It has been said that ample quantities of pain, knowledge or love can motivate a person to change. This review is about how the mixture of these “drivers” converged to move me into the realm of wireless and hard drive-based audio. I readily admit that a driver in the decision to move to a file-based source for audio was the fear that I would become irrelevant as a reviewer if I continued to rely upon CD’s as my medium. Fear can be a very good motivator, and not just for the short term. I have been motivated for decades to be ardent about workouts, as my father was not and consequently suffered quad bypass surgery, diabetes and high blood pressure. I don’t care to participate in those particular ills, so I have done a daily workout for more than twenty years.
The “file-source” generation is upon us so rapidly that it’s breathtaking. Several months ago I spoke with Constantine Soo about my future in reviewing; based on that discussion my only other avenue of progression, I determined, was to enter the Ether of the Net, and the personally uncharted realms of FLAC, NAS and SONOS. The first two are technical terms, and the last is a brand, namely the brand under discussion in this article. As you will see in the paragraphs that follow, it was a providential decision.
It’s Sonos, the modular networked digital music system (it can be configured hard wired or wireless) which became driver number two, love. I had torn out a Sonos ad from an audio magazine and it sat on my desk for the better part of a year. I intended to explore Sonos in a review, but I was very busy. I would “get around to it” eventually. The more I read about networked sound and saw the CD supply shrinking at the local used disc stores (fear motivation!) I thought about how great it would be to have the world of music (or shall I say the music of the world?) at my finger tips. Yes, I would love to have the power the Net at my disposal serving my musical predilection.
At the same time, my 16 years of running due to fear motivation had taken its toll on my body, and my Achilles was messed up. I had to stop playing basketball and running long distance – the monotonous low impact machines awaited me. In order to survive the drudgery I knew an MP3 player was in order. Rather than see this as a problem to resolve, I preferred to consider it an opportunity to enhance casual listening during workouts with an additional source for listening at home. As Sonos is a hardware solution for both downloaded music as well as music files played from a local network, I will also include my experiences with music services I used in this review, Pandora and Rhapsody and Napster. These (among others) are available to be integrated with Sonos equipment.
My third influence, learning, increased exponentially once I made the commitment to the review. In a manner not unlike base jumping, I picked up the phone and called Sonos, “…I would like to set up a review of your digital music system.” That was it, crash or fly time. I don’t like crashing, so I began beating my mental wings like helicopter blades! There is a fair bit to learn and implement when setting up a wireless network for music. Despite what the ads say, it’s not a five minute, plug and play deal. I aim to share here some of my euphoria as well as frustration while migrating to the Brave New World of wireless high fidelity. Along the way I will share how I utilized a newer CD player, the Cambridge Audio Azur 840C, as a DAC for the Sonos system.
Sonos is not just hardware, it’s a paradigm shift. A paradigm is a worldview, how you look at something, and moving from CD playback to downloading and hard drive lossless file playback requires a definite shift in thinking. Thankfully, Sonos makes it much less painful than many computer-based options today. How much less painful? Consider the Linn Klimax DS at $18,500, which is not a complete internet music solution by Linn, only a part of it. The Klimax DS is an internet capable DAC. To use it in a system similar to what I set up with the Sonos requires addition of not only a NAS, but also computer with independent media server software since the Klimax DS has none.
Another contender in the “server wars” is Sooloos, a “hard drive CD storage-retrieval with a DAC” system. A Sooloos system set up to store 2,000 CD’s runs $10,500, yet it cannot play streaming audio from the internet. These are extremely pricey offerings for returning limited functionality to the user. In an age when cell phones do it all, paying that kind of money for a home music system with limited functionality is hard to justify.
Contrast the humble Zone Player, which is a complete solution. It incorporates internet communications, DAC, amplification if desired, and its own ultra-smooth software. It can be controlled either by computer or the dashing, dedicated Sonos controller with large LDC screen and iPod™-like controls. From a hardware perspective, the Sonos is about as close as you will get to plug and play. No screwing around with computers built for multimedia, no messing with software bugs, no incompatibility issues, as long as you abide by Sonos suggestions for a NAS. Seven years ago I looked into building my own music server on a PC platform. I was told by a very honest dealer that the convergence had not yet happened, and that if I didn’t want to spend inordinate hours hassling with software and hardware issues, I should wait. Many times I have mentally thanked that man for saving me the personal Hell I would likely have experienced. With Sonos, the waiting for the convergence of component and computer is over!
