If you're already using networked directories, you can even point the Sonos straight to them, without using the setup software. Sonos can stream from any network-attached storage device that supports the common Internet file system (CIFS) or CMB protocols--that includes Buffalo LinkStation, Apple Time Capsule, Maxtor Shared Storage drives, and Netgear ReadyNAS devices. In fact, this setup is ideal, because your computer doesn't have to be powered up for you to access your music collection. (The Sonos Web site includes extensive FAQs for network-attached-storage setups, as well as a list of problematic devices.)
The Sonos Digital Music System can stream a wide range of file formats from your personal music collection. With the exception of lossless WMA files, nearly all other file format standards will stream perfectly: MP3, AAC, WMA (nonlossless), Ogg Vorbis, FLAC, Apple Lossless, WAV, and AIFF files are compatible, as are Audible audio books.
Since DRM (digital rights management) is, thankfully, largely a thing of the past for music purchases, the wide file compatibility means that Sonos will stream downloaded tracks bought from iTunes, Amazon, Classical.com, eMusic, Napster, WalMart, Live Downloads, and Zune Marketplace. The only caveat is for iTunes: most of the tracks purchased from the Apple site before 2009 will still be encoded with Fairplay DRM and will not be streamable by the Sonos until and unless you "upgrade" them via the iTunes Store to the DRM-free iTunes Plus version (it costs 30 cents per track, or $3 per album).
Perhaps more importantly, Sonos also offers a great selection of online music services from both subscription (paid) and free sources, each of which can be accessed from the Sonos Controller without the need to have the PC powered up. The Rhapsody, Sirius, and Napster premium services each charge a monthly fee. (All of them offer a free 30-day trial through the Sonos, available at the touch of the screen--no annoying sign-up process or limitations.) Last.fm and Pandora are free streaming-music services (with optional step-up paid versions). (Disclosure: Last.fm, like CNET, is a subsidiary of CBS Interactive.) Nearly all of the services offer access to thousands of artists, songs, and albums across a variety of genres, available on-demand or via customized "stations."
In addition to importing all of your iTunes playlists, Sonos also offers its own playlists. The advantage of the latter is that you can build them from the remote and (what's really cool) mix and match your own music with some of the "rentable" tracks from the likes of Rhapsody and Napster (assuming you're a subscriber).
There's also a wealth of free Internet radio stations available from around the globe. Plug in your location (ZIP code or city), and you'll get access to many (if not all) of your over-the-air AM/FM stations, plus police and fire scanners. And globetrotting is as simple as choosing a new city: using the RadioTime database, the Sonos can easily dial up nearly any online radio station via genre, location, or name, and you can use the search function to narrow down choices as well ("BBC," "KCBS," "Soma," and so forth).
The only audio option we felt the Sonos fell short on was podcasts. Currently, there are two options: you can download them to a PC and then stream them to the Sonos (just like any music file), or you can search "shows" via the radio menu. The former method works fine, but requires you to run through the hoops of downloading and then leaving your PC on. But while the latter method allows for instant streaming (sans PC), it offers only a handful of podcasts that are indexed in the Radiotime database (for instance, only 3 of CNET's 14 audio podcasts are currently available. What we'd like to see is something closer to the Reciva indexing system or Mediafly's podcast aggregation service. At the very least, we should be able to add podcast RSS feeds so we can browse the most recent episodes.
Speaking of Mediafly, that is one of a handful of additional offerings that are available on the less-expensive Logitech Squeezebox products. Others include Slacker, Radioio, and Live Music Archive. Nevertheless, the Sonos' offerings are impressive and wide ranging, and the free Internet radio and Last.fm and Pandora services deliver a wide range of listening options that won't cost you a dime.
Beyond those "cloud"-based music sources, the Sonos can also tap into any audio source. The input on each ZonePlayer can accept any analog-audio source and stream it to any or all of the other ZonePlayers on the system. The only drawback is that these external sources can only be toggled active or inactive by the Sonos remote--additional control will require using the device's own remote or front-panel controls. But at this point, most external audio sources (CD players, iPods) are redundant to Sonos' internal offerings, so we're betting you won't even be using the line-ins.
Other niceties available on the Sonos, thanks to the last few rounds of firmware upgrades: an alarm clock; sleep timer; support for as many as 65,000 tracks in your local library (for those of you who have massive music collections); and the automatic, on-the-fly indexing of new audio (podcasts, music, and Audible books) that has been added to your hard drive-based library.
