Editors' Note: As of July 27, 2009, Sonos has discontinued the distribution of this particular configuration of its Digital Music System. In its place, the similar Sonos BU250 bundle--which adds an improved touchscreen remote--is available instead.
Editors' Note: As of October 28, 2008, Sonos has added support for Last.fm's free online music service, additional free Internet radio stations (via RadioTime), and the ability to use an iPhone or iPod Touch as a remote control.
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 removeable, 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.)