Networking

Two weeks with the Sonos Digital Music System

I've done a lot of things in the pursuit of multi-room audio. I've run lots of speaker wire throughout the walls of my house and bought a couple of different multi-zone A/V receivers; however, something was always missing. I could never find a simple way to control all of the devices and access all of the various sources of music that I listen to.

A couple of weeks ago, though, I installed the Sonos Digital Music System (BU130) at home. I don't think I'll ever be the same. :)

Sonos BU130

The Sonos BU130 Digital Music System out of the box

Overview

According to the Sonos site, "Sonos is the first wireless, multi-room digital music system that lets you play digital music all over your house—and control it all from the palm of your hand." You can connect to music on your home network or go online and connect to services like Pandora, Rhapsody and Sirius Satellite Radio.

There are 3 main components to the BU130: the ZP80, the ZP100 and the Sonos Controller.

The ZP80 is the smaller of the two Zone Players. This is the unit that you connect to your existing home theater receiver. It features a 2-port ethernet switch, optical and coaxial digital outputs, an RCA audio output and an RCA audio input. I used the optical audio output on the ZP80 to connect to the Onkyo receiver in my manroom.

ZP80 back

The back of the Sonos ZP80

The ZP100 is the larger of the two Zone Players. You use this unit to create your second audio zone by connecting a pair of speakers (and optionally a subwoofer) directly to it. It features a 50 watts per channel amplifier, 4-port ethernet switch, right and left speaker terminals, an RCA audio output for left, right and subwoofer and an RCA audio input. I connected the ZP100 to a small pair of Cambridge Soundworks speakers in my master bedroom.

ZP100 back

The back of the Sonos ZP100

The Sonos Controller allows you to control both of your Zone Players. It features a 3.5", color LCD screen, an iPod-like click wheel and buttons for volume, mute, play, skip back, skip forward, return, zones and music. There are also 3 context-specific buttons directly under the screen that can be used for various functions depending on which task you are performing.

Sonos controller

The back of the Sonos Controller. BTW, I do not advocate the use of Jack Johnson's music in any way, shape or form. This photo above is courtesy of Sonos. The photo below is more my thing.

Sonos controller me

The Sonos Controller uses SonosNet which is a "secure, wireless mesh network that extends the range of your Controller throughout your entire home." You can carry it from room to room and easily switch between your audio zones.

The Good

The first thing you'll notice about the Sonos BU130 is the build quality. Each piece feels sturdy and well-made. The Sonos Controller, which is how you'll interface with your system, feels especially solid. Although I didn't test out my theory, it seems like it could take being knocked off the coffee table a few times.

In addition to being sturdy, the Sonos Controller provides a really strong user experience. The screen is large enough to display lots of details and the click wheel allows you to quickly move around menus and make selections. My wife and older kids were all able to pick it up and use its basic functions without any prompting. I can't say that about too many products.

Sound quality is another area where the Sonos was really strong. I used one of the digital audio outputs on the ZP80 to connect to my Onkyo surround receiver. No one that heard it could tell that I wasn't playing a CD regardless of whether I was playing an MP3, Rhapsody or Sirius Satellite Radio.

Speaking of Rhapsody and Sirius Satellite Radio, integration with 3rd party music services is another strength of Sonos. It allows you to connect with the aforementioned Rhapsody and Sirius as well as Pandora and Internet radio. In addition to being to access those services from your Sonos Controller, you can actually mix and match content, too. So you can create a playlist with a mix of your own music and songs from Rhapsody. Very cool.

The Sonos Zone Players also feature an audio input that allows you to connect an iPod or other MP3 player. This lets you pipe music from your portable player throughout your home.

There is also a built-in alarm clock function which, on the surface, doesn't sound that cool. However, after using it, it is nice to be able to wake up to Howard Stern on Sirius or a playlist from Rhapsody instead of the annoying buzz of my alarm clock.

The Bad

Although my experience with the Sonos Digital Music System was 99.9% positive, there were a couple of minor issues that are worth mentioning.

The first was an issue with the Sonos Controller. Once while I was streaming a playlist from Rhapsody, the Sonos Controller's screen went black and wouldn't come back on. Music was still playing; however, I could not get the Controller's screen to power up and none of the buttons were working.

After checking some online forums, I found out that there have been some Sonos customers who have experienced the same issue. The only workaround, unfortunately, was to allow the Controller's battery to drain completely (by leaving it off of its charging cradle). That meant that for the next 6 hours or so, I couldn't use the system. That was kind of a bummer considering how much fun I had been having with it up until then; however, it only happened once during the 2+ weeks of daily use.

The second issue was with Sonos' Rhapsody integration. Having subscribed to Rhapsody for over 3 years, I was accustomed to their easy-to-use UI. Unfortunately, that experience doesn't completely transfer to the Sonos Controller. While most functions work just fine, finding artists or songs can be pretty painful due to the lack of search functionality. You are limited to browing by categories or genres with the Sonos Controller's click wheel.

Looking to relive some hair metal memories with a little White Lion or Winger? Well, you would have to select the "Rock" category, then "All Artists," then "Power Scroll," then "W," then scroll through the Ws until you find the artist name you want (BTW, there are a ton of artists that begin with "W"). Much too cumbersome to do more than a couple of times. Would be nice to be able to use an onscreen keyboard to perform searches.

The Bottom Line

The Sonos BU130 is one of the best home audio products I have ever used. It is a bit pricey at $999; however, if you've been looking for a seamless way to bring audio from various sources to multiple rooms of your home, then the Sonos is definitely the only way to go. I am actually dreading having to send the review unit back. Maybe they'll forget they sent it...

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