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Review: Sonos Bundle 150 with loudspeakers (and more)

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We’ve reviewed a lot of home audio solutions, and they all offer different benefits and drawbacks. The big trend is “music everywhere”, whether through powerline networking or wirelessly. Most of these products require a specific music source to feed into the system. Sonos brings something rather more complete to the goal of “music everywhere”. Read on for the complete review of the Sonos solution.

I’ve been testing the Sonos Bundle 150 with Loudspeakers combined with a Sonos ZoneBridge, and I have to say that this is an absolutely kick-ass product. The Sonos selling point is the idea of “zones” (read: rooms) each of which is capable of playing music from independent sources, all managed with a full-color handheld wireless controller. You can play the same music in every room, or give each room its own soundtrack.

Sonos Bundle 150 with Loudspeakers
The Sonos Bundle 150 with Loudspeakers is a complete solution for pumping music into two rooms. It includes the ZonePlayer 120 and the ZonePlayer 90, along with a Sonos Controller and a pair of bookshelf speakers. The ZonePlayer 120 provides power to the bookshelf speakers (or your own speakers), while the ZonePlayer 90 connects to your home theater or stereo equipment for output.

Both of the ZonePlayer units have RCA inputs, so you can feed it music from an existing audio source. They also both have a 2-port Ethernet switch, so you can connect one of them to a broadband router to access a variety of network-based music sources (Last.fm, Rhapsody, Pandora, Napster, or your own music collection on a Windows share). You can use the two-port switch to squeeze these devices into an already-full switch, which is a helpful addition for folks with way too many network-connected devices.

There is no interface on any of the ZonePlayers other than simple volume controls. You use the Sonos Controller to manage everything. You can also use the Desktop Controller software to manage your zones from your PC or Mac, or you can use the free iPhone application to control everything.

The Controller is a hefty handheld device. You can plug it directly into AC power to charge the battery, which takes about 2 hours, or you can use the Charging Cradle, which I strongly recommend — especially since it’s currently being included for free with any bundle purchase. It has an accelerometer inside that detects movement, so it usually comes to life as soon as you pick it up. That’s a really nice touch. If you leave it lying around it’ll eventually go into a power-saving mode, requiring you to press one of the buttons to wake it up. Wake up time take a couple of seconds, but not so long as to be really annoying. The battery life of the controller is great: I’ve left it out of the dock for about a week now, using it at least a couple times a day, and the battery has just now depleted.

Sonos ZoneBridge


The ZoneBridge provides no audio output. It has two Ethernet jacks and that’s it. You use the ZoneBridge to connect to your Ethernet network. If you don’t have an Ethernet switch, you can place the ZoneBridge between your broadband router and your PC; or you can plug it into a port on your switch. The ZoneBridge then brokers all the Internet access required by the other devices in your Sonos setup, since presumably your audio equipment isn’t likely to be located in the same room as your networking gear.

Setup
Set up is extremely easy, and the Quick Setup Guide is surprisingly helpful. You can use the supplied software to set everything up, or you can do it all directly from the Sonos Controller. I chose the latter. Plug everything in — there are no power buttons on any of the devices — and then turn on the controller. It discovers the devices nearby, and asks you to press both the mute button and the volume up button on any of them. This puts the device in “configure” mode, and then you use the Controller to give it a name. Repeat this process for each device in your Sonos network. Since the controller is wireless, you can easily walk from room to room configuring your setup in a couple of minutes.

You can register your setup with Sonos directly from the Controller after setup, which I found extremely handy. Once registered, the system can automatically download software updates. Sonos has put a lot of effort into making this thing “just work”, and I think they’ve succeeded admirably.

I was able to easily connect to a share on my home server. The music was indexed, and ready for me to play within a couple of minutes. All the ID3 tags on my mp3s were read, allowing me to navigate my music collection by artist, album, genre, composer, track title or folder. It also provides a search function.

