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SONOS armbands on, we paddle out into baby pool of digital tunes

By on 6 January 2012 in Gadgets

SONOS armbands on, we paddle out into baby pool of digital tunes
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Back in May, Straight-Six dipped his big toe in the wide, whacky world of digital music streaming. Late. Armed with nothing more than an iPod Touch and an Airport Express & AirTunes he began to uncover the incredible potential and pitfalls of digital file-based music. Several months later, and in time for the holiday season, he finally pulled the trigger and is now paddling – with armbands – in the beginner’s pool of music streaming. Below is the second installment of a two-part post on how he’s splashing along. Would it surprise you to learn that this is only the beginning…?

The house was empty and quiet except for the stirring of two cats desperately trying to find a mouse to snack on. It was the last few days before Christmas when a nice man, from Brussels high-end audio store New Music arrived at Six’s place with a few boxes. Actually, it was more like a small van worth of boxes thereby only adding to the festive spirit that immediately invaded the house.

Within these diminutive cartons lay the most significant digital audio leap Six had taken since he purchased his first CDs way back in 1985, courtesy of Alexander O’ Neal, George Michael and Dire Straits, should you care to know. Since then, he had followed the development of digital audio very closely, owning a host of CD players, transports and DACs, culminating in a C.E.C TLO/Audiomat Maestro combination that truly blew his enfeebled mind. And wallet.

This state of digital bliss didn’t last very long, the arrival of the Prodigal shrimps necessitating the selling of the audio big-rig Six had so carefully built up over the years. While he exacted a modicum of revenge via a rather upscale home-theatre set-up, two things had become abundantly clear: Six had less time to play and listen to music – the commute to and from work becoming his daily serving of tunes – and the incessant adolescence of music streaming possibilities meant he wasn’t ready to let them in, for fear they would wreck and sully the place.

Six would only pull the trigger for a quality streaming set-up that could, at a minimum, match CD-quality (16-bit/44.1kHz, for those who care), work wirelessly and seamlessly and be able to stare Apple’s GUI down. A tall order indeed, which explains why this has all taken so damned long to come about.

Turns out the gear from US brand SONOS was able to provide it all. And more. Along with some help from UK cousins Arcam and Bowers & Wilkins.

We’ve divided up the new equipment by room, so you can better appreciate how a truly integrated wireless music system can provide a single digital “backbone” while still allowing for as much customisation as our little hearts may desire. The proof? The price spread between the systems below is hundreds of euros compared to tens of thousands, and their type of usage is wildly different.

1.Cook, Eat, Drink and Be Merry” – Dining Room/Kitchen Set-Up:

Located opposite the dining room, which feeds into the open kitchen, this is the system that has played the most music to date. Understandable given the kitchen is usually the heart of any home and we have the stomachs to prove it. Clearly, the space presents acoustic challenges given the entirely open space and adjacent stairwell, hard, reflective surfaces and the proximity of the staircase to the left speaker. But there’s at least room to permit a decent set-up of the speakers and equipment as a means to get family and guests grooving. While not usually used for what we would call critical listening, this system nonetheless benefitted from the largest slice of the upgrade package given its heavy use.

While a trusty TEAC mini-system amp remained in place, new-comers included:

  • SONOS CONNECT (EUR349), which hooks up to the amp and communicates via a secure wireless mesh network with all of the other SONOS products in the joint.
  • SONOS CONTROL (EUR349), a relatively expensive remote control that nonetheless benefits from being solely devoted to operating any SONOS device in the house via a terrific full-colour, touch-sensitive screen. The CONTROL gives you instant, wireless access to all your music and rooms and it turns on instantly every time you pick it up or touch the screen.
  • Arcam rDAC (EUR450) was installed between the SONOS CONNECT and the TEAC amplifier to improve the quality of the digital conversion from digital to analogue. Arcam teamed up with digital supremos dCS (Data Conversion Systems) on the rDac in order to drastically reduce the level of jitter from USB music sources, delivering a massive improvement in sound quality. The renowned Wolfson 8741 24-bit multilevel Delta-Sigma DACs are equally very serious pieces of kit for an item at this price point.
  • Bowers & Wilkins CM1 speakers with stands (approx. EUR950) replaced the weathered and utterly abused BlueRoom Minipods. The CM1s had impressed the hell out of Six when he heard the tiny tots fill up a massive listening auditorium at New Music.

All of the above benefited from new Audioquest cables and interconnects (approx. EUR300).

