SETUP Setting up the Sonos was a snap, thanks in part to the user-friendly quick-setup poster. I placed one ZonePlayer near my home-office computer, connecting it by an Ethernet cable. If you have an Ethernet router, the Sonos can be plugged into that instead. I connected a pair of speakers to the outputs on the ZonePlayer, plugged in another supplied Ethernet cable, and ran that next door to my bedroom, where I connected it to another ZonePlayer. For playback there, I connected the ZonePlayer's line-level stereo and subwoofer outputs to a receiver that was already hooked up to speakers. I placed a third ZonePlayer outside on the patio and hooked it up to outdoor speakers there. Since it would have been a hassle to run wires that far, I let that ZonePlayer talk to the others wirelessly. Cool, huh?
Returning to my PC, I loaded the supplied CD-ROM and installed the Desktop Controller software, which guided me through a short procedure to establish the connection to the first ZonePlayer. Once the PC could "see" it, I added the other two. Finally, the program asked me to identify the location of the music files I wished to use and to identify them as shared files.
OPERATION Once the Desktop Controller window appeared, I could begin playback. The user-friendly interface works like music-ripping software. One panel showed the contents of my music library, another which zones were active, and a third what was currently playing in the selected zone. The Now Playing panel includes play, pause, stop, and fast-scan buttons. In no time, I scrolled through the music files on my PC, selected an album, and directed it to the ZonePlayer in my office. Voilà! Music! I selected another album and directed it to the ZonePlayer in my bedroom. Voilà! Since I have broadband Web access, I could even select Internet radio stations.
Then I powered up the wireless CR100 controller, which quickly found the three ZonePlayers as well as all my music files. Like the Destop Controller, it let me select any music file and play it on any or all of the players. The Music button let me pick songs from my library and add them to music queues. The Zone button showed me what was playing in each zone, and once I selected a zone, I could control its music. And the scroll wheel let me zip through my library catalog. When I found the song I wanted, I used the center button to indicate my choice.
The CR100 controller talks to the nearest ZonePlayer, and from there it can access all the music sources and players on the network. My PC's display changed according to the selections I made on the controller, but with it in my hand, I was free to operate the Sonos system anywhere in my house. Awesome!
The controller software is very impressive and well thought out. For instance, I could remotely adjust the volume, bass, treble, and balance for the individual ZonePlayers. The displays even show album artwork when it's available. Sweet.
PERFORMANCE I streamed a variety of files from my computer through the ZonePlayers. The sound quality depended on the bit rates of the files. For example, in Mark Knopfler's fine album of ballads, Shangri-La, slight inflections in the vocals add humor or sadness to almost every line. Encoded at 192 kilobits per second (kbps) or higher, the vocals stayed clean, with all of the nuances clearly audible. At rates of 128 kbps or less, nuances got lost in the mush.
Sound quality was very good when I connected the analog outputs of a DVD player to the ZonePlayer and played CDs, using the Sonos module essentially as a power amplifier (the fancy software can't control an external analog source). It proved to be very peppy, able to drive a pair of speakers reasonably loud (and clean).
BOTTOM LINE In the old days, a typical music collection consisted of hundreds of round plastic platters stored in individual paper sleeves housed on shelves or in milk crates. Today a collection can reside on a hard disk where every song is quickly accessible. And this kind of music library doesn't need a disc player - just the software and the network connections to let you play your music wherever and whenever you want it.
Sonos lets you do just that. It's a serious music system that supports high-fidelity sound when used with good speakers and high-bit-rate files. I was thoroughly impressed with its performance and usability. This is a terrific example of how far music can go once it's digitized.
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