Sonos Digital Music System Review
- ZonePlayer includes 4-port switch
- Wireless color LCD Controller w/auto backlight
- Automatic subwoofer detect with 80Hz crossover
- Super easy setup
- ZonePlayer includes 2x50 watt amplifier
- Extensive user manual with excellent instructions & help topics
- Fanless, silent design
- Very few controls on actual ZonePlayers
- Sonos speakers could benefit from the use of a dedicated subwoofer
- No included dock for Controller and difficult-to-open DC adapter connector cover
- No digital audio output
I've utilized several music server systems in my tenure at Audioholics and have built and rebuilt several HTPCs to boot. As such, I've developed a feel and opinion for what makes many of these systems stand apart from the others as well as for which features are important. The Sonos Digital Music System, in a nutshell, is one of the more progressive and user-friendly systems I've seen. There are several reasons for this:
- The system sets up in 3 easy steps, and adding additional units takes a whopping two steps
- Sonos assumes you can get or acquire digital files to use as source material, and gives you Internet radio if you can't.
- It is small, attractive and simple so that it can fit anywhere with ease
- It is wireless, yet can utilize its own network, not requiring you to have an existing 802.11g network.
- It utilizes a wireless color LCD Controller.
Sonos Setup and Wireless LCD ControllerI really wasn't kidding about the Sonos taking only three steps to set up. In fact, here they are:
Connect the ZonePlayer to your audio system or to a pair of speakers (it has an on-board 2 x 50 watts/channel amplifier)
Connect the first ZonePlayer to your existing network using an Ethernet (RJ45) cable
Install the computer software or follow the instructions on the LCD Controller to configure the Sonos music system.
Obviously, Step 3 involves several "sub-steps", however the system walks you through each step which involves nothing of the sort of mental gymnastics you would think of when typically setting up network devices:
- Press the 'Mute' and 'Volume Up' buttons on the primary ZonePlayer to assign your LCD Controller to your network.
- Select a name for the ZonePlayer/Zone.
- Add additional ZonePlayers or wait until later to do so.
- Register the Sonos Digital Music System to enable automatic updates.
- Set up access to your digital music files (this last can be done from several computers if desired, including network or local shared file folders.)
Adding additional ZonePlayers/Zones is simpler than I would have thought possible. All you do is set up a new ZonePlayer in the desired location (either connected directly to speakers or through another audio system) and then select 'Add a ZonePlayer' on either the Sonos LCD Controller or the Desktop Controller software. Once you do this you have about 2 minutes to press the 'Mute' and 'Volume Up' buttons on the new ZonePlayer which will trigger the network to autoconfigure the new Zone into the system.
The only possible snags you may run into when setting up the Sonos System involve whether you have unusual network scenarios such as lack of an Ethernet connection or a particularly over-protective firewall. In either case, Sonos has plenty of documentation to solve most types of problems. My network has hardware-level security that requires the MAC address of all wireless components to be registered. However, since the first ZonePlayer connected through my LAN (non-wireless connection) I never encountered an issue. To my surprise, the Sonos system provided its own wireless network (dubbed Sonosnet).
Using the Sonos Wireless LCD Controller
Sporting a first-generation iPod-style touch-sensitive scroll wheel and a full color 3.5" diagonal LCD screen, the Sonos Controller is really what sets apart this Digital Music System from its peers. It combines ease of use, style, and a suite of flexible options and controls. Once you have configured your system, (for this review we acquired three zones) the Sonos Controller is your all-in-one tool for sending your desired sources to their appropriate destinations.
The Controller itself has a very simplified interface. The aforementioned scroll wheel has an 'Enter' button inside, accompanied by revere, play/pause, and stop buttons. At the top right there are hard buttons for selecting a zone, backing up in the menu, and bringing up the available music choices. The left features volume and mute controls, while the bottom has three soft function buttons that interact with the LCD screen contents.
The remote is automatically backlit, meaning that it has a built-in sensor that engages a backlit when it is being used in low light environments. It also automatically disengages backlighting to conserve battery power when the Controller is well lit. This feature surprised me as I was walking through my dark hallway after having just set up the third ZonePlayer in the Guest room. The buttons just popped to life as I was walking and just as suddenly went back to normal once I reached the bottom of the stairs and the well-lit living room. This is a feature that is not only helpful; it's actually as thoughtful as it is cool.
