Editor's note: As of May 2007, Sonos has discontinued the distribution of this particular configuration of its Digital Music System. In its place, the very similar Sonos BU130 bundle is available instead.
In the last couple of years, several companies have introduced digital audio receivers or media servers that enable you to stream music--and sometimes images and video--from your PC or Mac to a stereo, a TV, or a set of speakers in another room. So why has little Sonos, a start-up based in Santa Barbara, managed to attract so much attention for its relatively expensive audio-only Digital Music System? Well, because it's essentially the product everybody's been hoping Apple would make: a simple, elegant solution to streaming hard-drive-based music to multiple rooms via a series of networked ZonePlayer base stations and a sleek command module. If this system has a weakness, it's that that the company's original ZonePlayer, the ZP100--two of which are included with this bundle along with a CR100 remote--has a built-in amp that's overkill for buyers who already count an amplifier or an A/V receiver as part of their existing music systems. For that crowd, Sonos now offers the Z80 bundle (a.k.a. the BU80) for $200 less. But there are still plenty of folks out there who like the idea of having a ZonePlayer that can be connected to--and will power--a pair of speakers on its own. If you're among this crowd, read on.The Sonos Digital Music System is available in multiple configurations. The original one, reviewed here, consists of two ZP100 ZonePlayers and the CR100 controller, a high-tech wireless remote with a sharp color screen and a touch-pad scroll wheel that's the secret sauce in this package. The components aren't cheap--a single ZonePlayer goes for $499, while the remote comes in at $399--but they definitely have solid build quality. (The bundle price of $1,200 represents a savings of about $200 over the cost of purchasing them separately.)
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. The nearly button-free ZonePlayer, which houses a full-fledged 50-watt-per-channel amplifier and weighs 10 pounds with a die-cast, matte-aluminum enclosure, feels like a mini tank. About the size of an Xbox, Sonos designed it 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.
It's worth repeating our aforementioned advice: If you plan on installing a ZonePlayer where you already have an acceptable amplifier--an A/V receiver, stereo, or even a tabletop radio--you should consider the $1,000 Z80 bundle, which includes the same excellent wireless remote but pairs it with two smaller ZP80 base stations. The ZP80s, which retail for $349 each, can be connected to any device with auxiliary inputs, and--unlike the analog-only ZP100--they'll connect via coaxial and optical digital inputs as well.
The overall look and feel of the Sonos is great, and the controller's interface is downright superlative. But we do have our quibbles. For instance, both the ZP80 and ZP100 base stations are unusually boxy--they won't match the any of the other components in your home audio system. Likewise, the iPod-white color scheme may be stylish, but we'd love to see a basic black version. One other nitpick: the controller's built-in rechargeable battery isn't removable, which could spell trouble down the road. For its part, Sonos insists that the battery will last at least five years. But with no front panel controls on the ZonePlayers, the system will live or die by the controller's battery life. For instance, after we frequently used the remote for one day, its battery charge was nearly halfway depleted.
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. At least one ZonePlayer in your system must be plugged into an Ethernet port somewhere on your network (we connected it to a Belkin Powerline Ethernet adapter and it worked fine). Subsequent ZonePlayers (up to 32 can be linked) can wirelessly communicate via a secure peer-to-peer mesh network (dubbed SonosNet) that the ZonePlayer automatically sets up. Although it's disappointing that one ZonePlayer in every house must be tethered to an Ethernet cable (it won't interact with your existing wireless network unless you connect an Ethernet to wireless bridge), wirelessly connecting additional ZonePlayers is exceptionally easy. 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. To get going, you can install a wizard on your PC or Mac (we tried both), which in turn guides you through a short setup process to build the ZP100'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.The most impressive aspect of the 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 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 ran cables behind walls and built speakers into them--expensive, custom jobs that make Sonos's price tag seem like a downright bargain. All ZonePlayers in a system can also be controlled with the Sonos Desktop Controller computer software interface, and you can always purchase additional wireless controllers as well.
For our tests, we set up one ZonePlayer in our living room and one in our master bedroom. One ZonePlayer we connected to an A/V receiver that powered a set of NHT tower speakers; the other we tested connected directly to a few different loudspeaker sets and a powered subwoofer. You can choose to stream the same music in each zone (the music is synced) 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; choose to fire up playlists created by other applications such as iTunes and Windows Media Player; or listen to playlists you've created by using 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. Oh, and if you have album art in your database, it will be displayed on the remote when the song plays. Nice.
