Home  |  Audio Reviews  Show Reports   Partner Mags  News 

 

February 2009
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Sonos Multi-Room Music System
Great sound and ease of use within a homewide audio system.
Review By Steven R. Rochlin

 

Best Audiohpile Products Of 2009 Blue Note Award  So you wanna setup a homewide music distribution system yet are not sure which way to go. You love music and want to have it streamed throughout your humble abode so you can jam out in your living room, home office, and of course in the bathroom while showering. Then there is the bedroom, though let us keep this article PG-rated shall we?

Join the club my friends as there are so many hardware choices with a staggering array of software features that it can easily become confusing. Sure you could get the Logitech Slim Devices Squeezebox (version 3 reviewed here and Bolder Cable modded Squeezebox 2 reviewed here) for cheap thrills. Then there is the ultra-expensive Sooloos that is priced for those with, how shall we say this, for those who take their chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce to the store on Rodeo drive. More show than go, yet looks mighty impressive. Naturally there are many other types of homewide distribution system to choose from, yet after exhaustive research my choice was to give a go at the Sonos system.

Sonos Multi-Room Music SystemSonos offers their ZonePlayer 90 ($349), which is a small virtually all white box that handles one stereo input and provides stereo preamplification output plus digital output for those who want to use an external DAC. The ZonePlayer 120 ($499) is basically the same thing minus analog input, yet has a Tripath-designed 55 wpc Class D digital stereo amplifier and subwoofer output. This allows you to simply hookup a pair of full-frequency loudspeakers directly or feed a satellite with self-powered subwoofer system. As the Sonos system relies on wireless communication, if you have a super large home you can get a ZoneBridge ($99) and place in between main zones to extend the wireless signal's reach. Think of it as a type of repeater system that simply receives a weaker signal and sends out a much stronger one. 

Sonos CR100 Remote ControlTo operate the Sonos system there are three choices. The CR100 ($399) remote control can handle the amazing wide array of choices easily and efficiently. There is free desktop software that also controls all features, so if you do not need a wireless remote and are glued to you computer then you are all set. Lastly, Sonos' new iPhone software, also free, can control virtually all features. While Apple's iPhone is an impressive device, am playing the waiting game for next-gen units that have key features i desire. Therefore, my choice to control the Sonos system was the CR100 and free desktop software.

While the above is an oversimplification of the hardware, the capabilities are so in-depth that i'd rather spend time writing this review than rewrite the company's website. For more details visit Sonos' website as you can see the basic specifications of each unit at the bottom of this review.

 

Why The Sonos?
Why not? The system is easy to use, has many great features, can handle 32 separate zones and comes with the best support i have ever experienced within my thirty plus years of purchasing consumer electronics. While my new home is relatively small as compared to the previous one, a four room setup was in order plus their wireless remote. This system feeds music in the living room, home office, master bedroom and bathroom. Add to that, i can send and receive music to/from the main high-end audio system. This means my turntable or whatever i am enjoying on the main system can be sent to any other zone within my home. The same can be said for my home office computer, as there are times i may be watching videos from YouTube or on Google Video and want to send the audio elsewhere.

During my research i chatted with the highly knowledgeable industry geeks including the gurus Gordon Rankin of Wavelength Audio/USB DACs and Chris at Computer Audiophile. Sure we debated getting a new Apple computer and using AirPorts, or a mix of the Squeezebox/Transport and others. My goal was to have a simple system that was not dependant on yet another computer in my home. i also did not want a system that would chew through my current computer's resources and use Internet bandwidth unnecessarily, as there is relatively slow  6Mbps down and 1Mbps up wired into my home. As for my home's wireless router's bandwidth, there is a staggering average of around 130 Mbps to play with. This is enough to feed high-definition TV with plenty of headroom to spare! Well, being as there was no really great homewide video streaming system priced within my chosen budget, the focus was on high-end audio while playing the waiting game for homewide video distribution system prices to come down to Earth.

