Build­ing an Af­ford­able Multi-room Au­dio Sys­tem

NOVO - - STORAGETECH - Suave Ka­jko

Have you ever played air gui­tar to Guns’n’Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine”? Or per­haps air drummed Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” like that in­fa­mous Cad­bury go­rilla? Bet­ter still, maybe you’ve used the sham­poo bot­tle in the shower as a mi­cro­phone. My friend – I’m afraid you’ve got the bug. The mu­sic bug that is! But don’t worry, all this means is that you’ve got pas­sion for mu­sic and we’ve got just the x you need.

It wasn’t so long ago that multi-room au­dio sys­tems were the dreams of mu­sic lis­ten­ers but at­tain­able only by those with deep pock­ets. Even to­day many au­dio com­pa­nies de­mand a lot of your hard earned money for such sys­tems. Luck­ily there is one com­pany that be­lieves that multi-room au­dio should be avail­able to just about all mu­sic fans, even those with rel­a­tively small bud­gets. Which com­pany am I re­fer­ring to? I’m glad you asked. But rst, let’s take a look at what’s in­volved in build­ing a multi-room au­dio sys­tem.

What is a Multi-room Au­dio Sys­tem?

The term ‘multi-room au­dio sys­tem’ refers to a mu­sic sys­tem which al­lows you to lis­ten to your en­tire mu­sic col­lec­tion, stored in one or more lo­ca­tions, in dif­fer­ent rooms in your home. The dif­fer­ent rooms, also re­ferred to as zones, can lit­er­ally in­clude ev­ery room in your home and even spa­ces like your pa­tio, bal­cony or garage. Multi-room au­dio sys­tems have been around for many years, in one form or an­other. So why haven’t they be­come more pop­u­lar with con­sumers over the years? In the past, multi-chan­nel au­dio com­po­nents were ex­pen­sive and re­quired you to cut into the dry­wall to run wires. Not to men­tion the ex­pen­sive, large and awk­ward re­motes that had to be pro­grammed. Of­ten times, set­ting up a mul­ti­room au­dio sys­tem meant hav­ing to hire a cus­tom in­staller which fur­ther in­creased the price. But all of this has been slowly chang­ing over the last few years thanks to ad­vance­ments in dig­i­tal, wire­less, touch­screen and smart­phone tech­nolo­gies. To­gether th­ese tech­nolo­gies have pro­vided a back­bone for the mod­ern multi-room au­dio sys­tem, while at the same time bring­ing the price down to a level that’s af­ford­able to the masses.

In­tro­duc­ing Sonos

En­ter Sonos, a com­pany that’s ex­clu­sively in the multi-room au­dio busi­ness. Since Sonos launched its rst prod­ucts in 2005, the com­pany has con­tin­ued to re­design and re ne its prod­ucts to keep them up to date with the lat­est mar­ket trends. The cur­rent Sonos fam­ily of prod­ucts con­sists of six com­po­nents. There is the CON­NECT mod­ule ($399), which al­lows you to stream au­dio to any ex­ist­ing au­dio sys­tem; the CON­NECT: AMP ($599), with built-in am­pli ers, which lets you stream au­dio to any pair of speak­ers; and the BRIDGE ($59) which con­nects to your in­ter­net router and uses it to cre­ate a wire­less Sonos net­work. There are also two all-in­one wire­less mu­sic sys­tems, the PLAY:5 ($329) and PLAY:3 ($499), which fea­ture built-in am­pli ers and speak­ers. Round­ing out the line is the SUB, a wire­less sub­woofer that re­tails for $749.

As you can see then, the Sonos com­po­nents are priced very rea­son­ably. The

other beau­ti­ful thing, which fur­ther re­duces the to­tal cost of the sys­tem, is the fact that you can use any Ap­ple or An­driod smart­phone or tablet to con­trol the sys­tem. Just down­load the free Sonos con­trol app for your de­vice. And who doesn’t al­ready have one or two of th­ese de­vices at home? Sonos does of­fer its own ded­i­cated touch­screen re­mote ($399), although if you don’t al­ready have an Ap­ple or An­droid de­vice you might as well get one be­cause it of­fers much more func­tion­al­ity than the Sonos re­mote. In ad­di­tion to all of this, the Sonos sys­tem can also be con­trolled by any PC or Mac com­puter. So in the sim­plest form, a three room Sonos sys­tem can be set up uti­liz­ing three PLAY:3 all-in-one mu­sic sys­tems plus the BRIDGE for just over $1,000. That’s re­mark­able!

