Editors' note: As of fall 2010, Sonos is phasing out the bundled versions of its products, though they may still remain available through retailers until inventory has been depleted. However, all of the component products discussed in this review (the ZonePlayer ZP120, ZonePlayer ZP90, and Controller CR200) are still current products that are available separately. Prospective Sonos buyers will also want to check out the Sonos S5.
Sonos is back for 2009 with a new version of its signature Digital Audio System. Like earlier iterations of the Sonos product, the new "Bundle 250" allows you to wirelessly access your computer's digital music collection as well as a wide range of Internet radio and streaming-audio services (Pandora, Last.fm, and--with paid subscriptions--Napter and Rhapsody) in two rooms of the house, with the option to expand that up to a whopping 32 rooms. But the latest Sonos adds a major upgrade: the CR200 touch-screen remote. If that wasn't good enough--and the remote is excellent--it can also be controlled by any iPhone or iPod Touch running a free app that's available via the iTunes App Store. The result is a whole-house music system that's easier to control than ever before. The catch? The system costs a somewhat pricey $1,000. And while that may seem like a lot, custom-installed systems can cost as much as $5,000 per room and they aren't as easy to use nor do they offer the level functionality found in this system. We were always impressed by Sonos' capability to access your home music collection and a variety of online music options, but the addition of the slick new touch-screen remote--and the iPhone/iPod Touch integration--gives the luxury digital audio system a compelling leg up on the competition.
Editors' note: Because this product incorporates the identical ZP90 and ZP120 ZonePlayers found in the earlier Sonos BU150, readers of the earlier review may experience some deja vu when reading the sections below. Also, as of August 5, 2009, we have slightly modified this review to more accurately reflect how the Sonos system handles podcast support.
The basic components
There are three main components of the Sonos Digital Music System: two ZonePlayer base stations--one ZP120, one ZP90--and one CR200 Controller (the remote control). Each one is available separately as well; additional ZP120s are $500, the ZP90 is $350, and the CR200 goes for $350--so the $1,000 price tag of the BU250 bundle represents a $200 savings versus buying them a la carte. Take one look at the silver-and-white color scheme (and that scroll wheel on the remote), and you get the idea that Sonos wants you to think its understated sleek components would fit right into Apple's iPod line--and they would. We just wish a black option was available as well--especially after seeing a custom-painted version.
The ZonePlayer ZP120 houses a fully fledged, 55-watt-per-channel, Class-D digital amplifier and weighs 5 pounds. It fills out a 3.5-inch high by 7.3-inch wide by 8.15-inch deep footprint--about the size of seven DVD cases stacked on top of one another. The ZP120's die-cast, matte-aluminum enclosure feels far more solid and substantive than most of today's all-plastic consumer electronics. It sports two pairs of high-quality speaker binding posts, one set of analog stereo inputs (for attaching and playing any external device through the Sonos system), a subwoofer output, and two Ethernet ports (more on those later). Onboard buttons are limited to three--volume up/down and mute--because the main functions are controlled remotely.
With its built-in amp and speaker terminals, the ZP120 needs only a pair of speakers connected to fill a room with music--no other audio equipment is required. (Sonos offers the SP100 speakers, but nearly any set of unpowered speakers will suffice.) But the ZP90 ZonePlayer is intended for those rooms where there's already an audio system in place. Just about anything will do--a tabletop radio, a minisystem, an iPod speaker system, or a full-fledged AV receiver--so long as it has an auxiliary line-in jack. Because it lacks the built-in amplifier, the ZonePlayer ZP90 is smaller than its big brother; it measures just 2.9 by 5.4 inches square and weighs a mere 1.5 pounds. As a result, it can fit in plenty of tight spots that the larger ZonePlayer can't. The front panel offers the same sparse volume controls, but the ZP90's tiny backside is chock-full of jacks: in addition to analog stereo inputs and outputs, there are also two digital-audio outputs (one coaxial, one optical) for single-wire all-digital connections. Two Ethernet jacks provide network connectivity.