 

No Computer Necessary
So how does Sonos send music to upwards of 32 zones without needing you to use a computer? Because they have a built-in control system and each main unit has a special wireless 'mesh' network. The control system handles all the things needed for operation. The mesh network is basically a secure 128-bit encrypted/secure 802.11-based Wi-Fi setup. All units can 'talk' to each other with plenty of bandwidth to spare. This also means the Sonos system is not dependant on your home's wireless network bandwidth. As for the actual digital audio processing, the EE Times (see article here) took apart the older version of a Sonos unit and found such chips as the Cirrus Logic CS42416-CQZ 192-kHz multi-channel ADC/DAC, which also has an on-board phase lock loop (PLL) and a minimum 110dB dynamic range. There are reports that the digital output has high jitter, yet any good DAC should also reclock the data so you should be ok. The volume control, if you choose to use the Sonos unit's analog outputs, is said to be controlled by a 24-bit signal. Hard core audiophiles will probably opt to use the fixed output where you will be using a downstream device for volume control, and this is said to be best for pure sound quality purposes from the digital output. As for the critical analog stage, there is not much information i could get from Sonos, as they seem to be very protective of the guts, bits and design specifics. The EE Times article can provide you a good idea of what their previous unit was made with. Their newer units have improved Wi-Fi performance and not sure what else they may have improved mechanically/electrically. Yes i asked and they were not telling me.

 

More Hardware Notes
Now before all your Logitech Slim Devices owners decide to barrage me with e-mail, the key for me was analog inputs to feed other zones and a stand-alone system with reasonable pricing. Sure the Slim Devices Transport is a great unit, yet buying four of those takes a system to $8,000+. Due to various package deals offered by Sonos, the system here came in at around $1700 to feed four rooms and included a CR100 remote control. You could subtract $300 if you do not need the CR100 and have an iPhone (seen right) and/or want to control the system with your existing home computer. Add to that, one of the Major Magazine Measurement Monkeys (4Ms, which is pronounced 'Quad-Ems') said the digital output from a previous version of the Sonos was bit for bit perfect from the original digital source to the output of a Sonos unit. Call it perfect bits forever. This means that i could take the saved cash between the Sonos and the Logitech Transport system and buy some high-end audio externals DACs, which can easily be changed/upgraded as desired as DACs are getting better and cheaper with each passing day. For my use, there was no reason to be stuck with four $2000 Logitech Slim Devices Transports and then having to do the external DAC dance anyway.

Of course you do not need to have an external DAC for every zone, as the built-in ADC/DAC within the Sonos is quite good on its own, yet of course has limitations if you desire the ultimate in sound quality as can be expected from a $1000+ stand alone DAC unit. And yes, i know the Slim Devices Transports handle higher bit and sampling rates, yet this audiophile knows that technology marches onward and not to overspend for bleeding edge technology today that is outdated next year. Add to that, Sonos' system is so very easy to use, has all the features i wanted and more plus came in at a price that was relatively reasonable. Am well aware of various tweaks, such as the Cullen Circuits reclocker modification or using a Empirical Audio Pace Car to reclock the digital output. Due to Sonos being extremely tight-lipped about their new units, what may apply to the older units may have been solved with these newer products... or not. As i said before, virtually every excellent DAC should reclock the data, thereby possibly reducing jitter.

The main unit, a ZonePlayer 90, has a button on the front for volume up and down plus a smaller one for mute. The rear has two Ethernet jacks, S/PDIF digital output via RCA and TOSLINK plus a stereo set each of analog outputs and inputs.

Setting up my four zone system was extremely easy and she was up and running within 30 minutes. There were a grand total of zero hums, buzzes or other nasty problems to sort out. At this point of the review i was beginning to wonder if, because this was so very easy, that something will surely go wrong. Could it be at best a simple hiccup, or at worst some weird interaction that causes a total meltdown of my NAS drive with a staggering amount of GBs of music. Well, the great thing about the Sonos system is that ease of use and setup were all part of the company's plan. This alone is a great feature that is lost on so many other audio feature-rich products. 

