(Fairly) easy set-up, very easy to use, versatile, expandable, good sound quality
Occasional signal dropouts, no controller app for non-Apple devices
The Sonos wireless audio streaming system has been around since 2005, but the California-based company certainly hasn't stood still in that time, regularly updating its musical and technical offering. The latest upgrade is an update to the hand-held control at the heart of the system, now features a new interface and touch screen, as well as a new inclusive bundle, designed to give you everything you need to get started. With several online streaming possibilities having been introduced since we last tried it, we thought it worth taking a look at Sonos 2009-style.
The Sonos Bundle 250 consists of the new CR200 touch-screen controller (which now features a replaceable battery) and charging cradle, which looks much like a chunky mobile phone, a ZP120 ZonePlayer, which includes a 55-watt class-D amplifier and banana-style speaker plugs, and the smaller ZP90 ZonePlayer, which has no amp, but features RCA and two digital outputs which can be used with powered speakers, hi-fi or mini system. This allows you to distribute your music in two rooms, though you can increase it to 32 rooms in total by adding additional ZonePlayers.
There's also the £79 BR100 ZoneBridge, available separately, which has no audio outputs at all but simply acts as a connection between ZonePlayers to extend the range, or as the first point of contact with your computer or wireless router.
Sonos would have you believe that set-up is simplicity itself. And in some cases it may be, but we still had to do a fair bit of fiddling to get it to work. Not that there's a lot of configuring to do - you load the software onto your PC or Mac, then plug the ZonePlayers into the mains and at least one needs to be hardwired to your wireless router via Ethernet cable (all cables are provided incidentally). You connect them to some speakers, then press and hold the controls to get them to link up.
Ours wouldn't, and we traced the problem to issues with our computer firewall. Happily, the Sonos website offers detailed explanations of how to work around the major firewalls from McAfee, Norton etc and we were soon fully connected.
Sonos ZP120 ZonePlayer
You can set up as many playing zones as you have ZonePlayers, and play music from a single source (your computer, or via one of the internet streaming options) simultaneously - either the same music, or different for each. You can even link some rooms together, so they're playing the same music while others have their own style.
The system uses a bespoke E802.11n wireless network called SonosNet, so it won't interfere with or draw on the bandwidth of your existing Wi-Fi connection if you have one. The two Ethernet sockets on each of the ZonePlayers means you can connect them to additional devices which require internet connection, such as Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 or Slingbox) and can stream from any storage device on your network that supports the common Internet file system (CIFS), such as a NAS hard drive.
Sonos ZP90 ZonePlayer
With the new system, it's all about the interface, and it's several leaps ahead of our last experience with the Sonos. Sonos has always kept a close eye on Apple's iPod and whereas the older CR100 controller aped the iPod Classic with its scroll wheel, the CR200 is much more akin to the iPod Touch or iPhone, with its capacitive touch screen.
Scrolling is now much easier since as well as brushing the screen to move through your track lists, there's also an alphabet on the right-hand side of the screen that allows you to skip to the initial letter you want.
Like all touch screen controls, it tries to strike a balance - sensitive enough so you don't have to blunt your fingers trying to access controls, but robust enough so that you can brush through menus without activating everything you touch and the Sonos manages this trick well.
The standard play options are all there - shuffle, repeat once, repeat all, and any playlists you've created in iTunes or Windows Media Player are automatically included, as is album art. It will automatically install podcast updates if you've set them up on your computer too.
The system makes it easy to find your way around the forest of internet radio stations too, with a claimed 25,000 available. You can search by territory or genre and make lists of your favourites. As if that wasn't enough, there's free music streaming services Last.fm and Deezer as well as a 30-day free trial of paid-for service Napster. All were easy to set up and we could mix and match them with our stored music easily by setting up playlist queues.
While the BU250 bundle comes with a controller, you don't strictly need it. If you already have an iPhone or iPod Touch a free downloadable app allows you to do pretty much everything you could with the controller. Other smart phone types such as Windows Mobile, Symbian, Android and Blackberry haven't got the official nod from Sonos yet, but they're likely to in the near future. You can also use any other desktop or laptop as a controller, with the supplied software.
The Sonos system can handle most audio files (with the notable exceptions of lossless WMA and older DRMed tracks bought from the iTunes store). Sound quality generally was as good if not better than you might expect. The majority of files we listened to were of compressed music, but they sounded much the same as they did when we played them directly from our PC with the same speakers. Some internet radio stations sounded better than others, but this was due to the quality of their streaming.
There were also occasional, temporary dropout problems however, which brought our listening or searching to an abrupt halt. They were never very long, and may be more the fault of our wireless connection than the Sonos, but annoying all the same.
It's not the cheapest wireless multi-room system you can lay your hands on, but one it's set up it does make the whole process very easy. It also helps that you can add to it without any hassle besides cost. Bought individually the the devices in the BU250 would cost £957, so there's a significant saving to getting them as a bundle.
The likes of Philips' Streamium or the Logitech Squeezebox might cost less initially, but for convenience, ease of use, sheer breadth of music available, expandability and integration with existing equipment, it's the best we've tried. Heartily recommended.