capsule review

Review: Sonos ZonePlayer 80

At a Glance
  • Sonos ZonePlayer 80

    Macworld Rating

    Amp-less, lower-cost ZonePlayer for Sonos' complete home music system.

When we reviewed Sonos’ Digital Music System last year, we were quite impressed. Designed to let you play your music all over your home via wireless, amplified ZonePlayers (now called the ZonePlayer 100, or ZP100), and control those players from a wireless remote that can be used anywhere in your home, the Digital Music System fulfilled its promise with metaphorical aplomb. And although the System wasn’t inexpensive, when compared to custom all-home audio systems, which can cost upwards of $10,000, it was (and remains) a relative bargain.

Still, over the past year, Sonos regularly heard two specific complaints about the ZonePlayer 100: First, that it didn’t include digital audio outputs for connecting to an existing home system. Second, that by including an amplifier in the ZP100, customers who already had such home stereo systems, or amplified in-home systems, were paying for a major feature they didn’t need. In response to such feedback, the company recently released a new ZonePlayer, the $349 ZP80 . (A ZonePlayer 80 Bundle, which includes two ZP80s and one $399 Sonos Controller, costs $999, a $98 savings.) For $150 less than the original ZP100, you get a much smaller unit that lacks a built-in amplifier and subwoofer output, and has fewer Ethernet ports, but adds optical and coaxial digital output. In other words, the ZP80 truly is a player , designed to be connected to an existing stereo or in-home system.

You can read last year’s review of the Digital Music System for an in-depth look at how the system works; this review is an overview of the ZP80, how it differs from the ZP100, and how it performs.

Sonos mini

When I first took a ZP80 out of its box, I was shocked by its diminutive size. At only 5.3 by 5.3 by 2.8 inches, it’s less than 1/4 the size of the original ZonePlayer, and can easily be held in the palm of your hand. In fact, the ZP80 is closer in size to a stack of CDs than to the ZP100. The ZP80’s enclosure is also more austere than that of the ZP100: There’s a Sonos logo on top and a small control panel on the front that includes volume and mute buttons; the rest of the unit (except the back panel and bottom) is uninterrupted matte white. The bottom is covered in the same blue rubber as the ZP100, which keeps the ZP80 in one place and protects whatever it’s sitting on.

The ZP100 (left) and ZP80 (right).

The rear panel of the ZP80 includes two Ethernet ports (for connecting to a wired home network, a computer, or a network storage device); RCA left/right analog outputs (for connecting to an existing home stereo); coaxial and Toslink optical digital outputs (for connecting to your own digital-to-analog converter [DAC]); RCA left/right analog inputs (for connecting an iPod, CD player, radio, or other analog audio device to the ZP80); and an AC jack. The ZP80’s power supply is internal, so there’s no “power brick” clutter.

Missing from the ZP80, compared to the ZP100, are speaker connections and a subwoofer output, for obvious reasons: The ZP80 doesn’t include a built-in amplifier. You connect it to your existing stereo system and then connect speakers to that system. The ZP80 also includes only two Ethernet ports as compared to four for the ZP100, and is missing the voltage selector switch found on the ZP100 units we reviewed last year; the ZP80 includes an auto-switching power supply.

The ZP80’s back panel

Included in the ZP80 box are RCA left/right interconnects; an RCA-to-miniplug cable (for connecting the ZP80 to “computer” speakers); an Ethernet cable; the power cable; and a CD containing the Desktop Controller software.

Same but different

Aside from its lack of an amplifier, the ZP80 functions nearly identically to its larger sibling. To set up a new Sonos system based on several ZP80s, you first set up the “base” ZonePlayer: plug in the power cable, connect the ZP80 to an open Ethernet port on your router, install the Desktop Controller software on your computer, and then launch the software, which guides you through the rest of the setup process. (If you don’t have a router on your home network, Sonos provides online assistance to work around this limitation.) This process takes only a few minutes and is dead simple.

(By default, the Sonos system requires that you have a ZonePlayer near your router/computer. If you’d prefer to avoid such a setup, you can use a wireless bridge such as an AirPort Express or one of LinkSys’ WET models; Sonos provides information about such an unsupported configuration. That said, another advantage of the ZP80’s smaller size and lower price compared to the ZP100 is that if you don’t plan on listening to the ZonePlayer located near your router or computer—or have powered speakers or a stereo in that location—it’s much less expensive, and takes up much less space, to use a ZP80 instead of a ZP100.)

At the end of the setup process, you tell the Sonos software where to find your Music—an iTunes Music Library, a folder of music files on your hard drive, or music files on a network share. I added two sources: my iTunes Music folder on the local computer and a folder of Apple Lossless files shared via SMB across my home network; after several minutes of indexing, all 7000+ tracks were available for listening. My one beef here is that unlike Roku’s SoundBridge Radio, which uses iTunes’ native sharing technology to access your iTunes Library, the Sonos system doesn’t automatically recognize your existing iTunes playlists.

Adding additional ZP80s to your system is even easier: You connect the AC cord to the unit, and then use either the “Add ZonePlayer” command in the Desktop Controller software or the “Add” command in the “Set Up Zones” menu of the handheld Controller. You’ll be asked to press the Mute and Volume Up buttons on the new ZP80, which adds it to the Digital Music System’s wireless mesh network. (This is also the process you use to add a ZP80 to an existing Sonos Digital Music System; for example, if you’ve already got a system with several ZP100s. You can mix and match up to 32 ZP80 and ZP100 units.) The Sonos system uses an 802.11g-based wireless “mesh” network, which means that each ZonePlayer need be only within range—100 to 150 feet—of another ZonePlayer, not necessarily in range of the “base” unit.

