Sonos Multi-Room Music System

Equipment+
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Music servers and computer audio
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Products:
Sonos BU150
Sonos Multi-Room Music System

Sonos has been making multi-room music servers since 2004. In the four short years since the introduction of its first player this 180-person company has become the market leader in moderately priced wireless multi-room music systems. How did it become so successful so quickly? Simple: Sonos builds a better mousetrap.

 

Little Boxes on the Equipment Rack

Sonos sent me its latest bundled starter package, the BU150 ($999), which includes four pieces—its ZP90 ZonePlayer ($349), ZP120 ZonePlayer ($499), Sonos Controller 100 ($399). It also sent its CC100 controller charging cradle ($39) and BR100 ZoneBridge ($99); both are optional components of the Sonos system. It took me less than one-half hour to set up the entire two-room package even though I hadn’t read anything about how to configure the gear before it arrived. The Sonos system includes the most complete yet simple instruction package I‘ve ever had the pleasure of using. Plug everything in as directed, connect it to the router in your home network, push a couple of buttons, and, voilà, you’re up and running.

The cleverest part of the Sonos system is its proprietary network. Sonos doesn’t rely on pre-existing wireless WiFi systems; instead it uses its own closed wireless network. If your router isn’t in a place where you want to listen to music, the BR100 ZoneBridge plugs via an Ethernet cable into your router, giving the device access to your home network and the Internet. Once connected the BR100 serves as a hub to wirelessly communicate with all the ZonePlayers and controllers in the Sonos system. This methodology creates a more robust data path that eliminates interference from other wireless or networked devices.

All Sonos hardware, except for the controller, are variations on a little white box. The BR100 is the smallest box, measuring only 4.33" by 4.33" by 1.61" high. The ZP90 measures 5.4" by 5.4" by 2.9" high. The largest box, the ZP120 integrated amplifier, is only 7.3" by 8.15" by 3.4" high. For aesthetes who feel that sound gear should be heard but not seen, the Sonos’ form factor is ideal. Since it relies on wireless WiFi connections instead of line-of-sight IR, Sonos units can be successfully sequestered inside cabinets, credenzas, or closets.

The Sonos system only has four components, but with them you can set up a wireless music system that will accommodate anything from a one-bedroom condominium to a 60,000 square-foot trophy house. The first component is the BR100, which serves as the Internet link and wireless broadcast hub.

The next part of the system is the ZP90 ZonePlayer. This unit receives music files and Internet radio streams from the BR100. The ZP90 ZonePlayer hooks up to any existing music system via two-channel analog or digital SPDIF coaxial or TosLink connectors. The ZP90 also has a pair of Ethernet connectors which can be used to hardwire the unit into an existing Ethernet network, connect a network attached storage (NAS) hard drive, and also bridge any traffic for other products that might need a connection to the Internet.

The third component in the Sonos line is the ZP120, which is a simple integrated amplifier that uses a Class D output section. It has one pair of stereo power outputs that delivers 55 watts RMS per channel and a line-level mono output for a powered subwoofer. Like the ZP90, it has one analog stereo input and a pair of Ethernet connectors.

The fourth component in the Sonos lineup is the Controller. The Controller sports a full-color LCD display and can run every ZonePlayer in your system. This last fact bears repeating: Whether you have two or twenty ZonePlayers, just one controller can run them all! If you want to have a controller in every room you can, but since each controller costs $399, most users opt for less than a one-to-one controller-to-ZonePlayer ratio.

The Sonos multi-room music system gets music from several sources. You can link it to an iTunes music library in a computer or to a music library on a NAS hard drive. You can also access Internet music sources such as Rhapsody or listen to any of thousands of Internet radio stations.. The Sonos system also supports multiple music libraries, so if every member of your family has his or her own music files on separate computers, the Sonos can have unique playlists for each library. When you purchase a Sonos system you get free 30-day trial subscriptions to Rhapsody, Sirius XM, and Napster. Sonos also ships with free access to Pandora and Last.fm, two personalized radio services. My wife especially liked Pandora because she could build her own music streams based on a particular artist she enjoyed. Her Pandora “stations” included Tori Amos, Rosanne Cash, and Pierce Pettis.

