Last week, I expressed some doubt that Cisco Systems would be able to come up with a multiroom audio system that's usable by mere mortals. After all, home networking is still a pain to set up and debug, and Linksys isn't exactly a beloved consumer name.
Reading John Falcone's preview of the Linksys Wireless Home Audio System calmed my fears a little bit. Not only has Cisco hired some industrial and user interface designers, it has gotten a few things right that Sonos missed.
First, the Linksys system is completely wireless, while Sonos requires you to have at least one device in the Sonos network plugged into your router--either a full audio base station (redundant if you've got a computer with speakers in the same room as your router) or a wireless bridge (a seemingly unnecessary $99 expense).
Second, the Cisco system wisely includes an iPod dock, so you can beam all the music from your iPod--including DRM-protected files--around your house. Sonos accomplishes this task by connecting to the iTunes library on your main PC, but it can't play DRM-encumbered files (a problem that is going away soon). More importantly, Cisco's approach lets visitors plug their iPods into your home audio system--a great way to let your guests play DJ or share their recent discoveries.
Third, the remote has a touch-screen interface--something Sonos achieves only if you have an iPhone and download the free controller application.
Fourth, the individual base stations have small infrared remotes--one problem with the Sonos system is that you need to control volume from the universal controller, or walk over to the base station and manually adjust it.
Finally, it looks as if Cisco took my advice for Sonos and is releasing several bundles, including an entry-level one-room bundle with just an amplifier, speakers, and an infrared remote. Now, if it can just undercut Sonos on price by a few bucks--say, for example, if all the bundles are less than $1,000--it could have a winner.
Understand that I haven't had a chance to test the Linksys audio system out, and neither has CNET, so there could still be some show-stopping bugs or poor UI decisions that sink the whole product. But at least these initial announcements show that Cisco has considered the competition very carefully and isn't wading in blind.