As gadgets go, the Sonos wireless multi-room music system (phew) pushes all the right buttons. Not only is it easy to use, a good piece of industrial design; it works well and is reassuringly expensive. However it's not for everyone.
The Sonos music system is aimed squarely at those who want to pipe music throughout the house. If you're interested in playing music in a single room, then buying a Sonos would be tremendous overkill. Everything is geared towards multi-room or as Sonos likes to refer to it, "zones".
Home is where the heart it
The core of any Sonos system is the ZonePlayer. Sonos produce two models, the lunchbox shaped ZP100 which includes a two channel amplifier and the cubiod ZP80 which has no amplifier. Typically you'll find yourself wanting a mix of ZP100 and ZP80s in your system. The control software doesn't differentiate between the two, meaning that seemless integration between units.
Players are assigned "zones". Each zone can be named, for example lounge or master bedroom. The heart of the user interface are these zones, allowing you to control each one from a single remote control. It's a powerful concept and one which works very well.
The ZP100 costs more thanks to its amplifier. Not only does this make the ZP100 much heavier but it has four Ethernet network sockets along with subwoofer output. The amplifier is a stereo one with 50w per channel output. As an amplifier, it's fine but will show its lack of power on big high-end speaker systems.
The ZP80 on the other hand is perfect for places where there already is a Hi-Fi setup. It allows you to plug in any amplifier and receive the Sonos experience. True audiophiles will prefer this as it allows you to get a better balance of amplifier and speaker. Also in places where there already audio equipment such as a home-cinemas, an added amplifier would simply be a waste.
Both players feature identical physical user interfaces, one rocker switch to adjust volume and a mute button. It follows very well with the cool, subdued clinical design ethos. The only thing that would make a Sonos ZonePlayer look cooler is if it were made out of metal.
On the back there's quite a difference between the two ZonePlayers. As the ZP100 has a built in amplifier, four binding posts are present for speakers. The ZP100 shows its age (released some time before the ZP80) by only having two channel input and 2.1 channel output through Phono connections. The ZP80 is much more up-to-date with stereo in and out through Phono along with digital audio out through coaxial and SP/DIF interfaces. Possibly due to its diminutive size, it only has two Ethernet sockets, although why you would need more than one is debatable.
Aesthetically, the clean lines are nice if you like the whole minimalist, loft conversation, stainless steel kitchen thing. However in certain places it's clear that the design wouldn't be too welcome, at least in my house. Thankfully both ZonePlayers neednít to be in sight of the remote control, so hiding them away is no problem at all.
Being a lifestyle A/V purchase, Sonos knew their system must be easy to configure and run. Thankfully it is. The biggest part of the setup headache is where you want to place each ZonePlayer. There's no restrictions from the Sonos point of view thanks to wireless network support, but it's exactly that freedom which lets you gestate for half an hour.
Once that's done it's simply a matter of plugging in, loading the excellent software on a PC. As with any network these days, it's important to have a DHCP server running (chances are either your Broadband router or your WiFi access point has one built in). The final steps of setup is to associate the ZonePlayer with your network and the remote, done by pressing two buttons on the player itself.
The PC software serves as a play list editor more than anything else. It's a fine piece of software which doesn't require too much fiddling before you start to get the best out of it. Since all my music resides a Unix server, I was expecting a few hiccups, maybe even resorting to using a stream to feed music. I needn't have worried. Everything was sorted within two minutes and my rather questionable taste in music was being shared throughout the house.
Sonos really have got the setup and maintenance part of their wireless music system just right. It requires minimal effort and yet you get exactly what you need out of it. Anyone who is a fan of technology should appreciate the way in which Sonos has hidden the guts of the system and yet managed to enable users to get all the power. Superb.