The Sonos Controller is both wireless and sports a rechargeable Li-ION polymer battery. Charging seemed to take about 2 hours and the unit lasts fairly long (days under moderately aggressive, but not persistent, use. It has several battery saving modes including a "deep sleep" function that requires a brief boot up once entered (but only occurs after 4 hours of inactivity and is adjustable from 1-12 hours). The charging process, while simple, could use some help. The DC power port is covered by a rubber door that is almost impossible to open without having long nails or a pen. The Controller has charging tabs on the front bottom that are apparently slated for use with a docking station. I would love to see that as at least an option in the near future. Weighing about 0.75 lbs, I felt the Controller to be a good blend of portability and sturdiness. It had substance and the fully-gasketed no-skid/splash-proof back coating it possesses is a nice touch, making sure that you won't have any problems using it around water.
Sonos Zones, Music Library and Loudspeakers
Sending Music to Various Zones
Each Zone can either stream music from your music library, any of the ZonePlayer line inputs, or the Internet (via free online radio stations supported by Sonos or user-added MP3-streaming broadcasts). Did you catch the part about being able to select Line-inputs? Don't ignore that one. With Sonos, you can send any two-channel source into a ZonePlayer and then stream that source to any or all of your other zones. I would suggest hooking up the CD or DVD player's analogue outputs to the nearest ZonePlayer just because it allows you to quickly send a brand new disc (or perhaps one you haven't yet encoded) to another room with the push of a button.
The process for doing any of these things is so straightforward it is hardly worth noting. Use the Controller to select a zone, select your source and hit the 'Enter' button at the center of the scroll wheel.
Not only can you add and assign new ZonePlayers to your Sonos Digital Music System network, you can group or 'Link' zones so that more than one ZonePlayer can play the same source. This is perfect for party modes or for when you might be jumping back and forth between two particular zones. This feature really takes this system up a notch as it truly makes it a whole house music management solution.
Using the Music Library
- Track (an unabridged listing of all music in alphabetical file order)
- Imported Playlists (supports MusicMatch, Windows Media Player, WinAmp, and iTunes)
- Browse by Folder (a convenient folder view of all of your stored music per shared resource)
I didn't see any missing attributes that would cause any concern. Overall, Sonos appears to have covered all the bases in allowing you to quickly and easily select music or add songs to a queue (a soft button option which appears whenever selecting or viewing a track.)
The Sonos SP100 Loudspeakers
We connected up the Sonos SP100 loudspeakers in one of our zones (an upstairs bedroom) and played a bit with the tone controls (configurable per zone) to dial in a sound that was to our liking. Adding a subwoofer (which automatically engages an 80Hz crossover) would be a great addition to any Sonos loudspeaker system as it would free up the speakers to address only the frequencies to which they are targeted and make better use of the Sonos' dual 50 watt amplifiers. What's nice about Sonos is that the system can be used with the preamp outs, the Sonos speakers, or you can connect your own bookshelf speakers for a more custom tailored sound - it's all about the choices.
Connecting Speakers to the Sonos ZonePlayer
As I mentioned earlier, the Sonos ZonePlayer contains a pair of 50 watt amplifiers that are capable of powering a pair of 8-ohm bookshelf speakers. Weighing in at 10 lbs, the ZonePlayer would appear to have a pretty robust power supply considering its modest size (we could not check under the hood due to the construction of the Sonos enclosure). Standard 14 gauge speaker wire is provided and can be used to connect a loudspeaker with the spring-loaded binding posts of the ZonePlayer. I found the posts to work equally well with banana plugs, though the cabling is more visible.
Volume controls are available on the ZonePlayer, in addition to a Mute button, allowing you to make adjustments without requiring the Sonos Controller. The Mute button, if held for three seconds, can also be used to mute all players on the network. All of this comes in handy since, in many cases, there could be multiple zones and only one Sonos Controller (though multiple controllers can be used within a single system.) In future updates to the Sonos System we would love to see an expanded, optional version of the ZonePlayer that featured an on-board LCD screen and Controller so that key zones could operate without the wireless remote.
Using the Desktop Controller Application
Working with the Desktop Controller application is very similar to using the Sonos Controller, though it offers a more compartmentalized, expanded view of many of the options. This is primarily due to a larger amount of screen real estate, In addition, the panes are more or less made up of a dynamic areas which update based on your selections. There is a 'Zones' pane for displaying your ZonePlayers; a 'Now Playing' pane with Music, Volume, EQ, and Queue controls; and a Music Library pane for displaying your playlists, tracks, line-in sources, and /or Internet radio stations.
