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 2005, Sonos introduced its first multiroom digital music system to rave reviews and an Editors' Choice from CNET.com. Most multiroom setups are complicated, costly affairs that involve pricey equipment and professional installers. But Sonos managed to come up with a simple, elegant, and relatively affordable solution to streaming hard-drive-based music to multiple rooms via a series of networked ZonePlayer base stations and a sleek command module. If the system had a weakness, though, it was that the original ZonePlayer, the ZP100, had a built-in amp that was overkill for buyers who already counted an amplifier or an A/V receiver as part of their existing music systems. Enter the ZP80, a much smaller, lighter, and cheaper ZonePlayer that also adds digital audio outputs. A single ZP80 will set you back $350, but the Sonos BU80 system currently bundles two ZP80s plus the CR100 remote control for $1,000. That's $200 less than the ZP100 bundle, not to mention a $100 savings from the cost of buying the components separately. In our book, the lower price and better balance of features makes the Sonos ZP80 bundle (a.k.a. the Sonos BU80) the new king of the hill for multiroom digital music solutions. It's also a big deal that Sonos has integrated the subscription-based Rhapsody music service right into the system (no PC required), which means you have access to thousands of songs the moment you turn the system on and activate the one-month free trial. This goes for Apple users, too, who previously had no way to run Rhapsody on their Macs.Taking out the amp has really allowed the designers to shrink the size of the ZonePlayer. Measuring just 2.9 by 5.4 inches square (HWD) and weighing a mere 1.5 pounds, the Sonos ZP80 can fit in plenty of tight spots that its predecessor, the ZP100, can't. In fact, if your audio rack is deep enough, you may even be able to stick the unit behind another component. Sonos would balk at this suggestion, but the fact is that the ZP80 does look a little funky sitting on top a standard 17-inch audio component or DVD player, especially since its color is sort of an off-white. (Yes, it looks a little like a mini Mac Mini.) It looks best set apart, resting on its shelf, where it will surely beckon the question, "What's that?" from visitors.
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, or 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 from 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 also bears mentioning that the Sonos BU80 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.
In general, the Sonos BU80 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 we did, it restored itself quickly.
Sound quality was also impressive. With the first ZonePlayer connected to our A/V 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.
The one area that continues to be a small issue 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 remote's optional $50 Sonos CC100 dock/charging cradle. That way, when you're not using the remote, you can leave it in its dock, and it'll always have a full charge.