Editor's note: As of August 2008, Sonos has discontinued the distribution of this particular configuration of its Digital Music System. In its place, the very similar Sonos BU150 bundle is available instead.
In 2005, Sonos introduced its first multiroom digital music system to rave reviews and an Editors' Choice from CNET.com. The original bundle featured the ZP100 ZonePlayers, with built-in amplifiers that required nothing more than adding a couple of speakers. The company followed up a year later with a second bundle that included a new, smaller base station unit--the ZonePlayer ZP80--designed for connecting to existing stereo systems. Now Sonos has split the difference, offering a new two-room bundle (dubbed the "Bundle 130," or the BU130) that includes one ZP100, one ZP80, and--the key ingredient--the CR100 wireless remote. But while the hardware is essentially the same as it's been for the past year or two, Sonos has delivered several firmware upgrades that have significantly enhanced the appeal of the product, adding support for a wide range of digital audio formats and premium music services, including Rhapsody, Pandora, and nearly all online stores that use the Microsoft-compatible digital rights management (DRM). And while Apple continues to refuse to license its FairPlay DRM to Sonos (or any other third party), the newly available DRM-free music on the iTunes Store works just fine with the Sonos. In other words, the Sonos Digital Music System is better than ever, and while the $1,000 price tag is still a bit rich when compared to other streaming-music solutions, it's a downright bargain when stacked against competing multiroom audio offerings. The combination of easy setup and operation, excellent compatibility, smooth operation, and superior design makes the latest Sonos bundle another enthusiastic recommendation for digital music fans looking for a whole-house streaming audio solution.
The basic components
There are three main components of the Sonos Digital Music System: two ZonePlayer base stations--one ZP100, one ZP80--and one CR100 Controller (the remote control). Each one is available separately as well; additional ZP100s are $500, the ZP80 is $350, and the CR100 goes for $400--so the $1,000 price tag of the BU130 bundle represents a $250 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 that its understatedly sleek components would fit right into Apple's iPod line--and they would. We just wish a black option was available, as well.
The ZonePlayer ZP100 houses a full-fledged 50-watt-per-channel amplifier and weighs 10 pounds. Its die-cast, matte-aluminum enclosure feels far more solid and substantive than most of today's all-plastic consumer electronics. About the size of a couple of Stephen King hardcover books, Sonos designed the ZP100 to be smaller than a typical stereo component (it measures 10.2 by 8.2 by 4.4 inches), so it would fit into spots that a typical component won't. It sports two pairs of high-quality speaker binding posts, analog stereo inputs and outputs (plus a subwoofer output), and a built-in four-port Ethernet switch. On-board buttons are limited to three--volume up/down and mute--because the main functions are controlled either by the CR100 remote or by a Windows or Mac computer on your home network.
With its built-in amp and speaker terminals, the ZP100 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 speakers will suffice.) But the ZP80 ZonePlayer is intended for those rooms where there's already an audio system in place. Just about anything will do--a tabletop radio, a mini-system, 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 ZP80 is a lot smaller than its big brother, measuring just 2.9x5.4 inches square and weighing 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 ZP80'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 CR100 Sonos Controller is what really sets the Sonos system apart from the competition. The wireless remote control is 4x6.5 inches and just an inch deep, and its front face is dominated by a 3.5-inch color LCD screen and a scrollwheel that looks as if it was ripped straight off an iPod. The remote is designed to be operated with both hands, but the scrollwheel necessitates only eleven buttons--volume controls are on the left, three context-sensitive keys are under the LCD, and six keys (play/pause, track up, track down, zones, back, and music) flank the scrollwheel on the right. Unlike the ambidextrous iPod, the right-side orientation of the control wheel might bother lefties. Likewise, some users will initially fight the urge to let their fingers do the walking, but the LCD is not a touch screen. But those are quibbles with an otherwise excellent remote that combines the ease of use of an iPod with a larger and easier-to-read screen. Navigation is simple and intuitive, and the screen displays album art for files and music services that support that function.
The biggest issue with the remote is battery life. The remote conserves power by automatically "sleeping" after a few minutes of inactivity, then reawakens as soon as it's picked up. The battery is rechargeable, of course, with an the included AC adapter (a more convenient cradle charger, the Sonos CC100, is available separately for $50). And you'd be wise to keep the remote attached to the charger when it's not in use--for instance, after we frequently used the remote for one day, its battery charge was nearly halfway depleted. But the battery isn't removeable, and--like all other rechargeable batteries--it will eventually struggle to keep a charge after a few years of rigorous usage. (In the unlikely event that it dies during the 12-month warranty period, Sonos will replace the remote for free; thereafter, it'll cost you $100.)
Setup and installation
First, the bad news: one of the ZonePlayer base stations needs to have a wired (Ethernet) connection to your existing home network. If your router is on the other side of the house, a wireless-to-Ethernet bridge or powerline adapter will do the job--in two different instances, we used a pair of Belkin Powerline Ethernet Adapters and Netgear HDX101s with equal effectiveness. The Ethernet link allows the Sonos system to access digital music stored on your home network (Windows PC, Mac, or network attached storage drive) or--in the case of Internet radio, Rhapsody, Sirius, and Pandora--pull it straight off the Internet. And because each ZonePlayer has a built-in Ethernet switch--one extra port on the ZP80, three on the ZP100--it can act as a network hub for one or more other wired network devices (such as an Xbox 360, a Slingbox, or a TiVo).
Once one ZonePlayer is connected to your network, the second one can be wirelessly linked to the first via a secure peer-to-peer 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 ZP100s and ZP80s as you see fit.
To have the Sonos system access your digital music collection, you install a wizard on your PC or Mac--we tried both--which, in turn, guides you through a short 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. If you're already using networked directories, you can even point the Sonos straight to them, without using the setup software. 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.