Normally, whipping up new music mixes isn’t part of my dinner party preparations, but with the Sonos Digital Music System, that’s just what I found myself doing on a recent occasion. The handheld Sonos controller is just small enough to slide into a back pocket, and with the integrated Rhapsody music service, I was browsing and queuing up songs as I readied the house for guests. While it’s one of the more expensive methods for streaming music wirelessly from PC to stereo, Sonos is also the most versatile, sophisticated, and user-friendly system I’ve seen.
Passing the Sonos controller around the table after dinner, it was interesting to watch our guests’ reaction to this elegant marriage of networking and A/V technology. Much like punching up music on a jukebox, the Sonos controller makes for a more spontaneous and fun listening experience, giving you a chance to play DJ with a vast catalogue of music at your fingertips. Unlike a jukebox, you can always change the order of tracks in a queue, or hit “play now” for instant gratification. To set the Sonos up, you plug a ZonePlayer into an Ethernet router, which is also hooked into a PC. Then you follow a short wizard-driven procedure on the PC, which indexes your music files and identifies the other ZonePlayers in the system. All of the other ZonePlayers, up to 32 of them, operate over a built-in wireless mesh network, where each node acts as separate wireless access point. The range of the system can thereby extend great distances. I tested a system with the ZP100 ZonePlayer ($499), which has a 50Wpc amplifier, and two other ZP80 ZonePlayers that do not include amps. There were no problems during setup, and I was up and running within 15 minutes. The controller sits in a charging cradle and multiple controllers can be used to access the system. A Sonos network can access music stored on up to 16 PCs, Macs or NAS (Network Attached Storage) devices, and supports compressed (MP3, WMA, AAC, Ogg Vorbis), lossless (Apple Lossless, FLAC), and uncompressed (WAV and AIFF) music files; iTunes’ DRM-restricted files, however, will not play. The ZonePlayers have both analog and digital (optical and coax) jacks to ensure high quality output.
One of the biggest advantages of the Sonos system over some of the other popular network music players—Squeezebox and Logitech Wireless DJ, for instance—is that the controller presents a more polished interface, complete with album art and buttons for selecting music sources and zones. If you’ve ever used a fancy universal remote, it has the same look and feel, with a full-color 3.5-inch LCD screen and an iPod-like scroll wheel to browse music libraries (complete with album art) and queue up tracks. Another compelling aspect of the Sonos system is the recentlyadded Rhapsody music service integration. With more than 2 million songs from major and indie-label artists in a wide variety of genres, Rhapsody is one of the best (if not the best) music services on the Internet. It has helpful features, such as “key artists” and “top tracks,” which help you navigate through the massive library. The Sonos comes with a 30-day trial of the service, which costs $10 per month thereafter.
The Sonos system lets you build a separate queue of music to play in each zone or a group of zones in your house, and you can play different songs simultaneously in up to 32 different zones. With music stored on PCs or external drives, the Sonos controller will present a single view of the entire library, which can be browsed by artist, genre, playlist, and so on. When you switch back and forth from different music sources—say Rhapsody to the music library—the response is nearly instantaneous. Judging from the reactions of our dinner guests, the Sonos system is easy enough for anyone to navigate, and the ‘wow’ factor rates pretty high. At $1000 for a basic system, it isn’t cheap, but if you’re looking for an elegant, powerful, and flexible system for streaming music around a house, Sonos is tough to beat. TPV