Editor's note: As of May 2007, Sonos has discontinued the distribution of this particular configuration of its Digital Music System. In its place, the very similar Sonos BU130 bundle is available instead.
In the last couple of years, several companies have introduced digital audio receivers or media servers that enable you to stream music--and sometimes images and video--from your PC or Mac to a stereo, a TV, or a set of speakers in another room. So why has little Sonos, a start-up based in Santa Barbara, managed to attract so much attention for its relatively expensive audio-only Digital Music System? Well, because it's essentially the product everybody's been hoping Apple would make: a simple, elegant solution to streaming hard-drive-based music to multiple rooms via a series of networked ZonePlayer base stations and a sleek command module. If this system has a weakness, it's that that the company's original ZonePlayer, the ZP100--two of which are included with this bundle along with a CR100 remote--has a built-in amp that's overkill for buyers who already count an amplifier or an A/V receiver as part of their existing music systems. For that crowd, Sonos now offers the Z80 bundle (a.k.a. the BU80) for $200 less. But there are still plenty of folks out there who like the idea of having a ZonePlayer that can be connected to--and will power--a pair of speakers on its own. If you're among this crowd, read on.The Sonos Digital Music System is available in multiple configurations. The original one, reviewed here, consists of two ZP100 ZonePlayers and the CR100 controller, a high-tech wireless remote with a sharp color screen and a touch-pad scroll wheel that's the secret sauce in this package. The components aren't cheap--a single ZonePlayer goes for $499, while the remote comes in at $399--but they definitely have solid build quality. (The bundle price of $1,200 represents a savings of about $200 over the cost of purchasing them separately.)
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 understatedly sleek components would fit right into Apple's iPod line--and they would. The nearly button-free ZonePlayer, which houses a full-fledged 50-watt-per-channel amplifier and weighs 10 pounds with a die-cast, matte-aluminum enclosure, feels like a mini tank. About the size of an Xbox, Sonos designed it to be smaller than a typical stereo component (it measures 10.2 by 8.2 by 4.4 inches), so it would fit into spots that a typical component won't. It sports two pairs of high-quality speaker binding posts, analog stereo inputs and outputs (plus a subwoofer output), and a built-in four-port Ethernet switch.
It's worth repeating our aforementioned advice: If you plan on installing a ZonePlayer where you already have an acceptable amplifier--an A/V receiver, stereo, or even a tabletop radio--you should consider the $1,000 Z80 bundle, which includes the same excellent wireless remote but pairs it with two smaller ZP80 base stations. The ZP80s, which retail for $349 each, can be connected to any device with auxiliary inputs, and--unlike the analog-only ZP100--they'll connect via coaxial and optical digital inputs as well.
The overall look and feel of the Sonos is great, and the controller's interface is downright superlative. But we do have our quibbles. For instance, both the ZP80 and ZP100 base stations are unusually boxy--they won't match the any of the other components in your home audio system. Likewise, the iPod-white color scheme may be stylish, but we'd love to see a basic black version. One other nitpick: the controller's built-in rechargeable battery isn't removable, which could spell trouble down the road. For its part, Sonos insists that the battery will last at least five years. But with no front panel controls on the ZonePlayers, the system will live or die by the controller's battery life. For instance, after we frequently used the remote for one day, its battery charge was nearly halfway depleted.
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. At least one ZonePlayer in your system must be plugged into an Ethernet port somewhere on your network (we connected it to a Belkin Powerline Ethernet adapter and it worked fine). Subsequent ZonePlayers (up to 32 can be linked) can wirelessly communicate via a secure peer-to-peer mesh network (dubbed SonosNet) that the ZonePlayer automatically sets up. Although it's disappointing that one ZonePlayer in every house must be tethered to an Ethernet cable (it won't interact with your existing wireless network unless you connect an Ethernet to wireless bridge), wirelessly connecting additional ZonePlayers is exceptionally easy. 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. To get going, you can install a wizard on your PC or Mac (we tried both), which in turn guides you through a short setup process to build the ZP100'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. If you're already using networked directories, you can even point the Sonos straight to them, without using the setup software.The most impressive aspect of the 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 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 ran cables behind walls and built speakers into them--expensive, custom jobs that make Sonos's price tag seem like a downright bargain. All ZonePlayers in a system can also be controlled with the Sonos Desktop Controller computer software interface, and you can always purchase additional wireless controllers as well.
For our tests, we set up one ZonePlayer in our living room and one in our master bedroom. One ZonePlayer we connected to an A/V receiver that powered a set of NHT tower speakers; the other we tested connected directly to a few different loudspeaker sets and a powered subwoofer. You can choose to stream the same music in each zone (the music is synced) 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; choose to fire up playlists created by other applications such as iTunes and Windows Media Player; or listen to playlists you've created by using 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 the user experience you'll have. Oh, and if you have album art in your database, it will be displayed on the remote when the song plays. Nice.
The Sonos system, which supports updates through firmware upgrades, currently plays MP3, WMA, AAC, and WAV files but does not support playback of secure or DRM-encrypted WMA and AAC files, including those bought from Napster and iTunes. That said, there is a work-around. You can connect your iPod or other portable MP3 player to any of your ZonePlayers via the analog audio-in jacks on the back of the unit and play secure files that way (from the remote it's easy to switch to the audio-in source in any room). The audio-in jacks also give you the flexibility to attach a CD player or even a satellite radio and stream music from them to any room you've Sonos-ified. That's pretty sweet.