Walt Mossberg

Rhapsody Uses Sonos For a PC-Free Entry Into a Trove of Music

For tens of millions of people, it’s a pleasure to collect digital music files on a personal computer, either by downloading them or by importing (“ripping”) them from CDs.

But there’s a substantial minority of folks who have neither the time, knowledge, nor inclination to do all this downloading and ripping. They don’t want to fool around with any PC software just to hear music. They could just sign up for a subscription service like Rhapsody, which will stream songs to you without requiring any downloading or ripping. But that also has meant using a PC.

Rhapsody's Music Player
The Sonos controller, accessing the Rhapsody music service

Until now. Starting today, there’s a way to get access to Rhapsody’s 2.5 million digital tunes, in any room in your house, straight from the Internet — without even turning on your computer.

This new system is a time/money tradeoff. It saves you time (and what some folks consider a big hassle) in exchange for money: $999 for the basic hardware, plus $10 a month for the music service.

If you’re still reading after digesting those prices, let me add that I’ve been testing this system, which pairs up Rhapsody with the elegant Sonos whole-house music system, and it works very well. It is simple, fast and rewarding.

Both Sonos and Rhapsody were originally designed to work with PCs. Sonos is the most polished consumer hardware system on the market for taking the music that resides on a computer and streaming it to multiple other rooms of your home. It consists of a series of small music-playback boxes that connect to each other over their own wireless network. It normally relies on software you install on the computer. The system is controlled by a gorgeous hand-held remote with an iPod-like wheel and a large, bright color screen that show menus and song information.

Rhapsody, too, is typically dependent on a PC. Users pay a monthly fee to either “stream” music from its collection, or to download it for use on the computer or on a portable device. This is all done using Rhapsody’s software, or a Web browser.

But, with the new Sonos/Rhapsody system, no PC is necessary. You just connect the Sonos hardware to your Internet service, and to either powered speakers or an audio system. Then, simply click on the Rhapsody choice in the menu on the Sonos controller and you can listen to any of Rhapsody’s 2.5 million tracks.

Out of the box, the new Sonos system gives you a 30-day free trial to Rhapsody, without even requiring that you enter a credit card. After that, you must pay $10 a month.

There are other media-streaming devices that can bring Rhapsody to parts of a home far from the computer, and most cost less than Sonos. But all of them, even an earlier implementation using Sonos, require a PC.

Setup of Sonos with Rhapsody was simple. For your $999, you get two small Sonos ZP80 players and one controller. You plug one of the players into your home Internet router so it can fetch the music over the Internet from Rhapsody. The second unit can then be placed in a distant room, with speakers or an audio system, where you wish to hear the music. The two units are linked by their own wireless network, which sets itself up in a few minutes with the press of a couple of buttons.

You can even do this with a single Sonos box connected to the router or to an Ethernet cable running through your walls, if you have one. That would save you some money; a single ZP80 is $349 and the controller is $399, for a total of around $750.

Once you are set up, you just click on “Rhapsody Trial” on the Sonos controller, and you can then select songs via genre, artist and other criteria. Again, there are no files to download. Nothing gets stored on your computer or on the Sonos hardware. The music is just streamed into your home over the Internet.

There are two basic Rhapsody modes. One, called Rhapsody Guide, lets you find and play music, and allows you to “save” the songs or albums to your Rhapsody library. This is a list of songs that the system will fetch from the Rhapsody servers when you want to hear them again. The other, called Rhapsody Radio, consists of over 100 “radio stations” — preprogrammed playlists — based on genres, eras and other criteria. You can also create your own stations.

Although my wife and I aren’t great candidates for this product, because we use iPods and iTunes and have a computer hooked up to our entertainment system, we both got a kick out of the Sonos/Rhapsody package. I found myself scrolling through old rock ‘n’ roll on the treadmill, and she enjoyed a radio station of Broadway show tunes.

There are some drawbacks. Because of complex music-industry policies, a small percentage of songs can’t be streamed, yet they still show up in Rhapsody’s menus, which leads to frustration. And Sonos hasn’t been able to implement a search feature yet, which leaves you doing a lot of scrolling through menus.

But, overall, this is a very good digital-music alternative for people with a roomy budget and a yen for simplicity.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com


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