The concept is that Zone Players can be added either wired or wirelessly to a home. This sidesteps the expensive alternative of having older homes retrofitted for each room where music is desired. Sonos Zone Players technically are tiny computers; this is part of the reason they cost more than one would think. They are definitely more than passive internet boxes along the lines of a cable TV box. There are two types of Zone Players, which can be used in combination of up to 32 units in one location – Sonos is a local network device, not intended for internet connectivity between more than one address, i.e. home and the workplace five miles away. Up to three geographically separated computers can be linked to Sonos, but each becomes its own isolated network using Zone Players; contents of Zone Players are not shared over the internet.
The Zone Players are of two flavors, the powered ZP-100 and non-powered ZP-80; the ZP-80’s have to feed an amplified stereo or radio with inputs. Sonos speakers are optional, but even Sonos admits that if audio is a passion, one’s own selection of speakers is likely preferable. If you simply want to have the expansiveness of internet music without regard to audiophile quality, the Sonos speakers will work fine. I requested the speakers for the review and was told matter-of-factly that they would be less than stellar, and if I could supply my own speakers they would likely outperform the Sonos speakers. Now that’s refreshing helpfulness, and it was a sample of the direct, consumer oriented technical help that Sonos dispenses. Later, I would need that technical help, lots of it.
The powered Zone Player, the ZP-100, has a 50-watt amp which is serviceable but not nearly robust enough to satiate high minded ears. Consider the ZP-100, the default selection for social/casual listening only, as it has neither the refinement nor the power to do justice to higher-end cabling and speakers. With this unit, Sonos is definitely not targeting the crazed audiophile who dumps his equipment into the living room, much to the wife’s chagrin. Or, maybe they are? While most Purchasers are men with incomes above $100,000, it seems their wives have a large say in the purchase. Of course, to most women, a lovely white cube will win out over a heap of equipment any day.
Looking at the powered unit, I delighted to find that the binding posts accommodate bananas easily; they slip into the spring loaded tubular posts and are held fast. Spades are more problematic as there are no threaded posts to cinch down on them. Be forewarned that you want to terminate with bananas, or simply raw speaker wire, when outfitting the speakers for Zone Players. The power cord is a disappointment, as it is decidedly mass market; not being an IEC the owner can’t easily replace it with a more suitable cord. I settled for plugging the supplied cord into a high end power source, in my case, the Wire World Matrix Power Cord Extender. Sonos, listen up: Most of these guys who make $100k per year will gladly fork over a bit more for a proper IEC. Please incorporate this feature in future models!
I had to do my own investigation regarding the amp inside the ZP-100. At times Sonos, as a corporation, seemed like the famous Wizard from Oz, – I have never had an interview returned with more, “…sorry, we can’t answer that question as this is a private company,” responses. What features would Sonos change if it reworks the controller? Would Sonos consider making a higher level Zone Player on steroids appealing to hard core audiophiles? Is Sonos considering integration of video down the road? What is the amp module being used in the ZP-100? All such answers were returned, “Sorry…Sorry…Sorry, the Great Sonos does not wish to answer!” It’s a private company, and they can be tight lipped if they wish. Sooner or later someone will cut open a couple Zone Players and the secrets will be out.
It’s really not like shades of Big Brother; both the phone and online support at Sonos are first rate. I have rarely had better support experiences from any company. Though they could not tell me directly the information, the helpful Sonos techs told me that I could likely find my answers on the Sonos “Unsupported Area” (sounds slightly ominous). A search for “Sonos class D amp” and the like turned up plenty of information including the fact that Tripath makes its class-T amp for Sonos. Some more poking round revealed additional curious technological information: The Sonos peer-to-peer secure wireless mesh network is run on Linux software. A more thorough description exists at this link:
How far will Sonos reps go to help you set up? They will go to incredible lengths! Being a network newbie, I had made a big assumption about how Sonos would work. I assumed that the entire realm of Sonos is transferable from physical location (i.e. the office five miles away) to location. I knew the Sonos network in the home was local, but thought that via an Ethernet connection to a NAS (Network Attached Storage – on one’s local network, say hooked up to a wireless router) one could access Sonos from the alternate location.
This idea caused quite a stir with Sonos. David Caro, the head of Tech Support at Sonos initially got the idea that I was requesting information on how to hack their equipment! He assumed I was asking how to access Sonos from a remote location without Sonos gear! Naively, I had assumed he knew I meant access from the office using Sonos gear, which is why I hadn’t mentioned it. Once that miscommunication was settled, the issue of accessibility from outside the home was not. The techs kept hinting that it might be possible, but gently insisted that they could not help me and I needed to visit The Unsupported Area.
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