Sonos ZonePlayer ZP100/ Controller CR100/ Loudspeaker SP100 
Home Theater Media Servers Music Servers
Written by Thomas Garcia   
Tuesday, 01 November 2005

Convergence is a terminology and process that seems to have permeated every facet of our daily experiences. Convergence technologies will eventually be ubiquitous in every aspect of our lives. So what is “convergence technology”? It all depends on the type of application. It includes, but is not limited to, the popular act of taking pictures with a cell phone or surfing the Web on a television. More sophisticated uses include wireless and wired voice and data transmissions, various forms of security, voice over IP and data networking technologies, all converging to create a seamless integration and solution for our personal and professional needs.

Nowhere is this more evident than the merging of consumer electronics and personal computers. There are a plethora of companies that are providing unimaginable functionality that was science fiction a mere decade ago.

One exciting new entry into the arena of personal computer and home music convergence is the Sonos Digital Music System, a surprisingly elegant yet well-executed solution for creating a seamless wireless or wired whole house music network. The Sonos team spent three years engineering and testing their product for ease of use and simplicity of deployment before unleashing it on the consumer. They developed an innovative interface to access music files that many enthusiasts now archive on their personal computers, creating an ingenious way of playing those files via a wired or wireless mesh network over multiple, independently controlled zones.

The system provided for this review consisted of a single handheld wireless remote control, aptly named “Controller” ($399.00 each), and two “ZonePlayers” ($499.00 each). This configuration is currently being offered as an introductory bundled package, priced at $1,199.00, a savings of $200.00 compared to purchasing the components individually.

Sonos also offers an easy migration path for expanding the network system. Simply incorporate additional ZonePlayers at locations where you want to have a new music zone, connect the speakers of your choice and go through the Sonos Setup Wizard process. After initiating this straightforward procedure from your computer, the units will interface with each other without any time delay and function as fully independent zones. For those who may feel technically challenged, I can assure you that this process will be painless and works as promised.

Polished in execution, yet trouble-free in use, the Sonos Digital Music System distributes and plays music stored on any PC, Mac or Network Attached Storage device throughout your home. The system uses a ZonePlayer located in each room where music is desired, and the entire network is accessed via the wireless Controller. Sonos requires that the first ZonePlayer be physically connected to your home network, while the others may be connected through existing network wiring, or via Sonosnet™, a secure, proprietary peer-to-peer wireless network that maintains synchronization of music within milliseconds across all of the ZonePlayers. Sonos’ handheld Controller communicates wirelessly with the network to control the system. The mesh feature means that you need only be in wireless range of any ZonePlayer on the network, which greatly increases the music distribution system’s potential coverage area and simplifies expansion.

By design, the Sonos ZonePlayer is a relatively understated yet attractive component with a die-cast matte aluminum enclosure and a light gray base. Measuring 10.2 inches wide by 4.4 inches high by 8.2 inches deep and weighing 10 pounds, the ZonePlayer’s size allows its placement in almost any environment without drawing undue or unwanted attention. It contains a 50W minimum RMS per channel (eight Ohms, 20-20kHz, THD+N < 0.02 percent), high-performance power amplifier based on Tripath Technology’s innovative Class-T digital amplifier topology. These amplifiers are very efficient, run extremely cool and are powerful enough for most applications that the Sonos system might encounter. And if your power situation requires something more significant, preamplifier level outputs are provided to allow the user to implement external amplifiers when desired.

The front landscape contains a lighted white status indicator and three buttons for volume up, volume down and mute. All audio, loudspeaker and network connectors are located on the rear panel. A four-port Ethernet switch provides direct wired network connections. One bonus is that this can allow Internet access in each room that contains a ZonePlayer, without the necessity of a wireless or wired PC network for connecting personal computers in remote locations. Loudspeaker cables are connected with high-quality, spring-loaded binding posts that are large enough for at least 12-gauge speaker wires. A pair of auto-sensing RCA line inputs are provided, which alert the Sonos Controller that a new line source is active when music is playing. Three additional RCA jacks offer preamp level stereo outputs and a single subwoofer output auto-senses when a subwoofer is connected and engages a built in 80 Hertz crossover. An IEC power outlet with 115/230 Volt power selection completes the rear panel connections.

Elegant yet ergonomic, the Sonos Controller is a relatively small handheld remote measuring 6.5 inches wide by 3.8 inches high by 0.95 inches thick, and weighs a mere 0.75 pounds. It offers a pleasing balance and tactile feel, while providing a sense of substance and sophistication. The focal point of the splash-proof metal on light gray enclosure is a 3.5-inch diagonal color LCD screen with LED backlighting. A large touch-sensitive scroll wheel is located to the right of the screen. Control is provided through nine backlit buttons and three soft-selector buttons below the screen. The Sonos Controller also has a built-in sensor that will automatically backlight the control panel when it is being used in low light environments and disengage the light when it is not in use. This feature helps extend the life of the battery in between recharges. The battery life is claimed to be two to five days, depending on usage. Other optional items not included with the review sample introductory bundle include a charging cradle for the remote ($49.99) and SP100 bookshelf loudspeakers ($179 per pair, including two 10-foot lengths of 14-gauge speaker cable).

