February 1, 2007
Sonos Digital Music System
Early last fall, in an exchange of e-mails among the SoundStage! Network crew, a dominant topic was wireless music systems. Up till that point, I hadnt investigated the option of storing music on my computer, then wirelessly accessing it from my listening room. The convenience of doing so, however, soon became obvious: I wouldnt have a bunch of CDs lying on the floor in front of my transport waiting to be scratched. I wouldnt have to manually change discs to listen to different songs -- access to my entire music collection would be at my fingertips. The more I thought about it, the more excited I got. I immediately began searching for a wireless music system to streamline my listening experience. A few Google searches later I found the Sonos Digital Music System, and soon thereafter arranged for a review sample. I couldnt wait for its arrival.
Up till that point, my Toshiba HD-XA1 HD DVD player had doubled as my CD transport, and did a fine job of reading discs and sending digital signals to an Anthem AVM 50 preamplifier-processor. The only problem was the players slow loading speed. From turn-on, it was several seconds before it would extend the disc tray, then another 12 seconds to read the disc before beginning playback. Nor does the HD-XA1 have some features I like, such as random play. While random play is a mere convenience, its one thats important to me. Combined, these inconveniences had an effect on my enjoyment of my sound system -- I noticed a decline in the amount of time I was listening to music. Would the Sonos Digital Music System remedy what ailed me?
After Id waited a few weeks, several boxes from Sonos, Inc. arrived at my office. My excitement had only grown over that time, so I stopped what I was doing to take the system home and install it. In preparation, Id already downloaded a substantial amount of music to my computer. To do this and preserve the quality of the music, I used two different softwares, Windows Media Player and Exact Audio Copy, to rip the songs in the lossless WAV format. I preferred WMP for its ability to download album art and additional album information, and EAC to rip the songs with the best quality and repair tracks that had been damaged over time. I also needed to buy a wireless router and install it.
The system Sonos had sent me comprised the following: two ZP80 wireless receiver-extenders, a ZP100 wireless receiver-amplifier, a remote Controller with charging cradle, and two SP100 bookshelf speakers.
The ZP80 wireless receiver-extender ($349 USD) is very sleek and quite small -- it weighs only a pound and a half. On the front are three buttons, for Mute and volume up/down. On the rear are two digital audio outputs (one optical, one coax), two Ethernet ports, and one pair each of analog inputs and outputs.
The ZP100 wireless receiver with 50W amplifier section ($499) is twice the size of the ZP80 and weighs ten pounds. Its front panel looks very similar to the ZP80s, but the rear has a lot more: speaker terminals, four Ethernet connections, one pair of analog inputs, and one pair each of left-channel, right-channel, and subwoofer analog outputs.
The two-way ZP100 Bookshelf speaker ($179/pair) has a 1" Teteron dome tweeter and a 5.5" polypropylene copolymer-core woofer. The cabinet is gray MDF, the grille is black, and each speaker weighs 10.5 pounds. On the back is a pair of spring-loaded binding posts, into which I inserted the supplied speaker wires. Once the spring was engaged, the wire was held snug, providing a good connection. The ZP100 has the same sort of posts.
In my opinion, the coolest component of the Sonos system was the Controller remote control ($399). Measuring 6.5"W by 3.8"H and weighing less than a pound, it has a 3.5" color LCD screen that can display the album art of each CD you own (assuming youve downloaded the art from the Internet), and helps you navigate your music collection and Rhapsody Internet stations, as well as choose which zone you want music played in. The Controller seamlessly integrates the entire Sonos system.
I connected one ZP80 to my wireless router via an Ethernet cable, and the other ZP80 to my Anthem AVM 50 with a Monster digital cable. The ZP100 went in the bedroom, along with the SP100 speakers. I then downloaded the Sonos software onto my computer. The program went through a couple of steps to connect all three Zone Players, then searched my computer for all of my downloaded music. All of this took only a few minutes, at the end of which the entire system had been set up. From that moment on, my experience of listening to music was changed. Access to my music was now at my fingertips.
My music was now organized by band name, song title, album title, and genre. With a few touches of the Controller, I was flipping through my music collection -- not to hear just one song, but as many as I could fit in. I couldnt get enough of the Sonos system. I spent countless hours randomly browsing songs, trying to name each tune as quickly as I could. This may not seem like a particularly useful activity, but the ease with which I could do it -- the smooth transitions between songs and the uncomplicated process involved -- were truly joys. I rediscovered songs I hadnt listened to in years; songs I grew up listening to, and songs that turned me into the audiophile I am today. This review process had started off on the right foot.
