A wireless future has been the dream of neophiliacs for decades. Even as far back as 1927, Fritz Lang's Metropolis shows a robot emitting pulsing, glowing rings into the air -- presumably some kind of macabre wireless communication that anticipated Wi-Fi.
Though most of us find wireless networks almost as infuriating as traditional wired networks, some companies do wireless well. Confusing WEP keys and poor reception plague some systems, but the design team at Sonos has nailed it.
The Sonos Digital Music System is a rare beauty among freaks. It streams music and Internet radio from your home computers to any number of wireless amplifiers and speakers. Set-up time is almost non-existent and the audio quality is nothing short of remarkable. Anyone who thinks Apple holds the monopoly on well-designed interfaces should take a look at the Sonos and think again.
The Digital Music System is based around a series of wireless amplifers, known as Zoneplayers. The basic Sonos package comes with two Zoneplayers, but you can use as many as 32 in total. Each Zoneplayer must be attached to a pair of speakers, and one of the Zoneplayers needs to be hardwired to a computer via an Ethernet cable. If you already have a home network, you can hardwire this one Zoneplayer to an existing Ethernet hub. Once you've done this, any computer attached to your network can share its music using the bundled software.
Each Zoneplayer is impressively heavy for such a small device. The Zoneplayers may be no bigger than a small stack of paperbacks, but they feel like marble blocks. We couldn't prise the units open to find out exactly what's inside -- they're seamless -- but the weight seems to be down to a combination of the extremely sturdy anodised chassis and the 50W amplifer contained within. The £1,159 'introductory bundle' available online from Sonos comes with two of them and two sets of speakers. (You can also buy just the two Zoneplayers for £949).
The outer casing of the Zoneplayers is the toughest of any consumer amplifiers we've ever seen. We're not exaggerating when we say they could stop a bullet. Reviewers sometimes claim that certain products are "built like a tank", but we believe that the Zoneplayers are built from a tank. We're talking a military-grade enclosure: a 5mm-thick anodised steel plate that wraps around the whole unit. There are worse-defended bank vaults.
The rear of the Zoneplayer is dominated by some extremely serious-looking speaker wire bindings. These are each 12x35mm with 5mm holes through them, giving you the option to use heavy-gauge speaker wire. This size of binding is very rare on consumer grade hi-fi -- usually you're forced to use low-gauge wire into small plastic bindings.
As with everything else about the Digital Music System, you get the impression that someone who really cares about their audio has chosen the specifications. There are connectors for analogue audio-out in the form of left, right and subwoofer phono connectors. These are coloured white, red and purple respectively.
The typical user will find that the standard speaker bindings and a good pair of speakers will provide a punchy and clean sound from the Zoneplayers. Alternatively, using the phono-outs lets you rig the Zoneplayers into an external amplifier. The only good reason for doing this is if you like your music extremely loud, or if you're a hardcore audiophile for whom the Zoneplayer's already excellent amp circuitry is not good enough.
Also on the rear are four Ethernet ports, and left and right audio-ins. The power socket on the Zoneplayer is of the kettle-lead type and the unit contains a formidable PSU of the kind you'd find on entry-level studio amps. The power supply is an important element in any amplifier, because it directly determines the strength and clarity of audio output.
It's details like this that lead you to believe that Sonos has made a point of equipping the Zoneplayers with uncomplicated, high-quality components throughout -- it's the kind of considered approach we're more used to seeing from higher-end pro audio manufacturers like NAD.
The front of each Zoneplayer is typically elegant and functional. The clean silver and white casing is interrupted only by a volume rocker switch and a mute button. Slick. Very slick.
Of course, a fine ship is of little use without a star to sail her by, and the Sonos Digital Music System's remote control is certainly an impressive little twinkler. It looks like a small yakitori tray and owes much of its ease-of-use to the adoption of a device much like Apple's Clickwheel. This lets you navigate through tracks in your music library exactly as you would on an iPod. You scroll through your music, album art and settings on the controller's bright and clear 90mmm colour screen.