Sonos Listening Tests & Conclusion
CD: Hoobastank - The
I popped in Hoobastanks's latest CD, The Reason and ripped it to MP3 at 320kbps, adding it to my comprehensive music collection. I then proceeded to play it through the Sonos system on all three zones using the All Zones - Party Mode. While I wasn't surprised to hear the music coming from all over the house, I was pleased to find that it was all in sync (you may hear delays caused by the speed of sound and distance between the zones of course). Sonos states that the maximum delay introduced by the system is 2ms and took great care to ensure that the system would perform well as a site-wide music distribution system. I also felt that the MP3s sounded as good as they can for 320kbps files - which is fine for whole house entertainment purposes. To hear the differences I did a few comparisons:
- First I made a copy of the CD
- I then queued the CD up in a DVD player and fed the stereo outputs into a remote ZonePlayer. This source would stream WAV to Reference System 3.
- Then I ripped 320kbps MP3s which served as a final source streaming from my music library.
- The Denon DVD-5900 was used as the reference player in Reference System 3
I then started comparing the 3 zones using streaming MP3, streaming PCM/WAV, and the original source CD. While I could hear the differences between the MP3 and the CD in Reference System 3 when switching inputs on the receiver, the differences were acceptable and varied from track to track. In general I would say that the MP3s would clip reverb or sound a bit more fatiguing over time, especially on very compressed tracks. This is the nature and result of the compression I utilized for my MP3s. When playing orchestral passages or Classical music there would be some noticeable loss of high and low frequency detail - but nothing that was out of the ordinary for an MP3 to CD comparison. As for the CD stream itself, the Sonos did not appear to be truncating the file or re-encoding the data in any way. In fact, after conversing with Sonos they informed me that the WAV files are kept unchanged and streamed in full bandwidth until it is decoded by the ZonePlayer. MP3 files are also kept in their native encoded rate (in this case 320kbps), not downsampled to a lower bitrate. I was really pleased with the results and track 3 "What Happened to Us?" sounded awesome - in all three formats.
Continuing to stream MP3 I listened to the rest of the album and felt that the Sonos system could not only provide access to your entire library collection - the ultimate in convenience - but also do so with accuracy and fidelity that made the most of the formats.
Ever since stumbling into Internet radio a couple years ago I have been hooked. Sonos brings enough samplings of Internet radio to satisfy casual listeners with the best of R&B, Country, Pop, Rock, Top40, 80's Rock (my personal favorite place to tune-in) and even Classical. If you have a favorite station that isn't on the Sonos list, simply add it by grabbing the URL (make sure it is indeed an MP3 streaming station) and selecting Radio/Add New in the Desktop Controller application. It will add the new station to your Favorites list and you will be able to enjoy it.
One nice thing I noticed was that the Sonos Controller (and Desktop Controller) provided continuous real-time feedback of the currently playing Internet Radio station. This listed the current song title and artists - at least from the stations that provided that information accurately in their streams. Of course, when playing MP3s the album cover art and song title are also displayed in the respective players, provided your MP3 library is correctly tagged.
Conclusions and Overall Perceptions
Sonos stands out from the vast landscape of digital music systems for good reason. Its uniqueness and attention to detail earns it a place at what should be the top of everyone's shopping list. The Sonos LCD Controller is the icing on what is a very robust cake, taking a well-thought-out music system and making it excellent. I actually had fun reviewing this product and, in fact, couldn't stop talking about all of the features and conveniences offered by the system and the wireless Controller. This is a statement piece that brings together the best of whole house audio and your portable media music collection. Why settle for a solution that only goes half-way when, for less that $1500 you can have true multi-room audio with a system that truly puts control in the palm of your hand.
The Score Card
The scoring below is based on each piece of equipment doing the duty it is designed for. The numbers are weighed heavily with respect to the individual cost of each unit, thus giving a rating roughly equal to:
Performance × Price Factor/Value = Rating
Audioholics.com note: The ratings indicated below are based on subjective listening and objective testing of the product in question. The rating scale is based on performance/value ratio. If you notice better performing products in future reviews that have lower numbers in certain areas, be aware that the value factor is most likely the culprit. Other Audioholics reviewers may rate products solely based on performance, and each reviewer has his/her own system for ratings.
Audioholics Rating Scale
- — Excellent
- — Very Good
- — Good
- — Fair
- — Poor
|Analogue Audio Performance
|Ergonomics & Usability
|Ease of Setup