Gadget Guy: Your Music, without Wires
Gadget Guy introduces you to this digital music system that lets Linux users join the party. [This article initially appeared in TUX, issue 10.]
by Sean Carruthers
One of the sad ironies of this new world of wireless multimedia sharing is that although many gadgets out there use an integrated Linux OS to get music from point A to point B, very few of them actually allow Linux users to indulge in music-sharing fun. Enter the Sonos Digital Music System.
The Sonos system is called a system for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's split up into components rather than being an all-in-one solution. The basic setup consists of a wireless base station, known as the ZonePlayer, and a portable handheld remote control, known as the Controller.
Second, it's designed to be a multiroom solution. You can place up to 32 ZonePlayers and Controllers around your house or workplace and stream different tracks to each of the different zones.
The ZonePlayer ($499 US Each)
The ZonePlayer is the heart of the system. It's designed to connect to your home network, stream music from shared folders on your local home network and communicate wirelessly with other ZonePlayers in your house.
The first ZonePlayer you hook up in your home must connect to your home network using an Ethernet connection; additional ZonePlayers then will connect wirelessly through the first ZonePlayer using a proprietary wireless networking system called Sonosnet, in order to minimize interference from other wireless equipment in your home. If you want to place the first ZonePlayer in a room that doesn't already have an Ethernet connection, your choices will be fairly limited, but you can get around the issue with a pair of powerline networking adapters.
Whereas most wireless music systems are designed to be connected to an audio system that's already in a room--whether it's a television, home theatre system or just a boombox--the ZonePlayer is designed to be used without such external audio/video equipment. The bad news is you'll need a set of speakers for each ZonePlayer you set up. The good news is that you can use a set of standard speakers you already have, so long as they connect via bare wire at the ends. (If you don't have speakers, you can buy matched sets from Sonos too.)
Although each ZonePlayer can stream a different song at the same time, you also can link more than one of them together to act as a single entity. In other words, you can link up the player in your living room with the one in your dining room, or link the one in your workshop with the one in the garage. You even can link all of them together in party mode so that your music plays throughout the house. Or, of course, you can play different tracks in each of your defined zones.
Adding additional ZonePlayers is a fairly easy process. You go to the System Settings option on the Controller, choose Add a Zone Player, and then press the buttons on the front of the new ZonePlayer. Then you select a name for the new ZonePlayer, and you're done. Simple.
The Controller ($399 US)
To make the ZonePlayers work, you'll need at least one Controller module. The Controller is exactly what you'd think--a mobile remote control unit that allows you to control what music is playing in what zone. You can use a Controller in each room, or you can control your whole network of ZonePlayers from a single Controller unit.
If you've ever used an iPod, you'll find the interface on the Controller to be amazingly simple--like the iPod, it has a circular wheel for scrolling, with a button in the center for selecting your choice. There are also player controls (play/pause, back and forward), volume controls, a mute button and menu buttons for selecting your zones and accepting commands.
The key to the Controller module is a large color screen in the middle of the front panel. The screen makes it easy to sort through your music library, choose between multiple zones in your house and set up the system. You can even display album artwork on the screen, if you have it saved in your music library.
The controller has a built-in rechargeable battery, and it comes with an AC power adapter. If you want to invest a bit more, you can get a wall-mountable charging cradle for $50 US, which also will help ensure that the Controller doesn't get misplaced between uses.
The ability of the Sonos system to play music in multiple zones around the house is already impressive enough, but the thing that impressed me the most was the way that the system finds and retrieves music.
With most wireless music players, you're typically limited to streaming your music from a single computer, and most of the time it has to be a Windows machine. The Sonos system, on the other hand, can retrieve music from up to 16 different sources on the same network, and it doesn't matter whether those shared folders are on a Windows machine, a Mac, a Linux box or even a Network Attached Storage drive. The only requirement is that the folders have to be shared, and they have to be on the same network that the first ZonePlayer is connected to.
The one downside for Linux users is that a bit of manual setup may be required. Although the Sonos system ships with client and setup software for Windows and Mac, the Linux installation is a bit trickier. That said, I was able to set it up myself in about an hour, and I'm pretty much still a newbie when it comes to understanding what's going on behind the hood on a Linux machine. In other words, if you're willing to spend a bit of time on it, you can do it too, even if you're still a newbie.
Manual Configuration for Linux
If you go to the Sonos Web site, you can search the FAQ documents under the Support section for the term "Linux", and one of the documents that will pop up shows you how to configure a Red Hat system manually. Other distributions will vary and aren't officially supported by Sonos, but you can use the find files option from your version of Linux to locate the files you'll need to edit.
The first thing you'll need to do is log in as a system
administrator and change the permission on your music folder so that
it's readable by all users, even on other computers. (From the command
line, this would be a
chmod 0755 command on the folder itself.) If
your music is scattered throughout your Linux machine, you may want
to consider consolidating it in one place to make this process easier.
After doing this, you need to ensure that the Samba file-sharing protocol is turned on, and that it launches every time your system boots up. Samba is what the Sonos system uses to retrieve data from computers or network drives, and luckily it's a part of recent Linux distributions. You'll also need to add a network share for your music folder in the Samba configuration file. The exact text you'll need to add is listed in the support document at the Sonos site, so you don't even have to worry about figuring out the syntax. In fact, the hardest part, if you're a Linux newbie, will probably be figuring out how to save the changes to your config file once you've added the extra text! (As is standard practice when you're playing around with system files, make a backup first, and if you're new to the editors found on a Linux machine, play around with a few fake files first to make sure you know how everything works, before you go messing around with crucial files.)
If your distribution of Linux comes with a built-in firewall, you'll also want to figure out a way either to turn the firewall off altogether or to punch a hole through the firewall specifically to allow Samba file sharing. Turning off the firewall isn't generally considered stellar security practice, but it may be an option if you're using a dedicated box that's already behind another hardware firewall. If you'd prefer simply to punch a hole through the firewall, you may be able to find support documents telling you how to enable Samba for your distribution simply by Googling "Samba firewall [your distribution name here]". One example can be found here, for the SUSE desktop.
The ability to pull from Samba shares alone may be worth the investment for music fans who love Linux--or is that Linux fans who love music?--because with minimal hardware investment, you can build a Linux box specifically for sharing your music and then tuck it away in a closet somewhere so that your music is always available, even when your main workstation is powered down.
Yes, the Sonos system is expensive. Yes, a bit of manual configuration probably will be required if you're using Linux. Yes, it probably will be a bit confusing for the Linux beginner.
But, if you have a bit of mad money to spend, it's well worth the investment. The ability to stream to and from multiple locations (at least when using a small number of ZonePlayers--I couldn't wrangle up 32 of them, alas) seems to work exactly as advertised.
About the Author
Sean Carruthers is a freelance technology journalist from Toronto. He spent six years at Canada Computer Paper, first as Products Editor at The Computer and later at HUB Digital Living magazine. As a freelancer, he has written for the Globe and Mail, globetechnology.com, HUB Digital Living, Computer Dealer News, Homefront and CE-Biz. Although a relative newbie with Linux (SUSE, thank you very much), he has extensive experience with tech gadgets of all sorts and is enjoying figuring out which ones are compatible with Linux.