Friday, April 06, 2007

Sonos Digital Music System

I reviewed some weeks ago Sonos Sonos Digital Music System for a Finnish hifi-magazine. Two Sonos "systems" were subject to review: ZonePlayer 80 Bundle, consisting of two ZonePlayer ZP80s and one Controller 100 remote controller; and one ZonePlayer 100. See details of aforementioned products at Sonos Web-site.

Some background. I've some 500 GB worth of WAV-files, i.e. almost my entire CD-collection on hard-disk. The necessary back-up methods naturally are implemented in terms of external hard-disks and daily/weekly BU procedures. Why WAV and not MP3? Look into the falling prices of hard-disk as €/GB, and tell me one reason why one should compromise sound quality using any kind of compressed or non-compressed audio formats other than WAV. There is none - except WAV's limited metadata capabilities.

For a music library software I use both Apple iTunes 7.x and MS Media Player 11, ripping is done by same software and occasionally by EAC. Which brings us to one of the Sonos shortfalls, i.e. insofar as your music library is in MP3, FLAC or Apple Lossless formats, Sonos library software works fine. The Sonos Desktop Controller organizes your music library nicely by artist, album etc. with associated album artwork, but if you use WAVs you view into music library are pretty limited. With iTunes and WAV, Sonos software provides you with very crude folder view, organised by artist. You fare a tad better with MS Media Player and WAV, but evidently Sonos has been designed for MP3 users, not for audiophiles. This is not only Sonos related problem, but applies to all music library software and how they metadata WAV files. Annoying, nevertheless.

In assessing the sonic capabilities of Sonos, I connected one Sonos ZP80 player to my HE-rig, consisting of McIntosh 275 amplifier, Great Northern Sound modified Audio Research LS25 Mk2 pre-amp and Mark Levinson 390S CD-prosessor. Speakers are JM Lab Micro Bes, the cabling consist of Siltech XLR G5/G6 interconnects and Kimber Kable Select KS-3035 speaker cables.

For testing I connected Sonos ZP80 player's digital out via Siltech G6 Golden Ridge digital cable (the best digital cable I have tested by very large margin) into my Mark Levinson 390S CD-processor's digital in. This was to assess Sonos system's performance as a transport, using the same ML 390s 24bit/352.8kHz DAC as I normally use when listening CDs.

Result was startling, i.e. I could barely hear any difference. And yet mentally I already had decided that this insignificant small box + dedicated WiFi-network could no way be on the same level as my ML 390S transport. Talking about reality check! I had to dig into my best recorded acoustic recordings to actually hear differences. Please note here that I was able to switch by remote control between original CD played through ML 390S and the same WAV-file played through Sonos system into 390S DAC.

In essence, ML 390S as a standalone CD-player had more organic sound, "black-is-blacker" background, more dynamics and less digital artifacts than Sonos - but observable only with the best acoustic recordings like Blue Coast Collection The E.S.E Sessions. My system is ruthlessly transparent, with mid hifi speakers I could propably here no difference. Please note that in fact I only compared the performance of Sonos ZP80 and dedicated network against ML 390S transport. Otherwise the reproduction chain was the same. I do recall that when I tested my CEC TL-51 belt-driven transport connected to ML390S DAC there were more significant changes, notably almost magical liquidity and smoothness in sound.

As for using Sonos ZP80's internal DAC and analog out results were less succesful, that was more like using 200-300 € CD-player. In making that assessment I used my Samsung HD-850 DVD-player as a reference. As for the ZP100, I tested it as a standalone replacement for my whole HE-rig, i.e. as 50 wpc D-class amplifier/DAC/pre-amp, and whereas ZP80 sounded somewhat compressed vis-a-vis ML 390S, then ZP100 sounded even more so against my whole HE-rig. But put into the context, super buy for your third bed room or for your kid, just add decent speakers.

To sum up, if you are an audiophile and computer audio Luddite, you should broaden your horizon. We cant't beat this inexorable movement, and we should not even try. The products like Sonos' are the proof than there is much to gain by embracing and integrating computer audio with HE-gear. I bought the ZP80 combo, and I've never listened to that much of music before. All those tracks, artists, albums which took so long time to locate before are now available by a simple search and click. Drawback naturally is all that playing with computer, especially ripping.

I can only mirror what John Atkinson concluded in his review of Sonos in Stereophile: "But the real beauty of the Sonos system is the way in which it marries excellent audio engineering to a system design that allows foolproof and efficient setup of a distributed-audio system. It's just a shame, I guess, that these groundbreaking audio products didn't come from an established high-end audio company."

Search Popdex: