The original Sonos Digital Music System impressed us with its solid build and near-transparent operation. There was one caveat, though: you were compelled to use the integrated amplifier in the ZP100 rather than your own. True audiophiles always had the option of running a cable from the ZP100 to their own amplifier, but this left a great chunk of the original system unused.
With the introduction of the £269 ZP80, Sonos has stripped the integrated amplifier out of the unit, instead providing a range of output options including stereo phono and optical. Using standard interconnects, you can route the ZP80 directly into your existing amplifier and speakers.
Like its predecessor, the ZP80 is a delicious treat in a field dominated by over-complicated music-streaming hardware. The ZP80 wirelessly distributes music and Internet radio from your home computers to as many as 32 different amplifier and speaker setups. Configuration is almost non-existent and, as with the ZP100, audio quality is delectable. Only Apple comes close to matching the usability and build quality of these Sonos units.
The ZP80 is designed for use as part of the Sonos Digital Music System. The system is based around a series of wireless amplifers, known as ZonePlayers. Each ZonePlayer must be attached to a pair of speakers, and one of the ZonePlayers needs to be hardwired to a computer via an Ethernet cable.
If you already have a home network, you can hardwire the ZP80 to an existing Ethernet hub. Once you've done this, any computer attached to your network can share its music using the bundled software. For a basic setup you will need to buy at least two ZonePlayers and the Sonos remote control (£779 in a bundle). You can use any combination of ZP80 and ZP100 units.
There is, however, one flaw in the Sonos system, and that's the ZP80 and ZP100's inability to play DRM-protected tracks. If you have an existing collection of music bought from iTunes or Napster, you won't be able to play these tracks through the ZP80 without some serious jiggery-pokery, such as burning your purchased tracks to CD and then ripping them again to create an unprotected (but lower-quality) file. It's up to you whether you want to blame Sonos for this problem, or the record companies who insist on DRM.
The ZP80 is around a quarter of the size of the original ZP100. Though far from unattractive, the tiny ZP80 looks a little odd perched on top of standard 19-inch hi-fi components. Those with deep shelves may be able to hide the ZP80 behind their existing hi-fi separates system.
Output options on the new ZP80 differ significantly from the ZP100's. Gone are the hardy speaker bindings and subwoofer output, and in their place are analogue phono connectors (in/out), as well as optical and digital coaxial connectors. You'll have to rely on your existing amplifier for everything else. This is pretty much all an audiophile could ask for. The emphasis here is on simplicity in providing good-quality output to your current stereo system.
Gone too is the bulletproof single-moulding steel chassis. Since the ZP80 doesn't have a built-in amplification stage, there is little need to isolate it from resonance or interference, so Sonos has opted for a dense plastic chassis instead.
Every ZP80 has two standard Ethernet ports on the rear. One of your ZonePlayers must be hardwired to your home network, and this is a case of running an Ethernet cable from one of these ports to a hub, or straight to your computer using a cross-over. Those who feel restricted by the enforced hardwiring can connect the unit to a third-party wireless bridge to make the Sonos system completely wireless.
The ZP80 is of limited use without the remote control, which looks like a dinner tray and features a familiar Clickwheel-esque interface. This lets you navigate through tracks in your music library exactly as you would on an iPod. You can frolic through your music, album art and settings on the controller's bright and clear 90mm colour screen.
You can network up to 32 ZP80s in a single house, and a single remote can control all the players attached to your network. Using the remote, or the bundled software for Mac or PC, you can assign different music to different rooms.
If you want the same song playing in synchronisation across your entire house, the system can be instructed to play the same track on all your ZonePlayers. Regardless of the different distances between the ZonePlayers in your network, there is no obvious delay between the music playing on each one.
The ZP80 will stream music from any computer on your home network that has the Sonos software installed. The WinAmp library on your Sony VAIO in the kitchen, an Internet radio station from the iMac in the playroom, and the CD in your brother's PowerMac G5 can all be made accessible on the Sonos remote control.
All the music on the computers in your network is displayed in a long list sorted by album, artist or a range of other options. What's startling about this is that the whole system can be set up with a few mouse clicks. Considering what the ZP80 is achieving here, we're always impressed that the Sonos software and hardware installation should function so effortlessly.
As with all Sonos ZonePlayers, the ZP80 lets you add tracks to a universal playlist via the software on any computer. This works like an old fashioned jukebox. You add a new track to the playlist and it's scheduled to play in turn. Any user on your Sonos network has the option to supercede the currently playing track and play their own -- but where are their manners?
We tested a pair of ZP80s on our existing Sonos network. One ZP80 we attached to an Arcam Solo hi-fi using analogue phono interconnects, and one to a Yamaha separates system using digital coaxial.
Auditioning a full-CD-resolution WAV of This Isn't It by Giant Drag, the ZP80-fed hi-fis sounded crisp and confident. On the Arcam the song shone -- the recording sounded indistinguishable from the same CD played on the unit's built-in CD player. Impressive indeed.
As with the ZP100, there was no muddying of the low end and the higher frequencies were accurate and unstrained on both the Arcam and the Yamaha systems.
The software Sonos included with the ZonePlayer functioned seamlessly. Nine computers on our network were streaming music to the ZonePlayer within minutes. The ZP80 is equally happy with Mac or PC, and the software interface is consistent across platforms.
Just when we were getting used to calling the ZP100 'the best digital music system on the market', Sonos has been beaten. Beaten by itself. The ZP80 is the definitive music streaming system and an absolute must for any audiophile who longs for wireless streaming without compromising the sound quality of their meticulously hand-picked current components.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide