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You get what you pay for in multiroom audio

The Eos wireless system lets you beam music from your iPod or other MP3 player into multiple rooms. It's easy to set up and easy to use, but made me long for the power and solidity of the Sonos multiroom audio system.

The kind folks at Eos Wireless sent me one of their wireless multiroom audio systems to test out a couple weeks ago, and after setting it up tonight, all I can say is that it made me long for the power and solidity of the Sonos system that I got to try out last December.

Insufficient cord length fail.

CNET's Jeff Bakalar already hit all the high and low points in last month's review, and my experience was much the same. I started by plugging my iPhone into the base station. Some of the promotional material for the system says the Eos system loves the outdoors, and I suppose the sound that came out of the base station might have been fine if I were drinking beer at a barbecue--flabby bass, tinny treble, and what sounded like occasional lapses in one or the other stereo channel. I think they added some reverb to make it sound "bigger"--perhaps this is part of the "SRS WOW!" technology mentioned in the FAQ--but the overall sound was so weird and different from the sound that usually comes out of the iPhone that I couldn't really tell. It didn't make me want to sit and listen.

It was easy to plug the other three speakers into outlets around the house and outside, and the base station started beaming music to them almost immediately. The standalone speakers actually sounded better than the base station--still thin, but not as odd--but when I turned them up past about two-thirds, they got severely distorted. There was lag between the base station and the speakers, which created disorienting delays when I was walking between rooms. Like Jeff the CNET reviewer, I got a lot of drop outs at first, but unlike his case, they disappeared when I switched the "Range Ex" button on the back of the base station. (Which begs the question: why not just have whatever that switch does enabled by default?)

The power supplies on the extra speakers are big and clunky, and the cable's only 32 inches long. This created logistical problems--when I set a speaker up outdoors, I had trouble getting it around the plug guard, and then the cable wasn't long enough to set the speaker atop the three-foot fence running around my deck. Who wants to listen to speakers on the floor?

To make sure the audio problem wasn't in the source, I swapped my iPhone out for my fourth-gen iPod, and then connected my Zune via the auxiliary input using the included one-eighth-inch stereo cable. None of the sources sounded any better. To give you an idea of my reference points, I usually plug my Zune into the auxiliary input on a Bose Wave, my iPod into an iHome iH55SR (which may be best $99 audio gadget I've ever bought), and my iPhone into an auxiliary input that goes into the FM radio (not CD player) in the totally stock sound system in my 2006 Subaru. Those set-ups all sound better than the Eos Wireless. So did the Sonos system.

To its credit, Eos was exceptionally easy to use--there's no computer required (and no way to tap into a music library on a home computer), and I didn't need to read the instruction manual. In fact, it's so simple, you don't even need to turn the base station on. Which is why there's no on/off switch (which is weird). It's also a lot cheaper than competing multiroom audio systems, starting at $250 for the base station and one speaker--that's about one-fourth the starting price of the Sonos system. It might be acceptable for casual background music or a raging party. But if you're serious about music, I'd save up for something better.