Digital Music System
With its Digital Music System, Sonos has successfully brought the appliance concept to the multi-room hi-fi. It's comparatively cheap and easy to set up, and once you've used it for a few days you wish everything else worked as straightforwardly. That's quite a feat.
The system comes in two parts: a number of ZonePlayers, effectively amplifiers for each room you want to play music in; and a controller, either a handheld device or the Mac application that comes with each ZonePlayer. The first ZonePlayer needs to connect to your Mac and the Internet via some sort of Ethernet router, but additional ZonePlayers can talk to each other wirelessly.
Each ZonePlayer is packed into a deceptively plain 4.5kg block with just a mute and volume up and down buttons. For the specs-conscious it houses an upgradeable digital music converter, a passively cooled (read silent) 50W RMS per channel amplifier (8 Ohms, 20-20kHz, THD+N less than 0.02%), a wireless connection point, a four port 10/100 Ethernet switch, a pair of spring binding posts for direct connection of your speakers, RCA line out and in sockets, and for those Wagner fans out there a RCA subwoofer socket too. Phew! Taken together, this makes the setup as easy as plugging in the power cable, connecting two pairs of speakers, and (for the first ZonePlayer at least) plugging in an Ethernet cable.
Once you've set up everything, you can switch between the various zone players adding songs to each player's queue. Alternatively, you can group zones together, in which case they'll all play the same tracks synchronously. Zone volumes can also be remotely controlled, on an individual or group basis.
It's not just a case of plug and play; there is some software to install. The CD installer gets you to download the latest software from the Sonos website, and when this runs, it looks out over your Ethernet connection for any connected ZonePlayers to initialise. At this stage it's like adding a Bluetooth device – you set your ZonePlayer into an advertising mode by pressing its mute and volume buttons, and on the Mac select a name for it from a list. Once the first ZonePlayer is linked, you then repeat the process (wirelessly) for the other ZonePlayers you have around the house. When all the ZonePlayers are configured, you're then asked to specify your music files source.
For Mac users this will probably be an iTunes folder, but the Sonos system will also work with up to 16 separate local folders or, if you happen to have one lying around, any network-attached storage (NAS) device. For Mac folders the installer creates a file-share setup for your Music sources, and then proceeds to index the files for you.
If you've ripped your CDs to iTunes, you're in luck. Out of the box, Sonos supports MP3, WMA, MPEG4 (AAC), Ogg Vorbis, Flac, uncompressed WAV, and, of course, CD standard AIFF. However, thanks to Apple's continued refusal to licence Fairplay, it can't play any tracks bought from iTunes. There is hope, albeit faint; the Sonos hardware automatically checks for updates, so if Apple does change its tune, the Sonos may support Fairplay in the future. It can also connect to Internet radio stations, and more traditional hi-fi users will be pleased with the ability to stream existing analogue sources via each ZonePlayer's RCA line-in. Now you no longer need to digitise your precious vinyl collection in order to play them in every room in the house.
With an OK button at the centre of a scroll wheel, a 3.5-inch LCD display, volume, mute, and the standard play, next, and previous controls, the CR100 hardware controller is best described as a two-handed, wireless iPod. The system is intuitively easy to use, ‘borrowing' the same interface ideas from the iPod – left scrolling selection of tunes, sorted by artist, album, genre, etc – that may place Apple in the cross-hairs of Creative's US patent 6,928,433-toting IP lawyers. (One nice touch is when active, an ambient light sensor switches button backlights on or off so you can see the controls in the dark.)
As a version 1 product, though, the interface is not without flaws. It'll statically import iTunes playlists, so updating a playlist in iTunes won't automatically change it in Sonos player, which is frustrating given the lack-lustre nature of built-in play list editor. The Mac software mimics the controller to the point of not allow you to drag and drop items within a playlist – re-ordering a playlist therefore requires starting over.
Also, despite utilising a mesh network system (where ZonePlayer A can link to ZonePlayer C via ZonePlayer B if it can see it directly), there are reports that, as with all wireless devices, the Sonos system can suffer ‘drop-outs'. This will be down to your building's internal architecture. For larger installations one assumes that occasionally resorting to physical Ethernet cabling should rectify any problems. That said, under test, our three-foot-thick stone walls posed little difficulty.
If you're not an audio buff, the price may seem steep, but Sonos is competing against whole-house amplifiers – where you'd be looking at teeth-sucking wiring costs, plus multi-channel amps and so forth. (For the price, though, it would have been nice to include the £45 charging cradle with the controller: spending two-thirds of the price of an iPod shuffle seems a bit much for a wall mounting.)
The combination of single interface access to your existing MP3 library, reuse of your existing speakers, good reproduction, and wireless installation make the Sonos Digital Music System a compelling product. If you can afford it, it's worth splashing out on.