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Sonos Digital Music System Review

Highs

  • Easy to setup and use; good sound quality; bright and colorful display on remote

Rating

Our Score 8.5
User Score 10

Lows

  • First ZonePlayer must be physically connected to the router; the system depends on the remote controller
The Sonos is an impressive digital-age multi-room music system that gives you room to grow.

Summary

The Sonos Music system is all meshed up. That’s a good thing. A new twist on multi-room audio, Sonos uses a wireless mesh networking technology called Sonosnet to transmit music files from a home PC to up to 32 zones in the house (go slowly; at a minimum of $600 per zone, the overall tag can add up fast)  While remote music players from Linksys, Creative and others have sought to do the same thing using Wi-Fi, there’s always some household appliance that seems to get in the way in the 2.4-GHz airspace: a microwave oven, a cordless phone (at least, that’s the way it is in my house.)  I can’t even get my PC in the basement some 20 feet away from the upstairs router to make a wireless connection over 802.11g—even after hours on the phone with tech support.

But I could with the Sonos ZonePlayer, and without hours of aggravating setup.  Mesh networking is the enabler.  The Sonos controller communicates with the nearest ZonePlayer, and then that ZonePlayer communicates with the other ZonePlayers throughout the home instantaneously.  As a result, the system can play in rooms that are out of range of the first ZonePlayer, and you enlarge your network as you add ZonePlayers.

Editors note: The Orb Audio Classic Two speaker system (available in white to match the Sonos system) would be a perfect fit for the Sonos Digital Audio System. Check out our review.

* Edit 5/25/2005: We changed the price per zone from $900 to $600 dollars (with introductory bundle).
Features and Design 

The Sonos Digital Music System is a self-contained package comprised of ZP100 ZonePlayers, a two-fisted handheld controller and optional speakers.  Finished in the now-familiar iPod gray and white, the ZonePlayers don’t look like traditional audio gear. The ZonePlayer’s 10.2 x 8.2 x 4.4-inch footprint is narrower than the standard 17-inch width of analog-age components.  Built in is a 50-watt-per-channel amp, which contributes to most of the ZonePlayer’s 10-pound bulk.

The rear jack pack of each player features spring-style binding posts.  That means no wrapping wire or screwing in posts.  You just press and release, a refreshingly simple design.  Oddly, though, while the posts on the rear of the ZP100 are red and gray to discern between left and right channels, the wire that ships with Sonos isn’t color-coded to match.  That would have been a nice finishing touch, since Sonos speakers also use red and black posts.

Also on the back are a quartet of Ethernet jacks, an analog audio input for, say, an MP3 or CD player, and an audio output including subwoofer out for connection to a home theater receiver.  A power cord completes the section.  At least one ZonePlayer in a Sonos system has to tether to a router (the other zone controllers operate wirelessly over the mesh network), and then the others can operate wirelessly.  The remaining Ethernet jacks on a Sonos ZonePlayer can be used to connect to a PC or other network storage devices. 

Sonos Music System
The Sonos System with aftermarket speakers

ZonePlayers are minimalist in design. Two buttons control mute and volume from the ZP100 front panel.  Everything else must be done by the CR100 controller, a hefty but slick remote control with a 3.5-inch color interface that’s reminiscent of the iPod with its scroll wheel and gray and white paint job.  The controller selects the music in your local room, which could be the Sonos library on your PC, subscription-based Rhapsody Internet radio channels, or an auxiliary source.  Here’s the cool add: you can also control any other Sonos zone in the house.  Press the speaker button and you can mute the sound in another room.  Press and hold for 3 seconds, and all rooms mute. 

Sonos Remote
The Sonos Controller

It’s a simple looking system that masks all the complicated networking technology inside.  And beyond my jaded expectations, it was as easy to set up as it promised to be.
Setup and Use

I was a little scared of the Sonos system before I tried it out.  It had done nothing to warrant my fear but plenty of other wireless networking experience had prepared me for the worst.  So when I followed the setup instructions for the Sonos and the products performed dutifully according to instructions, I was startled, to say the least. I connected the first Sonos ZonePlayer to the router, powered it up, installed the bundled software on the PC, and waited while Sonos grabbed my music from Windows Media.  To add the second ZonePlayer, I used the remote control’s setup menu and then pressed and released the mute and volume buttons on the Player to add it to the system.  It was as simple as it sounds.

