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{mospagebreak toctitle= Introduction}

Introduction

Introduction

At a Glance
Product Sonos ZonePlayer 80 (ZP80)
Summary No-amplifier version of slick, but expensive networked audio player
Pros • Easy to set up
• Full-color controller
• Can play files directly from networked storage
• Mesh wireless network
Cons • Expensive
• Can't play DRM files

I've been able to experiment with a number of networked audio devices during the last couple of years. These devices are little boxes that you can connect to your home network and stereo system. They are used to play back your digitized-audio library stored on a computer or on other devices in the network.

Most of the devices I have previously tested, such as the Buffalo LinkTheater, displayed the user interface on your TV. Others, such as the Roku SoundBridge, had its own text-only display. The Apple Airport Express had neither a display nor a remote. Instead, it relied on a computer for playback management. All of the devices, except for the Airport Express, came with their own little remote control. After living with a few of these devices connected to my LAN for a while, I found myself mostly using the Apple AirPort express, with my laptop serving as a big remote. Using my laptop as a remote offered a lot of flexibility. With the other devices, I was sacrificing functionality such as quick scrolling through my library, easy searching, album-art display, etc. However, relying on a laptop for music file management was certainly not the best solution.

In this review, I look at Sonos' ZonePlayer 80 (ZP80). The ZP80 is intended to serve as a lower-cost alternative to the original ZonePlayer 100 (ZP100) for use in Sonos' Digital Music System. Sonos mainly lowered the cost by removing the built-in 50 W (per channel) amplifier found in the original ZP100.


Product Features

The package I received from Sonos was a ZonePlayer 80 Bundle (BU80) with three main parts: two ZP80 players (shown above), and one controller (Figure 1). When I started unpacking the boxes, one thought came to mind: Apple.

Figure 1:TheSonos Controller

Figure 1:TheSonos Controller

The components looked as if the design team at Apple had created them. But according to this review, the design was done in house. However, the components were bright white with rounded corners, while the controller had a scroll-wheel that looked like it came from an iPod.

The front of each ZP80 player was fairly plain with a couple of LEDs, a mute button and a volume up/down switch. The back of the device was more interesting (Figure 2). In addition to a power connector, there were two 10/100 Ethernet ports, digital audio output ports and both analog audio input and output connectors.

Figure 2: The ZP80 Back Panel

Figure 2: The ZP80 Back Panel

The two Ethernet ports allow the device to be used as a mini-switch. The audio input connectors are designed to allow the device to take analog audio input for distribution across the LAN. This ability to accommodate audio was a unique capability among the devices I had tested. Also included in the package were an assortment of cables, a docking station for the remote and software for both Windows and Macintosh systems.


In Use

Hooking up the system was straightforward. It was just a matter of connecting the audio cables, the network cable, plugging it in and installing the supplied software on my iBook. Figure 3 is an installation-process screenshot taken when my first ZP80 was discovered on the LAN and was being assigned a name.

Figure 3: Setting the Player Name

Figure 3: Setting the Player Name

I did not know how the ZP80 would find my music, but that question was answered when I got to the music selection screen (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Selecting the SMB Server

Figure 4: Selecting the SMB Server

Evidently, the ZP80 could play music from SMB (or CIFS) network file systems. SMB file system support is found in almost all modern computer systems, so every computer on the LAN should be able to supply music to the ZP80. The idea is that you would set up a directory with your music files and then share that directory for the ZP80. The installation software did this for me on my iBook, but for other network devices, such as a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device, you would need to set up the sharing yourself and then tell the device about it.

In Use, Continued

As I worked my way through the configuration program and got both of the ZP80s set up, I was impressed by the quality of software. It appeared well thought out and professionally designed. Note that only the first ZP80 has to have network connectivity. Others (32 maximum) can connect wirelessly to the first (more on this later). Once the configuration was complete, a desktop controller program was available, (Figure 5) which let me play music with the ZP80.

Figure 5: The Sonos Desktop Controller

Figure 5: The Sonos Desktop Controller

The desktop controller was a nice little program that did what you'd expect; I could choose and play music by song, album, artist, genre, etc. The device supported a number of different music formats including MP3, WMA, AAC (MPEG4), Ogg Vorbis, Audible (format 4), Apple Lossless, Flac (lossless), uncompressed WAV and AIFF.

Of course, DRM encrypted files, such as those purchased from the iTunes music store or stores that sell content for Windows Media Player, i.e. Microsoft"Plays-For-Sure," cannot be played. WMA Lossless files aren't supported, either.

For Windows users, Sonos does have a tie-in with the subscription-based Rhapsody service that allows you to play music from Rhapsody's servers. While the desktop application was well designed, the real attraction of the Sonos system was its remote controller.


A Slick Controller

Figure 6 shows the Sonos controller in its desktop cradle. You can see a number of fixed buttons as well as three "soft" buttons under the display. On the right is an iPod-reminiscent scroll wheel, but the most striking feature of the controller was the 3.5" color LCD display with a 240x320 resolution.

Figure 6: The Sonos Controller in Cradle

Figure 6: The Sonos Controller in Cradle

This little display was what set the Sonos apart from the other network audio devices I tested. Setting up the controller was for the most part just a matter of powering it up and matching it up with the ZP80s on my LAN. The controller can be used from an optional power cradle, or it can be used through its built-in rechargeable battery (factory-replaceable only). The battery life is said to last up to five days on a charge.