Remote Possibilities

Each ZonePlayer has one analog input. What’s especially cool about this feature is the analog input from one ZonePlayer can be sent to any other ZonePlayer in your system. How can this be used? Suppose you already have an AppleTV. You can connect its analog output to a ZonePlayer’s analog input and then send any song in your Apple TV’s playlists to any ZonePlayer in your house! Since Apple now has a program that turns an iPhone into an Apple TV remote via WiFi connections, you can listen to your Apple TV through any ZonePlayer and control your selections from any room via your iPhone! You can have all this whizz-bang-super-nifty connectivity by merely running one set of stereo RCA inputs from the Apple-TV to your Sonos.

Initially I attached the ZP90 ZonePlayer to my downstairs home theater and hooked up the ZP120 to a pair of Axiom 4B speakers in my workroom. After several weeks I relocated the ZP90 to my upstairs home theater and moved the ZP120 into my master bedroom/bathroom. Unlike some wireless systems, where changing the physical location of the components requires a complete re-setup, the Sonos system was up and running 30 seconds after re-installation.

The Sonos remote control is big, and unless you have biceps the size of tree trunks you’re probably going to hold it with at least two hands. More than likely it’s going to sit in your lap like a portable computer, which make sense, because that’s what it really is. All the buttons are back-lit and the 3.4"-diagonal color LED screen is so bright you could use it to read a book by under your bedcovers. The remote’s layout is clean with lots of space between the buttons and its iPod-like navigation ring. It uses nested menus, none of which is more than three layers deep. A dedicated “zone” button allows you to switch from controlling one ZonePlayer to another quickly.

The Controller offers you many different music options. You can select from your music libraries by artist, album, genre, composer, or tracks. Music services including Last.fm, Napster, Pandora, Rhapsody, and Sirius Internet radio are also accessible from the remote. A separate “Radio” section offers Internet radio options divided not only by musical type, but also by country, location, show, etc. You can also add any Internet radio site if you know its URL.

Sonos also includes a computer-based software program with every system that has the exact same functionality as the Controller. You can command any ZonePlayer in your system and add or remove music sources from your computer desktop.

You Have Questions—Sonos Has Answers

Several days after the initial setup I noticed that the Sonos was having problems with Apple Lossless music files from my main computer. After playing for about seven seconds, the music would begin to stutter and a few seconds later stop completely. This glitch gave me an opportunity to contact Sonos customer service and see how it would handle the problem. I was amazed and ultimately delighted by its response.

Unlike most 800-number customer service lines, where you have to wait with the phone glued to your ear for “the next available service representative,” the Sonos service records your phone number and a customer service representative calls you back. It took less than five minutes for a technical expert to return my call. During the trouble-shooting phase I discovered another nifty feature of the Sonos system. Sonos uses a “desktop controller” software program, which mimics its portable controller. This software has a diagnostic system built-in that sends a completesnapshot of your current settings to a Sonos technical expert when you need to trouble-shoot your system. Every time I made a change in the system, I sent a new configuration snapshot to the Sonos representative. After several minutes he determined that the wireless connection between my Mac Pro computer and my Apple Extreme WiFi unit wasn’t robust enough to support the data stream required to send Apple Lossless music files to the Sonos system. When I changed to a hard-wired Ethernet cable between the two my problems vanished.

I used the Sonos technical support system again a month later for a less serious problem: I couldn’t successfully add Internet Radio stations to my playlist. Once more the Sonos callback system returned my call in less than five minutes. And again its technical representative had my problem solved in short order.

Compared to the sort of customer service I’m used to from audio and computer manufacturers, the Sonos way of handling technical support is a welcome change. Unlike the vast majority of companies Sonos seems to grasp that it is selling a music-delivery system, not just a bunch of boxes.

 

An Integrated Solution

When Sonos first agreed to send me a system for review I didn’t specifically request a ZP120 ZonePlayer. I was far more interested in the ZP90 as a music server for my home theater. But once I had a ZP120 in my home I was won over by its undeniable charms. For many audiophiles who need a simple way to add music to their bedroom, kitchen, or sunporch, the ZP120 ZonePlayer is perfect. Not only does the ZP120 sound as good as any integrated amplifier in its price range; it also delivers an exceptional level of ergonomic style.

