When Sonos first released its Digital Music System last year it got some excellent reviews. It was certainly one of the best wireless music systems we’d ever seen – allowing you to beam your music to any room in your home and to control the entire system through a compact and neatly designed remote control unit.
The only problem was the price. The basic system that would allow you to play your music in two different rooms cost just under £1,000, and additional components for further rooms were more than £300 each.
Not surprisingly, those excellent reviews all ended by saying that the Digital Music System was simply too expensive for most people. Responding to that criticism, Sonos has now released the ZP80 Bundle, a simplified and less expensive version of the Digital Music System. Even so, at almost £800, the ZP80 Bundle is still pretty pricey.
In the zone
The ZP80 Bundle consists of a remote control unit and two ZP80 ‘ZonePlayers’. Each ZonePlayer can be connected to a separate music system or set of powered speakers, so you can use it to play music in two different rooms. The ZP80 ZonePlayers don’t have built-in amplifiers, as the earlier versions did, but that’s not a big problem as most people will already have at least one music system at home that already has an amp. Sound quality is also perfectly adequate if you just connect the ZonePlayer to a set of powered speakers that don’t have a built-in amp.
There is, however, a problem with the way the system has to be set up. The whole point of the Sonos system is that it uses wireless technology to beam your music from room to room. However, the first of the two ZonePlayers must be connected to an Ethernet interface on your broadband router or on your Mac by using an old-fashioned Ethernet cable. Once that’s done the first ZonePlayer can link in to the iTunes library on your Mac and beam your digital music to the second ZonePlayer elsewhere in your home.
This means, in effect, that the first ZonePlayer is simply being used as a wireless base station – which is a complete waste of money if you’ve got a wireless network already set up. When we tested the system at home, our shiny new Intel Mac mini was already connected to a wireless network setup through one of Apple’s own Airport base stations. The Airport was located in the same room as the mini itself, and the mini was connected to a good set of speakers already. This meant that the first ZonePlayer was simply being wasted in that room – all it was doing was beaming music to the second ZonePlayer that was in another room.
Not so wireless
That approach makes more sense if you don’t already have a wireless network setup, but even then the usefulness of that first ZonePlayer very much depends on where your router is located. The need for an Ethernet cable connection means that the first ZonePlayer has to be in the same room as the router, and if the router is anywhere near your Mac then you simply won’t need to connect that ZonePlayer to its own set of speakers. Of course, you could just lay down a long Ethernet cable and put the first ZonePlayer in another room, but that rather defeats the purpose of buying an expensive wireless music system in the first place.
We also encountered one little technical glitch during installation, when the Sonos software wouldn’t run properly on our Intel Mac mini. The software has an ‘auto-update’ feature – just like the Software Update feature built into Mac OS X – but this didn’t solve the problem. It was only after searching around on the Sonos website that we located a separate ‘Universal’ version of the Sonos software that ran properly on the mini.
That’s a minor problem, but the fact that the first ZonePlayer needs a cable connection even to an existing wireless network remains a serious limitation – especially at this price. Apple’s Airport Express costs just £90 and does essentially the same thing – beaming music from your Mac to a set of speakers connected to the Airport Express in another room. The Airport Express doesn’t have a remote control, but you can buy a remote control from Keyspan for less than £50. You could buy two Airport Express units and a Keyspan remote for less than £250, that’s not bad compared with £779 for the ZP80 Bundle.
To be fair, the ZP80 Bundle is a more elegant and versatile solution than the Airport Express. But it’s still much too expensive for what it is. At this price it ought to be a completely wireless system that doesn’t need Ethernet cables at all.