I purchased network home music players from both Roku SoundBridge M2000 and a Sonos Digital Music System Bundle, with the objective being a winner-take-all comparison where one is kept and the other is returned. I’ve completed my evaluation and the results are below.
|Roku SoundBridge M2000||vs.||Sonos Digital Music System|
The Sonos system was easier to setup than the Roku. However, the Sonos did require a wired network connection. The advantage is that no wireless network configuration is necessary because the Sonos uses its own encrypted wireless network from that device to every other one in your house. The Roku, however, did require me to remember and enter my WEP encryption key (it doesn’t support the more secure WPA encryption). On the PC side, the Sonos software walked my through sharing music and enabling Real Rhapsody, where as the Roku relied on the third-party software Windows Media Connect, which I had to figure out how to enable and then how to authenticate the SoundBridge to my PC. I tried several different versions of SlimServer software, the Roku saw the SlimServer software, but it never connected. Similar results for MusicMatch Jukebox 10. Also, the Roku required an external amplifier and the Sonos did not, simplifying installation and clutter. For setup, the Sonos was the clear winner.
Music Format Support
The whole reason for one of theses systems is to play your music. If a system doesn’t support the music format you use, you’re out of luck. Both systems support MP3 and WMA (non-DRM). However, the Roku has a slight advantage because it also supports WMA DRM songs purchased from online music stores; the Sonos offers no DRM support.
In the lossless category, the Roku supports WMA Lossless and the Sonos supports FLAC. dbMusicConverter quickly and easily converts between any format, so this was basically a tie.
The Roku does support AAC (non-DRM) files, but only if you use iTunes as the server on your PC instead of Windows Media Connect. The Sonos supports AAC (non-DRM) with no server switching required. Still, because of DRM support, the Roku is the winner here. (Note: I recommend that you don’t mess with DRM-encrypted files in the first place. The HYMN project can unencrypt your iTunes-purchased AAC DRM files. Otherwise, just buy the CD and rip them to a lossless format — that way you have max quality and a backup.)
I’ll start off by saying the Roku was the clear winner here. However, since I first posted this review, Sonos released a software update with a Power Scroll feature. The Roku still holds an for searching however.
The test was listing all ~2400 songs in my library by song name and searching. With the Roku, you hit the up/down buttons to scroll song-by-song or left/right buttons to jump forward by letters of the alphabet. A song start with Z took a relatively few number of button presses to jump to the letter Z and then scroll down song-by-song. With the touchpad / scroll wheel on the Sonos, I thought I was going to burn my thumbprint off before I reached Z (spin, spin, spin, . . .) but the new Power Scroll feature solved that problem.
The clear advantage of the Roku is that it gives you detailed song information before you play it. For example, I have about 8 different versions of the same song but from different albums. The Roku let me select each of the songs to give more detailed information (album, artist, song length, file format, bit rate etc) before playing it or adding it to the play list. With the Sonos, I saw a list of 8 songs and had to guess which was which; I couldn’t tell which version of the song it was until it started playing and I went to the “currently playing” screen. To have such a great graphical interface on the remote, the Sonos is surprisingly lacking here. It doesn’t even allow viewing of file type or comments and only displays length when the song is being played.
Finally, the Roku allows searching of song titles that contain a certain word anywhere in the title. For example, all songs that contain the word “rain” anywhere in the title. The Sonos allows only an alphabetical listing of the songs by the first letter in the song name. Sonos needs an on-screen keyboard to allow for entry and searching within file names and albums.
The Roku rules when it comes to searching through large libraries in multiple manners.
The Roku relies on the large built-in character-only display while the Sonos requires a separate (expensive) remote with a color display screen. The Roku requires you to be standing nearby to read the display or use the line-of-sight IR remote. The display is great: bright and easy to read from 15 feet with adjustable font sizes.
With the Sonos, however, the remote can be virtually anywhere because it operates on a WiFi network. I took the remote across the street to determine the maximum neighbor-friendly volume level and the remote worked perfectly. I used it at the dinner table to set the proper background volume. The wireless remote is great because you can take the song info, player controls, and volume controls anywhere in your house. Also, you can control any or all rooms in your house separately or simultaneously. Because of the near-perfect wireless remote, the Sonos is the clear winner here.
|Roku Remote||vs.||Sonos Controller|
I found very little difference between the two offerings; both gave internet radio and Real Rhapsody support. This was a tie.
