(CNET) -- Sonos has been around since 2005, when the small company introduced its first multiroom digital music system to glowing reviews (including a CNET.com Editors' Choice Award).
The product was comprised of two base stations and a unique (for the time) remote with a full-color screen that allowed you to wirelessly access your computer's digital music collection as well as a wide range of Internet radio and subscription services.
Since then, Sonos has reconfigured the system a couple of times, swapping in new base stations (or ZonePlayers, as Sonos calls them) and delivering several firmware upgrades that have added navigation improvements and more features, such as compatibility with online music services Rhapsody and Pandora.
The latest tweak to the configuration is the Sonos Bundle 150 (BU150). It adds two slightly retooled ZonePlayers (one's a bit smaller, and both offer 802.11n wireless, which should deliver better range), and keeps the same scroll wheel color-screen controller, the CR100.
The result is, not surprisingly, the same excellent streaming-music experience Sonos has delivered for the better part of three years.
That said, we're disappointed that Sonos hasn't upped the ante on features--or dropped the price (it's still $1,000 for a two-room system). For instance: the $230 Apple TV and $400 Logitech Squeezebox Duet can connect to a home network directly via Wi-Fi, while the Sonos architecture still requires the first base station (or a $100 ZoneBridge accessory) to be wired to your home network.
Likewise, those rival systems are now offering some impressive features not found on Sonos: video streaming and iTunes movie rentals on the Apple product (plus compatibility with DRM-encoded iTunes music purchases) and access to a wider range of online music services (including free offerings from Last.fm, Live Music Archive, and Slacker) on the Logitech. (Note: Last.fm and CNET are both subsidiaries of CBS.)
That's not to say that the Sonos Digital Music System isn't a great audio streamer--you could pay far more for "whole home audio" systems and get something that's much harder to use and far less flexible--but Sonos needs to kick it up a notch if it wants to further distinguish itself from its increasingly savvy competitors who are offering multiroom-capable systems that are good enough for most people.
The basic components
There are three main components of the Sonos Digital Music System: two ZonePlayer base stations--one ZP120, one ZP90--and one CR100 Controller (the remote control). Each one is available separately as well; additional ZP120s are $500, the ZP90 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 understated 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 ZP120 houses a fully fledged, 55-watt-per-channel, Class-D digital amplifier and weighs 5 pounds. Its die-cast, matte-aluminum enclosure feels far more solid and substantive than most of today's all-plastic consumer electronics.
It sports two pairs of high-quality speaker binding posts, one set of analog stereo inputs (for attaching and playing any external device through the Sonos system), a subwoofer output, and a built-in two-port Ethernet switch. Onboard 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.
The ZP120 replaces the similar ZP100 ZonePlayer; however, it weighs half as much, and fills out at a smaller 3.5-inch high by 7.3-inch wide by 8.15-inch deep footprint--about the size of seven DVD cases stacked on top of one another. The reduced size is welcome, but we were miffed that the ZP120 retains its predecessor's price even though it cuts down on the features: the Ethernet ports are reduced from four to two, and there's no analog audio output (for connecting to external amplifiers or AV receivers).
With its built-in amp and speaker terminals, the ZP120 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 ZP90 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 ZonePlayer ZP90 is smaller than its big brother; it measures just 2.9 by 5.4-inches square and weighs 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 ZP90'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. (As far as we can tell, the ZP90 is identical to its predecessor, the ZP80, except for the upgrade to faster 802.11n wireless.)
Tying the system together is the CR100 Sonos Controller. The wireless remote control is 4-inches wide by 6.5-inches long and just an inch deep, and its front face is dominated by a 3.5-inch color LCD screen and a scroll wheel that looks as if it was ripped straight off an iPod. The remote is designed to be operated with both hands, but the scroll wheel necessitates only 11 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 scroll wheel on the right.
Unlike the ambidextrous iPod (and single-hand Logitech Squeezebox Controller), 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--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 to support that function. Another nice touch: the hard keys' backlight automatically kicks in when activated in a dark room.
The biggest issue with the remote is battery life. The remote conserves power by automatically "sleeping" after a few minutes of inactivity, then it reawakens as soon as it's picked up. The battery is rechargeable, of course, with 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 removable, 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: while the Sonos is a fully wireless system, at least one component needs to be hardwired to your home network. If none of your ZonePlayers are in the vicinity of your router, you have two options: invest in a pair of powerline Ethernet adapters or a wireless bridge.
