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A wireless future has been the dream of neophiliacs for decades. Even as far back as 1927, Fritz Lang's Metropolis shows a robot emitting pulsing, glowing rings into the air -- presumably some kind of macabre wireless communication that anticipated Wi-Fi.
Though most of us find wireless networks almost as infuriating as traditional wired networks, some companies do wireless well. Confusing WEP keys and poor reception plague some systems, but the design team at Sonos has nailed it.
The Sonos Digital Music System is a rare beauty among freaks. It streams music and Internet radio from your home computers to any number of wireless amplifiers and speakers. Set-up time is almost non-existent and the audio quality is nothing short of remarkable. Anyone who thinks Apple holds the monopoly on well-designed interfaces should take a look at the Sonos and think again.
The Digital Music System is based around a series of wireless amplifers, known as Zoneplayers. The basic Sonos package comes with two Zoneplayers, but you can use as many as 32 in total. Each Zoneplayer must be attached to a pair of speakers, and one of the Zoneplayers needs to be hardwired to a computer via an Ethernet cable. If you already have a home network, you can hardwire this one Zoneplayer to an existing Ethernet hub. Once you've done this, any computer attached to your network can share its music using the bundled software.
Each Zoneplayer is impressively heavy for such a small device. The Zoneplayers may be no bigger than a small stack of paperbacks, but they feel like marble blocks. We couldn't prise the units open to find out exactly what's inside -- they're seamless -- but the weight seems to be down to a combination of the extremely sturdy anodised chassis and the 50W amplifer contained within. The £1,159 'introductory bundle' available online from Sonos comes with two of them and two sets of speakers. (You can also buy just the two Zoneplayers for £949).
The outer casing of the Zoneplayers is the toughest of any consumer amplifiers we've ever seen. We're not exaggerating when we say they could stop a bullet. Reviewers sometimes claim that certain products are "built like a tank", but we believe that the Zoneplayers are built from a tank. We're talking a military-grade enclosure: a 5mm-thick anodised steel plate that wraps around the whole unit. There are worse-defended bank vaults.
The rear of the Zoneplayer is dominated by some extremely serious-looking speaker wire bindings. These are each 12x35mm with 5mm holes through them, giving you the option to use heavy-gauge speaker wire. This size of binding is very rare on consumer grade hi-fi -- usually you're forced to use low-gauge wire into small plastic bindings.
As with everything else about the Digital Music System, you get the impression that someone who really cares about their audio has chosen the specifications. There are connectors for analogue audio-out in the form of left, right and subwoofer phono connectors. These are coloured white, red and purple respectively.
The typical user will find that the standard speaker bindings and a good pair of speakers will provide a punchy and clean sound from the Zoneplayers. Alternatively, using the phono-outs lets you rig the Zoneplayers into an external amplifier. The only good reason for doing this is if you like your music extremely loud, or if you're a hardcore audiophile for whom the Zoneplayer's already excellent amp circuitry is not good enough.
Also on the rear are four Ethernet ports, and left and right audio-ins. The power socket on the Zoneplayer is of the kettle-lead type and the unit contains a formidable PSU of the kind you'd find on entry-level studio amps. The power supply is an important element in any amplifier, because it directly determines the strength and clarity of audio output.
It's details like this that lead you to believe that Sonos has made a point of equipping the Zoneplayers with uncomplicated, high-quality components throughout -- it's the kind of considered approach we're more used to seeing from higher-end pro audio manufacturers like NAD.
The front of each Zoneplayer is typically elegant and functional. The clean silver and white casing is interrupted only by a volume rocker switch and a mute button. Slick. Very slick.
Of course, a fine ship is of little use without a star to sail her by, and the Sonos Digital Music System's remote control is certainly an impressive little twinkler. It looks like a small yakitori tray and owes much of its ease-of-use to the adoption of a device much like Apple's Clickwheel. This lets you navigate through tracks in your music library exactly as you would on an iPod. You scroll through your music, album art and settings on the controller's bright and clear 90mmm colour screen.
