My Ideal Music System


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  Originally uploaded by dw10157.

We aren’t far from it right now. Close enough that I can see the way to nirvana.

And this is nirvana (some of which I have, some of which I don’t):

– A multi-room audio system that allows you to play music in whatever rooms in the house/apartment you want. This is maybe the hardest part because you’ve got to run speaker wires to all the locations where you want speakers and have some local control. I am not aware of a wireless speaker system that is reliable enough to do it without speaker wires. I don’t have a good estimate of the cost to do this, the electronics are probably less than $1000, but I am not sure. The speakers and wiring are going to vary by each situation.

– A PC with a huge storage system connected to it (infrant or buffalo will get you 1tb to 1.6tb for around $1000). This is the place you store all your mp3s. And it’s critical that they be mp3s and not some other drm’d format. A backup system for all of the mp3s is a good idea, but that will cost  more.

– A Sonos system which includes a zone box and wireless controller in every room where you want to listen to music. You’ll also need a zone box to sit next to the PC or Mac and the "hub" of your multi-room audio system. Depending on how many rooms you want to control music in, that could be a number of zone boxes and controllers. And the price tag for one zone box and wireless controller is $750 per room you want to control music in. The starter set is $999 which gets you the main zone unit and one room. So think of Sonos as costing $999 for the first room and $750 for every room thereafter. I have heard that the Squeezebox from Slim Devices is a good alternative to Sonos but since I don’t have any experience with it, I can’t recommend it right now.

– The PC will have Rhapsody on it, which cost $9.99 per month for an unlimited account. This will allow every room that has a Sonos wireless controller to play music via Rhapsody.

– The PC will have an eMusic account on it which will allow the purchase of mp3s to be stored on the music storage system. A premium eMusic account costs $190/year for 90 mp3s per month (roughly 5 records per month).

– The PC will have an agent on it (last.fm) that records everything that is listened to on that computer and sends it to a web service that provides recommendations based on listening habits and also provides as streaming audio service based on your listening history.

– The PC will have a docking station for an iPod so it can synch to the music library.

– Sonos uses the PC’s internet connection to get Internet radio which can be listened to all over the home.

So that’s what I basically have. I don’t use the PC based music storage system and instead use a music server called Request, but if I had to do it over again, I’d go with the PC based system for sure.

I would guess that for the average home owner, who wants to control music in three locations in their home, this whole setup would cost around $5,500 plus wiring costs. That includes the multi-room audio system, the PC, the mp3 storage device, and the Sonos system. And then roughly $320/year for eMusic plus Rhapsody. That’s a lot of money for sure, but in my experience, if you can swing it, it’s worth it.

What that gets you is the ability to listen to pretty much anything you want, whenever you want, wherever you want in your home. It allows you to purchase the music you really love so you can do other things with it (make CDs for friends, synch it to your iPod, etc). And it tracks what you listen to and recommends new things you might like. I have all the elements of that working for me and its simply amazing, but there are a few more tweaks that are needed to get to true nirvana.

Here’s what’s missing right now in order to get to nirvana:

– eMusic doesn’t have the same amount of music that Rhapsody does. So if you hear something you like on Rhapsody, there’s only a 30% chance (in my experience) that it will be available for purchase on eMusic. So I buy the rest of the music I want on Amazon and rip it. That’s not that big of a deal, but I’d much rather click to buy a song in Rhapsody and be taken to eMusic where it just starts downloading. It would be even better if that happened on the Sonos wireless controller.

– Last.fm doesn’t "scrobble" Rhapsody so all of that listening activity is not picked up. And I am not sure if last.fm picks up the listens that are happening on the PC when Sonos uses it to play mp3s. I suspect it doesn’t. So last.fm may not be the best solution for this "agent", at least right now. Last.fm doesn’t "scrobble" the Internet radio listens yet, either.

– Only one iPod can synch with one music library so right now each of my family members creates their own music library on their own machine, which is a subset of the master music library. What we really need is a  system where everyone can synch directly to the master library and simply create their own accounts on the computer. Of course, it would be amazing if the iPod would synch via wifi so that every time the iPod enters the home, it synchs.

These seem like small tweaks but unfortunately I don’t see them happening very soon. I would love it if Rhapsody and eMusic would tightly integrate or even merge. Or Rhapsody could start selling music in mp3 format like eMusic does. I much prefer the eMusic experience to buying music than any other on the web right now so nirvana to me is Rhapsody buys or integrates with eMusic and convinces the record labels to allow them to sell their library in mp3 format via the eMusic service. What’s the chance of that happening?

The last.fm thing is really important to me. I get great value out of capturing my music listens and being able to go back and look at them later. iTunes just doesn’t do a very good job in this regard. But last.fm doesn’t record enough listens to be really useful for me. I’d love it if Sonos did a deal with last.fm and was able to "scrobble" all listens coming through Sonos. That could solve a lot of issues for me.

And iTunes/iPod, well where do I start? One iPod to one computer is lame. iTunes should be able to handle mutliple accounts where each one has a different iPod attached to it. Why should a family of five have to have five iTunes libraries? And where’s the wifi iPod? How many people actually synch their iPods regularly? Wireless synch (even if it only works in the home) would be a huge benefit.

But regardless of the fact that this stuff doesn’t work seamlessly enough yet, it does work great. Being able to listen to Rhapsody anywhere I want in my home is amazing. Honestly I buy a lot less music now because I can listen to most of what I want for $9.99/month via Rhapsody. But I still buy music to synch to the iPod and to own the music we really love.

It’s a good balance and a far cry from the way it was when we used to listen to records on my dad’s system which looked a lot like the one in the top of this post. There are people who would like to see the music listening experience go back to that time, but not me. I am enjoying listening to music more than evern and I am sure the digital music experience is a big part of why that is.