Audio Bliss: Sonos Digital Music System
Let’s get this out of the way: the Sonos Digital Music System is expensive.
If you just want speakers for your iPod, I won’t hold it against you if you skip this article. However, if you’ve ever considered installing speakers out on the patio and in the dining room, all wired back to the hi-fi in the living room, maybe with those nifty wall-mounted volume controls, go freshen your coffee and set a spell.
At $500 for a does-it-really-need-so-many-features ZonePlayer ZP100 and $400 for the if-only-they-were-all-like-this wireless Controller CR100, Sonos probably costs more than you’ll spend on the computer hosting your digital music in the first place. Sonos delivers what is easily the most complete music streaming system on the market, one that tackles the problem as a complete solution instead of making assumptions about what you might already have or what format you store you digital music in. It just works, right away, with no wrangling of MAC addresses or WEP keys or IP addresses. I’ve looked at or written about a number of music streaming solutions, but this is the first that made me comment to my wife, "Wow, this is cool."
Hardware Extraordinaire — The ZonePlayer ZP100 is an impressive piece of engineering, and it’s amazing in its ambition. Put simply, the ZonePlayer is the device that plays music; it’s designed to be a standalone music system, and it also integrates with your existing devices. If you want one to be a room’s sole music source, just add a pair of 8 ohm speakers; the ZonePlayer has binding posts and a 50 watt Class D amplifier. If you want to supply digital music to the hi-fi, use the RCA variable-level output jacks (there’s a subwoofer pre-out if you need one). If you want to add an analog device to the Sonos distribution system, the ZP100 includes a set of line-level RCA inputs. Your first ZonePlayer attaches to the network via wired Ethernet; a four-port 10/100 Mbps switch is integrated into the unit. All Sonos devices participate in a closed, proprietary wireless mesh network called Sonosnet; each device is both a bridge and an access point in this network. (Sonosnet is based on 802.11g, and runs in the same wireless spectrum. It automatically selects the least-used channel in your area so as to not interfere with other devices. I noticed no impact on my 802.11g network, or 2.4 GHz cordless phone.)
The ZonePlayer has grey plastics and an aluminum housing – the combination reminds one of the Mac mini. It measures 10.2 by 8.2 by 4.4 inches (25.9 by 20.8 by 11.2 cm), weighs 10 pounds, and is completely silent. Three buttons on the front control the volume and mute; all other functions are controlled either from the handheld Controller or the software Desktop Controller. It is visually attractive and also subtle enough to disappear into the background. I wouldn’t hesitate to put one out in the open (where guests and spouse would see it), or nestled in a bookshelf or cabinet where lesser devices might have cooling issues; this thing is engineered so that you needn’t dwell on such details.
The handheld Controller CR100 is equally impressive in form and function. The graphical interface is displayed on a bright 3.5 inch (8.9 cm) 320 by 240-pixel color LCD screen, with gorgeous colors and icons, smooth animation, and a clean layout that inspires thoughts of what might happen if the iPod and TiVo were to mate. Nine backlit buttons (with a nifty PowerBook-style ambient light sensor) control music playback and menu navigation, supplemented by three "soft" buttons whose function varies according to the item on screen. An iPod-style scroll wheel with selector button offers speedy navigation through your music library. The Controller’s internal lithium-ion battery charges in a couple hours and lasts several days between charges. It charges with an included AC adapter, and a $50 charging cradle is also available. (In my testing it lasted long enough that I couldn’t quite recall when I last recharged it – a few days, not quite a week. Sonos claims two to five days, which seems about right.) The Controller goes to sleep after being left alone for a user-specified amount of time; it wakes instantly when you pick it up, thanks to an internal accelerometer. A deep sleep kicks in after a longer period; waking from this mode takes a few seconds, again triggered by the accelerometer.
Sonos says the Controller is water resistant, with all seams sealed with gaskets. I didn’t deliberately test this claim, but I didn’t hesitate to use it near running water; its hefty construction and rubber exterior instantly suggest that you don’t have to be timid. (However, I also didn’t leave it where the toddler might stumble across it. I would like to see a key-lock feature to protect against just this eventuality.) One nice touch is the slightly sticky rubber on its feet; when I tossed the Controller on the counter, I was surprised to see that it didn’t skitter across it like most remotes. It stuck, right where it landed.
Sonos supports most popular music formats: AAC, AIFF, FLAC, MP3, Ogg Vorbis, WAV, and WMA. Internet radio stations are supported as well, along with RealNetworks’s Rhapsody service. (I didn’t test the Rhapsody service for this review.) Like all the non-Apple streaming products, Sonos doesn’t support music purchased from the iTunes Music Store (unless you convert it to another format); Apple’s FairPlay digital rights management technology locks out all streaming solutions except the AirPort Express.
Music the Sonos Way — I tested a two-room starter system ($1,200) that includes two ZonePlayers and one Controller. I put one ZonePlayer in the living room, its RCA output jacks providing music to the stereo system and its RCA inputs pulling audio from my DirecTV receiver. The other ZonePlayer went into the dining room and powered a set of bookshelf speakers from atop a cabinet. To make my iTunes library available to Sonos, I installed the Sonos Desktop Controller application. The Desktop Controller asks you to identify your music folder (you can have several folders if you wish, even on several servers), and makes them available on your network via Windows Sharing in System Preferences. (Sonos accesses your music library via SMB file sharing. Pretty much any device that serves SMB will do, be it Mac, Windows, Linux, or a network-attached storage device.) Once the music is serving, you need to link your ZonePlayers together; to do so, just press two buttons on the ZonePlayer and select Add ZonePlayer in the Desktop Controller (you can also do this with the handheld Controller). When the ZonePlayers are available and labeled as music zones, it’s time to start the party.
