Apple TV – My music solution

Apple TVA while back I posted about a little test I did comparing the Sonos ZP90 and AirTunes using an Apple airport express. The remote control for both of these solutions was the respective free app on the iPhone OS platform.

To recap my previous post… Sonos is the best home audio solution, but costs the most. AirTunes using an Apple Airport Express was much less expensive, but had some short comings – the biggest being that the iTunes client (PC/MAC) needs to be open in order to stream the music. After further research, I found a solution that fit the budget and gives me everything I need… the Apple TV.

The name “Apple TV” leads one to believe it’s a video playback device (which it is), but paired with the free Apple remote app on the iPhone OS… it turns into a great living room music device, without even having to put your TV on.

Pro’s:
1. Self contained – No reliance on a PC/Mac or NAS to be on during operation, as it has it’s own internal disk (160GB in my case). The Apple TV syncs just like an iPod, but even better, it can sync over WiFi.
2. Inexpensive – It costs US$229 on the US Apple store. The Apple remote app is free. No need to purchase a NAS.
3. More than just audio – Access to iTunes extensive library of movies & TV shows.
4. Hackable – Load up boxee and stream internet services such as  Hulu (US only), BBC (UK only) and many others. Also you’ll be play your own non-iTunes video content (divx, xvid etc) streaming from your PC/NAS – or via a local copy on the Apple TV.
5. Integrated – It stays in sync with my iTunes library, which means I’ll have access to podcasts, playlists, playcounts, ratings and of course the Genius feature for music recommendation.

Con’s:
1. No true multi-room support. This is in Sonos’s DNA and can be expanded to multi-room support, at a cost.
2. Does not support many audio formats natively. Boxee helps here a bit, but my collection is all MP3 so that’s fine with me.
3. Does not provide access to some of the more popular audio streaming services, such as Rhapsody, Napster, SIRIUS, Pandora etc.

The remote app is really the thing that makes this (and the Sonos) solution work so well. All music navigation is done within the app and all music can be controlled from anywhere within the home (within, WiFI coverage of course). From within the Apple app  – you’ll have access to all iTunes functions including: playlists, Genius, playcounts, ratings etc. As your TV will not need to be on, you will not consume much power

So far I’m very happy with this solution, and would recommend it to any music lover who has an existing Home WiFi network, iPhone/iPod Touch, amplifier (A/V receiver) of some kind and is using Apple iTunes today.

Does not support many audio formats. My collection is all MP3, so… no biggie.
Does not provide access to some of the more popular audio streaming services, such as Rhapsody, Napster, SIRIUS, Pandora etc.

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Sonos vs. Apple AirTunes – Using iPhone remote apps

I have been interested in creating a living room music-on-demand setup for our home for quite some time. One of my colleagues has been preaching to me that Sonos is the answer for a year or so now – but I’ve never really considered it because of it’s high cost of entry (~$999+). Recently, Sonos released a free iPhone/iPod touch remote control application. This allows a significantly less expensive entry cost, as now you only need to purchase a single Sonos ZonePlayer to get started… but I still felt that it was a be expensive (~$350)… especially when you compare it to using the AirTunes capability of the Apple AirPort express (~$99).

This past weekend he was kind enough to allow me to test out one of his Sonos ZonePlayers. The loan unit I had was a ZonePlayer ZP80, which is no longer being sold, but has been replaced with the ZP90 which now supports 802.11N. Neither the ZP80 nor ZP90 have internal amplifiers, so if you don’t have an amplifier you would need to consider the ZP120 (~$499).

So here are my brief thoughts and comments regarding the differences, pros and cons of the two solutions, and I’ll assume you already have the following (or workable equivalents):

  • Mac, or PC with Windows (I used Windows 7 RC1)
  • 802.11G/N wireless network
  • Amplifier with speakers.
  • iPhone (iPod touch will do the job too)

Apple AirTunes

What you’ll need:

Setup is rather simple, just need to ‘authorize’ the iPhone remote app to connect to our iTunes library.

Pros:

  • Much less expensive. Only need to get an Apple AirPort express (~$99 for the 802.11N version)
  • Plays Apple DRM tracks.
  • iTunes DJ – this can be great for when friends come over.

Cons:

  • Need to keep iTunes client open at all times. This can be a pain.
  • Does not “remember” what you were you were listening too between PC reboots/iTunes restarts. I found this more annoying that I thought I would.
  • No multi-room support. This doesn’t bother me much, my apartment is too small anyway.
  • Does not support many audio formats. My collection is all MP3, so… no biggie.
  • Does not provide access to some of the more popular audio streaming services, such as Rhapsody, Napster, SIRIUS, Pandora etc.

Sonos:

What you’ll need:

Pros:

  • Better remote control app than the Apple one. A bunch of little features that make it better than the Apple one:
    >See the next track coming in the ‘Now Playing’ screen.
    >Great on-the-go queue (playlist) management.
    >When you choose a track you get the option of “Play now”, “Play next”, “Add to Queue”, “Replace current queue”.
  • No need to any client applications open, you just need the PC on to allow access to the Windows file share.
  • Remembers were you were. This I really liked… even though my PC had been off, once it is back on, the ZonePlayer will start were it left off (even mid-track)
  • Multi-room support, provided you have purchased additional ZonePlayers.
  • Better audio format support (Ogg Vorbis, FLAC, WMA, AAC, MP3, Apple Lossless, and Audible formats)
  • Access to Rhapsody, Napster, SIRIUS, Pandora, Last.fm, and most terrestrial radio stations. I did not test this as most of these services are US centric – plus my broadband connection sucks for streaming content.

Cons:

  • Expensive. $350 for the ZP90 (replacement for ZP80).
  • Does not support Apple DRM tracks.

Conclusion:

I definitely enjoyed the experience of the Sonos solution more. There are many small, often unquantifiable, nuances that make it a more complete and enjoyable experience. The Apple AirTunes solution I described is workable, but not perfect.

If money was no object, then Sonos all the way, but unfortunately money is a big consideration. For now I’m going to hold onto these facts I’ve learnt – then see if I can convience myself to take the dive.