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 2005, Sonos introduced its first multiroom digital music system to rave reviews and an Editors' Choice from CNET.com. Most multiroom setups are complicated, costly affairs that involve pricey equipment and professional installers. But Sonos managed to come up with a simple, elegant, and relatively affordable solution to streaming hard-drive-based music to multiple rooms via a series of networked ZonePlayer base stations and a sleek command module. If the system had a weakness, though, it was that the original ZonePlayer, the ZP100, had a built-in amp that was overkill for buyers who already counted an amplifier or an A/V receiver as part of their existing music systems. Enter the ZP80, a much smaller, lighter, and cheaper ZonePlayer that also adds digital audio outputs. A single ZP80 will set you back $350, but the Sonos BU80 system currently bundles two ZP80s plus the CR100 remote control for $1,000. That's $200 less than the ZP100 bundle, not to mention a $100 savings from the cost of buying the components separately. In our book, the lower price and better balance of features makes the Sonos ZP80 bundle (a.k.a. the Sonos BU80) the new king of the hill for multiroom digital music solutions. It's also a big deal that Sonos has integrated the subscription-based Rhapsody music service right into the system (no PC required), which means you have access to thousands of songs the moment you turn the system on and activate the one-month free trial. This goes for Apple users, too, who previously had no way to run Rhapsody on their Macs.Taking out the amp has really allowed the designers to shrink the size of the ZonePlayer. Measuring just 2.9 by 5.4 inches square (HWD) and weighing a mere 1.5 pounds, the Sonos ZP80 can fit in plenty of tight spots that its predecessor, the ZP100, can't. In fact, if your audio rack is deep enough, you may even be able to stick the unit behind another component. Sonos would balk at this suggestion, but the fact is that the ZP80 does look a little funky sitting on top a standard 17-inch audio component or DVD player, especially since its color is sort of an off-white. (Yes, it looks a little like a mini Mac Mini.) It looks best set apart, resting on its shelf, where it will surely beckon the question, "What's that?" from visitors.
Aside from its much smaller footprint, the other big difference between the ZP80 and the ZP100 are the units' back-panel connectivity options. While the ZP100 has a pair of high-quality speaker-binding posts, analog stereo inputs and outputs (plus a subwoofer output), and a built-in four-port Ethernet switch, the ZP80 leaves off the speaker posts (you must connect it to a stereo system or a set of powered speakers) and drops two of the Ethernet switches, while adding optical and coaxial digital outputs. Only analog cables are included with the ZP80, however.
As we said in our review of the original Sonos Digital Music System, 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--as many as 32 can be linked, and you can mix and match ZP100s and ZP80s as you see fit--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 and 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 install a wizard on your PC or Mac (we tried both), which, in turn, guides you through a short setup process to build the ZP80'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 Sonos BU80 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 downright 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), and you can always purchase additional CR100 wireless controllers.
For our tests, we set up one Sonos ZP80 in our living room and one in our master bedroom. We connected one ZonePlayer to an Onkyo A/V receiver that powered a set of NHT tower speakers along with a set of Polk in-wall speakers in our kitchen; the other was connected to an old Nakamichi receiver that powered a set of small Energy speakers in the bedroom, as well as a set of Polk in-wall speakers in the master bathroom (yes, if you have A/V receivers with multiroom capabilities, you can get four rooms for the price of two ZonePlayers).
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 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. 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 an impressive panoply of audio files: MP3, WMA, AAC, Ogg Vorbis, Audible books on tape, Apple Lossless, FLAC, AIFF, and WAV. It does not, however, support playback of secure or DRM-encrypted WMA (PlaysForSure) and AAC files, including those bought from Napster and iTunes, respectively. 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, although the Sonos remote won't give you control over the attached devices, of course.
Sonos made good on its promise to support the Rhapsody subscription music service with an April 2005 firmware upgrade, making the system even more appealing to music lovers. But recently, Sonos took that Rhapsody integration a step further by essentially bypassing your PC--or your Mac, for that matter. With a September 2006 firmware upgrade, you can activate a free 30-day trial to Rhapsody right from the remote, which automatically gives you access to Rhapsody's massive library of music.
One of the problems Sonos discovered with potential buyers--many of them more affluent folks--was that they had all their music on CDs but had yet to rip those CDs into digital music files on their computers. So while the thought the concept of multiroom audio sounded cool, they didn't have any music to stream. The big deal here is that, with Rhapsody, you really don't need to have your own music collection. Rhapsody's base package costs $9.95 and allows you to stream as much music as you want. You can sort by artists, albums, or latest releases and build a playlist on the fly without interrupting your current song, plus the Sonos remote's screen even displays album art.
Perhaps the only problem with Rhapsody is that there's just so much music to choose from, it can be unwieldy to navigate that huge library. That said, both companies are constantly trying to improve their systems, so we expect future firmware upgrades that deliver new features. And in case you're wondering, if you already have a subscription to Rhapsody, you can link that account from your PC to your Sonos system. It's also worth noting that Rhapsody still isn't available for Macs, so this is the first time that Mac users will be able to use the service without owning a Windows PC.
Don't want to pay for your music? The Sonos system comes preconfigured to play nearly 90 free Internet radio stations and can be configured to play additional stations broadcast in both the MP3 and WMA streaming formats. It also bears mentioning that the Sonos BU80 can stream from any networked attached storage device that supports the CIFS (common Internet file system) 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 to your music collection.
Since we wrote our initial review of this bundle, Sonos has added a few new features, most notably an alarm clock that lets you wake up to music; you can also set a timer to automatically shut down the system as you fall asleep. Additionally, the system now supports as many as 50,000 tracks in your local library (for those of you who have massive music collections) and the automatic indexing of Podcasts, Audible content (audio books), and new music that's been added to your library. In general, the Sonos BU80 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's 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, we rarely lost the wireless connection to SonosNet--Sonos says you can roam as far as 150 feet from any ZonePlayer before a connection is lost--and the times we did, it restored itself quickly.
Sound quality was also impressive. With the first ZonePlayer connected to our A/V receiver's coaxial digital input, tracks such as Placebo's "Follow the Cops Back Home" and "Because I Want You" sounded multidimensional 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.
The one area that continues to be a small issue is with the battery life of the remote. With light use, you should be able to go about a week without recharging, but we'd recommend buying the remote's optional $50 Sonos CC100 dock/charging cradle. That way, when you're not using the remote, you can leave it in its dock, and it'll always have a full charge.