The Sonos system, which supports updates through firmware upgrades, currently plays MP3, WMA, AAC, and WAV files but does not support playback of secure or DRM-encrypted WMA and AAC files, including those bought from Napster and iTunes. That said, there is a work-around. You can connect your iPod or other portable MP3 player to any of your ZonePlayers via the analog audio-in jacks on the back of the unit and play secure files that way (from the remote it's easy to switch to the audio-in source in any room). The audio-in jacks also give you the flexibility to attach a CD player or even a satellite radio and stream music from them to any room you've Sonos-ified. That's pretty sweet.
Sonos made good on its promise to support the Rhapsody subscription music service with an April 2005 firmware upgrade, making the system even more appealing to music lovers. But recently, Sonos took that Rhapsody integration a step further by essentially bypassing your PC--or your Mac, for that matter. With a September 2006 firmware upgrade, you can activate a free 30-day trial to Rhapsody right from the remote, which automatically gives you access to Rhapsody's massive library of music.
One of the problems Sonos discovered with potential buyers--many of them more affluent folks--was that they had all their music on CDs but had yet to rip those CDs into digital music files on their computers. So while the thought the concept of multiroom audio sounded cool, they didn't have any music to stream. The big deal here is that, with Rhapsody, you really don't need to have your own music collection. Rhapsody's base package costs $9.95 and allows you to stream as much music as you want. You can sort by artists, albums, and latest releases, and build a playlist on the fly without interrupting your current song, plus the Sonos remote's screen even displays album art.
Perhaps the only problem with Rhapsody is that there's just so much music to choose from, it can be unwieldy to navigate that huge library. That said, both companies are constantly trying to improve their systems, so we expect future firmware upgrades that deliver new features. And in case you're wondering, if you already have a subscription to Rhapsody, you can link that account on your PC to your Sonos system. It's also worth noting that Rhapsody still isn't available for Macs, so this is the first time that Mac users will be able to use the service without owning a Windows PC.
Don't want to pay for your music? The Sonos system comes preconfigured to play nearly 90 free Internet radio stations and can be configured to play additional stations broadcast in both the MP3 and WMA streaming formats. It's also worth pointing out that the Sonos Music System 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.
Since we wrote our initial review of this bundle, Sonos has added a few new features, 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.
One thing it has been able to correct is the omission of a digital-out connection, which can be found on the ZP80 base station. A digital audio receiver costing this much should allow you to connect digitally to an A/V receiver. The sound difference would be noticeable only to audiophiles, but anytime you can preserve an all-digital connection, it's preferable. In general, the 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 the experience of using an iPod to navigate and play your music--except that the Sonos's color screen is bigger and easier to read. On the other hand, it's a shame that the remote doesn't have page-up and page-down keys to facilitate skipping around in long track lists. In our tests, the remote only lost its wireless connection to SonosNet only once (Sonos says you can roam up to 150 feet from any ZonePlayer before a connection is lost) and restored itself quickly.
Sound quality was also pretty impressive. With the first ZonePlayer connected to our A/V receiver's analog line inputs, tracks such as Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" sounded multidimensional and clear. In an A/B listening test comparing the ZonePlayer and Roku's single-room SoundBridge, the ZonePlayer proved to have a brighter, more open sound with less bass emphasis than the Roku. Although we liked the ZonePlayer's off-the-shelf sound, basic bass and treble tweaks were easy enough to make with the remote.
The ZP100's robust, spring-loaded, wire binding posts inspired confidence when we directly connected the unit to speakers. Sonos offers a matching pair of small monitor speakers, the SP100, which performed well (see the full review for details), but we also put the system through its paces with several other models we had on hand. The built-in 50-watt-per-channel amp did an admirable job of driving our bookshelf-size Event 20/20 studio monitors to loud volumes without noticeably straining. Although the amp couldn't make an old set of floor-standing Boston Acoustics A70 speakers play quite as loud, we were satisfied with the results. As long as your speakers are relatively efficient, they should perform well connected directly to the ZonePlayer. Connecting an active NHT M-00 subwoofer to the ZonePlayer's RCA type subwoofer output improved the overall listening experience by giving the system the same bass prowess as a serious home-theater rig.
The one area where we had a little concern is with the battery life of the remote. With light use, you should be able to go about a week without recharging, but we'd recommend buying the optional $49 dock/charging cradle, the CC100. That way, when you're not using the remote you can leave it in its dock, and it'll always have a full charge.