Digitizing music changed all the rules - even though we took almost two decades, from the introduction of the CD to the rise of MP3, to explore its full potential. Freed from the limitations of hard-wired analog circuits, new software-driven digital music systems can be amazingly powerful and flexible, especially when combined with networked computers.
A new breed of digital components - from MP3 players to digital music servers to media receivers - are redefining how we store and listen to music. The Sonos Digital Music System is one of the latest examples of just how cool the new gear can be. The Sonos system I reviewed consisted of three ZP100 ZonePlayer modules, one of them connected to my Windows XP PC (you can also use it with a Macintosh computer), and a wireless CR100 controller.
Not surprisingly, a digital music system looks very different from traditional analog audio components. The only physical controls on the ZonePlayer are volume up/down and mute buttons, and the back panel has speaker outputs as well as line-level inputs and outputs. You can connect a ZonePlayer to your computer with the supplied Ethernet cable, and multiple modules can be connected either via Ethernet cabling or the proprietary Sonosnet wireless network - each module has two wireless antennas.
Each ZonePlayer also has a 50-watt-per-channel stereo amplifier to drive a pair of connected speakers (not included) and plays MP3, WMA, and AAC music files as well as those stored in the uncompressed WAV format. It also recognizes playlists from Musicmatch, Windows Media Player, Win-Amp, and iTunes. To avoid obsolescence, the decoding software can be upgraded via Internet downloads.
You can control all connected ZonePlayers from your computer, using the supplied Desktop Controller software to select music files on your hard drive and stream them to ZonePlayers in different rooms. (Early Sonos systems use a limited Mac application, but a full-featured Mac Desktop Controller is promised by the end of March.)
You can also connect a CD or MP3 player, or even an A/V receiver, to a ZonePlayer's analog inputs and stream music from it to other ZonePlayers. The system encodes audio signals on the fly into either the WMA or WAV format. And you can simultaneously stream different music to each zone.
Each module defines a zone, which can cover more than one room - say, a living room and dining room. The system can handle up to 32 wired players and from 6 to 15 wireless ones, depending on the bit rates of the streaming files - CD-quality WAV files take up a lot more room in the "data pipeline" than medium-quality MP3 or WMA files.
But the coolest and most flexible way to operate the system is with the Sonos handheld CR100 controller (see opening photo), which even lets you access music stored on a device that lacks an operating system, like a network-compatible external hard drive, as long as it's connected to a ZonePlayer. And you aren't tied to the computer running the Sonos software but can control the whole system from anywhere within the 100-foot range of any ZonePlayer's antennas.
The controller's iPod-inspired design features a white, touch-sensitive scroll wheel, nine backlit buttons, and three unlabeled buttons whose function is determined by the menu displayed in the 3 1/2 -inch (diagonal) color LCD screen above them. The battery can be recharged using the supplied AC adapter (a dedicated charging cradle should be available by the end of March).
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