The concept of wirelessly streaming music around the home isn't a new one. We've noted the potential of the Slim Devices SqueezeBox, admired the design of the Roku Soundbridge, and admit to having a soft, almost gooey spot for Cambridge Audio's Azur 640H. But we've not missed any of these when we've had to send them back to the PR company. Not really. On the other hand, nothing does wireless music as simply as the new Sonos Digital Music System. We're fighting the urge to go out and buy one right now.
The system itself consists of two main elements: the Zone Player (ZP100) and the Zone Controller (CR100). The Zone Player is where all the technical action is and it's this exquisitely designed grey/white box that forms the basis of the Sonos system. Like its cheap and cheerful rivals, a Zone Player is capable of wirelessly treaming music from a connected PC, Mac or Network Attached Storage (NAS) device.
Hook up a pair of speakers or run the audio output into an amp and you've got yourself an instant Wi-Fi hi-fi. Crucially, it also offers multiroom support that doesn't involve digging holes in your walls. Up to 32 Zone Players can be linked together wirelessly, enabling you to dispatch Gorillaz or Oasis to every room in the house.
One of the problems with cheaper adapters like the SqueezeBox is they often require a degree in geek before setting one up. But setting up the Sonos is a breeze. You simply plug a Zone Player into your wireless router and install the Sonos Desktop Controller software on a PC or Mac.
The software takes care of the rest,automatically tunnelling through your firewall (to provide internet radio) and locating the Zone Player. Your part in this process is limited to clicking 'OK' a few times, showing the software where to find your music, and pressing two buttons to bind it to the host computer.
Here's the clever bit. Unlike cheaper digital music adapters that stream music over your existing 802.11b or .11g network, the Sonos system uses its own wireless mesh network (SonosNet) to link Zone Players together. Once connected, you access your music library via the Zone Controller, a weighty remote with a bright LCD panel and an iPod-inspired scroll-wheel. With this battery powered Controller, you can abandon the desktop software. Better still, if your music is stored on a NAS, you can switch off your PC or Mac completely. When the Sonos is set up, it will work without your computer's help.
Using the Zone Controller, you can quickly and easily search through the music library, sifting through your MP3, AAC, WMA, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis and WAV files using familiar categories like 'artist', 'album' or 'genre'. With one click, tracks can then be added to a song queue - basic shuffle and repeat modes spice up the playback. An active queue can also be saved as a playlist, while a lazy-boy option enables you to import existing Windows Media Player and iTunes playlists. DRM'd WMA and AAC tracks aren't Sonos-friendly, but as the system can be firmware upgraded, don't rule either out in the future.
It's a small niggle. For a ripped CD collection, the Sonos is technically perfect. Each Zone
Player boasts its own digital amplifier, so the sound has a rich feel, whether it's the uplifting piano riffs of Coldplay's Speed of Sound, or the head-thrumming back-beat of Gorillaz's Kids With Guns. Of course, the sumptuousness of music playback is ultimately determined by the quality of the speakers you plug into the Zone Player, not to mention the encoding rate of your tracks. On their own, a Zone Player/Zone Controller combo easily outclasses rival digital music adapters, but Sonos hasn't designed its kit to be a bogstandard point-to-point system.
Adding extra Zone Players is no more difficult than the initial set-up process, and with multiple units, you can stream different music to each player, or broadcast the same track across several players. Only then do you start to realise just how superb and indispensable the Sonos is. Suffice it to say, the Sonos system is one of the greatest digital home gadgets since the PVR. Yes, like the SqueezeBox and SoundBridge, the Sonos is effectively an IT-based system, but you never need to worry about the background tech. The Sonos just works.
So why are we fighting the urge to go out and buy one? It's a question of cost. The introductory system consists of two Zone Players ($999 each) and a Controller ($799). Add the cost of a good NAS, and you're shelling out close to three grand for a hi-fi. Then again, this hi-fi has the potential to change the way you listen to your music. The heart and head still say 'yes' - it's the girlfriend who needs convincing.
Sonos Digital Music System | $2399 |
For: Effortless streaming; good file support; gorgeous design; multi-room capability
Against: No support for DRM-protected files; very pricey
Verdict: Quite simply the best wireless music system you can buy - if you can afford to