Technolust seldom penetrates the jaded, gadget-proof shells that calcify around all Maximum PC editors, but the Sonos Digital Music System shattered our composure with a massive kung-fu blow. You see, the Sonos system delivers something we’ve long craved: our entire music library at our fingertips, in every room of our house.
Even better, the Sonos pulls off this trick with minimal wiring and few sonic compromises. Two components work together to make the magic happen: a ZonePlayer module (one for each room you wish to music-ize) and at least one wireless, handheld Sonos Controller. Once you’ve set up the system, you use the controller to operate each ZonePlayer, either independently or in sync, from anywhere in the house.
The controller is really the star of the Sonos show. Its 3.5-inch color LCD screen tickles our fancy, and the custom interface is extremely easy to navigate. The iPod-style scroll wheel lets you quickly speed through massive music collections, and the backlit buttons make it easy to perform common tasks—like adjusting the volume or pausing tune—even in dark rooms (a light sensor automatically turns the backlight on and off).
The interface is intuitive and easy enough for even the most technophobic Luddite to use. Our only gripe with the controller is that its scroll wheel feels twitchier than the iPod’s. It can be frustrating to make line-by-line adjustments with the wheel, until you get a feel for it.
Setup is easy: Connect your first ZonePlayer to a router that’s hardwired to your PC, and then install the configuration utility on that PC. Using the config utility, point the ZonePlayer to the shared folder in which your music is stored. You can also use stand-alone NAS (network-attached storage), such as the Buffalo HD-H250LAN, either in addition to or instead of a PC. Connecting subsequent ZonePlayers is as easy as powering them up, stepping through the wizard on the remote, and pressing a button on the front of the box.
And this brings us to Sonos’ secret sauce. In addition to wired connections, the Sonos devices—including the remote control—communicate using a proprietary offshoot of the 802.11g wireless protocol. This closed custom protocol makes it possible to avoid many of the dropped packets and playback hitches associated with streaming media files over Wi-Fi. The upshot is that you only need to connect one ZonePlayer to your wired network or NAS box; the rest can be daisy-chained using the wireless network.
One of the advantages of having a PC connected to the Sonos system is that you can also stream Internet radio to any or all of the ZonePlayers in your home (provided your PC has a high-speed Internet connection, of course). Not only can you use one of the 70 preset stations, you can add your own MP3 streams. Sonos also promises support for Real’s Rhapsody network (which should be available by the time you read this). That promise doesn’t factor into today’s rating, but when Rhapsody support does arrive, subscribers will have access to more than 800,000 legal tracks.
Sonos designed this system for multi-room installations, which explains the integrated amplifier in each ZonePlayer. This is one facet of the system that almost cost them a Kick Ass rating. First, the amp is rated at just 50 watts per channel (RMS) into 8 ohms, with dynamic range of 20Hz to 20kHz and 0.02-percent THD. Paired with a set of Klipsch RF-35 loudspeakers, the amp is just adequate to fill a 450 square-foot living room with sound. Second, the amp is absolutely redundant if you intend to stream audio to your home stereo system (the unit provides stereo RCA variable-audio outputs). Sonos should give serious thought to offering a second and cheaper ZonePlayer model sans amp.
In addition to the variable-audio output, the ZonePlayer provides stereo line-level RCA inputs, which we put to good use streaming the output from a 400-disc CD jukebox to ZonePlayer modules all over the house (the device converts the incoming audio to your choice of WMA or WAV file formats in real time). We’re surprised, and even a little disappointed, that Sonos didn’t outfit the ZonePlayer with SPDIF input and output. The spring-loaded speaker-wire binding posts are also a little too Best Buy for our tastes; we’d much prefer proper knurled-nut binding posts that would accommodate banana plugs.
But enough about specs and design choices. How does this system sound? Color us impressed. Even though the amp is underpowered, it’s very clean—and we’ll always take a good low-powered amp over any crappy high-powered amp. Uncompressed WAV files sounded virtually indistinguishable from CD, and compressed sources sounded as good as or better than other players we’ve tested. We’re bummed, however, that Sonos doesn’t support any of the lossless-compression formats: FLAC would be ideal, but we’d accept AAC Lossless or WMA Lossless, too.
Good audio gear doesn’t come cheap, and neither does the Sonos. Each ZonePlayer costs $500 (we have to believe the amp contributes a good chunk to that price tag), and each controller costs $400. Those prices don’t include speakers or a stand-alone network storage box, which means you’ll spend at least $1,700 for a two-room setup—if you go cheap on speakers. By contrast, Slim Systems’ Squeezebox costs about $200 a room (plus speakers and storage), and delivers many of the same features (minus the amp, four-port Ethernet switch, and that luscious remote).