact that a monitor is turned on when you want to watch a movie and Kaleidescape takes full advantage of this by developing a beautiful remote-controlled interface that works on any large-screen viewing monitor. Whole-house audio systems face a challenge in that homeowners do not want to turn on a television to control and watch the music that they are listening to, especially if its in a room without a TV screen. The Sonos remote control system uses a wireless “iPod-like” remote that lets you see the cover art of the album you are listening to and read the name of the song. It also gives you full control of the audio source (volume, mute, skip, return, etc.) in any of the homes listening zones.

Digital Content Storage and IP Distribution Architecture. The Kaleidescape can stream encoded DVD movies flawlessly to up to seven different movie players around the home from its multi-terabyte server over standard Cat5 wiring and an Ethernet 100BaseT switch. The Sonos Digital Music system can stream WMA, WMV, MP3 and AAC (MPEG4) music to up to 32 different Sonos ZonePlayers receivers throughout the home over its 2.4Ghz “SonosNet” wireless or wired connections. To ensure the quality of service for audio connections from ZonePlayer to ZonePlayer, Sonos has developed a wireless “802.11g-like” protocol called SonosNet. A non-trivial technical hurdle that the Sonos engineering team solved was the need to synchronize digital music to all of its hubs. A musical lag when you are playing the same song in each room is not acceptable.

Unlike Kaleidescape, which requires storing digital DVD movie content on its own server (due to digital rights management requirements), Sonos can use whatever hard drive in the home contains the digital music. They recommend that a network storage drive be purchased so that it always remains on as the digital music storage vault for the home.
In addition, Sonos adds the ability to add a local analog source to each of its ZonePlayer receivers. This is an incredibly useful feature because each ZonePlayer can act as a source to a whole-house music system. Picture a scenario where a guest arrives at your clients “Sonos-enabled home” with their iPod, connects it to the Sonos ZonePlayer in the family room and your client wants to hear the iPod music in their master bedroom. The Sonos ZonePlayer will encode and stream the iPod music from the family room ZonePlayer to the master bedroom ZonePlayer where it is decoded and played back through the master bedroom sound system. One feature missing in this example is the ability to control external input audio sources from a remote location because the ZonePlayer receiver does not provide any IR or RS232 control of these external sources. Also, the Sonos system currently does not have any in-wall keypad audio control solutions. To solve these issues, we found that the Sonos Digital Music System connected to a “traditional” analog whole-house music switching system is a match made in musical heaven.

Marriage with Existing Whole-House Audio Systems. While the Sonos Digital Music System can certainly stand on its own as a distributed whole-house audio system, there are several benefits to integrating it with more traditional analog-based audio distributions systems like those from Russound, Niles or Sonance. Using the Sonos ZonePlayer as one of the line source inputs to, say a Russound system, you can take advantage of the in-wall keypad controls of the Russound system. In this configuration, you can select audio sources and provide source control for a given room and still enjoy the benefits of Sonos great wireless graphical controller when you select the Sonos input on your Russound keypad. Heres an example:

You have a client who wants to have an AM/FM tuner, satellite music, XM radio and digital music as sources to a whole-house audio system. You design this Russound four-source system as you normally would with the appropriate input sources and IR control. Now, however, you use the Sonos ZonePlayer (connected on the network to a network storage drive that has the digital music) as an input for the digital music instead of, for example, using the audio out of a computer that contains the digital songs. The benefit of this approach is that the homeowner can now fully see and control the digital music that they are listening to in any room of the home (or even in the backyard) from Sonos wireless remote (a greatly improved interface over what you usually find on whole-house audio controls, unless you move all the way up to the much more costly Crestron or AMX control solutions.)

The new Sonos Digital Music System is as revolutionary to the distribution of whole-house digital music as the Kaleidescape system is to the whole-house distribution of high-quality digital video. It offers an exceptionally easy-to-use remote, the flexibility to listen to thousands of digitally recorded songs throughout the home and the scalability to easily add new wireless music receivers and remote controls to the home. I predict that the Sonos Digital Music System will be a very popular product for the digitally enlightened home integrator. I cant think of a single customer that we currently serve who wouldnt want to integrate this compelling product into his or her home.