Since I built my house seven years ago I’ve been using a Teac Reference 500 Series audio system in my master bedroom and bathroom suite. The system had five separate components tethered together so they could share the same dedicated universal remote. The system sounded decent and worked smoothly, but my wife was never very comfortable with it. After seven years the only way she ever used the Teac system was with its five-CD changer for playing the same five CDs over and over. I got pretty tired of hearing those discs.

Once I replaced the Teac system with the Sonos ZP120 and showed her how to use the Sonos Controller she quickly discovered the joys of creating her own Pandora “stations.” Both of us have been delighted by her newly expanded musical horizons. The Sonos system’s user-friendly interface is so exciting that it encourages non-technical users to explore their options.

Sonos ZonePlayer Sonics Vs. All the Other Guys

By now all you hardcore audiophiles are thinking, “OK, I get it. The Sonos is easy to set up and use and has good customer support, but how does it stack up sonically against conventional sources and other music servers?”

First some bad news for hi-res music fanatics. The highest sample rate the Sonos system will support is 44.1kHz at 16 bits. If you insist on having 96kHz or higher capabilities in your multi-room music server system, the Sonos will not satisfy your needs any better than the AppleTV or Logitech Squeezebox Duet. For hi-res you’re going to have to move up to a much higher-priced unit.

Just like the Apple and Logitech devices, the Sonos ZonePlayer lets you choose either analog or digital outputs and, as with the other two, music sounds much better if the Sonos’ digital output is connected to a high-quality outboard D/A rather than played back through its own internal D/A. For casual or background listening the Sonos’ internal D/A is certainly adequate, but for critical listening the digital output is the only way to go.

Comparing the Sonos’ digital output with the AppleTV digital signal was an exercise in audiophile frustration. Their output levels were exactly the same, which made it easy to do blind A/B/X testing. No matter how long or how intensely I listened I couldn’t hear any discernible differences between them. I tried MP3, Apple Lossless, and even AIFF files, and in every case both units produced identical sonic signatures. Soundstage dimensions, low-level details, harmonic balances, and dynamic capabilities were utterly indistinguishable from one to the other.

When I compared the Sonos ZP90 to my long-standing reference CEC TL-2 belt-driven CD transport (using the CEC’s AES/EBU digital connection), I did hear some slight sonic differences. The CEC has a more relaxed and musical presentation. Its soundstage seems to emanate from a bit farther back behind the speakers than the Sonos. The CEC also has a bit more euphonic and musical balance. It wasn’t all a one-sided sonic rout, however. On some sources, especially material with wide dynamic contrasts, the Sonos delivered a more dramatic presentation, with greater “startle factor.”

The Best Moderately-Priced Mousetrap?

During my forays onto the Internet in search of technical and anecdotal information on the Sonos system I’ve come across plenty of heated exchanges between Logitech Squeezebox and Sonos users about which system is better. Having used both, I have my own take on this.

A single Logitech Duet is one-third the cost of a Sonos BU150 bundle with a BR100, making the Duet a more-cost-effective option for a single or even two-zone system. But when you venture into whole-house multiple-room situations the Squeezebox option becomes less financially attractive. Each Duet requires a separate outboard amplifier for each room, while a Sonos Z120 already has a two-channel amplifier built in for only $125 more. Once you add in the extra cost of amplification for the Duet, the financial advantage of the Logitech system quickly disappears.

In terms of ergonomics, much as I like the Duet’s remote control and menu design, if you plan to do a multi-room system the Sonos controller and the Sonos system’s ability to share sources between ZonePlayers makes it a far more elegant solution. The Sonos system is also easier to set up and much simpler to expand. Finally, each Sonos ZonePlayer can support an independent NAS hard drive, so you can access multiple libraries of digital music. You can’t do with the Logitech Duet.

After living with the Sonos system for over a month I’ll admit I’ve become addicted to it. Sonically it equals other modestly priced music-server systems I’ve reviewed and beats them all in installation ease, ergonomic elegance, and expandability. I read somewhere that the Sonos system is about as sexy as a toaster. That may be true, but it’s also as reliable, non-intimidating, and easy to use as a toaster. The fact that the Sonos system makes it easy for anyone to enjoy music anywhere in his or her home makes it the greatest thing since, well, sliced toast.

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