Features of the Sonos Sys­tem

The Sonos sys­tem can be used to build an in­cred­i­bly ex­i­ble multi-room sys­tem, and you don’t have to de­cide how many zones you’ll be set­ting up right at the be­gin­ning. You can al­ways add new com­po­nents in the fu­ture – with­out af­fect­ing the rest of the sys­tem. Want to start with 2 au­dio zones, that’s ne. Bud­get al­lows you to start with 4 zones? That’s even bet­ter. The beauty of this sys­tem lies in the fact that you can mix and match any of the Sonos com­po­nents to cre­ate a mul­ti­room sys­tem that suits your speci c needs. Take for ex­am­ple a two bed­room condo. You could set up two all-in-one PLAY:3 sys­tems in each bed­room, a CON­NECT: AMP in the kitchen with two in-ceil­ing speak­ers, a CON­NECT in the liv­ing room that con­nects to your home the­atre sys­tem and an­other CON­NECT: AMP to run your out­door speak­ers on the bal­cony. Each of the com­po­nents can play the same mu­sic or some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent. You can also ad­just the vol­ume of all the com­po­nents at once, or in­di­vid­u­ally in each zone. Bet­ter still, all of the play­back can be con­trolled by your smart­phone or tablet. How neat is that?

The Sonos sys­tem can be set up as a wired or wire­less sys­tem, or a mix of the two. Each of the com­po­nents is ca­pa­ble of stream­ing CD qual­ity au­dio, 44 kHz/16-bit. High res­o­lu­tion au­dio play­back is not sup­ported which is un­for­tu­nate but won’t im­pact most of the tar­get au­di­ence. To un­lock the world of Sonos, one of the com­po­nents needs to be con­nected to your home net­work. Sonos says that its sys­tem will let you “stream all the mu­sic on Earth” and while that’s a grand claim, it’s ac­tu­ally not far from the truth. The Sonos sys­tem can play mu­sic from all the com­put­ers in your home, or a Net­work At­tached Stor­age (NAS) drive, and stream it wire­lessly from your smart­phones and tablets. It can also play mu­sic from var­i­ous on­line ser­vices such as Songza, Last. fm, Rdio, Slacker and many more. Like In­ter­net ra­dio? It does that too, of­fer­ing ac­cess to over 100,000 free sta­tions. It even plays down­loaded Pod­casts. It’s not a stretch to say that it can play more mu­sic than you can lis­ten to in a life­time. Check out the “Meet the Sonos Fam­ily” box on the pre­vi­ous page for de­tailed info about each of the Sonos com­po­nents.

Set­ting Up the Sonos Sys­tem – Is It Really This Easy?

For the pur­pose of this ar­ti­cle, I set up a three zone Sonos sys­tem in my house, span­ning my liv­ing/din­ing room, home of ce and out­door pa­tio. If your net­work router sits in the elec­tri­cal room in the base­ment, like it does in my house, you’ll need to start by con­nect­ing the BRIDGE there with an Eth­er­net ca­ble. The re­main­der of the sys­tem can be set up wired or wire­lessly – I chose to go with the wire­less op­tion. Next, I set up the CON­NECT with my ref­er­ence 2-chan­nel mu­sic sys­tem (ModWright In­stru­ments amp and preamp, Brys­ton DAC, Fo­cal speak­ers); the CON­NECT:AMP in my home of ce con­nected to Totem speak­ers; and an­other CON­NECT: AMP in my kitchen which feeds speak­ers on my pa­tio. With all the com­po­nents in place, I in­stalled the free Sonos con­trol app on my iPhone, iPad and iPad mini. Fi­nally, I let the app know which and how many Sonos com­po­nents are in my house – by press­ing a but­ton on each com­po­nent and a few screen taps on the app. And voila – I had a wire­less mul­ti­room sys­tem set up and ready to play. It’s that sim­ple.

Per­for­mance of the Sonos Sys­tem

Since the ini­tial setup of the Sonos sys­tem was so easy, I was ready to lis­ten to tunes all over my house in about half an hour. Equipped with an iPad in my hands, I be­gan ex­plor­ing the Sonos uni­verse.

