An ipod-type device for the home that looks the goods and scores well in our tests.There’s been an uneasy relationship between music lovers and the audio-streaming technologies that have emerged over the past few years. While carrying 10,000 songs in your pocket is a dream come true for many, if you’ve just spent $3000 on a pair of speakers and $50/metre on speaker wiring, 128Kb/s MP3 just isn’t going to satisfy you.
But in conjunction with wireless technologies, digital audio is beginning to offer possibilities to make even the staunchest audiophile sit up and listen.
We’ve heard endless treatise on the digital home, but the reality has been tantalising at best and hair-rippingly aggravating at worst. The Sonos Digital Music System, though, delivers genuine and tangible benefits.
Not only does it cost substantially less than a traditional multiroom music system, it doesn’t involve chiselling out conduits in your plaster, drilling holes in your walls or paying piles of cash for someone to install it. It’s also a breeze to extend or adapt, and you can even take it with you when you move house.
The system itself is made up of two parts: ZonePlayers and Controllers. The ZonePlayer ZP100 acts as a traditional amplifier, rated at 50W RMS per channel. There’s a front-mounted volume/mute control, with auto-detecting RCA phono line-in and outs, subwoofer output and spring-mounted binding blocks round the back.
The differences start with the four-port Ethernet switch, extending internally to a wireless access point, with two antennae hidden within the unit’s feet. Given the amount of electronics inside, and the fact that it’s passively cooled, the ZonePlayer is an impressively svelte 4.5kg and just the right size to stow on a shelf or hide under a table.
The other key component, Controllers, come in hardware and software versions. The former is a rugged and splashproof 165 x 25 x 97mm unit (about the size of a packet of crisps), weighing 360g.
A 3.5in screen and an iPod-style scroll wheel aid navigation, with a light sensor illuminating the transport buttons in dim conditions.
A motion sensor switches off the unit when it’s been set still for a given period of time, before magically springing back to life when picked up. Running an embedded version of Linux, the Controllers are generally nippy enough, save for the occasional pause when zipping between screens. The software is simply an application that mirrors the hardware version.
Each Controller is instantly updated with changes made on any other unit. Album art is shown where available and there’s complete control of each ZonePlayer, as well as playlists and system preferences. That includes such complexities as redirecting the line input on any ZonePlayer to any other – potentially useful to connect up an old record deck to the system, or even a baby monitor.
The only caveat with this all-encompassing power is that there’s no form of lock or master override on either the Controllers or the ZonePlayers themselves, so if you don’t want a disgruntled teenager subverting a dinner party with black-metal you’ll have to think carefully about who has access.
Installation is as simple as we could hope for. Sonos recommends the initial ZonePlayer is connected to a router via a wired connection, although it’s also possible to use a wireless bridge.
The proprietary wireless technology, branded Sonosnet, is a secure, peer-to-peer mesh network. Each Sonos component is effectively a wireless repeater, so the more ZonePlayers you have, the larger the network’s footprint and the more stable the performance; the system makes multiple hops where necessary, always finding the most efficient route.
With the first ZonePlayer connected, other Sonos components can bypass the main wireless infrastructure, so there’s no need to enter SSIDs or WEP/WPA passcodes. Each link requires a handshake, though, achieved by simultaneously pressing the mute and volume-up buttons on the ZonePlayer, so you won’t find nosy Sonos-equipped neighbours crashing the party.
The units themselves also use WEP encryption, but it’s entirely and blissfully transparent. Each ZonePlayer is then given a name and a room type, with additional controllers or ZonePlayers simply added in the same way. At it’s simplest, you can opt for just a single ZonePlayer and a software controller, all the way up to 32 ZonePlayers and as many Controllers as you like.
Using either a hardware or software controller, you can assign up to 16 separate local or network folders to make up your music library. Once the library is indexed – taking around ten minutes for our 100GB NAS-based collection – it can be browsed by artist, album, genre, track or folder.
MP3, WMA, AAC, Ogg Vorbis, WAV, AIFF and FLAC formats are supported at both variable and constant bit rates, although there’s no support for WMA lossless variants. There’s
also support for streaming Internet radio, complete with dozens of presets, plus Apple’s Rhapsody subscription service.
However, note that DRM-protected tracks aren’t yet supported; Sonos is slating this for a future release, but there’s no guarantee. This could be a potential disappointment if you subscribe to Napster, for example, so check for support before you buy.
Browsing through the menus is simplicity itself, with control of repeat, shuffle and EQ. Music can be added to each zone’s playlist at any level of the library tree, from ‘all music’ at the top, through artist and album, down to individual tracks. Each zone can have its own discrete stream or be linked to any other, fading in gracefully over a two-second period. Using a combination of Universal Time Code (UTC) and Quality of Service (QoS), all linked zones are played in perfect synchronicity too.
It’s all impressively slick. But, best of all, the system just works: within minutes of setting up, our test technophobes had navigated the controller and were already adding their favourite tracks to a playlist. Crucially, though, they were discussing the music itself rather than how to make the technology work – the first time we’ve ever seen that with this type of product.
There are some small foibles. If your wireless network is even remotely unstable, you’ll find zones occasionally disappearing, seemingly at random, and the ZonePlayers need some coaxing to rejoin the network.
But other criticisms are levelled more at what else we’d like to see rather than glaring omissions or a poor implementation of existing features. A stand integrated into the hardware controller would be welcome, for instance. And we’d appreciate a way of editing an existing playlist, a decent search facility or a toolbar version of the software controller.
But these are minor issues in actual use and potentially solvable by firmware or software upgrades. Finally, one should note, that unlike other countries, the Sonos system won’t be sold online but in specialist high street dealers.
We have our criticisms, but the Sonos Digital Music System is the most satisfyingly compelling reason yet to go both wireless and digital. With Sonos promising a slew of related products in the future, it looks like the wireless media streaming hype is finally being realised.