Playing music and controlling the ZonePlayers are both easy with the handheld Controller. The interface is a model of clarity, the display is bright and crisp, and the buttons have excellent tactile feedback. The Mute, Play/Pause, Next, and Back buttons work as one expects. The scroll wheel efficiently navigates an extensive library (Sonos gets bonus points for Power Scroll, a soft button that lets you scroll through the alphabet), and the Select button, well, selects whatever item is currently highlighted.
The Zones button displays your list of music zones. So long as the Controller is within wireless range of one ZonePlayer, you can control any ZonePlayer on the Sonosnet. Each zone can play from independent music queues, or you can join zones together such that they play the same music. Party Mode joins all zones to a single queue, so that the entire house hears the same music.
Music sources can be the Music Library (which comes from your computer), Sonos Playlists (music queues which you have saved), Internet Radio, or a ZonePlayer’s line-in source. The Music button toggles between the current zone’s music queue and the Now Playing screen. Now Playing displays a song’s usual title/artist/album information and album art (if available); if a line-in source is being played, the source ZonePlayer’s name and icon are displayed.
The Sonos experience, frankly, is superb. Installation and setup are quick and painless, and the sound quality is excellent. Playing different music in each room, from the same library, controlled from anywhere in the house with the Controller, is a delight. Each zone playing together in sync is a pleasure not felt since my dad played ball games on in every radio in the house – only now the entire record collection is "broadcast" over Sonosnet.
My favorite Sonos trick is playing music from a line-in source. Midway through my test of the system, DirecTV switched to XM Radio as the provider for their music channels. Many evenings I had XM’s "Real Jazz" station playing in the kitchen (sourced from the living room ZonePlayer’s line-in inputs) as I made dinner, all while my wife and son were listening to his Sesame Street music in the living room (ripped from CD to MP3, stored on the Mac mini in the dining room, playing on the stereo via Sonos’s RCA analog outputs). Bliss.
More than the Sum of the (Displaced) Parts — I started this review wondering how in the world Sonos’s prices could be justified. As I lived with the system, however, I came to realize that it’s probably the cheapest music distribution solution, and certainly the easiest to comprehend.
I’ve considered putting in-wall speakers in the dining room, as well as hanging speakers for the patio and garage. I’ve tried to price out what it would take, from the very simple (speakers, wire, and a speaker switch box) to the very spiffy (individual amplifiers and volume controls). The options multiply in a hurry, and expense gets obscene. Amidst this mass of confusion, Sonos makes a great deal of sense – all you need is a ZonePlayer and a set of speakers. (Any 8 ohm speakers will do; Sonos also offers a set of bookshelf speakers for $180). Indeed, my local Best Buy considers Sonos a competitor in the music distribution space, and they display Sonos in the bourgeois home theater room, not out in the proletariat consumer gear. Sonos’s per-room cost of $500 seems expensive at first blush, but when I consider all the factors that suddenly disappear (wiring, amplifiers, volume controls, remote controls), it becomes very attractive.
Plus, each ZonePlayer ZP100 includes a four-port 10/100 switch, and Sonosnet tunnels your existing IP network to the switch. Each room suddenly has wired Ethernet, a truly handy bonus indeed.
A Bit of Hiss and Crackle — As with all solutions, Sonos is not without imperfections. I tested the system in November 2005 with version 1.2 of the firmware and Desktop Controller software. Analog line-in audio can be transmitted either uncompressed or compressed; the former plays on remote ZonePlayers with a very distracting half-second delay, while the latter shortens the delay to 75 milliseconds (only noticeable when standing in the doorway between rooms). In this version, you also can’t re-order items in a music queue. Lastly, the ZonePlayer ZP100 isn’t ideal for a room that already has a hi-fi stereo, with an amplifier that’s already hooked up to one’s speakers.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, however, Sonos announced new hardware and version 1.3 of their firmware and Desktop Controller software. The new ZonePlayer ZP80 (shipping this spring) is intended for playing music through a device with an amplifier. The ZP80 adds digital audio output, and lacks the ZP100’s amplifier and speaker jacks. It is physically smaller (5.4 by 5.5 by 2.9 inches, or 13.7 by 14 by 7.4 cm) and will sell for a more approachable $350. Version 1.3 adds an option for line-level analog output, along with full-screen album art and support for the Apple Lossless and Audible formats, and you can re-order items in a queue; it works on all ZonePlayer products.
Summing Up — Sonos products are available at their Web site, various online retailers, Tweeter, some Best Buy stores, and high-end stereo shops. Put simply, it’s the finest digital music system I’ve seen. To paraphrase Ferris Bueller, if you have the need and the means, I highly recommend you pick one up.
[Recently a father for the second time, Andrew Laurence appreciates any circumstance that affords Miles Davis instead of Big Bird.]