If you missed the release of the Sonos Digital Music System last year, you missed out on one of the most impressive home audio streaming solutions yet released. Since then, this modular setup has undergone a number of improvements and upgrades, including an amplifier-free ‘ZonePlayer’ designed to be hooked up to a dedicated audio source such as a surround sound speaker system.
Although you can pick and choose which components to buy, the ‘bare bones’ system would typically consist of a ZonePlayer, controller unit and the new ZoneBridge 100, a wireless controller system that, when connected to a router, will instantly gather together all of the ZonePlayers in your house and make the behaviour of each accessible from the handheld controller.
You’ll find you can set up and access media folders on your computer, stream Internet radio and can now download and play tunes using the Napster service on the fly, a 30-day trial of which is provided with the package. This puts an unprecedented library of music at your fingertips, but it’s not so much the capabilities as the performance and usability of the Sonos system that impresses.
The ZoneBridge really does work like it says on the tin, and makes establishing a consistent wireless connection with more conventional streamers seem like a long and awkward process. After connecting the unit directly to your router with the supplied Ethernet cable, it’s simply a case of pressing the ‘instant connect’ button on top to set up a secure, AES-encrypted, peer-to-peer wireless network that allows other Sonos products to control and play music.
At this point the rest of your Sonos experience will be dictated by the handheld controller, which among other things can select and manage each of the individual ZonePlayer units you might have set up. Impressively, you can choose which folders to share via the controller as well, which means very little interaction with your computer to adjust settings or repopulate your library.
In addition to shared content of digital music you have stored locally, you can browse and select from a wide range of Internet radio stations, hook up additional devices such as an MP3 player or CD player to the ZonePlayer’s auxiliary channel and control these, or, as mentioned above, connect to and download tunes from the Napster, Audible.com or eMusic online services.
You’re provided with a 30-day trial of Napster to give you a taster; a wise move on the part of Sonos, because once you realise how accessible is the wide range of music these sites offer, you’re more than likely to take out a subscription.
In terms of setup, aesthetics and usability the Sonos digital music system can’t really be faulted, and performance when it comes to Internet radio and local streaming is pretty much flawless. Unfortunately it’s not quite up to this standard when streaming from Napster: while some tunes played without fault, we did notice occasional pauses during buffering and in some instances a warning that our network connection wasn’t sufficient for streaming, when we clearly know it is. We’re tempted to be lenient in our judgement over this issue, since it’s clearly an innovation that holds genuine merit and certainly enhances the experience.
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