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The State of Things to Come

It’s been more than five years since I ripped all our CDs and stored them away in the basement. In that time, we’ve gone through three devices for listening to music in our home. We started out with a SLIMP3, by Slim Devices. I wrote about that back in 2003.

"SLIMP3"

A couple years later, we moved the SLIMP3 to the basement and put a Squeezebox in its place. Both the SLIMP3 and Squeezebox received music from some software running on computer. Slim Server (since rechristened SqueezeCenter) was wonderful when everything worked right, but when it didn’t it could be maddening. Sometimes doing something as simple as adding a song to a playlist would cause the music to stutter or stop. Other times, it would stop for no apparent reason. I started looking around for other options. At the time, there was one system that received almost universal praise: Sonos.

"Sonos System"

The Sonos system includes two kinds of players (with or without a built-in amp) and its own dedicated controller. The first player needs a wired connection to the computer (or server) holding the music, but additional players and the controller communicate wirelessly. The reviews were right: the Sonos is dead simple to set up, the controller is easy and intuitive, and the whole thing sounds great (and looks good, too). It pulls music from any SMB server; no extra software required. Best of all, since we got the thing almost three years ago we haven’t had a single problem. Everything just works. All the time. Of course, every silver lining must come surrounded by a cloud and the Sonos cloud is cost. The players are $349–or $499 with the built-in amplifier–and the controller is $399. It’s an amazing system unlike any other, but that’s a lot of money. The system has been very slow to evolve, too. The Sonos Controller seemed pretty cool two years ago, but today it seems too big, too bulky, and too limiting. And in a world of technology with perpetually-falling prices, all the Sonos stuff costs the same it did when it was introduced.

So I’ve made my decision. I’ve invested in my Sonos system and plan to stick with it for a while. But I keep thinking someone–or more likely several someones–is going to come along and put Sonos out of business. That day may not be here yet, but today I got a glimpse of the future and I’m not the least bit surprised it’s from Apple. Today Apple released the new 2.0 software for the iPhone and along with it access to the App Store. Among a lot of other great and not-so-great third party software, the App Store features a nifty little free App from Apple called simply Remote. Remote turns your iPhone or iPod Touch into a touch-screen remote for an Apple TV or iTunes. As great as the Sonos Controller is, Remote App is better. You can browse and search exactly the same way as you do for music on the phone. This is what I’ve been waiting for from Sonos Controller 2.0.

So why does this simple but spectacular remote spell trouble for Sonos? Well, it was the biggest missing piece of the puzzle. An Apple TV is $120 less than the the little Sonos Player and it does a whole lot more. If all you need to do is play music through an existing home entertainment system, iTunes can stream directly to the $99 Airport Express. Assuming you don’t already have an iPhone or iPod Touch, the 8GB iPod Touch is $100 less than the Sonos Controller and has the advantage of, well, being an iPod. The only piece still missing is synchronization. The Sonos can play the same music synchronized on as many players as you have (or any subset thereof). We haven’t actually used that feature of the Sonos as much as I’d expected to, but it’s nice to have.

What a difference 5 years makes! Our original SLIMP3 was about the same price as an Apple TV is today and it did very little in comparison. If I had it all to do over again, I’d probably just pick up an Airport Express and an iPod Touch and be done with it.