Sonos offers its own version of the latter, the $100 Sonos ZoneBridge BR100; it can be used as the initial jumping off point from your home network, or to fill in wireless coverage gaps in large homes, so two distant ZonePlayers can interface with one another.
Once the wired connection is established--to a ZoneBridge or ZonePlayer--the Sonos system can 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 (two Ethernet ports each)--it can act as a network hub for one (or more) other wired network devices. In other words, you can plug in your Xbox 360, Slingbox, or TiVo into the back of the Sonos ZonePlayer (or ZoneBridge), and it will have network access as well.
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 ZP120s and ZP90s as you see fit. (Older Sonos ZonePlayers can be used as well, but they'll interface via the slower 802.11g speed.)
To have the Sonos system access your digital music collection, you install the Sonos Desktop Controller software on your PC or Mac--we tried both--which, in turn, guides you through a short wizard-like 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. 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.
If you're already using networked directories, you can even point the Sonos straight to them, without using the setup software: Sonos can stream from any network-attached storage device that supports the common Internet file system (CIFS) 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 your music collection.
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 nearly all non-Apple products--the Sonos can't stream copy-protected, DRM-encoded AAC files purchased from Apple's iTunes Store. However, the "iTunes Plus" DRM-free AAC files now available via iTunes will work just fine.
From a Windows PC, the Sonos system can also stream music files purchased from the Zune Marketplace, as well as those from several PlaysForSure-compatible online stores: AOL Music Now, Urge, and Wal-Mart. Of course, DRM-free purchases from eMusic, Amazon, and Napster will all work just fine as well.
Sonos also offers a decent selection of online music services from both subscription (paid) and free sources, each of which can be accessed from the Sonos Controller without the need to have the PC powered up. The Rhapsody, Sirius, and Napster premium services each charge a monthly fee. Pandora will soon be free--with ads--or you can pay a small yearly subscription fee to listen without commercials.
There's also a wealth of free Internet radio stations available. The Sonos is preconfigured to play dozens of them, and you can add the URL to any WMA- or MP3-based station to the Favorites directory via the Desktop Controller software.
Beyond those "cloud" based music sources, 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.
Other niceties available on Sonos, thanks to the last few rounds of firmware upgrades: an alarm clock; sleep timer; support for as many as 65,000 tracks in your local library (for those of you who have massive music collections); and the automatic, on-the-fly indexing of new audio (podcasts, music, and Audible books) that has been added to your library.
That's certainly a wide range of features for an audio streamer--but it's not as comprehensive as it once was. As mentioned above, the cheaper Apple TV handles streaming of audio, photos, and video content--and it works seamlessly with content purchased or rented from the iTunes Store. As of July 2008, you can also use any iPhone or iPod Touch as a remote control for the Apple TV.
Alternately, the Logitech Squeezebox Duet utilizes a screened-remote-with-scroll wheel concept similar to the Sonos (the screen is smaller, but the remote can be operated in one hand), but it offers access to a wider array of online music services, including Slacker, Last.fm, and the Live Music Archive--all of which are free. And both the Apple TV and Logitech Squeezebox are capable of working via Wi-Fi, without the need for a wired Ethernet connection.
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.
For our tests, we set up the ZonePlayer ZP90 in our living room (connected to an AV receiver) and the ZonePlayer ZP120 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 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. Most of them are pay services, of course, but free trials of each are available through Sonos, so you can try before you buy. Likewise, the hundreds of free Internet radio stations preprogrammed into the Sonos directory worked well, and we were able to add additional favorites through the Desktop Controller software, just by cutting and pasting the station URL.
While we loved the fact that the subscription services and Internet radio were available even when our computer(s) were powered down, it was somewhat annoying that podcasts had to first be downloaded to the PC. By contrast, Apple TV and Logitech Squeezebox systems can pull podcasts straight from the Net, without the need for them to first be downloaded to the computer.
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' 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, the SonosNet wireless connection was rock solid. The addition of 802.11n is said to double the range between ZonePlayers compared to the previous generation of products.
Sound quality was also impressive. With the first ZonePlayer connected to our AV receiver's coaxial digital input, tracks sounded full 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.
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