Sonos Digital Music System review

With the first ZonePlayer connected, other Sonos components can bypass the main wireless infrastructure, so there’s no need to enter SSIDs or WEP/WPA passcodes. Each link requires a handshake, though, achieved by simultaneously pressing the mute and volume-up buttons on the ZonePlayer, so you won’t find nosy Sonos-equipped neighbours crashing the party. The units themselves also use WEP encryption, but it’s entirely and blissfully transparent. Each ZonePlayer is then given a name and a room type, with additional controllers or ZonePlayers simply added in the same way. At it’s simplest, you can opt for just a single ZonePlayer and a software controller, all the way up to 32 ZonePlayers and as many Controllers as you like.

Sonos Digital Music System review

Using either a hardware or software controller, you can assign up to 16 separate local or network folders to make up your music library. Once the library is indexed – taking around ten minutes for our 100GB NAS-based collection – it can be browsed by artist, album, genre, track or folder. MP3, WMA, AAC, Ogg Vorbis, WAV, AIFF and FLAC formats are supported at both variable and constant bit rates, although there’s no support for WMA lossless variants. There’s also support for streaming Internet radio, complete with dozens of presets, plus RealNetwork’s Rhapsody subscription service.

However, note that DRM-protected tracks aren’t yet supported; Sonos is slating this for a future release, but there’s no guarantee. This could be a potential disappointment if you subscribe to Napster, for example, so check for support before you buy.

Browsing through the menus is simplicity itself, with control of repeat, shuffle and EQ. Music can be added to each zone’s playlist at any level of the library tree, from ‘all music’ at the top, through artist and album, down to individual tracks. Each zone can have its own discrete stream or be linked to any other, fading in gracefully over a two-second period. Using a combination of Universal Time Code (UTC) and Quality of Service (QoS), all linked zones are played in perfect synchronicity too.

It’s all impressively slick. But, best of all, the system just works: within minutes of setting up, our test technophobes had navigated the controller and were already adding their favourite tracks to a playlist. Crucially, though, they were discussing the music itself rather than how to make the technology work – the first time we’ve ever seen that with this type of product.

There are some small foibles. If your wireless network is even remotely unstable, you’ll find zones occasionally disappearing, seemingly at random, and the ZonePlayers need some coaxing to rejoin the network. But other criticisms are levelled more at what else we’d like to see rather than glaring omissions or a poor implementation of existing features. A stand integrated into the hardware controller would be welcome, for instance. And we’d appreciate a way of editing an existing playlist, a decent search facility or a toolbar version of the software controller. But these are minor issues in actual use and potentially solvable by firmware or software upgrades.

We have our criticisms, but the Sonos Digital Music System is the most satisfyingly compelling reason yet to go both wireless and digital. With Sonos promising a slew of related products in the future, it looks like the wireless media streaming hype is finally being realised.

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