Sonos ZonePlayer ZP80 and digital music system
Multi-room wireless digital audio. Yum, yum.
Review Sonos wasn't the first company to tempt consumers with a wireless audio system designed to stream a computer-stored music archive to living room hi-fi equipment, but it was the first to figure out an easy way to get songs into all the other spaces in your home too...
The company shipped its in-room unit, the ZonePlayer ZP100 - in Sonos-speak, a 'zone' is any space that needs its own music supply - and a wireless control unit to go with it last year, arriving in the UK in June 2005. The ZP100 is a very fine audio product. It's not merely a network device, it's a high-quality audio system in its own right, with a built in amplifier and speakers.
That's great if the rooms you're equipping with wireless - or wired - music receivers don't have audio kit already, or you want to hook up to the network hi-fi kit whose sound reproduction you prefer. Sonos pitches it products primarily at the well-heeled audiophile, a person who tends to have very specific views on which vendors audio equipment sounds best.
Enter, then, the new ZonePlayer ZP80, a scaled down version of the ZP100 that loses the amp, speakers and some of the extra network connectivity tools. Here, at last, is a way to build a top-notch multi-room music network with audio equipment of your choice. To get you started, it's offering a bundle package comprising its CR-100 wireless handheld controller and two ZP80s.
Setting up a Sonos network is shockingly easy, and it's a testament to the company's network engineering skills that it has managed to make the process so totally untechnical. Inside the box is a single-sheet set-up guide, which lays the process out before you clearly: connect one ZonePlayer to your router, connect an amplifier to the ZonePlayer, connect a computer to the ZonePlayer, install the bundled software on the computer, run the code and work your way through the set-up wizard.
The software keeps all the networking details hidden from view - the only thing you need to know is how to allow the appropriate folder-sharing services through your firewall. All the technical stuff - IP addresses, folder sharing details and so on - are sorted out for you. You really don't need to know about networks to set this one up. The system uses Windows folder sharing, which is supported by Mac OS X so the Sonos system can run on both platforms.
You have to physically connect your computer to the first ZonePlayer to get the network started - an Ethernet cable is bundled in the box, as are RCA cables. Only then can you unplug the PC or Mac and connect wirelessly, via your existing router, as you might well want to do if you're working with a notebook. You also need to keep at least on ZonePlayer connected by cable to your router - you can't connect to them directly over wireless. That's a problem if, like me, your cable modem and router aren't near a hi-fi and you don't want them to be. I now have a £270 ZP80 connected to my router to do nothing but link the wireless music network to my main WLAN. This seems a waste, but it's necessary because the Sonos boxes connect using a proprietary and - Sonos claims - optimised WLAN technology.
Incidentally, that proprietary aspect means it's unlikely we'll see Linux software, or at least an open source version of the desktop controller and set-up app.
Adding other ZonePlayers works much the same way, though this time it can be done wirelessly. To link them in, you have to press a couple of the buttons on the front of the ZP80, but the software gives you plenty to time to walk from computer to ZonePlayer to do so.
At this stage you can connect the controller, which you can do while it's charging. Again, it's a straightforward process - the device looks for a Sonos wireless network, adds your various ZonePlayers to its list then sniffs out shared music folders. With the controller set up, you no longer need your computer for anything other than hosting music. If you store all your songs on a NAS box, you don't really need a computer at all.
Tell a lie - you do. While the controller provides almost everything you need to select and play music, you can't enter new Internet radio station links. For that you will have to go back to your computer and the virtual controller software. Once you've added the streaming URL, it's automatically added to the wireless controller ready to select in future.
The controller is a large PMP-sized device with a big colour screen and an iPod-style control wheel. It's a solid bit of kit, and clearly well made: the CR-100 has a rubbery base to make it harder to slide or be pushed off whatever it's been placed on. Pick it up, and a motion sensor detects the movement and automatically turns the controller on. According to Sonos, the unit's fully sealed - buttons, ports and all - so it won't be ruined if you spill tea all over it. A quick rinse under the tap? No problem.
A Zones button calls up a list of the ZonePlayers - each named, during the set-up process, after their location - and what they're playing. Highlight one, press the Music button and you can choose to play Internet radio stations or the contents of your music library. Up to 32 ZonePlayers are supported on a given network, enough I'd say for all but the most palatial of premises.
Incidentally, the network also supports up to 32 controllers, each of which has access to all the ZonePlayers. It's very scalable technology, yes, but an even bigger opportunity for internecine argument.
ZonePlayers can be linked so they pump out the same songs - there's a shortcut to linking them all, handy for parties - and the user interface makes it easy to drop individual ZonePlayers from such groupings, and to add them. Sonos' UI owes plenty to the iPod user interface, but the company has brought plenty of its own ideas to the table, not only with features absent from the portable player, like the ability to queue up songs; add, move and remove them from the list; and save the queue for future use.
