- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Minutes before the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys were to square off Sunday, the strains of Frederic Chopin’s “Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise for Piano & Orchestra” drifted through the house. Then came the “Gavotta” from Igor Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella,” with clarinets and oboes in delightful harmony. Then Mozart’s “Haffner” symphony.

The game would have to wait.

The music was being played by WDAV-FM, a radio station about 428 miles south of my home. I could have listened via Apple’s iTunes and the built-in speakers of the 24-inch iMac I’ve been using, or perhaps the Logitech Squeezebox Boom, where WDAV-FM is one of my presets. Instead, I was using the Sonos ZonePlayer S5, described here a few weeks back as a portable, wireless music system that is, essentially, idiot proof.

Santa Barbara, Calif.,-based Sonos Inc. wouldn’t use those exact words, not by a long shot. It would advertise, instead, that the system is easy to set up and use, offers thousands of online radio stations and can tap into your own iTunes collection or other computer-based music hoard. And everything can be controlled from your iPhone or iPod Touch, as well as being placed just about anywhere in the house or on a porch or deck. The sound will knock your socks off, Sonos would say. And, the company would add, it’s really simple, foolproof even, to do all this.

Well, just about all that is true. Spend $399 for the S5, add $100 for a wireless “bridge” that connects to your broadband router and another $349 for a remote control if you don’t have an iPhone or iPod Touch handy (hint: buy the Apple product instead), spend about 20 minutes setting things up, and you’re good to go.

Is the sound better than for the Logitech Squeezebox Boom, which can’t be controlled from an iPhone? (The Squeezebox comes with a free remote, or spend $30 more for a larger, optional one.) In a number of respects, it is, but the Logitech product is certainly “good enough” for many uses, and it costs $100 less than the S5 and doesn’t require a separate bridge to retransmit wireless signals. The Squeezebox depends on your regular Wi-Fi setup instead.

That may be a key factor here. The Sonos product relies on a special “mesh” Wi-Fi network that uses each node as a wireless router. Sonos claims this strengthens signal reliability and makes for a better experience. Use your normal Wi-Fi network, the company says, and it could drop music when overloaded.

In tight urban situations, such as an apartment building, I might feel better with the Sonos solution. Ditto in a large house with players that are spread out. Then again, I’ve not experienced any issues with the Logitech product so far.

What I like about the Sonos is the overall ease of setup and operation. Finding and programming music from my Mac or the remote iPhone application is simple, and the results usually are very good. One note: Hitting the Pause button on a live radio stream doesn’t pause the audio, per se; you go back to square one when you hit the Play button again.

One other complaint: Try as I might - and believe me, I tried - I could not get Arlington-based WAVA-FM on the Sonos. There seems to be something in the way Salem Broadcasting has set up its stations that made it impossible - I couldn’t raise Los Angeles-based KKLA-FM, either.

And that’s one example of how programming can swing things on a unit such as the Sonos ZonePlayer. I could get a bunch of Sirius Satellite Radio stations, but not some of the XM stations I enjoy in my car, such as Fox News Channel’s audio feed. I could get Pandora radio, but not Slacker. Sirius and Pandora are on the Logitech box along with Slacker. Fox News Channel might still be AWOL, though.

So the bottom line is how much fiddling you’re willing to do to set up and program a unit, how much money you’re willing to spend and what programming choices you want to make. The Logitech unit is a very good value that isn’t all that difficult to set up. The Sonos is supereasy, even if price, needed accessories and programming compromises may be part of the picture.

E-mail mkellner@ washingtontimes.com