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Sonos Plans Wireless Multizone Audio

Startup Sonos has developed a wireless multizone audio system that uses a wireless handheld controller to distribute music from a PC’s music library to up to 32 zones in a house.

The system also streams Internet radio stations directly from a home’s broadband connection, even if the PC is turned off.

Sonos’ Digital Music System, due in October, was designed to broaden the customer base for distributed-audio systems by dramatically reducing the cost of entry, said sales and marketing VP Thomas Cullen. It’s also targeted to consumers with substantial music collections on their PCs.

The system consists of a $399-everyday handheld wireless controller and a $499 10.2-inch by 7.2-inch by 4.4-inch ZonePlayer, which incorporates audio decoders, proprietary mesh-network wireless transmitter and receiver, and a Class D amplifier rated at 2×50 watts into 8-ohm loads with less than 0.02 percent THD. The player drives any pair of speakers, including in-wall and in-ceiling speakers.

For multiroom applications, one ZonePlayer must be wired into a home Ethernet network. Additional ZonePlayers, however, wirelessly access music on your computer.

If wireless signals are blocked, the additional players can be connected to an existing wired Ethernet network via its four-port Ethernet switch.

Multiple zones can be controlled from a single controller or from multiple controllers. A $1,199 package consists of two players and a controller.

Homeowners installing an eight-zone, eight-room system with $500 speaker pairs in each room and four controllers need spend only $8,800, Cullen said. For that price, the system also streams Internet radio stations directly from the Web via a connected broadband modem and router, even if the PC is turned off. The players are preloaded with the URLs of 80 stations, and additional URLs can be added via PC.

“Digital creates economies,” Cullen said of the low cost of creating an eight-zone distributed-audio system.

The players decode MP3, Windows Media Audio (WMA), AAC and WAV files and can be upgraded through a software download to support digital-rights management [DRM] technologies, Cullen said. In the first quarter, Sonos plans a WMA DRM upgrade.

The players also feature an analog input to amplify local sources.

Up to 32 compressed-music files can be streamed simultaneously from a PC over the system’s wireless mesh network. Fewer WAV files can be streamed simultaneously over the wireless network because WAV files are uncompressed, but wiring players into an Ethernet network expands WAV capacity.

For wireless, Sonos married the 2.4MHz IEEE 802.11g physical layer with its own mesh-network technology and 128-bit encryption. The mesh technology turns every player into a repeater to extend wireless range throughout large houses. Range extends up to 150 feet without the use of a repeater.

The wireless technology is also built into the handheld controller, which features color LCD screen and scroll wheel to control zones and select PC-based songs. Music can be selected by artist name, genre or title. The LCD screen also displays cover art.

The system doesn’t require users to load software onto their PCs. It automatically indexes the titles, cover art and location of songs in the PC’s “My Music” folder, Cullen explained. Sonos software can be installed on the PC, however, to use the PC as a system controller.

Sonos is targeting A/V specialty stores, custom installers, small PC-network installers, Sonos’ Web site and other online dealers.

Company principals have held executive and management positions with companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Philips Electronics, Openwave and