Once the controller was powered up and initialized, I was able to do everything that I could otherwise do with the desktop software. Scrolling around the menus was quick and easy, although navigating with the scroll wheel didn't seem as fluid as it was with my iPod. As I put the system to use for a couple of weeks, I noticed a lot of nice little features, such as Internet Radio support and full-screen album art (Figure 7).

Figure 7: The Sonos Controller with Full-Screen Album Art

Figure 7: The Sonos Controller with Full-Screen Album Art

Another nice feature was a light sensor. When the room is dark, the buttons light up. The controller also has a built-in motion sensor. This is used to wake the device up from sleep mode when it is lifted off the cradle or table.

In general, the device was very well engineered and easy to use. Friends, for example, would just pick the device up and start using it with no instructions or prompting. And, of course, my kids argued over who got to hold the controller. It was fun to use.

I also found it interesting that I could independently control the two ZP80s on the network. I could have, for example, different play lists for each device. Or if I chose, I could try the two together so that the same music was played on both. It was also interesting to use the audio input connectors on one ZP80 to send music across the network to the other. It worked well and seamlessly.


It's Not Perfect

There were some annoyances with the system. First, I could not pick the controller up without putting my thumb right in the center of the LCD display. Another annoyance was the motion detector. It was nice to pick the controller up and have it turn on, but it was too sensitive. I would often see the device light up when anyone just walked by it. And, strangely enough, there was no way to easily turn the controller off. When I was finished listening to music, I could only hit the pause button. There wasn't even a stop button or a power button.

Combine this with the motion sensor issue, and I would often see the device wake itself up at night on an "now playing" screen when in reality my stereo was off and the on-screen song had been paused for days. The motion sensor could be turned off, but the annoyance was minor enough to leave it on.

However, I experienced two other problems that were more than just annoyances. Several times I had the controller lock up. This mostly seemed to occur when I placed the unit back in its cradle. Luckily, this didn't stop music from playing and resetting the unit only took a few seconds using a documented method. The other issue I saw (or heard) was garbled music. Twice during the time I had the unit, I heard a few seconds of loud garbled music as if the music decoder were out of sync with the music stream. This was on a lightly-used 100 Mbps wired network.


Under The Covers

When I first received the Sonos package, I was only slightly familiar with its capabilities, and as I set it up, I was puzzled. It clearly had wireless capabilities, but there was no configuration necessary to get the three components - two of which were wireless - talking to each other. Digging deep into the menus I did find a setting for selecting which wireless channel would be used, but everything came up and worked fine on its own. I guess this is the way things should work.

The Sonos Website offered some answers. The Sonos system apparently uses "Sonosnet," which is an AES encrypted peer-to-peer mesh 802.11g-based networking system. You will not see any Sonos components show up on your list of available access points and the system automatically tries to find an open 2.4 GHz channel for itself so as not to interfere with other networks.

A scan of my network turned up three new IP addresses showing that each device was a little stand-alone computer in its own right. A port-scan of each of the devices turned up nothing interesting except what appeared to be an open UPnP port running on a Linux kernel. Sonos has a GPL download page that identifies specific GPL components as well as the Linux kernel version used.

I have a UPnP client on my network, so I was interested to see how it would react to the ZP80 servers. When I turned on my client, both servers showed up and I could navigate deep into their menus to see directory structure, artist name, album names, etc., but I couldn't get the actual music.

There must be something unusual about how Sonos is using UPnP. Since Sonos servers showed up was also a bit of an aggravation. The long server names "192.168.1.114 - Sonos ZonePlayer Media Server" cluttered up my device's source selection menu and served no purpose. I could not use them, and I could not remove their names from the menu.

At this point in the review, I normally pop off the cover of the device under review and take pictures of the main board. But with these expensive devices using smooth plastic cases and hidden screws, I was not willing to risk marring the case by prying them apart, so I had to rely on what I dug up on the Internet to tell me what was inside.

According to most of the info I saw, the CPU Sonos used for these devices is a Renesas SH-4 processor. I also found a group working on creating custom extensions to the Sonos device, but unfortunately they are doing most of their software in .NET, which will limit its audience.


Conclusion

Conclusion

Before I tried out the Sonos system, I'd been satisfied with my Airport Express setup. But no longer. The Sonos system has raised the bar. Even though there were some rough spots, the positives for Sonos far outweighed the negatives. Of course, given the price of the system, that had better be the case.

The major drawback is DRM. Most of my music library is composed of mp3 rips from my own CD collection, but over the last couple of years I've been slowly accumulating music from the iTunes store. The fact that these songs are not playable on the ZP80 is no fault of Sonos, though. Up to this point, Apple has refused to license their FairPlay DRM system. Nothing but Apple products can play back music purchased from the iTunes store.

The DRM issue is not unique to Apple, either. As I pointed out above, neither the ZP80 nor the ZP100 can play Microsoft "Plays-For-Sure" DRM-encrypted content, either.

But this still has to be a concern for Sonos since there are many people out there in the same boat as me. Apple has sold over a billion songs in the last few years and none of them are playable on the Sonos system. But you'll have to judge for yourself whether this is a concern. If you don't need to play these DRM encoded files and you're willing to pay the price for this expensive system, you will find an elegant, well-thought-out system that is a pleasure to use.

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