Sonos Digital Music System

      Date posted: October 23, 2006

Sonos Digital Music System

US $1199.00 (as tested)
Available Internet Direct

(Reprinted from the Spring 07 Audio Ideas Guide)

      In his fascinating book Capturing Sound, How Technology has Changed Music author Mark Katz describes what he calls “Phonograph Effects”. A Phonograph Effect, in short, is a manifestation of how recording technology has changed music. The roughly three minute playing time of a 78 rpm record, for instance, had a profound influence on the structure of early pop and jazz music. To most audiophiles the proposition that recording (and in our case playback) technology influences how music is not only consumed but produced will not likely come as any great revelation. Katz’s analysis of phonograph effects, however, from the rapid evolution of vibrato in turn of the century classical music, right through his examination of the turntable as a musical instrument in hip-hop and DJ culture, is consistently insightful and absorbing.

      As the book’s early chapters explain, the introduction of the phonograph represented a seismic shift in the way people consumed music. Hearing an orchestra perform a symphony for instance, what was once a special privilege of an elite class, filtered down to the masses; something that was ephemeral (a live performance) became repeatable, reproducible and aggressively commoditized; record players gradually replaced pianos in the parlours of homes all over the world; in short order recordings became by far the dominant means by which people consumed music.

Capturing Sound

      If the 20th century was about recorded music’s dominance, the 21st will be characterized by its ubiquity. From the vantage point of 2006 it’s hard to believe that a little over one hundred years ago music couldn’t exist unless you were making it yourself, or in the physical presence of someone who was. And then it was gone, never to be heard the same way again (with the possible exception of the player piano). Today, between portable players, car audio, and the garbage we’re assaulted with in public spaces (ie shops, airports etc), let alone the home stereo, music is nearly inescapable.

      Now that we’ve entered the era of file-based recordings and commercial music has been divorced from necessity of a physical carrier, a whole new range of Phonograph Effects (now perhaps better described as Ipod Effects) is emerging; another topic Katz covers in the latter chapters of his book. With CD sales waning, the notion of the album, which itself only rose to prominence with the LP, is rapidly being eroded by the resurgence of singles, now downloaded (legally and illegally) from the internet rather than stamped into 45s. Loading singles into playlists is, for many, creating a far more randomized listening experience, where rather than hearing a collection of songs released at the same time by the same artist ordered in a particular way for maximum impact, we’re sampling one song at a time without always knowing what’s coming next. Get enough tracks in a playlist and it’s very much like having your own personal radio station, minus the advertising and (usually) inane chatter. This, as you would expect for technology still in its infancy, is just the beginning. The big changes are still to come.

      Catching up with this new reality is putting the major record companies through rather unsightly public dry-heaves of panic and convulsions of misguided litigation. Hardware companies, however, are starting to figure it out. Clearly Apple has done a little more than just figure it out and pretty much owns the portable music player market, not to mention the legitimate online music business (over one billion song downloads and counting). But things at home are a little more complicated. We have yet to see a file-based music player for home systems that can rival the Ipod in terms of cutting-edge design and user-friendliness and, in so doing, mount a significant assault on entrenched CD/DVD players. That is until now.

      Like the previously reviewed Roku Soundbridge M-2000 and Creative Soundblaster Wireless Music, the Sonos Digital Music System is part of a new generation of devices meant to bridge the gap between your computer and your audio system. Simply put, it streams music stored on a home computer to your audio system.

      For those of us with large (and growing) collections of MP3, AIFF and WAV files, this can be an enormously useful thing. Why not rip your entire CD collection to a hard drive and do away with your CD player entirely then? For some, full random access to their music collection is a temptation too strong to ignore. As I discovered with the Roku (which I subsequently bought) audiophiles need not be scared off by the specter of compromised sound quality either. The output from its coax or optical digital out is almost as good as that of my Rotel RCD-951 CD transport. In fact, many argue that playing uncompressed audio off a drive from an AIFF or WAV file can sound better than playing it off a CD (hence the recent emergence of high end DACs from companies like Wavelength and Bel Canto which feature USB inputs).

      So what’s holding us back? Well, while the large, bright screen of the Roku was a major step forward compared to the clunky interface of the Sound Blaster, the problem of navigating thousands of music files without the aid of a large computer screen and an intuitive interface like Itunes still remained. This is where the Sonos truly distinguishes itself.


