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Originally published Monday, December 17, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

Sonos: music lovers take note

If you're trying to make sense of all the new wireless gadgets for playing music in the home, here's a little tip. Compare them with the...

Seattle Times staff columnist

If you're trying to make sense of all the new wireless gadgets for playing music in the home, here's a little tip.

Compare them with the Sonos Digital Music System. Two years after its debut, in a market that's evolving at warp speed, the Sonos is still the state of the art.

That may change as wireless and Internet connections become standard features in consumer electronics over the next few years. Or maybe not.

Judging from the lineup at January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, big players in the industry are more focused on new technology for streaming video around the home. We can hope one of them produces a video system that's as easy to set up and use as the Sonos, but it will probably take awhile.

Meanwhile, Sonos is keeping it simple and sticking with plain old music.

The Sonos system consists of a remote control that looks like an overgrown iPod and receivers, the largest of which is about the size of a kid's lunchbox.

You plug a receiver (or a $99 adapter) into a router on your home network, push a button on the front and one on the remote. They automatically set up a dedicated wireless network in your house.

To play music, you connect a receiver to a set of speakers or your stereo system. You use the remote to search and choose music stored on a PC. It also plays music pulled from the Internet — online radio stations or subscription services such as RealNetworks' Rhapsody, Napster or Pandora. An October update made it possible to use Internet services without using a PC.

It gets better if you want music in multiple rooms. You just add another receiver and push the buttons; they automatically join the network, and you control them all through the remote. There's no fiddling with IP addresses or wireless security keys. It just works.

The biggest catch is the price. Controllers cost $399 and receivers are $349 to $499 each, depending on whether they include an amplifier. Most people opt for a $1,000 bundle with two receivers and a controller.

That's too expensive to make the Sonos a popular-culture phenomenon such as Apple's iPod, but it's had an outsized influence on consumer technology and music-industry insiders.

For them, the Sonos is proof that it really is possible to search and control a world of music from your hand, through a wireless system that takes a few minutes and zero technical skill to install.

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"Part of why I recommend Sonos to people who are real aficionados is there's nothing like it in terms of the use and getting it going," said RealNetworks Chief Executive Rob Glaser, an early fan who made sure Rhapsody worked well on the system he now uses at home.

"As the Sonos shows, if you just do one thing really well, you get ease of use and you get simplicity that you don't get in a multifunction device," he said.

RealNetworks is one of several local ties with Sonos. The privately held Santa Barbara, Calif., company started in 2002 by Software.com founder John MacFarlane and partners who thought "home stereo, if you will, needed a redefinition to fit the broadband, digital music age."

With wireless home networks then going mainstream, they saw an opportunity "to enter a new category with the product that wasn't possible before, which was a wireless, multiroom product that was self-installable."

Sonos launched with marketing talent from Apple and software talent from Microsoft — Andy Schulert, a former general manager of FrontPage and Sharepoint is now the vice president of product development at Sonos. Other Sharepoint veterans joining Sonos were lead developer Nick Millington and Tad Coburn, lead software design engineer.

Sonos also hired Seattleites Jim Koo, formerly of Microsoft, RealNetworks and KeyTronic, and Vickie Nauman, who previously worked at RealNetworks, KUOW and KEXP.

Another connection helped RealNetworks form a particularly strong partnership.

When Glaser was still at Microsoft, he worked with engineer Rob Williams. Glaser left to start Real. Williams went on to a startup, Avogadro, and later worked for MacFarlane at Openwave, a Silicon Valley telecom software company. A few years ago Glaser hired Williams to lead Real's music-software group, where he developed the Web-services version of Rhapsody that works directly with Sonos.

Glaser called Sonos a "beacon product" that demonstrates the "jukebox in the sky" dream his company has pursued for years.

From a business perspective, it's interesting that this beacon product was developed through a partnership, Glaser noted. That's contrary to the prevailing view in this age of Apple that it takes a single company to develop a product-plus-service digital media experience. A key was the trust and history the companies had, Glaser said, but a partnership also meant "a slower process to do magical things."

There are other great devices for streaming digital music from a PC to a stereo, such as the $300 Squeezebox from Logitech, the $1,100 Olive music player and various Windows Media Extenders, but with its full-featured remote and dedicated network, the Sonos is in a different class.

I had high hopes for two-way remotes that access media on PCs, including Bluetooth versions and Windows Vista Sideshow models with color displays that let you browse and select media. But the Bluetooth remotes aren't perfect and Sideshow remotes won't appear until early next year.

Stereo makers such as Denon and Yamaha are adding wireless and networking features to their equipment, but they still lack comparable interfaces and advanced models are more expensive than Sonos.

I'll bet clever programmers will eventually write software giving Sonos-like features to Apple's iPhone and other wireless, handheld computers, but that won't be a mainstream solution.

Meanwhile, the Sonos' scroll wheel and heft may start to feel dated, especially if you're using a touch-screen device like the iPhone or iPod Touch. A touch screen would enable Sonos to expand its search capabilities, so you could tap album art to get more information about the music, for instance.

MacFarlane is watching all the competitors but said there's no reason yet for a price cut or a new controller. For now his biggest focus is expanding the variety of music available through Sonos services — there's not a lot of classical — and educating people about the category of wireless home music systems.

Price will probably determine whether Sonos becomes a mainstream solution, but Glaser said it still points toward the future of music in the home.

In three to five years, "it could be on a path to be as big as the iPod or satellite radio — literally another way to get music in their lives that is as central to people's lives as those other modes are today," Glaser said. "The iPod has been a huge change agent, but for people whose primary way of listening to music is in the home there hasn't been that iPod yet."

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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