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 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.
To 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?
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
More Hardware Notes
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.
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
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
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
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?
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...
Audio Connections: RCA-type analog line-in (auto-detecting); analog and digital line-out (optical and coaxial)
Audio Formats Supported
Music Services Supported
Operating Systems (for stored files)
Internet Radio Supported
Wireless System: SonosNet 2.0, a secure AES encrypted, peer-to-peer wireless
Sonos Network Bridging
Dimensions (H x W x D)/Weight
Weight: 1.5 lbs.
CR100 Wireless Remote
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
SonosNet 1.0, a secure AES encrypted, peer-to-peer wireless
Dimensions:2.56 x 7.44 x 2.24 (HxWxD in inches)
Weight: 7.1 ounces
Voice: (805) 965-3001