As I stated earlier, I tried to get the Roku to work with SlimServer but was unsuccessful. The Roku server selector screen listed “SlimServer on MyComputerName” but would never connect to it. (I didn’t switch to a wired connection to see if that made any difference, it should not have). Anyway, without SlimServer, the Roku offers no multi-room capabilities. The Sonos, on the other hand, has that great wireless remote that allows control of any and all rooms. Walking from one area of the house to another while hearing/controlling the playlist and volume was even cooler that I thought it would be. Sonos is the clear winner here.
Roku offers lower-cost models (M500, M1000) with smaller displays than what I evaluated. Because the Roku requires an external amplifier (that would cost about $100 on the low end), the minimum cost is around $250/room + speakers; $500/room if you go with the more expensive M2000 with the large display. The Sonos ZP100 is about $500/room + speakers and requires no external amplifier. However, you also have to spend an extra $400 on at least one wireless Sonos CR100 remote control. However, you’re getting one heck of a color/graphical/wireless remote with the Sonos, so this should be factored into the evaluation. The Roku gets the nod here for offering multiple models at lower price points, but it should be noted that the advantage is slight because of the better integration and larger feature set of the Sonos system; you get what you pay for.
In summary, Sonos still needs to improve their search feature to give more song details before playing and to search by keyword. Also, DRM-support could be a nice addition for many people. There is still hope that these features can be offered via software upgrades.
Roku has done a great job at targeting the lower-cost, single-room market but is greatly lacking in the area of multi-room support. Also, Roku needs to consider offering their own desktop software instead of relying on third-parties. None of the multiple servers were greatly intuitive and each offered different music format support, making things more confusing than they should be. Finally, a anywhere-in-the-house WiFi graphical remote is would be a welcome addition for Roku. Roku also needs to add support for ReplayGain volume compensation to eliminate songs that are too loud or too quite. ReplayGain adds a tag to the song in the header area and does not modify the song itself. (Sonos added ReplayGain support in their previous software update.)
For me, the Sonos stays and the Roku is being returned. The DRM and multiple-server support didn’t turn out to be that big of an advantage for the Roku; the multi-room listening and WiFi graphical remote turned out to be a big advantage for the Sonos. Multi-room music is much more of a “killer app” than I initially expected, making the Sonos the easy winner.
For Others: If you have a lot of WMA DRM music files, you maybe should consider the Roku. However, if you are looking for something to the Roku with multi-room support, the SqueezeBox by SlimDevices may be a better alternative to the Roku. SqueezeBoxes work with the SlimServer software (SlimDevices develops it). However, based on everything I’ve read, the configuration is probably even more complicated than the Roku. In my opinion, the simplicity and features of the Sonos makes it the best alternative of the three. (Note: I have not personally evaluated at SqueezeBox.)
Sonos Software Wish List
I’ve chosen the Sonos as my preferred music player. However, there is still room for improvement here. Below is my wish list of additions to make it the ultimate player.
- Ability to view comprehensive file / song details: I canâ��t tell songs apart when searching. The default action is to play the song when the center button is clicked and there is no option to view song details. I’d like to be able to see album, track number, year, comments, rating, format/bitrate, genre, cover art, etc.
- Global option for Center Button Behavior: I’d like an option for a global setting for the center button when clicking it with a song highlighted on the display. I can think of 3 global options that users may want: 1) play the song, 2) add song to queue, or 3) display song info. User gets to pick how they want the system to act.
- Search by keyword: This would make it easier to find songs instead of just by first letter of song name.
- Bandwidth saver when muted: if the mute button on the ZonePlayer itself (not the remote) is pressed and held for a few seconds, it will stop receiving the (repeating) playlist or internet radio feed. Currently, it just mutes and continues to stream music indefinitely until you stop it via the remote.
- Alarm clock feature, with automatic weekend alarm disable option: Roku now has an alarm clock, but it is an otherwise inferior system. Iâ��d love a cool alarm clock configurable via the controller. I’d rather wake-up to Sonos that to a buzz or an annoying DJ and auto-weekend alarm disable is a must-have for me.
- View personal photos on the Sonos Controller: I would really like the ability to view digital pictures stored on my PC on the Sonos Controller. The Sonos has freed my music from my PC; I’d like to do the same with my digital photos.
- Support for more music formats: I know, everyone wants just one more format supported. If I were to pick one, it would be WMA lossless DRM. I might actually start purchasing music online again (MusicGiant.com) if the Sonos supported that format. (FLAC is supported, so Iâ��m not complaining too much. because DRM is annoying).
- Support for song ratings: I have have a bunch of songs and sometimes I just want to hear my favorite ones. It would be great to be able to sort by my personal rating and also to modify the song rating.