Editors' note: As of fall 2010, Sonos is phasing out the bundled versions of its products, though they may still remain available through retailers until inventory has been depleted. However, all of the component products discussed in this review (the ZonePlayer ZP120, ZonePlayer ZP90, and Controller CR200) are still current products that are available separately. Prospective Sonos buyers will also want to check out the Sonos S5.
Sonos is back for 2009 with a new version of its signature Digital Audio System. Like earlier iterations of the Sonos product, the new "Bundle 250" allows you to wirelessly access your computer's digital music collection as well as a wide range of Internet radio and streaming-audio services (Pandora, Last.fm, and--with paid subscriptions--Napter and Rhapsody) in two rooms of the house, with the option to expand that up to a whopping 32 rooms. But the latest Sonos adds a major upgrade: the CR200 touch-screen remote. If that wasn't good enough--and the remote is excellent--it can also be controlled by any iPhone or iPod Touch running a free app that's available via the iTunes App Store. The result is a whole-house music system that's easier to control than ever before. The catch? The system costs a somewhat pricey $1,000. And while that may seem like a lot, custom-installed systems can cost as much as $5,000 per room and they aren't as easy to use nor do they offer the level functionality found in this system. We were always impressed by Sonos' capability to access your home music collection and a variety of online music options, but the addition of the slick new touch-screen remote--and the iPhone/iPod Touch integration--gives the luxury digital audio system a compelling leg up on the competition.
Editors' note: Because this product incorporates the identical ZP90 and ZP120 ZonePlayers found in the earlier Sonos BU150, readers of the earlier review may experience some deja vu when reading the sections below. Also, as of August 5, 2009, we have slightly modified this review to more accurately reflect how the Sonos system handles podcast support.
The basic components
There are three main components of the Sonos Digital Music System: two ZonePlayer base stations--one ZP120, one ZP90--and one CR200 Controller (the remote control). Each one is available separately as well; additional ZP120s are $500, the ZP90 is $350, and the CR200 goes for $350--so the $1,000 price tag of the BU250 bundle represents a $200 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 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--especially after seeing a custom-painted version.
The ZonePlayer ZP120 houses a fully fledged, 55-watt-per-channel, Class-D digital amplifier and weighs 5 pounds. It fills out a 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 ZP120's 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 two Ethernet ports (more on those later). Onboard buttons are limited to three--volume up/down and mute--because the main functions are controlled remotely.
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 unpowered 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 minisystem, 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.
The big step up for the Sonos system for 2009 is the CR200 remote. While the older CR100 was basically a horizontally oriented iPod Classic--complete with scroll wheel--the CR200 takes its design cue from the iPhone and iPod Touch, offering a touch screen. The 3.5-inch screen boasts full VGA resolution (480x640), which is double that of Apple's handhelds. Its dimensions are 4.5 inches long by 2.88 inches wide by 0.63 inch deep. While that's about twice as thick as an iPod Touch, the Sonos CR200 certainly isn't bulky, and the heft feels good in the hand.
The CR200 will be instantly familiar to anyone who's used an iPhone or iPod Touch--and that's a good thing. The capacitive LED-backlit touch screen is excellent--it's almost as responsive as Apple's (scrolling is perhaps a hair less responsive, but still top-notch) and the color screen is sharp and brilliant. There are only four hard buttons below the screen: mute, volume up/down, and "zones." Choose the zone you want to control (which can be individual ZonePlayers, or several linked together), and you'll get the "home" screen with access to the full panoply of music options available (see the features and performance section for more details).
The remote includes a charging cradle (that was a $50 extra for the earlier Sonos bundles). The remote's rubberized backside slips off to reveal the rechargeable 1850mAh lithium ion polymer battery. (We were really happy to see that Sonos went with a replaceable battery this time around, correcting an annoyance of the previous remote.)
If the remote had a shortcoming, it was that the "home" screen wasn't customizable. That's an option we appreciate on Logitech's Squeezebox Duet remote, but its absence here is merely a quibble.
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 and online music services--pull it straight off the Internet.
Once one ZonePlayer is connected to your network, the second one can be wirelessly linked to the first via a secure peer-to-peer 802.11n 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.)
Just be aware that the SonosNet network is for Sonos devices (the ZonePlayers and remotes) only--you can't use the ZonePlayers as wireless access points for your other Wi-Fi devices. If that sounds frustrating, keep in mind that this system keeps the Sonos from monopolizing bandwidth on your existing home Wi-Fi network. That means--unlike competing products that use standard Wi-Fi--the Sonos won't be chipping away at your home network's wireless bandwidth, which is especially important for multiroom setups. And there is some good news on the home-networking front: 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.
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) or CMB protocols--that includes Buffalo LinkStation, Apple Time Capsule, Maxtor Shared Storage drives, and Netgear ReadyNAS devices. 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 Web site includes extensive FAQs for network-attached-storage setups, as well as a list of problematic devices.)