Sonos Digital Music System - Controller

      The real jewel of the system is the remote, or as Sonos calls it, the Controller. Ipod owners will be immediately comfortable with the Controller, the 3.5″ full color screen and scroll wheel menu system making it feel very much like a large Ipod turned on its side. It fits comfortably into the hands with a satisfying heft, the construction quality high enough withstand spills and drops (within reason, of course) and the shape lends itself to easy manipulation with the fingers and thumbs. It needs to be recharged every few days (either with the $49 optional charging cradle or with the supplied wall-wart power supply adaptor) but is smart enough to go to “sleep” when not in use and “wake” automatically when you pick it up or move it.

      With the Controller you can not only browse your entire music collection, (including any cover art you’ve loaded) you can also control every aspect of the system’s performance. What’s even slicker is the ability to control multiple ZonePlayers (up to 32) with the same remote. Simply walk around your home and dial up what you want to hear in the room you want to hear it in (the system can handle playing multiple streams at once in multiple rooms or the same song in all rooms at once and the Controller can seamlessly transition from one ZonePlayer to another - you simply choose the room you want to control from a list). To communicate with the rest of the system the Controller uses a proprietary wireless mesh networking protocol called Sonosnetâ„¢, which is also how the ZonePlayers communicate with each other and the music library (they can also be networked via traditional Ethernet).

      The advantage of this kind of remote operation is that since the remote is just another client on the network, commands from the Controller are relayed almost instantly to the ZonePlayers, eliminating not only the need for “line of sight” pointing of the remote, but also the frustrating sluggishness of products like the Creative SoundBlaster, which could sometimes take an eternity to access tracks or complete a command (if it didn’t freeze up completely). With the Sonos, when you make a song selection, change the volume or execute any other command, the delay is just slightly longer than using a traditional infrared remote, a testament to carefully designed software and hardware. In other words, we finally have a network music player that behaves more like a traditional piece of audio equipment rather than a computer. No crashes, no glitches, no rebooting; push play, hear music. Another indication of good software design was that I could load 15 thousand tracks into a playlist all at once and the Sonos wouldn’t so much as hiccup. Try that with the Roku and you’ll have a wait a minute or while it digests the list before being able to play anything. Nor did it have any issues playing uncompressed AIFFs or WAVs over the wireless network, something which sometimes bedevils the Roku. Yes US $399 is a lot of money for a remote control, but think of it more as an integral component of the system, and it feels a little less outrageous. Use it for awhile and you’ll likely think it’s a bargain.

      Another nice thing about Sonosnetâ„¢ is the fact that it’s fully automatic, the ZonePlayers and Controller(s) connecting and communicating with each other without the user even having to know what 802.11g means, or what a WEP key is, much less how to implement them. Assuming they’re not too far enough apart for the wireless signal to reach (and in most, reasonably sized homes this shouldn’t be an issue) it boils down to just a couple of button pushes before you’re streaming away.

      Of course you can also control the system via the supplied PC software (Windows or Mac). The interface is similar to that on the Controller and similarly intuitive, allowing you to control what’s playing in what room and at what volume right from your desktop. For the system to work at least one ZonePlayer must be connected to a PC (via Ethernet cable) which either has music files stored on it internally or is connected to a network device which does. Tell the Sonos software where the tunes are, put together some playlists, and you’re pretty much ready to roll. My only quibble was the inability to add more than one song to a playlist at once. Entire albums or libraries can be added at once, but at the track level it’s one at a time, which can get a little tedious.

      Supported music formats include MP3, WMA, AAC (MPEG 4), Ogg Vorbis and Flac (essentially a losslessly compressed WAV) as well as fully uncompressed WAV and AIFF. Like the Roku, however, the Sonos will not play DRM (Digital Rights Management) encrypted files like those from the Apple music store. While track navigation is an order of magnitude better than any other network music player I’ve used, it would still be nice to be able search for tracks with a text box or at least narrow it down via first letter the way you can with the Roku. Sometimes, with long lists, I found myself doing an awful lot of scrolling to find what I was looking for.

      Internet radio is on board as well with 200 stations pre-programmed and the ability to play any station which streams in MP3 or WMA. New stations can be added via the Sonos software suite on the connected PC. Sonos also supports the Rhapsody and Audible subscription-based music services.

The Audio Toaster

      With pretty much all of the interface built into the Controller and software, the ZonePlayers themselves are pretty simple boxes. Each ZonePlayer does, mercifully, feature volume controls and a mute button on its front panel, allowing a quick override of the Controller (say, for instance you’ve temporarily misplaced the thing or someone else in the house decides to blast you with a little wakeup death metal on your bedroom system some morning). On the back are RCA stereo line level outputs (including a dedicated subwoofer out), a four port Ethernet switch, a stereo pair of RCA inputs and a pair of speaker binding posts. A nice little addition, the inputs allow any line-level source to be connected to the system and streamed to any other ZonePlayer on the system.

