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Sonos Digital Music System Review

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The more time I spent on it, and the more people I spoke with it finally became clear that DRM was the issue! Digital Rights Management had blockaded the supposed internet media servers. Ironically, touted products like Western Digital’s MyBook internet capable networked drives which were advertised with internet capability for transfer of media files (that is, pics and music files) were incapable of transmitting said files due to the built-in DRM restrictions. Knowing nothing of this entire field when I started, I spent inordinate amounts of time assembling these facts!

I’m not a stupid man, but between the store where I purchased the NAS, Sonos, and Rhapsody’s online music service I spent no less than four hours describing my plan, and no one knew the answer or would tell me directly. I literally had to circle around three times between tech teams to finally decide it wasn’t possible, at least for someone without an IT degree. And, if it was possible, it would be a major pain in the ass because no one knew all the systems involved or were handcuffed from helping me get answers.

This was my introduction to DRM, and it was infuriating. I thought, “It’s MY music! My CD’s and music on subscription services I purchased. I’m not trying to steal a single thing, just to access MY music!” There may be net-o-philes, like I’m an audiophile, who could easily see an answer to the dilemma. But that’s not reality for someone who doesn’t swim in that water regularly. I gave up. I have to live with the cumbersome solution of having to physically take a hard drive from one location to the other to transfer its contents. I can understand why DRM exists in regards to protecting copyright, but the fallout making life a hassle for average, honest people is ridiculous. The bottom line: I can’t recommend Sonos as a multi-physical location solution to access your NAS. At this time, I will be setting up two separate NAS devices at the two locations, mirror images. The consolation is that I will have, in one sense, a backup system in place. Maybe some internet elites are laughing hard right now, “Stupid reviewer! All you gotta do is…” If you would like to enlighten me via “Letters to Dagogo” on the subject, I’ll humbly accept public instruction.

Excepting that one caveat, Sonos can bring your online music service accounts to three of your computers located at distinct locations. You can get music services both at home and the office five miles away. You can connect to Sonos’ “Desktop Controller” on each computer, which interfaces with the local Zone Players, allowing you to command them. The Desktop Controller allows you to work with the music zones wherever a ZP unit is located, and given the quality of the sound via a ZP-80 routed through a serious rig, it’s something audiophiles will very much want to do.

How does one obtain audiophile quality sound from a sub-$500 product? One hooks it up! Seriously, it’s just about that simple. The Zone Player was conceived as an eminently easy audio component. The front of a ZP unit has only two buttons for Mute and Volume +/-. On their backside, they have RJ-45 ports to pass through Ethernet signals – the ZP-100 has four, the ZP-80 has two and if a hard wire connection is used it requires use of one port – via both coaxial and toslink digital outputs, one set of analogue outs and a set of analogue inputs.

Hooking up Sonos to an outboard DAC is where things get interesting! Knowing that I would eventually work with Sonos I kept a watchful eye for a DAC to mate with it. It was obvious that Sonos had no intent on spanning the gap between digital retrieval and digital conversion. The quality of the DAC in Sonos equipment is not up to par for audiophiles. To expect that would be a classic blunder, along the same lines as expecting 30-year-old vintage gear to sound better than today’s top designs. Sonos will get you a lot of music over a wide listening area, but it is not designed to get you ultra-high quality sound.

However, this can be done. How? An outboard DAC is critical, so the proper Zone Player is the passive ZP-80. It is suitable for use in a dedicated listening room since it can feed an audiophile caliber DAC. Here is where the versatile Cambridge Audio Azur 840C made a lasting impression. I had kept my eye on that player as it was making waves in the audio community. The fact that the Azur accepts two digital inputs only made my desire to review it stronger. I would judge it as a player and test the extension of the it’s capabilities as an outboard DAC for the Sonos gear. The decision was providential as it convinced me that file-based music is ready now for the discriminating listener.


Audiophile Concern

After dozens of hours of playing, and playing with the equipment, my practical considerations distilled into three questions:

1. Could Zone Player’s sound direct to amplification suffice for audiophile purposes?

2. Would CD sound better than streaming audio?

3. Would CD ripped to NAS using the FLAC lossless codec sound superior to CD?

In addition to the ZP-80 and the NAS, I used a streamlined rig with alternative amplification and Wire World cabling throughout the two rigs, they were:

Cambridge Audio Azur 840C
Pathos Classic One MkIII (two in bridged mode)
Cambridge Audio Azur 840C
Jeff Rowland Capri preamp and 501 Mono Blocks (class-D; 1,000Wpc)

This was an extremely clean set up as there was no separate DAC! This is the beauty of the Cambridge player. Historically, it has been difficult to find a quality CD player with digital inputs at a reasonable price point. Either a DAC or a CD player one can find, but both with excellent sound for $1,500? That’s a dream. Well, dreams can, at least when grounded in reality, come true!

The other oddity of this configuration was the fact that functionally is switched at the CD player, not the preamp. I kept the same preamp inputs, and thus only needed one set of interconnects for the entire rig, whether listening to CD, streaming files off the Net, or file playback from the server (NAS). The Azur’s SELECT button toggles between CD, Digital Input 1 and Digital Input 2. A flick of the button and I could switch between CD and Sonos – very smooth!

Practical advantages included the elimination of one remote. More importantly, comparison between the three sources was made tremendously easy. Within literally 5 seconds I could switch between CD, streaming, or NAS playback, all on the identical system using the same DAC! In other words, this was the perfect rig for comparison of the three formats. In many cases, one must compare a CD player with its own topology to an entirely separate DAC for the streaming or file-based sources. In this system the variables were pushed back to the entry point of the sources.

As a result, I could easily hear distinct differences in the three formats, differences which I’m not sure I would be able to isolate as well if I had to conduct looser transitions. It did not take long at all to establish that the hierarchy of sound quality was streaming audio (lowest), to CD (middle) and Server (highest). I conducted several tests utilizing discs of artists in my collection. I ran listening trials forward and backward in regards to the sources. There was clear enough demarcation between the three sources that all were readily discernable. Each level passed my “Law of Efficacy” in that each was immediately identifiable and had enough sonic differences to consider their merits. I’ll describe these three modes below, but for a moment I’ll touch on the music services I tested.

One Response to Sonos Digital Music System Review

  1. Rob says:

    You can probably tell from my blog posts, I absolutely love the Sonos® Digital Music System.

    I can get you a coupon code for a totally free Sonos® Bridge® (which is $49 retail). If you’re interested, I can email it from the Sonos site. Just let me know first name, last name and email so I can add you in the system to send coupon. I will promise to get to it within 1-2 days of hearing back. I’m Rob. enjoy whatever sound system you choose! – Rob

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