Sonos crowns its wireless audio system with its best model yet. (August 9th, 2009)
Product Manufacturer: Sonos
Price: $1,149 ($999 without speakers)
- Great integration of music services and sources.
- Excellent audio quality, design and build; customizable to varying needs.
- Intuitive Controller and computer software; iPhone/iPod app.
- Cheap versus custom installations.
- Might be pricey for some.
- Remote could be lighter and slimmer.
Sonos was founded with the dream of building a reasonably affordable whole home audio solution in an era where many systems did (and often still do) cost several thousand dollars or more. Now on its second generation of hardware and with much more mature software, it's possible the company's music system may have reached its zenith. We want determine just how true that is in our larger review.
a brief recap of features
Those unfamiliar with Sonos' hardware will want a refresher. At its root, a system involves three main products: controllers (with controller software), players and bridges. If the Sonos system had a heart it would undoubtedly be the Sonos ZoneBridge. The ZoneBridge unit connects Sonos ZonePlayers and Sonos Controllers to the internet and to your home network. The ZoneBridge also powers an AES-encrypted, 802.11n Wi-Fi connection that wirelessly links all of the Sonos components.
ZonePlayers come in two flavors, amplified and output-only. Both types of player are equipped with RCA and digital audio outputs to connect home theater equipment. Amplified players can also be directly connected to stereo bookshelf speakers and work best in rooms where a home theater system doesn't already exist. The Players even have line-in jacks to share audio from a source in one room with other rooms. In our case, we had the Speaker Bundle 250, which adds a pair of Sonos' own bookshelf speakers.
Steering the Sonos network is accomplished in three ways. The Sonos Controller is arguably the preferred method, but Sonos also offers free Mac and Windows software to control the network as well as an app for the iPhone and iPod touch. Controllers not only select which players play what music but also control volume and the music selection and sources.
equipment tested and setup
For our review we tested both the Sonos Speaker 250 bundle and a Sonos ZoneBridge. The Speaker 250 bundle includes a Sonos Controller and both a non-amped ZonePlayer 90 as well as an amped ZonePlayer 120 with a set of Sonos bookshelf speakers.
Setup of the entire system was very straight forward. While the Sonos ZonePlayers have wired Ethernet connections for those who can hardwire their system, we opted for an all-wireless setup. We connected the ZoneBridge to our router and powered up the ZonePlayer 120 along with the controller and speakers. After installing the software and powering up the controller and selecting our language, we were ready to go. The entire install only took 5 minutes and we barely glanced at the documentation.
music services and sources
The Sonos system can almost literally play music from just about anywhere and everyone. We tried every source we could and were consistently impressed. From accessing music in our local MP3 library to playing tracks from last.fm, Pandora radio, Rhapsody, and even local FM channels through digital rebroadcast via the Internet. We were consistently impressed with the sound quality, the ease of use, and sophistication and simplicity of the system. Sonos also includes support for paid subscription services like Napster's unlimited plan, XM Radio, and Sirius Satellite Radio and even line-in functionality to play audio from a source in one room to players in another room.
On top of playing music from different sources the Sonos system also plays to different zones, or one or more players all playing a single source. We tested the system with two zones running different audio sources and with the two players synced. The Sonos system ran beautifully and didn't so much as hiccup during any of our track or zone changes.
As mentioned earlier, there's multiple ways to control the bundle. We tested the remote and the Windows software; the iPhone app wasn't an option for this test, but it offers much of the Controller's features in addition to a touchscreen interface. The software was very intuitive and it indexed our music library very quickly -- an important feature for an audio system designed to aggregate all music rather than draw only from a single source.
The Controller itself is very well built and comes with a recharging cradle. The rubberized bottom is an equally nice touch that prevents the controller from slipping out of your hand. The screen on the controller is bright and easy to see, and the touch screen is well calibrated; there aren't any unintended actions that often come from a poor resistive (pressure-based) touchscreen. A gentle 'click' noise confirms your actions and is appreciated for the extra feedback it gives. Using the Sonos controller was very reminiscent of using an iPhone, including scrolling through lists or changing the view to enter text for a search through our music library or an Internet radio stream.
build and audio quality
All of the Sonos products we tested were extremely well built. The designs were modern and almost Apple-like; an appropriate distinction given the amount of support for iTunes and Apple's handhelds. The controller is slightly heavy but not annoyingly so. The ZonePlayers and ZoneBridge feel sturdy, and the buttons and connectors on them feel very solid, not unlike the home theater equipment they're meant to sit beside.
Oddly enough, even the build quality of the included cabling is noticeable. Everything from the high gauge speaker wire to the power cords to the flat Ethernet cables are and feel very durable. The bookshelf speakers we attached to our ZonePlayer 120 are also heavy. We enjoyed option of removing the mesh grills as well, as it's common on some dedicated home theater speakers but fairly rare in the digital world.
Most importantly, the bundled Sonos speakers sound great for their class. In spite of their small size, their volume volume to 100% because they were plenty loud. The audio is suitably crisp and the bass is deep enough for our liking even without a dedicated subwoofer.
Veterans already know Sonos delivers a good whole-home audio experience, but the Sonos Bundle 250 refines it in tangible ways. The faster wireless link works well. The newer Sonos Controller and software are both well polished and intuitive. Installation was simple and the sound was great. And of course, the sheer variety of sources is a huge selling point that ensures that almost no one will be excluded.
Other than the obvious concern of balking at the $1,149 price for a complete system -- not a trivial expense -- and the slightly fattened remote, we truly don't have any real complaints. Every detail of the system manifests quality, from the high quality cabling down to the subtle audio fade when pausing or playing tracks. If you're looking for a multi-room audio solution, a Sonos bundle should be at the top of the list, even compared to significantly more expensive systems normally reserved for custom installers.