Options like these are selected from three buttons place immediately below the screen and which activate the soft menus along the bottom of the display. The panel's not huge, but there's plenty of room for track details, status information and album art - the controller can even work with iTunes ideosyncratic method of encoding album covers in MP3 files. The display is clear and easy to read, and the UI pleasingly laid out upon it.
The only flaw is the nice-but-unnecessary way menus and UI screens fade and slide in and out. It looks good but it feels slow, either because it's taxing the on-board processor, or Sonos has simply timed it that way. Whatever, it means the controller feels slightly unresponsive. It isn't - press the Back button three times quickly in succession to go from the controller's Advanced Settings menu back to the Music menu, and you'll go straight there; the intervening screens are simply skipped. But I'd like the UI to move as fast as I do - or at least allow me to turn off the effects to speed up the action.
The ZP80 shows the same build quality and styling as the controller, though for a unit without its own amplification, it's perhaps a mite bulky. Still, Sonos has fitted it with a two-port Ethernet switch and a WLAN adaptor. The antenna's on the inside as is the AC adaptor, which is one of the reasons the ZP80 is as big as it is. I think Sonos has made the right decision - I'd rather have a ZonePlayer this size than a smaller device and a separate power block any day.
The ZP80 has digital optical and co-axial outputs for folk with up-to-date AV equipment, and it's installed analogue RCA jacks for those of us with older amplifiers. There's a pair of line-in RCA jacks too, handy for daisychaining other sound sources to a single-input amplifier, or to save you from having to switch the amp to a different input.
The line-in ports aren't simply for pass-through connections - each ZP80 can access another's input and play it back. Sonos bundles a RCA-to-3.5mm cable, and I used it to connect a Creative Vision:M to the ZP80 in the spare room and listen in downstairs in the living room. I switched the living room ZP80 over from my MP3 collection to the other box's line-in while I was walking down the stairs, such is the sheer freedom of using the wireless controller.
The ZP80 has its own volume control on the front, allowing you to leave your amp set high. You can adjust the volume from the controller too. You can also mute the ZP80 in situ or remotely.
The quality of the sound you get out of the system is largely dependent on the way your digital music collection is encoded - the ZP80 supports MP3, AAC, WMA, Ogg, FLAC, Apple Lossless, AIFF and WAV, so there's plenty of options, though as yet no DRM support - and on the amplifier you connect each ZonePlayer to.
Certainly, there's nothing inherent in the Sonos system to degrade the sound quality, at least not audibly. The tracks I played, covering a range of genres and codings, sound crisp and clear.
So there's just one question to answer now: Sonos or Squeezebox? Slim Devices' Squeezebox  is certainly a much less expensive option, and it will take better ears than mine to distinguish any sound quality difference between the two systems when linked to the same source music files and connected to the same amplification and output equipment.
Like the Sonos system, the Squeezebox lets you browse your music collection away from your computer, but only where you have line of sight for the remote control to operate. Both rigs do Internet radio, and - crucially - are fully cross-platform products. Squeezebox has the edge on what you can do away from your computer - Sonos wins out on ease of use, particularly when it comes to setting the system up in the first place. It will also do clever things like bridge other networkable devices.
Sonos also allows you to store your music on a NAS box, whereas Squeezebox's SlimServer code has to be run on a computer. Sure, you can use an old, low-power PC as a music server, but that's not as consumer-friendly as Sonos' ability to work with storage appliances. Sonos' system was built from the ground up as a multi-room rig, and while you can use multiple Squeezeboxes this way, you don't have the single point of control the Sonos CR-100 controller offers.
Squeezebox is best suited to circumstances where you're music is in one room and you want to listen to it in another. Squeezebox will do multi-room, but it's not as scalable as Sonos' technology, and it lacks the roaming-friendly single-point-of-access wireless controller.
Which will set you back £319, by the way - more than a Squeezebox 3, which you can pick up for around £229. For a Sonos set-up you'll need at least one ZP80 - that's another £269. If, like me, you need another one simply because of how your broadband connection was installed, you're better off buying the £770 bundle of two ZP80s and a CR-100.
Sonos' digital music network system is excellent, and the ZP80 is an important addition to the company's line up of components. At last, it's possible to build a great multi-room music system using your existing audio devices, not just Sonos' own amplifier-equipped ZP100, a move that makes the system not only more flexible but also cheaper.
Yes, it's still a pricey option, particularly when there are very good, lower-cost alternatives on the market, but you're buying superior build quality, major multi-room scalabiliy, genuine ease of use and a range of features you just don't get on cheaper systems. ®