The big step up for the Sonos system for 2009 is the CR200 remote. While the older CR100 was basically a horizontally oriented iPod Classic--complete with scroll wheel--the CR200 takes its design cue from the iPhone and iPod Touch, offering a touch screen. The 3.5-inch screen boasts full VGA resolution (480x640), which is double that of Apple's handhelds. Its dimensions are 4.5 inches long by 2.88 inches wide by 0.63 inch deep. While that's about twice as thick as an iPod Touch, the Sonos CR200 certainly isn't bulky, and the heft feels good in the hand.
The CR200 will be instantly familiar to anyone who's used an iPhone or iPod Touch--and that's a good thing. The capacitive LED-backlit touch screen is excellent--it's almost as responsive as Apple's (scrolling is perhaps a hair less responsive, but still top-notch) and the color screen is sharp and brilliant. There are only four hard buttons below the screen: mute, volume up/down, and "zones." Choose the zone you want to control (which can be individual ZonePlayers, or several linked together), and you'll get the "home" screen with access to the full panoply of music options available (see the features and performance section for more details).
The remote includes a charging cradle (that was a $50 extra for the earlier Sonos bundles). The remote's rubberized backside slips off to reveal the rechargeable 1850mAh lithium ion polymer battery. (We were really happy to see that Sonos went with a replaceable battery this time around, correcting an annoyance of the previous remote.)
If the remote had a shortcoming, it was that the "home" screen wasn't customizable. That's an option we appreciate on Logitech's Squeezebox Duet remote, but its absence here is merely a quibble.
Setup and installation
First, the bad news: while the Sonos is a fully wireless system, at least one component needs to be hardwired to your home network. If none of your ZonePlayers are in the vicinity of your router, you have two options: invest in a pair of powerline Ethernet adapters or a wireless bridge. Sonos offers its own version of the latter, the $100 Sonos ZoneBridge BR100. It can be used as the initial jumping off point from your home network, or to fill in wireless coverage gaps in large homes, so two distant ZonePlayers can interface with one another.
Once the wired connection is established--to a ZoneBridge or ZonePlayer--the Sonos system can access digital music stored on your home network (Windows PC, Mac, or network-attached storage drive) or--in the case of Internet radio and online music services--pull it straight off the Internet.
Once one ZonePlayer is connected to your network, the second one can be wirelessly linked to the first via a secure peer-to-peer 802.11n mesh network dubbed SonosNet. You simply press two buttons--no need to wade through the wireless networking configuration steps that can bog down the process of setting up competing digital media receivers. As many as 32 ZonePlayers can be linked to each other, and you can mix and match ZP120s and ZP90s as you see fit. (Older Sonos ZonePlayers can be used as well, but they'll interface via the slower 802.11g speed.)
Just be aware that the SonosNet network is for Sonos devices (the ZonePlayers and remotes) only--you can't use the ZonePlayers as wireless access points for your other Wi-Fi devices. If that sounds frustrating, keep in mind that this system keeps the Sonos from monopolizing bandwidth on your existing home Wi-Fi network. That means--unlike competing products that use standard Wi-Fi--the Sonos won't be chipping away at your home network's wireless bandwidth, which is especially important for multiroom setups. And there is some good news on the home-networking front: because each ZonePlayer has a built-in Ethernet switch (two Ethernet ports each), it can act as a network hub for one (or more) other wired network devices. In other words, you can plug in your Xbox 360, Slingbox, or TiVo into the back of the Sonos ZonePlayer (or ZoneBridge), and it will have network access as well.
To have the Sonos system access your digital-music collection, you install the Sonos Desktop Controller software on your PC or Mac--we tried both--which, in turn, guides you through a short wizard-like setup process to build the system's index of playable computer-based tracks. Even relative tech novices should be able to get the system up and running in a matter of minutes. It's clear that Sonos spent a great deal of time trying to achieve the level of user-friendliness that Apple is known for, because setup was a breeze.
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.