The home screen of the Sonos app greeted me with a clean menu of­fer­ing quick ac­cess to my home net­work mu­sic li­brary, mu­sic on my iPhone, In­ter­net ra­dio, Songza, playlists and var­i­ous on­line mu­sic stream­ing ser­vices. The home screen also of­fers the op­tion to play mu­sic from any source con­nected to the line-in on any of the Sonos com­po­nents. I started with my own mu­sic li­brary, stored on one of my home PCs. The Sonos sys­tem au­to­mat­i­cally ac­cessed all the mu­sic from the shared fold­ers on my PC and al­lowed me to se­lect it in a va­ri­ety of ways – by artist, al­bum, com­poser, genre, song name, playlist and even folder. All of my mu­sic is stored in the loss­less FLAC for­mat.

I be­gan by lis­ten­ing to the CON­NECT: AMP mod­ule con­nected to my Totem Rain­maker speak­ers, and for no speci c rea­son, the rst al­bum to hit the speak­ers was So­cial Dis­tor­tion’s “Great­est Hits”. I was in­stantly pre­sented with some high en­ergy gui­tar licks and vig­or­ous drum­ming. The CON­NECT: AMP of­fered a very nice stereo sep­a­ra­tion and great dy­nam­ics, mak­ing it easy to get right into the mu­sic. I’m par­tic­u­larly fond of the track Ball and Chain and its ef­fec­tive com­bi­na­tion of a highly dis­torted elec­tric gui­tar in the left chan­nel with an acous­tic gui-

tar in the right chan­nel. The CON­NECT: AMP en­sured clean de­liv­ery of each of the chan­nels, with the dis­torted gui­tar never con­ceal­ing the acous­tic strum­ming. All the while, the vo­cals were pre­sented with clar­ity, per­fectly in the mid­dle of the sound­stage. Switch­ing gears, I lis­tened to Air French Band’s Moon Sa­fari al­bum. The CON­NECT: AMP put forth a uid, nat­u­ral sound with a good amount of de­tail, although not quite as good as I’ve come to ex­pect from th­ese tracks when play­ing on my ref­er­ence 2-chan­nel sys­tem. One of the more no­table dif­fer­ences was the rain in the open­ing of La Femme D’Ar­gent, which sim­ply didn’t sound as real­is­tic. The bass on the other hand was danced around tune­fully and with good note de ni­tion. Of course it wouldn’t be a proper lis­ten­ing ses­sion if I didn’t queue up some Bea­tles. With ev­ery track I lis­tened to from the Fab Four, the CON­NECT: AMP de­liv­ered a lively, con­sis­tent per­for­mance, with a good tonal bal­ance. Over­all, I’m con dent in say­ing that the CON­NECT: AMP of­fered an ex­cel­lent, well balanced sound that many lis­ten­ers should en­joy, when paired with a good set of speak­ers like my Totem Rain­mak­ers.

But what if you al­ready have a 2-chan­nel mu­sic or home the­atre sys­tem set up in your home and just want to con­nect it to your Sonos sys­tem? That’s ex­actly what the CON­NECT com­po­nent is for. I set up the CON­NECT with my 2-chan­nel sys­tem, which con­sists of a ModWright In­stru­ments KWA 100 amp and LS 100 tube preamp, and Fo­cal Elec­tra 1008 Be II speak­ers. At rst, I used the CON­NECT’s ana­log out­puts to feed my preamp, in other words uti­liz­ing the CON­NECT’s built-in DAC. The in­ter­nal DAC’s per­for­mance was very de­cent and should serve most lis­ten­ers well. The de­tail ex­trac­tion was good and the sound­stage of­fered a re­spectable width and depth. How­ever those with higher qual­ity au­dio sys­tems will de nitely ob­serve a signi cant jump in per­for­mance by uti­liz­ing an ex­ter­nal DAC. With my Brys­ton BDA-1 DAC in place, the sound­stage opened no­tice­ably, of­fer­ing a far greater width and depth. This trans­lated into a much more three-di­men­sional sound­stage, in which in­stru­ments and voices had dis­tinct lo­ca­tions in space. Both the high­est and low­est fre­quen­cies also bene ted. The highs shim­mered, of­fer­ing greater de­tail, while the bass notes played lower and ex­hib­ited bet­ter ar­tic­u­la­tion.