After more than 30 years of configuring and disassembling a wide assortment of audio and video systems, I seldom look at any manuals prior to installing and wiring components. Times have changed, though, and with the dawn of the personal computer, there are certain procedural requirements that must be followed in order to make the installations work correctly (and even then, they sometimes don’t!).

Fortunately, Sonos engineered the user interface and connectivity in such a simple format that within 20 minutes and one effortless act of synchronization, I had music playing from my PC to two different zones, one in my main living room and one in my upstairs bedroom, without one single set-up glitch or operational malfunction. It was truly a breath of fresh air to have a product like this work directly out-of-the-box as advertised.

I initially installed the Sonos software on my personal computer and followed the directions for connecting the master ZonePlayer by plugging it into my router using an Ethernet cable, and proceeded with basic instructions to initialize this first unit. After selecting the new room option and simultaneously pressing the volume and mute buttons, the initial ZonePlayer was recognized. Moving downstairs, I set up the second ZonePlayer in my living room, utilizing the wireless link to the system. Again, after choosing to connect a new player in the software and briefly holding the two buttons on the living room ZonePlayer, it worked perfectly.

All my evaluation was done with a Sony Vaio laptop computer running Windows XP Professional as the music storage device. I have attempted to create my own media server via personal computers since the late 1990s with varying degrees of success, but have never come close to having this kind of ease of use and functionality. To summarize my initial assessment of the Sonos system, I was very impressed.

One of the most significant features of the Sonos Digital Music System is the Sonosnet mesh network. A ZonePlayer need not be in wireless range of the main unit, as long as it is in range of any of the other ZonePlayers in the system. In this manner, a very large wireless system is easily achieved by creating a large mesh that radiates out from the primary ZonePlayer and computer.

One great convenience of the Sonos ZonePlayer is that the rear of each unit contains four Ethernet ports for RJ45 connectors, which is useful for expanded connectivity. One noted advantage is that, as when any main computer is linked to the master ZonePlayer and connected to an Internet provider, any room that contains a ZonePlayer now has Internet connections, a very nice feature that will undoubtedly be beneficial for many installations.

Using the System
Functionally, the Sonos Digital Music System is versatile and straightforward. I found the layout and usage of the remote intuitive and easy. Up to 32 zones can play independent songs or the same song simultaneously. Each zone has its own bass, treble, balance and loudness control, and volume is adjustable by individual zone or groups of zones. Music from up to 16 personal computers, Macs or Network Attached Storage devices may be accessed. A variety of file types are supported, including compressed MP3, WMA, AAC (MPEG4), Ogg Vorbis, and Flac (lossless) music files, as well as uncompressed WAV and AIFF files. Support for new audio formats is possible with future firmware upgrades. DRM-encrypted and Apple or WMA Lossless formats are not currently supported.

You can also play Internet radio stations using streaming MP3 and WMA formats, with 100 radio stations preprogrammed into the ZonePlayer. Any external audio source connected to a ZonePlayer can be played by all zones within the system. Rhapsody 3.0 music services are supported, as well as Rhapsody®, Itunes®, WinAmp®, Windows Media Player® and MusicMatchTM playlists.

Throughout my listening evaluations, I used a wide variety of small, two-way monitors and floor-standing loudspeakers. The amplifier section was very compatible with all loudspeaker loads, and commendable results were achieved universally. Along with Sonos own SP100 bookshelf loudspeakers, some additional excellent options that should be considered are offerings from companies such as Paradigm and Axiom. Of course, these are just a few of the alternatives, as the choices of quality matches are relatively endless. Although not discussed in great detail in this review, there is the additional option of installing in-wall loudspeakers and remotely locating the ZonePlayers to create a hidden custom installation. I believe this may be the installation of choice for many purchasers.

Listening to music through the Sonos system provided some challenges. Unlike conventional reviews that incorporate a single piece of equipment into your system for evaluation of its individual performance, the Sonos system introduces a multitude of different parameters. That being said, I achieved excellent symmetry connecting a ZonePlayer to my two-channel living room system, which consists of the JBL Ti10K four-way loudspeakers ($7,000) and a single Paradigm Seismic 12 subwoofer ($1700), using Sonos’s built-in 50-watt amplifier to feed the JBLs. This combination is definitely not the configuration that the Sonos system would normally be pared to, yet it performed very admirably.