In my listening room, I enjoyed the ZP80 through my Aerial 10T fronts, my Anthem AVM 50 pre-pro, and my Krell KSA-50S power amp. The sound coming from my system was equal in every way to that from CDs played by my Toshiba player. In both instances, the Anthem was acting as the DAC. In a blind listening session, with a friend switching the Anthems input between the ZP80 and the Toshiba, I couldnt distinguish between the two. For each song, the CD and the ripped versions sounded the same, and the transitions between them showed no clues. The soundstages were equally wide and dynamic, while the intimate details of various tracks remained intact.
For example, in the Cowboy Junkies cover of the traditional "Mining for Gold," from The Trinity Session [CD, RCA 88568-2-R], the ambience of the recording venue, a church, was fully intact in both instances. The resolution remained excellent, and the low rumble of the churchs HVAC system sounded the same. I was satisfied that the greater convenience of the Sonos system had not come at the sacrifice of any sound quality. Often, you have to compromise to achieve overall system synergy; not with the Sonos.
When I used the ZP80 as the DAC, the same seamless interaction continued, but the sound quality wasnt quite as good. The level of resolution decreased a slight bit and the soundstage seemed smaller. Also, aural images of female voices were less stable, and without the same bloom within the soundstage as through the Anthem. Bass was not as tight or as clean overall, and the sound of the churchs air-conditioner almost disappeared. Bottom line: If you have a high-quality DAC, use it. Combining it with a Zone Player should provide the same sound quality you hear from your original CDs.
The setup I used most often was the ZP100 and the SP100 speakers in my bedroom. Before the Sonos systems arrival, Id never had a bedroom system and thus had never realized how much I might use one. The Sonos system includes an alarm function that can be set up via the Controller or the computer. I used this to treat myself to being awakened by a custom playlist every morning. I listened to so much more music this way. The addition of the Sonos to my system made me realize that I hadnt been enjoying music as much as I could have. It relit my passion for my music.
Another one of the beauties of the Sonos system was its ability to play the same or different songs in multiple zones. Sonos claims that their system can handle up to 32 zones. I dont have enough rooms to test that claim, but judging by my experience of the system, I can believe it. One experiment I did try was to take the ZP100 and SP100s over to my next-door neighbors house to test the systems range. All I had to do was plug the ZP100 into the wall and attach the speaker cables. It worked like a charm -- the Sonos systems performance was still wonderful, even in the house next door. (The wireless router and ZP100 were probably about 100 apart.) I could access the system from my or my neighbors house, while listening to a different song in my listening room. The flexibility was incredible, and the systems flawless performance continued. The SP100 speakers sounded good -- but for under $200, you could always hear some other models. You could hook up your own speakers to the ZP100 for potentially better sound, but as far as Im concerned, the SP100s let me hear all of my music in a way that didnt take away from the experience.
The Sonos is the first wireless sound system Ive had in my home, but there are other products on the market that perform the same duties, the most popular being the Slim Devices Squeezebox. Only one Squeezebox is needed to connect to a wireless system, while two ZP80s are required to guarantee seamless interaction. One Squeezebox with remote costs only $300 (wireless version); a comparable Sonos combination would cost $999. The biggest reason for the difference in cost is the Sonos Controller, which costs $399.
Youll have to decide for yourself if the extra cost is worth it. As for my 2¢, I simply loved the Controller. It may have been the coolest part of the entire system, and it gave me the ability to access my music collection without being in the same room as the ZP80 or ZP100. Also, the Squeezebox isnt an integrated component like the ZP100 -- youd need a Squeezebox and an integrated amp. The sound quality would likely be similar, assuming you use a separate DAC to process the digital signal. Slim Devices Transporter does have built-in DACs -- Doug Schneider reviewed it and found to be truly "high end" -- but it costs almost $2000.
The Sonos Digital Music System was one of the most enjoyable products Ive ever reviewed. It reintroduced me to my music collection, as well as to new music via the Rhapsody Internet service -- an experience that was almost like an audiophile rebirth. While it didnt provide superior sound quality via its analog outputs, neither did it degrade the sound through its digital outputs. The Sonos system encouraged me to listen to more music than I have in years, and isnt that what being an audiophile is all about?
The cost may keep some people away, but once the purchase is made, the faultless performance of the Sonos Digital Music System should erase any reservations you may have had. And the systems clean, modern look, in combination with the amazing Controller, raises the "cool" factor to an extraordinary level. The Sonos system may be only the beginning of whats to come in home audio.
Sonos Digital Music System