User Friend­li­ness and Re­li­a­bil­ity

With the Sonos sys­tem hav­ing spent over two months in my house, I had switched be­tween the var­i­ous mu­sic sources dozens of times and cho­sen hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent songs. There was vir­tu­ally no learn­ing curve with this sys­tem. The Sonos app is very cleanly laid out and very straight for­ward to use. I of­ten en­ter­tain fam­ily and friends at my place and those that are mu­sic buffs in­stantly felt in love with the Sonos sys­tem – some even in­stalled the app on their smart­phones so they could also con­trol mu­sic play­back. And let’s not for­get that by in­stalling the app, they were also able to stream mu­sic from their phone to my Sonos sys­tem. How amaz­ing is that?

The Sonos sys­tem al­lows you to play the same mu­sic in your en­tire home, or choose dif­fer­ent mu­sic in each zone. It also lets you con­trol the vol­ume of the sys­tem as a whole or in­de­pen­dently for each zone. This ex­i­bil­ity works won­der­fully well in prac­tice. For in­stance, on at least a few oc­ca­sions I’ve lis­tened to dif­fer­ent mu­sic with the guys on my pa­tio, while my girl­friend lis­tened to some­thing en­tirely dif­fer­ent with her friends in the din­ing room.

When I rst set up the Sonos sys­tem, I set up all three zones wire­lessly and I was pleas­antly sur­prised by just how re­li­able the play­back was from my home net­work. Dur­ing the sev­eral weeks I spent test­ing the sys­tem, it did not fail once while lis­ten­ing to mu­sic stored on my home of ce PC. I did how­ever ex­pe­ri­ence a drop out (sig­nal loss) a num­ber of times while lis­ten­ing to In­ter­net ra­dio and the on­line Songza mu­sic ser­vice. This is­sue was recti ed by wiring up the CON­NECT: AMP in my 2-chan­nel sys­tem with a ca­ble to my home net­work.

As I tested the sys­tem, I did ex­pe­ri­ence a few other small quirks. For ex­am­ple, when I added a new al­bum to the shared net­work folder on my PC, the Sonos app would not al­ways pick it up af­ter re­fresh­ing its mu­sic in­dex. The so­lu­tion was to close the app com­pletely and restart it. On a few oc­ca­sions when I woke up my iPhone or iPad from sleep mode, Sonos app took a lit­tle while to re­con­nect with the wire­less net­work, be­fore I could con­trol play­back again. Some­times af­ter wak­ing up from sleep mode, the app would dis­play an en­tirely dif­fer­ent song than the one that was cur­rently play­ing. Th­ese quirks hap­pened rarely enough that they cer­tainly change my over­all opin­ion of the sys­tem. Plus all stream­ing de­vices ex­pe­ri­ence th­ese is­sues one way or an­other. The Sonos de­vices were ac­tu­ally the most re­li­able stream­ing de­vices I’ve had the plea­sure of play­ing with to date.

One of the things that I truly love about the Sonos sys­tem is that it of­fers a means of dis­cov­er­ing new and old mu­sic that you may have not heard of oth­er­wise, thanks to its abil­ity to play In­ter­net ra­dio and on­line mu­sic ser­vices like Songza (free and com­mer­cial free). For­get lis­ten­ing to lo­cal ra­dio sta­tions that play the same songs over and over. I’ve dis­cov­ered tons of mu­sic over the last few months by lis­ten­ing to Bri­tish ra­dio sta­tions and Songza. A cou­ple of years ago I would have been hes­i­tant to rec­om­mend lis­ten­ing to stream­ing mu­sic ser­vices and In­ter­net ra­dio sta­tions to any­one be­cause of their low stream­ing bit-rates but things have im­proved signi cantly since then. Many of th­ese ser­vices and sta­tions now of­fer rea­son­ably good qual­ity – cer­tainly good enough for mu­sic dis­cov­ery and ca­sual back­ground lis­ten­ing.

One other im­por­tant item to note about the Sonos sys­tem is that the com­pany is ac­tively re­leas­ing new up­dates for its smart­phone/tablet app which x cer­tain is­sues and un­lock new func­tion­al­ity. For in­stance, dur­ing my re­view a new up­date was re­leased that now al­lows all Sonos com­po­nents to stream mu­sic di­rectly from all Ap­ple de­vices.

Fi­nally…

If you love lis­ten­ing to mu­sic as much as we do at the CANADA HiFi mag­a­zine, I strongly urge you to ex­plore the Sonos range of prod­ucts. You’ll en­joy the num­ber of com­po­nent choices, the ex­i­bil­ity of the sys­tem and its func­tion­al­ity. Ku­dos to Sonos for of­fer­ing mu­sic buffs such an awe­some multi-room sys­tem!

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