Another great attribute of the Sonos system is that i did not have to use my home computer. The Sonos system is completely self-contained and even with every computer turned off within my humble abode it is still fully functional. Add to that, my choice for storing and feeding all my music files was the LaCie 2big 2TB NAS system. Coming with a pair of Samsung F1 hard drives, this system had plenty of speed for my use and priced around $400 was a bargain for 2TB of data storage (technically, 1TB of storage with the other 1TB drive being a mirror/backup). Due to the large cabinet also acting as a heatsink, the 2big runs virtually silent. Sure it is no Thecus, and it is not priced as such nor anywhere near as noisy either. For those unfamiliar, a Thecus NAS drive is the Lamborghini of NAS systems, yet the price is around $650 for their N5200BR device ($1100 for the new N7700) plus the cost of however many hard drives you want. Call it an easy $1000 on up for a N5200BR with two decent hard drives. Yes the Thecus is faster at serving up data, yet for me the speed of the LaCie was more than enough, and Chris at Computer Audiophile agreed. As said earlier, there were discussion with others who helped me find that sweet spot of price versus performance and features. As time has passed, if i was going to do this today i'd get the QNAP TS-209 Pro NAS for added file transfer speed, though the LaCie 2big has been working flawlessly since day one.

Note: LaCie just released new firmware a week or so ago for the 2big and it appears the system is a bit faster in operation and certain back-end very minor bugs not mentioned here have been solved. Still, it is not Thecus fast, yet good enough for my use.

As for loudspeakers and amplification, naturally the living room is the high-end audio system. Will not give details on that for now as am working on a few world premieres. The bedroom has a pair of self-powered audioengine A2 small monitors (reviewed here), the bathroom has the larger brother audioengine 5 (reviewed here), and lastly the home office has the powered ADAM A5 monitors (reviewed here). My music files vary from a low of 192kbs WMA to lossless FLAC ripped via EAC version 0.99.

 

User Interface
A system, no matter how good, heavily relies on the ease of use. If operating a system is frustrating, then perhaps you will be like me and want to throw it against the wall to destroy it (with the outcome being a brief moment of joy, followed by the later realization of how much money you just destroyed). Thankfully, the Sonos system is perhaps the easiest and most intuitive system i have experienced in quite some time. By the second day i was using the CR100 wireless remote in my bedroom without opening my eyes to go forward/back with songs and adjusting the volume level. The wireless remote mainly stays in the bedroom, yet does find its way to the living room from time to time. Battery life of the CR100 is about a week or so depending on usage.

As for the free desktop software, on the left is a listing of the various zones, the middle is to control the music, volume, equalization of each zone, etc. The right side controls the source of the music, with choices being your personal music library, various music services, your created Sonos playlists, Internet radio and line inputs. While you can link zones so that more than one zone in your home is playing the same music, you can also have each zone play totally separate sources of audio. As an example, i might want romantic music in the bedroom and 1980's music in my home office. There are many other features, including each zone having its very own music selection, that can be queued up for play, equalization settings, sleep timers, alarms with your choice of sound to wake up to, etc. Enough already with the very basic technical, features and other bits, let us get to how you can enjoy endless hours of musical bliss shall we?

 

More Music In My Home
Even if you have no music on your computer's hard drive nor a NAS drive, you can enjoy nearly countless hours of music via Internet radio/music services. After registering the Sonos system, you get free music and/or subscriptions to online music providers. The e-mail i received after registering my system showcased the freebies as you can see within the graphic to the right. But there's more! How about free music via Rhapsody, SIRUS, Napster, Pandora Radio and Last.fm. Add to that, there are tens of thousands of free radio stations online, and Sonos recently upgraded their software so you now get over 15,000 'preset' radio stations loaded and ready to go. Of course you can add your own stations plus save your favorites in a special 'folder'. With so much free music out there how can you lose?

Well, most online music streams at a low 192 kbs to 320kbs lossy music. This is quite good for most folks, though hard-core audiophiles are always a tough crowd to please. SHOUTcast radio is a type of search engine, per se, to find online radio stations. Simply click the broadband selection so it lists the higher resolution stations. Of course to get the very best from your Sonos system you'll want to have high-resolution music files to listen to. On that note, here is where my main reviewing was conducted. Specifically, they are lossless FLAC files ripped via EAC and stored on the NAS. Instead of giving recording by recording listening notes, below are my notes after a few months of musical pleasures. i did use my Frankenstein DAC (custom-built/tweaked unit) as well as the Sonos' analog inputs and outputs for comparison.