Your ZonePlayer 80(s) can then be connected to your existing audio system(s) via analog or digital outputs. In my testing, I connected the “base” ZP80—the one near my computer—to both a HeadRoom Desktop Amp for high-quality headphone listening and various “computer” speakers for listening out loud. (The ZP80, like its bigger sibling, doesn’t include a headphone jack.) I connected another ZP80 to a Focal-JMlab iCub amplifier/subwoofer with NHT satellites in my living room.

Playtime is fun

As detailed in last year’s review of the Digital Music System, the Sonos system is not only easy to use, but fun—I’d actually forgotten how much fun until I held the wireless Controller in my hands again. The backlit, 3.5-inch LCD is easy to read and includes a stellar interface—complete with iPod-like scroll wheel—for browsing your music and controlling all your ZonePlayer “zones” at once. You can browse music by artists, albums, composers, genres, playlist, songs, or even filesystem folders. For playback, you can synchronize several zones so they play the same tracks or you can play different music in different zones; you can even link some, but not all, zones so the bedroom plays one thing while the kitchen and family room play something else. You can also listen to Internet radio, and even stream music from the Rhapsody music service. (My favorite Controller feature bears repeating from my earlier review: A motion sensor automatically turns the Controller on when you pick it up.) Although it’s been well over a year since my previous review, I have yet to see a better interface for listening to music around the house.

The ZP80 and the Sonos Controller

(A quick side note: Over the past year, I’ve heard a few people make the claim that you can get functionality similar to that of the Sonos system via multiple Apple AirPort Express units or several Slim Devices Squeezeboxes —the former via iTunes’ ability to stream to multiple Expresses simultaneously, the latter via the Squeezebox’s ability to play the same track on several units in sync. However, the Apple and Slim Devices products are single-room components with “multi-room” functionality thrown in as minor option. Having used all three such systems, there’s really no comparison in a multi-room setting: The Sonos system was designed from the ground up to be a multi-room playback system, and it shows, both in the options for multi-room playback and in the interface for accessing those options. If you want just a single “remote listening” area, the Apple and Slim Devices products are more appropriate—and less expensive—solutions. But for a true “all over the house” solution, the Sonos system is in a different class altogether.)

The sound quality of the ZP80 is excellent, whether using the ZP80’s built-in Digital/Analog converter (when connected to your existing audio system via the ZP80’s analog outputs) or your own DAC (via the ZP80’s digital outputs). I found the quality of audio produced by the ZP80 to be as good as the music files fed to it, which varied from 128kbps AAC files to Apple Lossless and uncompressed WAV and AIFF files. I also enjoyed the ability to connect an analog source, such as a CD player or even a radio, to one ZonePlayer and listen to its audio via any other ZonePlayer.

The fixes are in

As I mentioned above, using a ZP80-based Digital Music System was little different than my experience with the ZP100-based system we reviewed last year; I encourage you to read that review for all the nitty-gritty. However, since that review, Sonos has made a few additional improvements to the System itself that are worth mentioning, including a few that address complaints I had. Of interest to many users will be the expanded format support: The Sonos system can now play Apple Lossless, Audible, and Rhapsody 3.1 files, in addition to MP3, AAC, WMA, MPEG-4, WAV, FLAC, AIFF, Ogg Vorbis, MP3 and WMA streaming audio. And Mac users will appreciate that the Desktop Controller software is now available for—and works well on—Mac OS X.

Audio buffs will like some of the minor tweaks Sonos has made to the ZonePlayer (both the ZP80 and the ZP100). For example, the ZonePlayer’s analog outputs, which were variable-output-only in the original ZP100, can now be switched to true, fixed-level, line-out jacks. You can also choose whether audio from the ZonePlayer’s audio inputs should be compressed or left uncompressed when sent to other ZonePlayers. If you’ve got a Sonos system spread out over an especially large area, you can switch any ZonePlayer to “Zone Extender” mode, which turns off audio features and simply extends the Sonos mesh network. And that network is now protected by 128-bit AES encryption.

The Sonos Controller has seen a couple useful improvements, as well. The first is that during playback you can now view full-screen album art and get more detailed track information. The second is that a $50 charging cradle is now available. The cradle, which can be placed on a flat surface or mounted on a wall, provides a convenient place to store and charge the Controller when not in use. (Without the cradle, you charge the Controller by plugging an AC cable into a power jack on the top of the unit.)

On the other hand, a few of my minor complaints about the original Sonos Digital Music System still stand. For example, you need to manually update the system’s music catalog (via the wireless Controller or Desktop Controller) whenever you add new music to, or delete older music from, your music library; I’d like to see the system automatically check for changes and update accordingly. And the system still doesn’t support DRM-protected music files, such as those purchased from Apple’s iTunes Music Store or most Windows Media-based music stores.

The lowdown

Last year, I described the Sonos system by stating, “The Sonos Digital Music System turns your entire home—or as much of it as you’re willing to pay for—into a system that can play any of your music, anywhere, at a moment’s notice. We haven’t seen a system that so effectively combines digital music, wireless convenience, ease of use, and gadget-lust fun.” Over a year has passed, and my impressions haven’t changed: This is still the most complete and easy-to-use multi-room audio system I’ve seen. And if you’ve already got a home stereo or powered speaker system (or two), the introduction of the ZP80—a nearly perfect complement to the original ZP100—makes it even easier, and cheaper, to add new zones to your Sonos system.

At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating

    Amp-less, lower-cost ZonePlayer for Sonos' complete home music system.

    Pros

    • Provides nearly all the features and benefits of the ZonePlayer 100 to an existing stereo system for a lower price and in a much smaller package

    Cons

    • Digital Music System requires at least one ZonePlayer be connected to your computer, router, or wireless bridge
    • Digital Music System still has a few minor limitations noted in
    • No headphone jack
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