Way back when the first version of iTunes was starting to accumulate ripped tracks off of my piles of CDs there was a big need to be able to share/serve up that music. Over time, I was able to retire the 6 CD boom box changer in my office and enjoy a much more versatile and targeted experience via the shuffle and playlist features in iTunes. Now I was hooked, but that meant having to figure out how to re-create the same experience in other rooms. The first attempt was the purchase of a Creative Labs Nomad MP3 player to dump some music out of iTunes (a chore) and hook the Nomad up to the Bose radio in the kitchen to have music while cooking and prepping food. Keep in mind this was about a year before the first iPod came out. Transferring music onto the Nomad was slow (USB1!) and painful. There were many a multi-hour session where I would transfer over a few hundred songs only to have the Nomad crash during the transfer or simply show no music available.
The arrival of the first iPod was fantastic. Simple, easy and reliable synching with iTunes and the playlists carried over as a bonus. This made shuttling music between the iMac and the kitchen radio tolerable. But as the number of tunes ripped into iTunes grew, it quickly exceeded the capacity of the iPod. Thus began a trading up to newer (and larger capacity) iPods as they became available. We still have a 1st generation iPod, as well as 2nd, 4th and 5th gen ones as well (the 5g still serves as a little bit of solitude at work when I am actually at my desk and not in meetings).
Still there was the desire to have access to all of the music, particularly in the warmer months when we would live out on the back deck. I discovered the initial version of the slimp3 Squeezebox unit that looked like it was a good fit. The Squeezebox would allow you to stream music across the network to the slimp3 player that could then we RCA-plugged into an amplifier just like a CD player or turntable. A set of Bose outdoor speakers and a little wiring and we had access to all of the music on the back deck. Brilliant. Except to get access to the music you had to run the vile PERL-based slimserver software (now called SqueezeCenter to try to conceal its tainted legacy) on the computer that hosted the iTunes library that you wanted to share. Slimserver was a dog of an app that would frequently re-scan your iTunes library to see if any new songs had been introduced. A re-scan would typically use close to 100% of the CPU, which meant that streaming would become very erratic or stop outright during these periods. Ugly and frustrating.
Then a new kid on the block showed up in the form of the Roku Labs Soundbridge. The beautiful thing about the Soundbridge was that it would detect all of the iTunes libraries that were being shared on the network and read from the playlists, etc directly — no hacktastic PERL tragi-comedy involved. As luck would have it, I ordered a Soundbridge to kick the tires on it the week before we were going to host a neighborhood get together. Everyone was out on the back deck enjoying the tunes, then the dreaded re-index started and the music started stuttering and halting. I grabbed the Roku out of its box, hooked it up in place of the Squeezebox, picked the playlist I wanted from iTunes and never had another issue with music the entire night. I then promptly dropped the slimp3 unit in the trash, deleted the slimserver abomination from my iMac and never looked back.
Over time we added another Soundbridge to serve up music on the front deck when we had it redone and expanded. This involved placing the soundbridge unit on a bookcase in my office (which looked out on the front deck) and trying to control the unit with the provided remote control. This was a very hit or miss affair as the remote was IR based and on a sunny day it tended not to have much range. This meant that you had to trudge through the house to skip a song or select a new play list. Not convenient at all. One thing that helped with controlling the unit was a little app that I found that ran on my Nokia N800 Internet Tablet. This provided a simple, but functional emulation of the display and controls on the Roku. This worked great as long as the Roku wasn’t rebooted (which happened during power outages brought on by summer storms). The software on the N800 would take a long time to ‘find’ the Roku again. Or force you to go to the Soundbridge and navigate though the menus to find the IP address and plug it into the N800.
I briefly experimented with using an Apple Airport Express to stream music from iTunes to the Bose in the kitchen. This worked about 60% of the time despite the Airpot Extreme wireless base station being only about 25 feet from the Airport Express. The Express would just drop the stream, or iTunes would show that it was playing a tune but no audio was coming out of the speakers. The Express turned out to be a frustrating joke, with Apple ‘fixing’ the various problems through myriad firmware upgrades that never quite got it to work. When it began to consistently play two songs and stop after the second, I finally gave up and relegated the Express to a drawer where it functions 100% consistently as a paperweight.
Roku then announced the Soundbridge Radio, a nice, compact all in one unit that had the network streaming capability as well as a real FM radio and some decent speakers. Sounded like the perfect thing for the upstairs bathroom. So I pre-ordered one as it was supposed to be shipping in 30 days. Nearly a year later and many phone calls and emails to Roku the unit finally arrived. Great sound and for the most part worked as advertised. Until Apple released an updated version of iTunes that broke connectivity with the Roku. Not so bad, but Roku took months to fix the problem. The combination of the lack of delivery on the initial Soundbridge Radio units and continued support issues had to result in them shedding customers faster than they would have liked. And apparently that is the case. When the Radio died a few weeks ago, I went on the Roku web site to find out about support only to find that they have basically abandoned the Soundbridge Radio line and are focusing on their cheapy Netflix streaming gizmo. Nice.
So the search was on for a new streaming option to replace the defect unit in the upstairs bathroom. I took a look at the Sonos solution and it looked like it was going to be a good replacement but also solve the remote control problem for us. Problem is, it is a bit pricy so it had better perform like nothing else. After some discussion and budget checking we bit the bullet and bought a starter kit. The installation of the hardware itself is dead simple. However, I quickly ran into an undisclosed and quite concerning limitation. The players can only deal with less than 65,000 tunes and will not import playlists that have more than 40,000 tunes in them. That sounds like a lot, but by Sonos’ calculations, if you have one song in four playlists that counts as four (virtual) tunes! I currently have around 21,000 tunes in my iTunes libraries and maybe 20 playlists, but this rang up as around 54,000 tunes to Sonos.
I called tech support and their ‘solution’ to the problem was to delete playlists; in other words, give up organization and convenience to fit in line with the ignorant, short-sighted design flaw. What aggravates this further, is the limit applies across iTunes libraries. So if you have a household where you have your music, your daughter has hers and your wife has hers, all these tracks and playlists can quickly add up and bump into this limitation. I even asked the supervisor of the tech that I spoke to whether the 40,000 limit was a temporary thing or something they were going to address and the response was a rather haughty ‘We are aware of the issue but have no plans to fix it in the current or future products’. So if you have a large iTunes library and are looking at the Sonos, be aware of this rather grievous shortcoming.
You can save about two hundred dollars by not buying a second Sonos controller, but substituting an iPod Touch matched with the free Sonos for iPhone controller software. Using the iPod Touch gives you just about all of the functionality of the dedicated controller in a much smaller and lighter (and less Space:1999 ugly) package. And you obviously have all of the additional functionality of the iPod through the goodies you can load on there from the iTunes store.
I am still on the fence about returning the Sonos and waiting for them to fix their ridiculous limitation. I saw this weekend that Cisco is trying to compete in this space and have a line of wireless music products under the Linksys brand. However, the quick look that I had on their site showed it to be Windoze only. Yikes.
gadgets, itunes, mac, roku, squeezebox, sonos