Listening to a variety of melodic vocals such as Patricia Barber, Elton John and Chrissie Hynde, contrasted with the harder-hitting rock of Porcupine Tree, David Bowie and Stevie Ray Vaughn, gave me a great global impression of the Sonos system's ability to accurately transmit full uncompressed wave files. In my uncontrolled listening tests, I was not able to discern any compromises in the delivery of these musical cuts via the Sonos Digital Music System. I also achieved remarkably good results with MP3 files that were recorded at a minimum 320 kbps, though sonic compromises could be detected with significantly lower-resolution files. Though these lower-resolution files may be acceptable to many individuals or for background music, the true performance capabilities of the Sonos system may not be realized at the lower bit rates.

The Downside
The Sonos system's downsides need to be put into the context of its intended uses. Sonos does not claim to be the ideal solution for all installations, yet they have picked a very growing consumer segment to service. With that in mind, there are still wish list items and variations of the product that would be desirable.

First off, the Sonos configuration is a standalone system. Though there are ways of integrating it into existing conventional audio and video systems, the method could be more elegant by having a zone player sans amplifier that can be plugged into the input of a receiver or processor and save the cost and size of the unused amplifier section. Additionally, without having any RS-232 or IR access, the product continues to find itself positioned as a standalone system and, with today's integration of all audio and video components, this is a definite limitation.

Though you are able to add additional components via the inputs on any one of the ZonePlayers, you will not be able to control the functionality of those pieces unless you go to the room where they are located and utilize their independent remote controls to navigate their functions. While digital music is definitely the focus for this product, this issue must be addressed if the company desires to make a true single-source solution for whole house audio.

For the audio purist, it would be advantageous to have a digital output to maintain a direct digital stream to their processor. After visiting Sonos’ facility and speaking with several of their engineers and representatives, I was informed that they are actively pursuing new products that will address many of the issues discussed in this section.

After spending a few months with the Sonos Digital Music System, I acquired a tremendous appreciation for its functionality, versatility and ease of use. Despite some initial reservations on the connectivity of the overall system, when I focused on its primary applications, I came to see it as a brilliant solution for many situations. I found myself daydreaming about locations and installations that would be well served by the Sonos system at my own residence, as well as those of friends and family. The product worked seamlessly right out of the box and, with minimal instructions, it was up and operating in less than 20 minutes. Admittedly, there is much more functionality available with this product than I had identified in this review. Therefore, I highly recommend that you go through the entire manual to take advantage of its complete operational features. My quick installation allowed me to access files off my personal computer and play music into different rooms, all via the wireless interface. The Controller was very intuitive and easy to navigate, with the feel and access somewhat similar to that of an iPod. There are several shortcuts available, including a method for quickly scrolling to your favorite music to avoid going through the tens of thousands of songs that can be accessed via the Controller.

It is easy to envision countless situations where this product would be the perfect solution for a whole house audio system. There are many homes in which it would be very difficult if not impossible to install a conventional hard-wired control system, and the cabling infrastructure cost alone could be very substantial. Another great application would be for those who are living in a residence that they do not own (renters, college students, vacationers, etc.) and would like to have multi-room audio without disturbing the existing structure. Ultimately, one would envision the main contingency of enthusiasts for the product as those whose primary source of music is a mass library of digital files stored on their PCs. By adding the Sonos system, not only do they extend and access their music throughout their whole living environment, they also have the capability of listening to a plethora of Internet radio stations and still have the ability to plug in other conventional sources, albeit with some limitation to access.

Ultimately, I had a tremendous amount of fun with the Sonos system. After many years of trying to create my own media center, it really allowed me to appreciate the thoughtful engineering and user interface that has been incorporated into the Sonos Digital Music System. Some potential purchasers may contemplate the price of the individual units, but I can say with great confidence that the cost savings over installing a hard-wired system, ease of installation and the fact that your whole capital investment can go with you whenever you move makes the product an extremely attractive solution that will serve a broad variety of individual needs.

Though not completely perfect, I find the Sonos system to be a substantial step in the right direction for converging and simplifying the ability to have whole house audio at what I consider a relative bargain. After experiencing the convenience of having my complete music collection in the palm of my hands, it is hard to fathom ever going back to the old school way of hunting for CDs and loading them one by one. So for those of you who look to the bottom line, the Sonos Digital Music System provided one of the most hassle-free, musically enjoyable and easy to use experiences I have had with a consumer electronic device. I have no reservations in recommending the Sonos Digital Music System for the multitude of applications where it will prove to be an ultimate solution.
Manufacturer Sonos
Model ZonePlayer ZP100/ Controller CR100/ Loudspeaker SP100
Reviewer Tom Garcia

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