 

Sound Of The Sonos
Analog Output

There are two ways to enjoy music through the system. One is by using the internal DAC and, thereby the analog outputs. The other is employing the SPDIF (RCA) output and having it feed the DAC of your choice. i'll first cover the analog outputs and describe this the most, as introducing an external DAC means a dual-review of sorts as the Sonos system will sound only as good as the external DAC system. i never used an external preamplifier (fixed analog output), so my comments below are in using the adjustable analog output.

Using the analog outputs, the Sonos system produces a pleasant sound akin to what us old-timers might call a classic Western Electric 300B sound. This is not to say the Sonos sounds like a classic tube system more than in saying the extreme highs are slightly rounded, the midrange is very listenable with good midbass, and the deepest of bass is a bit round and lacks a touch of utmost definition. Of course an audiophile (and musician) such as myself is hyper critical and feel the need to say that i have enjoyed hundreds of hours in musical bliss using the analog outputs. In fact there are times i may prefer it over my 'Frankenstein' DAC due to wanting a sound that is subtly more on the romantic side. In fact my guess would be that on many cost-effective lower-end systems the sound of the Sonos would actually compliment and be more synergistic.

As an example, to my ears many lesser expensive loudspeakers tend to be bright, with tinny highs. The Sonos would be a sort of 'natural' equalization to reduce the possible offending sound from such systems and allow them to be more neutral. Sure there are Bass and Treble plus Loudness equalization settings on the Sonos system, yet an inherit personality of tonal forgiveness is a good thing. After all, it is better to err on the side of caution. In fact this is the same type of err chosen within my Max Rochlin Memorial DIY digital cable design. There are synergy factors in every high-end audio system and smart audiophiles know that 'X' cable is good for one thing while 'Y' cable may be good for another. Rounding things up, the harmonics are very pleasant and all-day listenable, which part of the reasons why i can listen to the Sonos system about eight hours every day, five days a week. So yes, it gets that much use so something good must be happening here!

Good ol' PRAT (pace, rhythm and timing) is fairly neutral to maybe a teeny tiny touch on the side of boogie. It is hard to decide, so let us say that whatever you feed it will have the same pace and boogie factor out of it..

As for soundstaging ability from the analog outputs, it has good width and depth, yet does fall a bit short from that garnished from $10,000 systems. Keep in mind a Sonos ZonePlayer 90 is around $349 and also includes a Wi-Fi system and other bits. So naturally it could not employ hundreds of dollars of power transformers and power capacitors, exotic internal silver wiring, dual-mono overall design, etc. to achieve the very best. The width is very good and depth is perhaps about 15 percent shorter than my reference. There is much to like as there is smoothness to it all. In a sense my entire comments on just about everything from the Sonos system could be summed up in a single word being smoothness.

 

Sound Of The Sonos
Digital Output

This is what truly made me open my ears wide! All the above analog critique can be thrown out the window. All of it! As you may recall, earlier in this article where i said "One of the Major Magazine Measurement Monkeys (4Ms, which is pronounced 'Quad-Ems') said the digital output from a previous version of the Sonos was bit for bit perfect from the original digital source to the output of a Sonos." This appears to be true! While Sonos does not release official specifications, it has been deduced that the digital output on the Sonos employs a 24-bit chip and outputs a 20-bit digital signal. As such, when used in variable digital output — where the digital output also control the volume — is such that there is no digital resolution loss. This is how i spent most of the listening. Yes the fixed output worked, yet then i had to add a preamplifier and, thus, another can of worms that would cause doubt as to am i hearing the Sonos or the very expensive passive or active preamplifier i placed within the signal's path. So variable output it is. (Note to non-audiophiles, yes we audiophiles are that picky... and which is why guys such as myself listen to things during a critical review like a scientists uses a microscope).