The set-up took less than an hour, with the SONOS up and running in minutes, granted only using MP3-quality Internet radio for now. It was clear from the first firing-up of this system that it was dramatically better than the iPod Touch/AirPort Express/AirTunes set-up it had just displaced. So it should be, you’ll shout! But it was exponentially improved, finally sounding like music, and not some pale approximation with all the depth and texture of Michele Marie Bachmann. It was enough to regularly distract us from everyday tasks, sufficiently compelling to get us to pull up a chair and sit down to listen. And that was just with mediocre and compressed internet radio…

The SONOS CONTROL, and the GUI that lies behind it, is a work of sheer genius reflecting all the thought and intuitive design that only Apple has mastered to date. Tactile, comfortable, responsive and utterly reliable, the CONTROL was outshone only by the reality that you can turn any phone/tablet in the house into a SONOS system controller by downloading the SONOS app. How brilliant and democratic is that?

And to top it all off, the SONOS CONNECT is absolutely tiny and oh-so cute in partner-friendly white. Gone are the days of your significant other having to put up with black audio behemoths that make the lights flicker when they power up. Small is beautiful. And potent.

2. “Kick Back, Crank it Up, Sip and Swig” – Home-Theatre/Living Room Set-Up:

This was always supposed to be the critical listening space for Six, what with the home theatre set-up being primarily geared toward the best possible sound (hence the five-figure price tag), rather than the biggest possible video hit. But once again, inhabiting an open space with little Prodigals constantly on the move meant it hasn’t worked out that way. And the need to fire up the whole system to select CDs to play on the battleship Denon DVD-A1XVA player didn’t help matters any. Little music was ever played on the system, given the heavy consumption of TV and film.

Bringing another SONOS CONNECT into the equation once again changed things. Dramatically. Using the built-in 24-bit/192 kHz DACs on Six’s Primare SPA21 receiver, the music streamed by the SONOS was cranked up a few notches all while fronting the same feel good factor and ease of use. A quick comparison with a CD made it abundantly clear that ripping the home collection was still a must, but the home-theatre rig was shackled to video no longer.

3. “Fool Around, Brush Teeth, Snore” – Master Bedroom/Bathroom Set-Up:

This space previously enjoyed little music, given the crap boombox nestled under the bathroom sink area. Despite regularly serving as a second playroom for the Prodigal tots, Mrs. Six wasn’t particularly desirous of tunes in the bedroom while Six despised the only source of tunes available enough to threaten to throw it out of the window on more than one occasion. Cue the SONOS PLAY:5 (EUR399).

Although sized like a ladies’ shoebox, flaunting soft-touch materials and edges in silky white, the PLAY:5 packs a serious punch, folks. It’s effectively an all-in-one wireless music system containing a five-driver speaker system that is individually powered by no less than five dedicated digital amplifiers. You can even set it up with a second PLAY:5 to provide you with stereo sound. Oh, and you can also move the speaker anywhere you like in the house, its bass port serving as a convenient handle, simply by plugging it in and firing up the tunes. You can easily imagine family and visitors having PLAY:5 of their own, controlled by their iWhatever or Android device. All it takes is for them to download the app and they’re up and away.

Now, the sound quality of the PLAY:5 is obviously not what the two downstairs systems possess, nor does it have the external DAC assistance on-hand. But it is remarkable considering the size, portability and convenience of the device, not to mention the price. More importantly, the PLAY:5 was introduced into, and placed within, Mrs. Six’s highly restricted bedroom space. That she has accepted it completely goes down as the greatest domestic audio victory Six has yet savoured.

In conclusion, we’d like to highlight a few things:

Firstly, Six and his family have listened to and savoured more music over the last 3 weeks than the three months that preceded the SONOS install. Shocking, but true. Access to (albeit compressed) Internet radio has made fans of the entire family, with Mrs. Six enjoying Finnish hits in one room, while Six and the lil ‘uns skip and jump to Disney Radio. Yeah, we can’t believe he has the balls to admit this. Truth is, there was a tiny learning curve followed by copious servings of all the music the family could desire. In this, SONOS have succeeded completely. And all without a host of enormous boxes and telephone-sized manuals. Genius.

Now, we are a bit miffed about the SONOS gear only being able to handle standard definition CDs for the moment (read: 16-bit/44.1 kHz), and they’ve confirmed they have no plans for this to change. Nonetheless, we enthusiastically recommend they do so soon, so that the wider public can discover and understand what high definition music is all about, and why 24-bit/192kHz is that much better. This said, the Arcam and Primare can decode high definition tracks (mostly downloaded from specialised sites like www.hdtracks.com). And nothing stops us from downloading HD tracks and hooking a laptop up to the Arcam via USB to play direct, for example. But this isn’t very convenient, or likely. So, hurry up, SONOS!