Of course, nothing’s perfect. I do have a couple of quibbles with setup documentation. The manual says to take the Controller and speakers to your router for setup, but there’s no reason to take the speakers into an already crowded office. You don’t need to hear anything during setup, and lugging speakers around isn’t my idea of fun.

Sonos Music System
The Sonos system setup in an office

Second—and this is the larger issue—I didn’t realize that after initial setup, the primary Zone Controller would have to stay forever tied to the router for the system to work.  I tried unplugging it, thinking the wireless network had been established, but then all the music disappeared from the remote control’s display.  So that means I now have two music systems in my office—my PC system and the Sonos ZonePlayer—because that’s where the router is.  Sonos says most of its customers address this issue by hiring someone to run a long Ethernet cable to another room where they want a music system. That’s not very practical in my situation.  In future incarnations, I’d like to see a small module—without the heavy and expensive amp—handle the router duties.

That complaint aside, I love this system for its simplicity.  I signed up with Rhapsody’s music service to get its Internet Radio feed on the Sonos system, and the integration process was seamless.  The PC doesn’t even need to be on in order to channel Internet Radio over the system.  The PC, however, does have to be on if you want to access the music from your hard drive.

Performance

One hazard of a remote control-dependent system—especially one with a power-sapping color touchscreen—is that when the remote goes down, you lose your ability to control the system from anywhere.  I left the Sonos remote uncharged over a weekend and when I came back Monday, no juice.  So I had to plug in again, wait for the system to recognize other devices on the system, and then kick into gear.  It took about 8-10 seconds for startup—not a big deal—but not the immediate gratification I’m used to.

That’s partly because the Sonos system has spoiled me.  Pick an Internet radio station from the list, and you’re streaming immediately.  Switch over to the music system and a song from your hard drive plays instantly.  The Sonos system makes the CD changer and its long intervals between disc swaps seem so analog.  The Sonos can even play multiple songs from the PC hard drive at the same time, or play the same song in every room.

Controlling the system via remote is a breeze.  Hit the Zones button and you see a readout of what song is playing in which room along with album art when available.  You can put the system into Party mode, in which each zone plays the same song throughout the house, and you can even adjust the volume level for every room as a group or individually by zone.  Of course, the standard playback functions are there, too: normal, shuffle, repeat, and shuffle-repeat.

Sonos Controller Screen

The colorful display from the Sonos Controller

You can also mute the entire system at once or just select one zone.  That’s another caveat to the system.  The ZonePlayers never power off.  The digital amps do power off when they’re not playing; however, according to Sonos, in standby mode each ZonePlayer draws about 5 watts of power.

Hit the Music button, and you can choose from a four-option list: music library, Sonos playlists you’ve created, Internet Radio through Rhapsody, and line-in sources for an MP3 player.  Dial the scroll wheel with your thumb and you fly through your music library, a great navigational tool when you’ve got thousands of tracks to choose from.  I was psyched to see that the playlists I had created in Windows Media transferred over in the order I had created them.  That’s an issue I’ve had with other music managers that rearrange the tracks.
Conclusion
 
Sonos has nailed it.  Without the need for expensive custom installation or drilling through walls, you can have far-reaching multi-room audio and fast access to your digital music, all from a no-brainer controller.  The sound quality was as good as I could expect, given that I store music on my hard drive at varying quality levels.  High bit-rate recordings sounded terrific on both my speakers and the supplied Sonos pair.  The system is compatible with the four digital music formats: MP3, WMA, AAC and WAV files.
 
At a $1,200 buy-in price for two ZonePlayers and a controller, the Sonos Music System isn’t cheap.  Additional ZonePlayers are $499 each and controllers are $399 each.  A bundle (speakers included) lists for $1,499.
 
But you can start small with this system and add on as you need to.  The Sonos is an impressive digital-age multi-room music system that gives you room to grow. 

Pros:
 
          Easy to setup and use
          Solid wireless connection with our router
          Bright colorful display on the controller
          Good sound quality
          Supports multiple digital music formats
          Supports up to 32 Zone players and multiple “zones”
Cons:
 
          You need to add your own speakers
          Could be expensive depending on your setup
          The system depends too much on the remote control
          When the remote battery dies, the system is useless
          First ZonePlayer must be physically connected to your router (second ZonePlayer is wireless)

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