The DAC of choice in my beloved Frankenstein. This is not a commercial product, it is something designed by one party, further developed by another and then fine-tuned by yours truly over the years. What matters most is that it is a controlled known, just as scientists use a known 'control' and a 'variable'. The DAC is the known control and the Sonos is the variable in this circumstance. So how does the Sonos sound when using its digital output?

Pure. It would be hard to criticize on any level as what my ears were hearing is pretty much exactly how the digital file should sound when played through the Frankenstein. If anything, i would say the music sounded a touch better! This may be due to my first deep experience with a NAS-based system feeding the Frankenstein. Lossless FLAC and WAV files of my favorite CDs sounded every bit as good as the very best transport/Frankenstein combo my ears have heard. Highs were very extended and clean, midrange was exactly as was recorded, plus both midbass and deep bass were tight and tuneful. Imaging was maybe a small touch wider than i recall and depth was as deep as was on the recording. While the 4M crowd says the previous generation of Sonos units exhibited high amounts of jitter, and there was no change in the DAC on the new units, any really good DAC will re-clock and thereby eliminate such problems.

No matter what else i try to say here, the bottom line is that using the digital output made the Sonos system utterly transparent. What is heard is what is within the digital file and the 'personality' of the DAC.

 

Is The Sonos System For You?
Are you tired of searching for a particular CD in your collection? Do you want to enjoy endless free music available online? Would you like the turntable or cable TV sound (or whatever) sent from the living room to another room wirelessly? Are the CDs sitting in your home taking up too much space? Do you want to be able to control your music collection with the ease of a very intuitive remote control or computer desktop software? DO you want a system that will not chew up your Wi-Fi system's bandwidth? If you answered yes to three or more of these, then you may be a prime candidate to migrating from an old-school system to the joys of a NAS/controller based system.

The internal DAC and analog outputs are very enjoyable musically and are great for my bathroom and bedroom. Those who want truly high-end sound quality will opt for using an external DAC. With an external DAC it is not about sound quality per se more than the Sonos system simply works. It puts me in control of my music and has eliminated the problems of dealing with thousands of physical discs. Add to that, i can have the music from my turntable in the living room play in another zone. In fact i can have classical music playing on my main high-end audio rig, rock in the bathroom, jazz in the office and romantic music in the bedroom all at the same time and controlled by one remote!

The Sonos system is such a joy to use due to its intuitive and user-friendly design. Setup was super easy and if i had any questions they were extremely fast to answer my e-mail (or via online live chat). Thank goodness i did not need to reconfigure my hardware, did not need to leave on a computer, did not have to tweak back-end software or deal with endless 'hackware'. The Sonos system truly is 'set and forget'.

With excellent sound quality, ease of use, endless free music from online sources plus my music collection, i can not fathom why any audiophile would bother with a CD player given options now available such as that offered by Sonos. The stand-alone CD player (or transport) is dead and shall not be missed within my home. Today there is a better option, and for me that option is the Sonos system. Of course in the end what really matters is that you...

Enjoy the Music,

Steven R. Rochlin

 

Sonos variable analog output ratings

Tonality

Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape Width Front

Soundscape Width Rear  
Soundscape Depth Behind Speakers

Soundscape Extension Into Room

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise

Value For The Money

 

Specifications

ZP90
THD+N: < 0.009%, 20Hz-20kHz

Audio Connections: RCA-type analog line-in (auto-detecting); analog and digital line-out (optical and coaxial)

Audio Formats Supported
Compressed MP3, WMA (including purchased Windows Media downloads), AAC (MPEG4), Ogg Vorbis, Audible (format 4), Apple Lossless, Flac (lossless) music files, as well as uncompressed WAV and AIFF files. Native support for 44.1kHz sample rates. See website for additional sample rates supported. Apple “Fairplay” and WMA Lossless formats not currently supported.

