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Sonos Digital Music System (Bundle 130) review: Sonos Digital Music System (Bundle 130)

Sonos Digital Music System (Bundle 130)

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John Falcone
John_Falcone.jpg

John Falcone

Executive Editor

John P. Falcone is an executive editor at CNET, where he coordinates a group of more than 20 editors and writers based in New York and San Francisco as they cover the latest and greatest products in consumer technology. He's been a CNET editor since 2003.

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11 min read

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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.

8.7

Sonos Digital Music System (Bundle 130)

The Good

Two-room wireless digital audio system, expandable to as many as 32 rooms; wireless color-screen remote utilizes iPod-style scrollwheel; easy setup and installation; includes audio inputs for accessing third-party audio sources; streams the same audio to all rooms or different music to each room; excellent compatibility includes lossless file formats, Sirius, Rhapsody and Pandora premium streaming services, music purchased from PlaysForSure and Zune music stores, and free Internet radio stations.

The Bad

Can't stream copy-protected music purchased from the iTunes Store; remote's rechargeable battery isn't removable; while the Sonos components are all wireless, one base station is required to have a wired network connection.

The Bottom Line

Recent firmware and feature upgrades cement the Sonos Digital Music System's position as the best multiroom streaming audio solution available.

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.

Sonos Digital Music System
The built-in amplifier of the ZP100 means it can be connected directly to a set of speakers.

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.

Sonos Digital Music System
The much smaller ZP80 lacks an internal amp but includes the digital outputs not found on the ZP100.

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.

Sonos Digital Music System
The CR100 remote offers iPod-like navigation and ease of use.

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.

Features
The Sonos Digital Music System can stream a wide range of file formats: MP3, Ogg Vorbis, FLAC, Apple Lossless, WAV, and AIFF files are compatible, as are Audible audio books. Sonos will also stream compressed (but not lossless) WMA files and non-copy-protected AAC files. The latter caveat means--like most non-Apple products--the Sonos can't stream copy-protected, DRM-encoded AAC files purchased from Apple's iTunes Store. However, the new "iTunes Plus" DRM-free AAC files now available via iTunes will work just fine.

As for other online stores and services, Sonos has nearly all the major bases covered. Recent firmware upgrades have added compatibility with the Rhapsody, Pandora, and Sirius premium services--each charges a monthly fee, but (after the initial setup) they can be accessed from the Sonos Controller without the need to have the PC powered up. The same is true for free Internet radio services--you need only a URL to add any WMA or MP3-based station. From a Windows PC, the Sonos system can also stream music files purchased from the Zune Marketplace, as well as those from a wide selection of PlaysForSure-compatible online stores: AOL Music Now, Napster, Urge, Wal-Mart, and Yahoo Music Unlimited.

As if all those digital music options weren't enough, the Sonos can also tap into any audio source. The input on each ZonePlayer can accept any analog audio source--a CD changer, a satellite radio, an iPod, or anything else--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.

Recent firmware upgrades have also added a few other niceties to the Sonos system, most notably an alarm clock that lets you wake up to music; you can also set a timer to automatically shut down the system as you fall asleep. Additionally, the system now supports as many as 50,000 tracks in your local library (for those of you who have massive music collections) and the automatic indexing of podcasts, Audible content (audio books), and new music that's been added to your library.

Using the Sonos Music System
The most impressive aspect of the Sonos system is the fact that you have your entire music collection--and the ability to distribute it throughout your house--at your fingertips. The advantage of the Sonos CR100 controller is a big one: instead of having to squint at a small LCD on an audio receiver or use your TV to navigate tracks and settings, the screen is in your hand--and it's in color. Yeah, Crestron makes some pretty nifty remotes, but those are usually part of expensive high-end systems that have been put together by a home installer who runs cables behind walls and builds speakers into them--expensive, custom jobs that make Sonos's price tag seem like a serious bargain. All of the ZonePlayers in a system can also be controlled with the Sonos Desktop Controller computer software interface--Windows and Mac versions are available as a free download from the Sonos Web site--and you can always purchase additional CR100 wireless controllers.

Sonos Digital Music System
Sending different sources to different zones (rooms) is easy--or you can have the whole system play one synchronized source instead.

For our tests, we set up the ZonePlayer ZP80 in our living room (connected to an Onkyo AV receiver) and the ZonePlayer ZP100 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.

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 the user 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 Rhapsody, Pandora or Sirius streaming services. All three are pay services, of course, but free trials of each are available through Sonos, so you can try before you buy.

Sonos Digital Music System
The remote's built-in color screen shows album art and song info--even on Rhapsody (shown) and Pandora.

Don't want to pay for your music? The Sonos system comes preconfigured to play nearly 300 free Internet radio stations and can be configured to play additional stations broadcast in both the MP3 and WMA streaming formats. It also bears mentioning that the Sonos can stream from any networked, attached storage device that supports the CIFS (common Internet file system) protocol, such as the Buffalo LinkStation or Maxtor Shared Storage drives. In fact, this setup is ideal, because your computer doesn't have to be powered up for you to access to your music collection.

Performance
In general, the Sonos music system is zippy, with little or no lag time when accessing music and switching from room to room. Click the Enter button at the center of the touch wheel, and a selected song typically plays within a fraction of a second. In fact, thanks to the circular ribbon controller that scrolls through track lists, the experience of using the Sonos remote is very similar to using an iPod to navigate and play your music, except that the Sonos's color screen is bigger and easier to read. To help navigate through large music libraries, Sonos added a quick-scroll function that allows users to jump through lists alphabetically. As with any networked system, you'll eventually run into some problems with your network going down, but all in all, we rarely lost the wireless connection to SonosNet--Sonos says you can roam as far as 150 feet from any ZonePlayer before a connection is lost--and the times that happened, it restored itself quickly.

Sound quality was also impressive. With the first ZonePlayer connected to our AV receiver's coaxial digital input, tracks such as Placebo's "Follow the Cops Back Home" and "Because I Want You" sounded multidimensional 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. Basic bass and treble tweaks were easy enough to make with the remote.

8.7

Sonos Digital Music System (Bundle 130)

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Performance 8