Sonos Network Music PlayerFeb 20th, 2007
After many happy years of using my Turtle Beach Audiotron to play our familyís digital music collection, I have finally retired it and upgraded to a Sonos system. It has proved to be a wise decision.
What Is It?The Sonos is a high quality multi-zone networked music player. It consists of a substantial remote control (with color LCD) and one or more ZonePlayers. You connect one ZonePlayer via an Ethernet cable to your home network, and then up to 31 more ZonePlayers wirelessly. Sonos uses its own 2.4GHz wireless network to connect the players and the remotes, and does not conflict with 802.11b/g networks. As this is a network player, it includes no storage of its own: you are expected to store your music on your PC (or NAS). This is how I like my music players. The Sonos is designed for multi-zone usage, and supports playing the same music in multiple zones exactly in sync: no mean feat. However I am a cheapskate, so I only bought a single ZonePlayer and a remote (for now). ZonePlayers come in two flavors, the cheaper ZP80 (line-level audio out) and the larger ZP100 (complete with built-in amplifier and speaker outputs). I chose a ZP80 and connected it to my existing (somewhat contradictory) audio system (a JVC VSX-49 amp and Martin Logan speakers). The ZP80 is alarmingly small: about the size of a Mac Mini, and silent in operation. Over the years my wife and I have accrued a substantial collection of MP3s: the collection's size has proved to be the undoing of many a music player (the Dell Digital Audio Receiver, Windows Media Player versions 8, 9 and 10, and the Phatnoise/Kenwood Keg software are all terrible in this area). Sonos claimed their system could handle up to 30,000 titles but I was skeptical. I am pleased to say that this is the best performing player I have used on my collection, faster even than the Audiotron which was no slouch (despite its miniscule CPU).
Hardware SetupWhen connecting it up I discovered a lack of Ethernet to the location of choice: I just had a single run of CAT5 to the equipment area, which was already in use by my Roku HD1000 HDTV Media Player. At this point I discovered the ZP80 has a built-in two-port hub, so I just daisy-chained the Roku onto the Cat5 connection. (The ZP100 has a four-port hub apparently). Very thoughtful: saved me buying another hub and hiding it in the equipment rack.
Software SetupI was nervous about installing the supplied software: the Audiotron required no software to be installed, just reading your music via normal file shares, and this is what I like (the Roku is the same). My experience with "server-side" software has been consistently poor, be it Windows Media Connect or the dreadful Dell DAR software. In addition to those concerns, my music is stored on my home domain controller running Windows 2000 Server, and I am always ultra-conservative when installing anything on there lest it make the machine unreliable. The fact I run a real Windows Domain has also confused non-business software in the past, as this is not exactly a common scenario. I searched the Sonos support areas and could find only one reference to Windows Domains, so it looked promising. I eventually threw caution to the wind and installed the software on the server. I neednít have worried: the Sonos installer is so Domain-aware, it actually created a new domain account (called Sonus) without even asking. (Luckily I was running with a Domain Admin account at install time). It asked for the music location, then it scared me: I could see I was doing something with the file ACLs of my music. Turns out it was making sure the Sonos account had access to the files. It also created a new share (called Music) but this slightly messed up my existing share, so I had to do a little manual correction: nothing too tricky for a part-time/occasional Domain Admin. Once the software is installed it seeks out the master ZonePlayer and scans the listed shares for music, building a database which appears to be stored in the ZonePlayer. One of the problems with the Audiotron was that after a power outage it would take 20 minutes to re-scan all the music: the Sonos recovers almost instantly. With the Server configured I charged the remote and linked that into the system, without issue. The software could probably be removed from my server now: I also have it installed on my day-to-day PC so can administer everything from there, but as it does not add any Services or other permanently-running applications I donít see the need. The software offers an interface very similar to the remote itself for choosing and playing music, so you can use a PC if the remote is not to hand.
Remote BlissThe remote control is a thing of wonder: kind of like a large iPod, it has a lovely color screen and a touch-sensitive wheel to navigate, along with a few buttons. Navigating music is trivially easy (even my Dad in his 70s had no problem figuring it out) and handles our large collection with ease.
SoundWhen I played the first few tracks I was disappointed with the sound quality: some tracks sounded very muddy. I initially wondered if they were low-bitrate rips (Sonos does not display the bitrate anywhere), but it turned out that my amplifier was attempting to do Dolby decoding, and on some tracks this made them very muddy. When I disabled the errant surround mode on my amp, everything sounded fabulous. Each ZonePlayer has an auxiliary input, so you can pipe another audio feed around the house if you like. I use this to pipe the audio from videos on my Roku through it, as my amp is maxed out on inputs.
ArtI soon realized that much of my collection did not include compatible cover art, which is displayed on the remote. Sonos supports MP3-bound art, and also bitmaps called 'folder.*' in the directory of each album. I discovered that the BMPs that I had on many albums the Sonos could not read, and that it also required the name to be in lower-case. I used ACDSee to batch convert all my BMPs into JPGs, then a cmd batch file to rename them all suitably. For the remaining albums lacking art entirely I used Music Match to update the cover art in the MP3 files: (I finally paid the $20 to get the Plus version after many years of using the Basic version for my CD ripping).
Other FeaturesThe Sonos has a wealth of features that I don't use: it supports many other file formats (but everything I have is MP3), it supports "all-you-can-eat" subscription music services like Rhapsody and Urge, and of course it does multiple-zones. When finance permits Iíll probably buy a ZP100 and use it for outside speakers: it's an ideal way to get easily controllable music out on our deck. It also supports many internet radio stations. It updates itself over the internet, both the ZonePlayer/Controller firmware and the PC software: mine came with 2.0 but it soon updated itself to 2.1.
ConclusionIs it the perfect network music player? Well almost. I'd like it to be cheaper, and for the charging cradle to be included instead of an extra $50. I would love a video version, so I could select my TiVo recordings with it too and pipe them around the house wirelessly. Maybe Iím dreaming, who knows.
Additional InfoSonos site
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