Music Services Supported
Best Buy Digital Music Store, Last.fm, Napster, Pandora, Rhapsody 3.0+, SIRIUS Internet Radio, and downloads from any service offering DRM-free tracks

Operating Systems (for stored files)
Windows XP SP2 or higher, Windows Vista, Mac OS X v10.4 and v10.5, NAS (Network Attached Storage) devices supporting CIFS

Internet Radio Supported
Streaming MP3, WMA. Comes pre-loaded with 15,000+ stations, shows and podcasts
Wireless connectivity (must have one Sonos unit hooked up to the Internet)

Wireless System: SonosNet 2.0, a secure AES encrypted, peer-to-peer wireless
mesh network

Sonos Network Bridging
The 2-port switch (10/100Mbps, auto MDI/MDIX) allows Ethernet devices to connect through SonosNet

Dimensions (H x W x D)/Weight
2.91 x 5.35 x 5.51 in (HxWxD in inches)

Weight: 1.5 lbs.

Price: $349

 

CR100 Wireless Remote
Screen: 3.5-icn (diagonal) color transflective LCD screen with LED backlighting, 240 x 320 (QVGA)

Browse Control: Touch-sensitive scroll wheel with center-mounted selector button

Function Buttons: Nine backlit buttons and three soft-selector buttons below screen

Battery: High density rechargeable Li-ION Polymer battery, factory-replaceable

Wireless Connectivity: SonosNet 1.0, a secure AES encrypted, peer-to-peer wireless
mesh network

Dimensions:2.56 x 7.44 x 2.24 (HxWxD in inches)

Weight: 7.1 ounces

Price: $399

 

Company Information
Sonos, Inc.
223 E. De La Guerra
Santa Barbara, CA 93101

Voice: (805) 965-3001
Fax: (805) 965-3010 
Website: www.sonos.com 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
Quick Links


Audiophile Review Magazine
High-End Audio Equipment Reviews

Equipment Review Archives
Turntables, Cartridges, Etc
Digital Source
Do It Yourself (DIY)
Preamplifiers
Amplifiers
Cables, Wires, Etc
Loudspeakers/ Monitors
Headphones, IEMs, Tweaks, Etc

Superior Audio Archives
Ultra High-End Audio Reviews

Videos
Musician Series
Enjoy the Music.TV

Music Reviews
Classical Music
Jazz, Bluegrass, Blues, Etc.
Rock, Pop, Techno, Metal, Etc.

Columns
Editorials By Tom Lyle
Editorials By Steven R. Rochlin
Viewpoint By Roger Skoff
Audiolics Anonymous
Nearfield By Steven Stone
Various Think Pieces
Manufacturer Articles


Partner Magazines
The Absolute Sound
Australian Hi-Fi Magazine
NOVO (CANADA HiFi)
hi-fi+ Magazine
HIFICRITIC
HiFi Media
Hi-Fi World
Sound Practices
VALVE Magazine

Show Reports
LAAS 2017 Show Report
High End Munich 2017 Show Report
AXPONA 2017 Show Report
CanJam SoCal 2017 Show Report
Montreal Audio Fest 2017 Show Report
CanJam NYC 2017 Report
CES 2017 Show Report & Videos
TAVES 2016 Toronto Show Report
Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2016
CanJam 2016 Denver RMAF
Audio Engineering Society 141 LA
CanJam London 2016 Show Report
Hong Kong AV Show Report 2016
Capital Audiofest 2016
Click here for previous shows.

Resources And Information
Music Definitions
Hi-Fi Definitions
High-End Audio Manufacture Links

 


Daily Industry News

High-End Audio News & Information

Internet Browser
Audiophile Internet Browser V12

Mobile Phone Apps
Android Audiophile App

Other
Audiophile Contests
Cool Free Stuff For You
Tweaks For Your System
Vinyl Logos For LP Lovers
Lust Pages Visual Beauty
300B Tube Comparison

For The Press & Industry
About Us
Press Releases
Official Site Graphics

Contests & Join Our Mailing List

Our free newsletter for monthly updates & enter our contests!

Our Social Media & Video Channel
     

 

 

     

Home  |  Sitemap  |  Industry News  |  Equipment / Music Reviews  |  Press Releases  |  About Us  |  Contact Us

 

All contents copyright©  1995 - 2017  Enjoy the Music.com®
May not be copied or reproduced without permission.  All rights reserved.