Both Zoneplayers included with the standard installation contain 50W amplifiers, Wi-Fi receivers and Ethernet hubs. When they're set up and switched on, the Zoneplayers form a wireless mesh network, which automatically configures itself to work best with the layout of your house. This process is completely invisible, so while it's interesting to know what the Zoneplayers are up to, you don't have to manually configure them.
Up to 32 Zoneplayers can be linked together in a single house, but unless you live in Buckingham Palace, we don't anticipate anyone needing more than two or three. A single remote can control all the players attached to your network, and you can assign different music to different rooms depending on the mood and tastes of the occupants. If you've ever wanted the chance to play God, this is it.
Alternatively, the system can be instructed to play the same track on all your Zoneplayers, and in perfect synchronisation. This is no mean feat -- Sonos is using a clever bit of engineering to make sure that regardless of the different distances between the Zoneplayers in your network, there is no perceptible lag between the music playing on each one.
The Zoneplayer sources music from any computer on your home network that has the Sonos software installed. This means the iTunes library on your Apple PowerBook in the study, an Internet radio station from the Windows PC in the playroom, and the CD in your brother's G5 are all accessible from the Zoneplayer's remote control. All the music in your house is displayed in a long list sorted by album, artist or a range of other criteria. It's important to stress that this can be set up with a few mouse clicks on each machine. Considering what the Zoneplayer system is pulling off, we found it nothing short of amazing that the software and hardware installation should function so effortlessly.
The Zoneplayer also offers the option to add tracks to a universal playlist via the software on any computer. This works like a pub jukebox. You add a new track onto the playlist and it's automatically scheduled to play in turn. Any user has the option to override the currently playing track and enforce their own -- but that would be extremely bad etiquette.
One other feature worth noting is the motion sensor in the Zoneplayer's remote. Consistent with the attention to detail elsewhere, the remote control automatically switches itself off during periods of inactivity to conserve battery power. As soon as you pick the controller up again, it senses this motion and switches itself back on. The controller charges via a standard mains adaptor, but Sonos has recently introduced a charging cradle, available separately.
To assess audio quality, we rigged one of our Zoneplayers into a pair of Sonos SP100 speakers, and the other into a pair of Denon SC-M73s. Interestingly, the SP100s compared extremely favourably to the Denon speakers -- both are weighty units that deliver a controlled low-end via rear bass-reflex apertures. The fronts of both speakers use a simple bass cone and tweeter arrangement -- our format of choice for stereo listening. Although systems with separate sub-woofers are popular with home-cinema enthusiasts, for almost all kinds of music we've had better results with a good pair of stereo speakers like these.
Auditioning Scar Tissue by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Zoneplayers sounded taut and refined -- there was no muddying of the low end and the higher frequencies were accurate and unstrained. The song begins with a single lead guitar picking out notes; this sounded natural and crisp. At 0:10, the drums, bass and vocals kick in, revealing good definition and separation between the instruments. Even at high volume, the Zoneplayers sound like they're taking things in their stride, the speakers are driven hard, but there's no obvious clipping. Californication, the album from which this track is taken, has been mixed in the studio with strong separation between instruments, so, though it sounds great on most systems, there are some it shines on. The Zoneplayer is one of these.
Listening to alt-country badboy Ryan Adams sing Rescue Blues demonstrated the Zoneplayer's ability to deliver more subtle music. The recording sounded convincingly live and the warm tone of Ryan's guitar and whiskey-soaked vocals sounded nearly as good as they do on our 400W NAD reference system at lower volumes.
The software Sonos included with the Zoneplayer worked without a hitch. Five computers on our network were streaming music to the Zoneplayer within minutes. Whether Mac or PC, the Zoneplayer didn't care, and the software interface is identical on both platforms.
If you want access to all your music throughout your house, the Digital Music System is the best option by miles. It's not often we review products that are this gorgeous -- Sonos has dished out a treat.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide