Review: Sonos Multi-Zone Digital Music System

The Sonos Multi-Zone Digital Music System is a very clever system overall – although the technology behind it sometimes strained to keep up with the company’s vision.  When the package arrived from Sonos with two ZonePlayers, a ZonePlayer with a built-in amplifier, and the ZoneController (think of a very large Apple video iPod), it actually took some time talking about it among ourselves to really understand its potential and wrap our heads around the concept.

Each ZonePlayer added to the system can simultaneously become both an input and an output for digital and analog music.  For example, a ZonePlayer in a bedroom could be hooked up to an analog music source (even a vinyl record player), and the output can be streamed digitally to every other ZonePlayer in the house, or to just one other ZonePlayer in another room.  This makes the system a kind of matrix switch.  All players are connected to the others automatically though their own encrypted Sonos wireless network (SonosNet), or through your own wired Ethernet if you prefer.  Every ZonePlayer added to the wireless network extends the reach of the network as a repeater.  Once connected to a computer network with internet access, the system catalogs all the available digital music on the network for playback, and also can connect to several online music stores and any internet radio streaming station. 

Each ZonePlayer has an array of audio inputs and outputs.  Two wired Ethernet jacks, digital coax and optical outputs, and RCA analog inputs and outputs.  The ZonePlayer 100 is a slightly larger unit that includes an amplifier and two extra Ethernet jacks, and therefore only needs to be connected to speakers to play music. 

The controller unit looks and feels like a relatively heavy portable game device (like the Sony PSP).  It wirelessly connects to the network through any nearby ZonePlayer, and the batteries can be recharged with a cord or on an optional cradle.  The interface itself is simple if you’ve used any portable electronic music device like an Apple iPod, and it uses menus to drill down your selections.  When listening to digital music from your network collection, the player displays metadata such as titles, artists, playtime and even album artwork.  Using the controller to configure the system and network can become very tiresome, but eventually accomplished.  The combination of network lag and a heavy graphical user interface makes browsing through the menus with the controller sometimes feel too slow – like the controller is straining.

The design of the exterior components is very simple and clean.  The ZonePlayer 80s are tidy two-toned white cubes with only three buttons on the front (all volume functions).  The ZonePlayer 100 is about twice as long with extra holes for cooling.  All ZonePlayers are silent and passively air-cooled.  The components also have enough weight to feel solid and high quality.   The design of the components can be called very clean, simple and modern – although the more cynical observers of industrial deign will note the similarities to Apple Computer’s style. 

The flexible nature of the system has great possibilities for not only residential homes but also commercial applications that need distributed audio without costly and complicated setups.  The system can accommodate up to 35 simultaneous zones, which could be great for something like a small hotel, clubhouse or restaurant.  One issue with adding and maintaining zones in the system can arise when the system decides to randomly drop a ZonePlayer.  This could just be a temporary software/firmware issue that has been fixed since we received our test system, but happened to us a couple times a week randomly.  The dropped zones could be easily added back into the network using the controller, but was inconvenient never-the-less.  Ideally, every room with a ZonePlayer would have an existing audio system (or even boombox) for input and output, or a set of speakers in the case of the ZonePlayer 100.  But we discovered the ZonePlayers can still be useful as just inputs for the network. 

It would also be nice if the system had better integration with the most popular electronic music and media online store – iTunes.  Although the system can interface with music and playlists from local iTunes software on a computer, it cannot interface with the iTunes store directly.  It can interface with Rhapsody® 3.0+ and downloads from AOL® Music Now, Audible.com®, eMusic®, Napster™, URGE™, Wal-Mart®, Yahoo! Music™ Unlimited, and Zune™ Marketplace.  Another feature which would have be nice would be the integration of streaming video to the controller’s beautiful 3.5 inch screen – which also would be great in conjunction with the iTunes movie store.

Overall, the Sonos is a great system with lots of potential.  It still has a few technical hiccups which need to be ironed out, but it could be great for those looking for a simple and cheap solution for distributed and whole-house audio.