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Sonos ZonePlayer 80 Wireless Digital Music Server

Part II

October, 2007

Kris Deering

 

Installation

Installation of the Sonos system was far easier than I was expecting. A CD and simple instructions are included that walk you through the process. A desktop controller is installed on your PC or network drive, and once the zone player is connected to the network, you simply press the front panel button to synch it to the network. Each zone player can be named independently, and each can access any music it wants independently, allowing for any music in any room you place a zone player in. Once the zone player is told where your music is, it no longer requires a PC to run. You could simply run the system from a network storage drive (NAS Drive), which is what I ended up doing (more on that later).

I did run into a few issues when I connected the zone player. My network is a bit different than the ideal setup. I have an office downstairs where my cable modem and router reside. I installed the ZP 80 upstairs in my theater room on the opposite end of the house. My house does not have Ethernet run through it like so many new houses do, so I ran my network through my power lines. This is a system that has been around for sometime now and has worked just fine for my application. In my theater room, I have a simple NetGear switch and each device connects through that. The problem started when I loaded Windows Vista onto my PC. After that, I started getting lockups when streaming music.

To troubleshoot, I called Sonos customer support. These guys are truly on their game. The desktop controller allows you to send a file to them and gives you a reference number. They look at the file and tell you the errors the player is reporting. They can even go so far as to network into your computer and set up things properly, similar to a remote desktop function. All of the people I talked to were extremely knowledgeable, and I never waiting long at all to get the support I needed.

On top of that, Sonos releases firmware updates regularly for issues and to add new features based on feedback. These can be done manually or automatically depending on how you set it up.

In the end, I added a NAS drive to the theater room and connected it directly to the back of the zone player. Maxtor was nice enough to provide a 1 terabyte network accessible shared storage drive. This was a snap to integrate into my network by simply connecting it to the Ethernet switch and installing the provided software.

From there I just drag and dropped my music collection into this hard drive and told the Sonos desktop controller where to find it. The Maxtor drive also allows for a RAID configuration which let me mirror my files in case one of the drives fails. This prevents you from losing all of your files.

 

The Hardware

As I mentioned before, I received the Zone Player 80 (ZP 80) and the Sonos Controller. I also ordered the charging cradle for the controller. The ZP 80 is a small box that is fully featured. The front panel has a volume control and mute button and a small LED. The back panel is where most of the action is. Here you'll find two Ethernet connections, a Toslink digital output, coaxial digital output, a stereo analog audio output, and a stereo analog audio input.

Most of the connections are pretty self explanatory. The Ethernet connection is essential for this system to work through. You can have up to 32 ZP 80s in your home. They connect to each other wirelessly using SonosNet, a wireless peer-to-peer AES encrypted wireless network. The catch is, you have to have at least one connected directly to a router, network drive, or PC. From there on, any other zone player can be run wirelessly. Sonos is going to be releasing a wireless base station soon that will act as the initial unit to hook into the network that won't be a zone player, allowing more flexibility for setup.

The analog audio input allows you to connect a line-in source such as a CD player, jukebox, or portable media player. Once connected, any other zone player in the network can access this device's output. So, if you have your iPod connected to a zone player in the kitchen, you can access the songs playing out of it on your zone player in the bedroom, theater room, or anywhere else; that's pretty slick.

One of the biggest selling features for me was the inclusion of digital outputs. This allows me to bypass any digital to analog conversions that may compromise the quality of the audio. I want my server to do as little tampering with the signal as possible. Sonos has expanded on this even further by providing a fixed volume option so the zone player will simply pass the audio through with no volume level control or EQ'ing. This means the only thing the player is doing is decoding the compressed audio stream or passing the PCM audio through for uncompressed WAV tracks.

Controlling the zone player can be achieved in two different ways. You can control everything from a PC using the desktop controller, or you can purchase the Sonos controller. I use both quite frequently depending on what I'm doing. If I'm in the office and have music playing in the background, I can simply bring up the desktop controller and change tracks, change sources, or anything else. If I am in my theater room, or anywhere else in the house, I can use the Sonos controller.

This is a handheld interface system that is completely wireless and can control one zone player or literally every zone player in the house. If you want to add multiple controllers around the house, you can simply tie in a zone player to each specific controller, but you can still operate any other zone player from anywhere.

The operating interface is displayed on a 3.5" full color LCD screen. There are controls for volume (if enabled) and muting, and there is a rotary dial for navigating the interface menus. This is very similar to the rotary interface you find on the popular iPod products. The touchpad also has soft keys below the screen for commands, and convenient quick keys for play, pause, back, music, and skipping.

The full color display alleviates the need for a monitor to control your music server. I use these devices primarily in my theater room, and the only display I have in there is a projector. I don't like the idea of having to turn it on simply to navigate my music, and I also like to listen to music in a room that doesn't have a TV on. The controller allows me to interact with the server directly, without the need for another display. It will let me pick tracks, add tracks to a queue, or interact with the music services I may be using. The controller runs on a lithium ion battery that is rechargeable and can be replaced at the factory. The controller comes with a charger and there is also an optional charging cradle that acts as a dock for the controller as well.

I can't begin to tell you how easy it was to use the controller. Using the rotary interface, you can select what music source you want, artists, tracks, and more. Anyone who has ever used an iPod would find this very simple to pick up and use. The controller gives you the ability to pick artists, albums or songs specifically, or you can select tracks to put in a queue for continuous play. The system offers a shuffle playback feature allowing you to literally select your entire music library and play every song at random.

The interface makes it extremely easy for me to conduct audio demonstrations in my reference home theater. I can cue up a track in seconds in full lossless quality and not have to worry about the player compromising the quality, since my reference Anthem A/V processor does all of the volume control and digital to audio conversions. Guests can ask for a track and I can literally queue it up as the next track or jump to it directly. The display will show me the album art, artist, album, song title, and time remaining, as well as the next track in the queue.

While I was using the Pandora radio service, the controller allowed me to provide feedback to Pandora, including whether or not I liked or disliked the track I was playing or changing my preferences. Rhapsody use allowed for adding artists and songs and navigating their music lists and charts. I never once felt like I was limited by the controller's interface.

Go to Part III.

Copyright 2007 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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