      Speaker binding posts, you say? Ah yes, this is where the Sonos further distinguishes itself from the rest of the network music player crowd. Each of those little toaster-sized ZonePlayers is packing a 50 watt class D digital amp. (Sonos also offers their own bookshelf speakers, the SP100, for US $179/pr). And not just any digital amp, mind you, but a digital amp based the much hyped Tripath chip found in the even more ballyhooed Sonic
Impact T-Amp
. Sadly, for the audiophile hoping to use the Sonos with an outboard DAC, there is no digital out on the

Sonos ZP-100 Rear

ZonePlayer (something the company has since rectified by offering the ZP 80 ZonePlayer with both coax and optical digital outputs, but no amplifier, for US $349). Between the two types of ZonePlayer, the Controller and the software it’s not hard to envision an extremely ergonomic, highly functional and fully scaleable whole-house audio system for a fraction of what such a thing would cost only five years ago. Oh yeah, and no re-wiring either.

Audiophile Approval?

      All this gee-whiz home automation type stuff is great for the Audio Video Interiors crowd, but what if your priority is two-channel music listening? The Sonos system certainly sounds more than good enough to satisfy its core demographic in the somewhat up-market consumer electronics world, but is it something an audiophile could get excited about?

      My first listening to the Sonos was via its RCA line level outputs plugged directly into my two channel living room system. For comparison I hooked up the analog outputs of the Roku Soundbridge M-2000 on a different input on my preamp (Musical Fidelity A3 CR). Here the Sonos emerged the clear winner with remarkably good sound from its analog outputs. A clear difference could be heard between MP3s ripped at 256 Kbs and uncompressed AIFF files, a good sign of relatively high-resolution playback. Listening to Sarah Harmer’s wonderful I am a Mountain (ripped as AIFF files) the Sonos system sounded quite a bit more refined than the Roku’s analog outs, the Roku sounding grey and threadbare with unwelcome top end edginess by comparison. While the Sonos was smooth enough and generally not objectionable sounding, going back to my normal digital system (Rotel RCD-951 and Musical Fidelity A3 24 DAC) revealed detail, subtleties and refinement the Sonos could only hint at. So, for casual listening the Sonos performed well enough as a line-level source, but would have trouble living up to the scrutiny of more serious two-channel listening.

      The next test was to wire the Sonos up as an amplifier and so I hooked it up to my venerable Energy Veritas 1.8’s and sat down to listen to the Sarah Harmer again. After my previous experience with the little T-Amp I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised that a more powerful version of the same chip could sound as good as it did. Considering the company it was keeping, the Sonos acquitted itself very well indeed, sounding quite delicate, fairly tonally neutral and imaging well outside the speakers. It could be a little thin sounding at times, but committed no egregious sonic errors. The 50 watts were more than enough to light up the 6 ohm (nominal) Energys, although I never felt the bottom octaves were fully represented.

      Going back to my reference amp (driven again from the analog outs of the Sonos), a Musical Fidelity A3 CR, produced fuller, more robust sound with greater immediacy, detail and better deep bass. Refinement was greatly improved too, the slight electronic haze of the Sonos gone. Control improved too, and not just in the bottom end, as transients were crisper and images better defined. But hey, I never expected it to sound as good as a $2000 power amp, and the fact that the Sonos was capable of the level of delicacy, soundstaging and detail that it demonstrated was impressive. It’s not quite good enough as an amp, or as a line level source, to satisfy the two-channel purists out there, but for pretty much everyone else (and that’s almost everyone) it won’t disappoint.

      Of course what could make the Sonos a true audiophile contender is the digital out offered by the smaller, amp-less ZonePlayer (the ZP-80), which, sadly was not yet available when I reviewed the system. Based on my experience with the coax and optical digital outs of the Roku Soundbridge M-2000, however, and the generally high quality and polished execution of the other pieces of the Sonos system, I have no reason expect that the ZP-80’s digital out would be any less good than the Roku’s, and the Roku’s is almost as good as my Rotel’s. As such it would be a tempting way to enjoy very high quality network music playback in a two-channel room in addition to having as many backbround/casual music systems elsewhere in the house as you like, all running off the same music library and controlled with the same fabulous remote(s).

      Considering the ease of setup and use, the excellent ergonomics and interface, the impressive flexibility and scalability, and the surprisingly good sound from the amp and analog outputs, the Sonos Digital Music System is easy to recommend. If you’re ready for what amounts to the home version of the Ipod, the player that stands out from the rest both in design and execution, this is the one. If you’re looking to put music in every room of your house, this is a brilliant and highly affordable solution.

Aaron Marshall

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