An improved version of the ZonePlayer home audio system, unrivaled for ease of use and sound quality, pipes digital tunes around the house in high fidelity
When music went digital, it caused a significant problem for home listeners: how to free the songs stored on your computer's hard drive so they're easily heard in your living room, in high fidelity.
While Apple's (AAPL) iPod and other MP3 players have supplanted personal portable stereos like the Sony (SNE) Walkman, no one's yet been able to bridge the chasm between the PC and the home stereo. I've tested several products that try, including the Roku SoundBridge Radio, various Squeezebox-branded products from Logitech (LOGI), and scores of Internet radios and iPod docking stations.
None in my experience has equaled the ease of use or sound quality of the Sonos ZonePlayer system, which has been on the market since 2005. The latest version, the ZonePlayer S5, available since Nov. 3, delivers remarkable audio performance, was a snap to set up, and solves shortcomings of an earlier version.
The original Sonos ZonePlayer, which is still sold, creates a wireless network around the home, corralling music ranging from the contents of an iTunes library to live radio streams from the Web. The system then plays that music through a home stereo or external speakers.
But that product suffers from two flaws. Its starting price of about $1,000, plus $350 for players for additional rooms, is expensive. And users need to furnish their own speakers, or else connect the ZonePlayer to a home stereo system.
The S5 solves both those problems. Its main advantage is that each ZonePlayer contains its own set of exceptionally good, built-in speakers. Second, the price for each ZonePlayer is a bearable $399. I've been testing two S5s in my home during the past several weeks, and their ease of use and sound quality are astonishing.
Setting the system up was incredibly easy. After installing some software on my computer (both Macs and Windows PCs are supported), it guided me through the brief setup.
Depending on where you want to place the ZonePlayers, you may need another piece of gear. I wanted to set up two S5s in different rooms at a distance from my wireless router. This required a $99 piece of equipment called a ZoneBridge, about the size of a box of business cards. But you can also connect the ZonePlayer directly to your router with an Ethernet cable and skip the ZoneBridge.
Once the ZoneBridge was running, I plugged the first ZonePlayer S5 into a power outlet, pressed two buttons on the front, and created the first component of the Sonos network. After a brief tweak of some file-sharing settings on my Mac, my entire iTunes library was available through the S5's speakers. I repeated the process with a second S5 in an upstairs bedroom. The same music was then available to both players.
Control from iPhone or iPod Touch
Controlling the Sonos system can be done in several ways. You can direct it all from your computer or buy a $350 handheld remote control. Or, if you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, you can simply install the free Sonos controller application, which worked so well in my tests I didn't even bother trying the remote.
Using an iPod Touch, I had complete control of music playing in my home office and an upstairs bedroom. I could create a custom playlist of songs or just pick a single album or playlist from iTunes.
For example, in one room I had Van Morrison playing from my iTunes collection. In another, I played Antonin Dvorak from my Pandora Internet radio account. The Sonos system works with numerous Web music services including Pandora, Rhapsody (RNWK), Last.fm (CBS), and Web streams from Sirius Satellite Radio (SIRI). You can also listen to numerous live streams from radio stations around the world.
Later on, I wanted to check the news, and switched to listening to a Web stream provided by my local public radio station. From within the iPhone app I found radio streams from stations I like around the world, including several from my home state of Oregon. I also listened to the BBC and Jazz.fm in Canada. I put them all in my favorites list, where they were never more than a touch away.
The Sonos system also plays downloaded music from pretty much every online store I know of, including Apple's iTunes, Amazon's (AMZN) MP3 store, eMusic, Wal-Mart (WMT), Napster (BBY), and even Microsoft's (MSFT) Zune Marketplace.
The system also plays nearly every type of digital music file you could want, from MP3s and AACs to more exotic formats like FLAC and SHN, favored by collectors who trade recordings of live performances. There is, however, one key exception.
Older songs purchased at the iTunes Store under the old "Fairplay" copy restriction scheme, which Apple eliminated earlier this year, need to be updated before they can be played by the Sonos system, generally at a cost of about 30¢ per song.
Excellent Sound Quality
The ZonePlayer's sound quality is outstanding. Each player has five speakers that have their own digital amplifiers. Even older MP3 files sounded excellent. I spent a rainy Saturday reading while listening to classical music on the S5. The music had a way of permeating the room with a warm, intimate quality that I've found lacking in other systems.
The ZonePlayer is also very portable. When I placed it in a different room, I plugged in the device and within a couple of minutes the S5 had reconnected itself to its network.
One notable feature the S5 lacks is an iPod dock. It's a choice I actually applaud. There are many products that combine radios with iPod docks. If you want to play music directly from your iPod on the S5, you can run an audio cable from the iPod's headphone jack to the S5's audio input connection. The S5 is less an iPod accessory than a distinct music system that happens to be both iTunes- and iPod-friendly.
The entry price of $399 for each ZonePlayer is admittedly high, but on par with what the first iPod cost in 2001. It's well worth it for the quality of the experience. Not counting the iPod Touch, which I already had, the two ZonePlayers and the ZoneBridge used in my setup would have cost about $900. Adding the optional remote control pushes that to about $1,250. That's still lower than other high-end home audio systems.
That said, there should be a discount for adding a second or third player.
But overall, there's nothing on the digital home audio market that comes close to the Sonos S5.