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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