Using the Sonos Music System
With the Sonos in place, you have access to your entire digital-music collection in other rooms of the house, along with a wealth of "cloud-based" Internet music services and stations. And instead of having to squint at a small LCD on an audio receiver or use your TV to navigate tracks and settings, the thousands upon thousands of musical choices are all easily controlled and manipulated via a handheld touch-screen remote (either the CR200 or the iPhone/iPod Touch).
For our tests, we set up the ZonePlayer ZP90 in our living room (connected to an AV receiver) and the ZonePlayer ZP120 in our master bedroom, with just a set of speakers. Once everything is connected, you can choose to stream the same music in each zone (the music is synchronized) or stream different tunes in different rooms. To toggle between rooms, you simply hit the Zones button on the remote and select the room you want; Sonos offers dozens of room labels from which to choose, or you can customize your own.
You can opt for standard playback modes, such as Shuffle, Repeat One, and Repeat All; fire up playlists created by other applications, such as iTunes and Windows Media Player; or listen to playlists you've created by using either the Sonos software or the remote to save a song queue. Obviously, the more meticulously you've organized your music, with the correct ID3 tag information and the like, the better experience you'll have. And if you have album art in your database, it will be displayed on the remote when the song plays. That's also true when playing music from the online streaming services.
As we mentioned, the only slight annoyance was that podcast access was less than optimal. By contrast, Apple TV and Logitech Squeezebox systems allow you to easily add nearly any podcast feed. We hope Sonos adds such a solution soon, so podcast listening can expand beyond the walled garden of the Radiotime offerings, instead delivering access to a wider panoply of Internet talk shows.
In general, the Sonos music system is zippy, with little or no lag time when accessing music and switching from room to room. We also appreciated the capability to search libraries for specific tracks, artists, and albums. The only real issue was that the remote screen on the iPod Touch would sometimes do a double refresh while we were using the Sirius service. Those with unreliable network connections may experience occasional network hiccups as the system interfaces with online services, but our experience was generally rock solid.
Sound quality was also impressive. With the first ZonePlayer connected to our AV receiver's coaxial digital input, tracks sounded full and clear. The sound difference between the analog and digital connections will really be noticeable only to audiophiles, especially if you're dealing with compressed MP3 files, but any time you can preserve an all-digital connection, it's preferable. The general "garbage in/garbage out" caveat applies: if you're using a high-quality stream or lossless file, the audio can approach--or exceed--CD quality. But if you're listening to a 32k online radio station, it'll sound tinny and hollow, no matter what system you're using.
Is the Sonos worth it? Competitors such as Yamaha and Cisco/Linksys offer similar systems with touch-screen support. We haven't yet tested the Yamaha, and our early experiences with the Linksys have been poor (prior to a recent firmware update, it basically was unusable). But neither of those systems offers the breadth of online music services that the Sonos does. To date, we'd say the Sonos wins, hands down.
We are, meanwhile, big fans of the Logitech Squeezebox Duet, which is basically a "poor man's Sonos" that's optimized for one room. But the Duet's scroll wheel controller is starting to look dated compared with the Sonos' option. If you've already got an iPod Touch or iPhone, buying the single ZP90 ZonePlayer for $350 would be a compelling alternative to the Duet--though the fact that you'd need an Ethernet connection (or a $100 ZoneBridge) for the single-room setup would be a sticking point for some.
Other alternatives: an Apple TV and/or Apple AirPort Express can be used to stream audio, with an iPod Touch or iPhone as a remote--but that limits you to iTunes and Internet radio, without access to the wider array of online streaming options. Alternately, you could use the Bluetooth streaming on iPhones and second-gen iPod Touch models to stream a variety of musical options to A2DP Bluetooth speakers--but the quality just won't compete with Sonos.
Yes, $1,000 is not cheap, and we have a handful of remaining quibbles (one wired connection needed, no black-finish option, and less-than-optimal podcast support). But considering it's a two-room audio system that's been updated with an impressive touch-screen remote and excellent iPod Touch/iPhone compatibility--and the fact that Sonos has consistently delivered firmware updates that extend the system's features and content offerings--we can say that the Sonos delivers $1,000 worth of value. Highly recommended.