I’m experimenting with DLNA controllers and my question really is about “proprietary vs. standards” – are there DLNA products able to accomplish what the proprietary ecosystems offers? So let’s look at the Sonos home audio system as a case for or against DLNA…
Now, my Sonos is getting a bit aged – the controller looks like an “old” 3G iPod and the new ones they sell today, look more like an iPod Touch. It was a great investment, though; 5 years old and it still is “state of the art” and does everything I want it to do. I think the folks at Sonos are possibly more ingenious and forward-looking than those at Apple (at least within this specialty), but they also have the same emphasis on simplicity and ease of use as Apple. The ZonePlayer has only 3 buttons on it, unlike the myriad of controls on the typical audiophile high-end equipment. And Sonos really has been one or more steps ahead of everyone else – adding services like Rhapsody early on and providing a line-in for your legacy CD player or phonograph. This was back when the closest competition was the Bose iPod SoundDock without the aux input (and yes, I still have mine in the garage).
The Sonos controller has always been designed as a single-purpose controller – it comes with a convenient charging cradle, so it’s always charged, and no one using it can get into your email. As I said, the design has kept up with style; it started with the old iPod-style dial which has now been replaced by a touch screen like the iPod Touch. And keeping up with technology, Sonos also offers a controller app on iPad, iPhone, and Android – I have it on both my iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab. But since the Sonos controller costs about as much as a small Android tablet, it made me wonder why by a dedicated controller at all? So I put it to the test and compared my old non-touch screen controller with the iPad and Android apps. I did not have one of the newer touch screen Sonos controllers to compare them with, and I’ve heard it has decent (VGA) resolution. The iPad app was stellar – it did everything that the PC/Mac desktop software could do, and I suspect that the new Sonos controller can. The Android app was designed for a phone, so it did not take advantage of the screen space on my Galaxy Tab, and to conserve space, it did not offer all of the functionality. Specifically lacking were the controls for cross-fade, shuffle, and track position. The bottom line is that you can use the iPad app to replace a dedicated controller, if that fits your lifestyle, but generally I would recommend having a dedicated controller – one you would feel comfortable handing over to someone you don’t know really well. Would you really want your personal iPad passed around at a party for people to pick out music? – maybe if it was an iPad just for your Sonos, but otherwise, I don’t think so.
So back to my original question of proprietary ecosystem vs. standards… Sonos is really UPnP compliant, which is a subset of DLNA. That means there are something that it won’t do – for example, you can’t stream content from your ZonePlayer to a PS3. But it will let you control it with a DLNA Digital Media Controller (DMC) – at least one that will recognize a UPnP “renderer”. My DLNA setup used Twonky as the media server and the Sonos as the renderer; the Twonky server used the same music library NAS shares that the Sonos uses. In looking for a controller, I found that Twonky’s Media Manager on the PC wouldn’t recognize the Sonos as a renderer, and neither would media:connect on the iPad. EyeconTroller on the iPad did identify my Sonos ZonePlayers and allowed me to queue up music for them to play. I did like the clever use of screen space, and the search feature allowed me to search across all my local servers. On the down side, there was no playlist capability and the Sonos would occasionally drop off the list and I would need to restart the app to get them back.
The most successful of the DLNA controller apps on my iPad was PlugPlayer. At first it did not identify the Sonos, but it allows you to manually add a device by entering the xml url (very nice) – this worked perfectly for my zone player by IP address, and by the time I entered one manually, the other was auto-discovered. It also allowed me to rename the devices, so I could name the ZonePlayers by location (also important). I was able to use search to locate specific songs and either play them immediately or add them to the playlist, but the drill-down navigation capabilities are quite good and you won’t have to remember exact names. It also let me save and load playlists which are stored in the PlugPlayer app; each entry indicating what server it’s from and the iPad must be active to feed the player the next song. The DLNA standard doesn’t expose a number of ZonePlayer features, but interestingly the PlugPlayer exposes the Sonos as a server and you can play from the Sonos server to the Sonos renderer. As a server it shows all the playlists, Rhapsody, and Internet radio options. You can use the Sonos saved queues and add them to the current PP playlist. This did not work with any other renderer – PP just would crash. I thought it was interesting that I could play Rhapsody songs (from a saved queue) using the DLNA controller – the controller didn’t have the artist info, but on the Sonos controller (while playing the DLNA playlist), it correctly showed “Radiohead” and the album art. As I said before, I don’t believe the Sonos can stream music to other than itself, so I really didn’t expect that to work.
The bottom line for DLNA controller is that it really is almost there – the PlugPlayer, although occasionally crashed, seemed to have the best combination of features and user interface for audio playback (I’ll work on video another time). The only thing it appeared to not to be able to do is audio cross-fade. Of course for Sonos use, I’ll stick with the Sonos app, since nothing seemed to work as good as it did – in fact, the iPad app was better than my old dedicated controller and had more detailed drill-down track/artist/album info than the desktop controller software.