I have a pretty boring collection of music, so I next added last.fm. After keying in my account name and password, I was able to play my neighborhood, or manually key in tags or artists. I’ve found myself streaming a lot of last.fm into my living room since I hooked up the Sonos.

Usage
You can group your zones together, so that they all play the same music at the exact same time. Even without setting up specific groups, you can activate “All Zones Party Mode” to play the same music through all of your Sonos gear.

Each zone can have its own queue of music, which you can control. You can add new music — single tracks, whole albums, or all the music in your catalog — to the end of an existing queue, or you can replace the current queue with your selection. You can set up and manage specific playlists within Sonos, as well as feed it playlists you might have created in .PLS, .M3U or .WPL files.

You can listen to broadcast radio, which surprised me somewhat at first. You’re certainly not going to buy this thing just to listen to your local radio station, but it’s a nice feature to have handy.

Another nice feature is the alarm mode, which lets you specify what music you want to play in which zone(s). Multi-zone alarm clocks: cool! You can wake up to one music source, and you can wake the rest of the house up with another music source. The Controller allows you to snooze for 9 minutes, just like a normal alarm clock.

As for input:

Support for compressed MP3, WMA (including purchased Windows Media downloads), AAC (MPEG4), Ogg Vorbis, Audible (format 4), Apple Lossless, Flac (lossless) music files, as well as uncompressed WAV and AIFF files.

Native support for 44.1kHz sample rates. Additional support for 48kHz, 32kHz, 24kHz, 22kHz, 16kHz, 11kHz, and 8kHz sample rates.

Wireless
Each Sonos device will get an IP address in your network. They speak to one another over “SonosNet, a secure AES encrypted, peer-to-peer wireless mesh network.” For giggles, I pointed nmap at each of them. The only open port it found was 1400/tcp, which was reported as cadkey-tablet. nmap reported that they’re each running Linux 2.4.18.

Curious, I ran wireshark for awhile as I used the Sonos, to see what sort of traffic I might see. The only thing it collected was lots and lots of Spanning Tree Protocol packets, presumably for the mesh networking. I got bored after that, and went back to listening to music.

Shortcomings
In a word: price. These things are expensive. The Sonos Bundle 150 with Loudspeakers is $1149.00. You can shave off $150 and just get the Sonos Bundle 150 if you already have speakers to use with the ZonePlayer 120. The ZoneBridge is $99. A spare controller is $400, and the Controller dock is $40. You’re getting an awful lot of functionality for the money, but it might be too high a price for some folks to stomach.

The other notable shortcoming is that these things don’t speak iTunes. It’s not an AirPort Express, but rather a whole lot more. Still, I’m somewhat surprised that you can’t stream iTunes to the Sonos. Similarly, you can’t play Apple FairPlay songs. Nor can it play WMA Lossless files.

UPDATE: I just got a call from the folks at Sonos, and they wanted to make it clear that while the Sonos gear won’t speak the DAAP protocol used by iTunes, it will play non-DRM media in your iTunes library if you make it available via an SMB share.

A minor nuisance is the scrollwheel on the controller. It works, but it can be a bit laborious to enter text using this thing. In fact, the interface on the controller is a little awkward in general. You have the scrollwheel, shortcut buttons for “Zones” and “Music” along with a “Back” button above the wheel, and simple music controls for “back”, “play/pause” and “forward” buttons beneath the wheel. Along the left are mute and volume. Then under the screen are three context-sensitive buttons. It’s these buttons that I found annoying: you need to actually look at the screen to find out what they do, and they sometimes do what you would expect the center button on the wheel to do. It’s not a deal breaker, by any stretch, but it would be nice to see a slightly more elegant interface in such an expensive product.

The bottom line: if you can afford it, I think Sonos offers the best multi-room wireless audio solution we’ve reviewed yet. Robust support for local and Internet audio sources, an extremely functional wireless handheld controller to manage all your zones, and a plethora of extra features make this a complete package.

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