After hinting at a "digital stereo" product in The New York Times last week, Cisco unveiled the details of its Wireless Home Audio System today, which will be released under the networking giant's "Linksys by Cisco" consumer networking brand. At first glance, the system--which is actually a suite of six products that will be available separately or in a variety of preconfigured bundles--bears a remarkable resemblance to the Sonos Multi-Room Music System. Like the Sonos, the Linksys product has a large-screen remote and offers networked base stations designed to live in several rooms of the house where they can play digital music from networked PCs or online audio sources (Internet radio via RadioTime, Rhapsody subscription service in the U.S., and the AudioLounge premium service in Europe). The Linksys device can also use a "zone" system, so different rooms can access different audio sources, or be linked together for synchronized playback of a single audio stream in multiple rooms simultaneously.
However, the Linksys system offers some potentially compelling departures from the Sonos, which--despite several rounds of software and hardware improvements--is still based on an aging hardware architecture first released four years ago. First off, the Linksys system's networking is completely wireless (802.11n); the Sonos system utilizes a proprietary wireless mesh network, but at least one of the base stations (or a separate $100 bridge accessory) needs a wired link to the user's home network. Secondly, the Linksys remote utilizes a touch screen, while the Sonos remote's screen has no touch sensitivity. (At least one of the Linksys base stations also has a built-in touch screen for control.) And thirdly, the Linksys system offers an iPod dock that allows access to the iPod (and its DRM-protected iTunes library) from any of the base stations on network. (Though the Sonos's inability to access DRM-protected iTunes audio files is likely to become a moot point now that Apple is moving away from DRM.) And unlike the Sonos system's old "iPod white" color scheme, the Linksys products are available in a more stylish black.
I had a brief chance to audition the Linksys Wireless Home Audio System behind closed doors last month, and it performed well, effortlessly streaming Rhapsody, Internet radio, PC, and iPod-based music to three rooms. It was also easy to sync up multiple rooms with the same music stream, or opt for separate content to each room. Of course, this was in a hotel suite under conditions controlled by Cisco, so we'll wait for our own independent in-depth review before making a final judgment--but there certainly weren't any significant red flags in the product's performance.
Even if it performs well, the Linksys system has plenty of hurdles to overcome. The Sonos's performance has been honed with years of software tweaks, and its mesh network doesn't cannibalize any of the bandwidth of your home's existing wireless network. The Sonos also lets its users access the free Pandora and Last.fm music services, as well as Sirius and Napster subscription services--in addition to the Rhapsody and free Internet radio stations also found on the Linksys. That said, Cisco representatives hinted that more audio services will be coming to its system as soon as they can ink the necessary deals. Likewise, they implied that it would be fairly easy to develop the sort of iPhone control application that's available for the Sonos and Apple TV for their system as well.
Another challenge for the Linksys Wireless Home Audio System is that consumers may be overwhelmed by the number of components and bundles available. There are six members of the product family:
Those products will initially be available in three preconfigured bundles: the Premier Kit for two rooms (Director, Player, Controller, and two IR remotes); the Trio Kit for two rooms (two Players, one Controller, two IR remotes); and the Executive Kit for single rooms (Director, DSPK50 Speaker Kit, IR remote). Users can mix and match individual components and bundles according to their needs.
Cisco did not officially disclose pricing for the components or bundles, but company representatives hinted that at least one of the bundles would be priced in the same ballpark as a Sonos two-room bundle--$1,000. If the company sticks with that pricing scheme, it would likely make it harder for the system to find an audience (compare the similar Logitech Squeezebox line of products, for instance, which start at $150).
CNET will have a full review of the Linksys Wireless Home Audio System soon. The product is scheduled to hit stores before the end of this month.