You may have noticed we’ve not yet mentioned the 1,600+ CD library that is currently gathering dust inside Case Logic holders. Well, that’s because further research into what are called Network Attached Storage devices (essentially hard drives that hold your tunes and are hooked into your wireless network for the SONOS system to access) and bit-perfect ripping of CDs lead to the conclusion that Six would never have the time or patience to rip his entire collection. It would take hundreds of hours with an incredibly steep and long learning curve to do it right. Sure, some have recommended the cheap solution of hiring a student rip it all. But it’s going to take more than a monkey to handle this job.

A long chat with a charming Dutchman lead to the discovery that ripping Six’s CDs into a lossless format and professionally filtering the metadata therein, as well as sorting the entire collection by genre, etc. before transferring them to a dedicated 2TB hard drive, would cost close to EUR4,000. Gulp. Needless to say, that’s something we’ll keep you posted on. But it has to happen eventually, about that there can be no doubt.

Past the aural pleasure of the present and the financial pain of the future, we recently asked Mrs. Six what she thought of the entire set-up. “Well, it’s OK, I guess,” she responded with a slight shrug. “But there sure is a lot of music in the house now, isn’t there?!,” she exclaimed. Absolutely, sweetheart. And long may it continue.

SONOS

Arcam

Bowers and Wilkins

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SONOS armbands on, we paddle out into baby pool of digital tunes

With our SONOS armbands on, we bravely paddle out into the baby pool of digital music streaming. Lots of happy splashing ensues.

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Author

Straight-Six had a proper job as a journalist for Dow Jones before lowering himself gently into the warm, forgiving waters of The Guide. He’s our resident fanatic: he relished detailing his BMW M3 for two full days at a time before crashing it at Eau Rouge in the wet; he spends insane amounts on his home-cinema system and has thrown tens of thousands of euros at vintage Rolex sports watches. The little fool simply does not understand the concept of restraint or the meaning of excess. He also – following a legendary "heavy" lunch – once nibbled (yes, like little dogs do) a dear lady friend of ours.

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  • http://www.TheProdigalGuide.com The Prodigal Fool

    Envious.

    • http://www.TheProdigalGuide.com Straight-Six

      You really need to get yourself some SONOS kit. Sharpish. Dump everything else.

  • Carlos Torres

    Excellent report Straight-Six! I am already feeling the NEED for a Sonos system :-)

    • http://www.TheProdigalGuide.com Straight-Six

      Glad you enjoyed the SONOS integration thesis, Carlos! Get thee to a retailer and sample it for yourself. Satiate that need.

  • jeff

    (strange, my comment on the MeisterSinger was eaten – wonder if this will work…)

    Thanks for planting the Sonos seed in my head… getting married, moving to a new house, and the fiancee, while enamored with my taste in music, is not enamored with my penchant for wires and boxes.

    I had initially set out to find a simple Bluetooth receiver with RCA outs to enable streaming from the laptop or iPod or Android phone… but every opportunity I’ve had to use Bluetooth just left me angry. Today I demoed the Sonos system first hand at a local hi-fi store. To my amazement, they had the entire store wired up through it – and it both sounded beautiful and functioned beautifully. It will integrate beautifully with my old beloved Niro (Nakamichi) One system (to keep the wires and boxes to a minimum to please my new beloved). We are both happy, and the new home will be filled with beautiful music.

    • http://www.TheProdigalGuide.com Straight-Six

      Jeff,

      Totally understand where you’re coming from and where you’re now headed. Beautiful indeed!

      Congratulations and enjoy.

  • Tim

    Sonos is a brilliant system. Sure you can spend loads more on systems like Meridian’s. The question is only: Why? If you are not happy with the onboard DAC – get a separate one like Six has done. Btw, I have compared my (admittedly fairly middle of the road) CD setup with the Sonos and I can’t hear a difference..

    On the matter of ripping: a Ripnas NAS does a lot of the work automatically, like finding covers etc. I’ve have used it and works really well unless your musical tastes are a bit obscure…..

  • http://www.TheProdigalGuide.com Straight-Six

    Thanks for weighing in Tim.

    Aside from the superior quality of the built-in DACs Meridian Sooloos uses, their library management software/interface is class-leading. And you get a drive thrown in too. So, that remains my longer-term purist target.

    Appreciate your sharing the suggestion of the Ripnas. Will look into it.