By Ben Bowers
on 12.2.09

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A man’s music collection and the equipment he has to play it in many ways serves as a make shift gauge of character and temperament. Though of course that opening sentence could be the start to an excellent rant on the virtuosity of audiophiles and their true appreciation for the aural delights, don’t worry. Despite many of us on the Gear Patrol staff professing a deep love for sonic snobbery, that doesn’t mean we can’t relate to those of you who could care less if your tunes were belted from a set of USB powered Dell computer speakers.

To be frank, it’s hard to understand just how much our various music sources are trapped by their associated hardware, until you experience the freedom and control provided by having a Sonos system.

All personal listening preferences aside though, the rise of digital music has inspired a universal desire in men for the freedom to hear songs anywhere there’s a set of headphones or speakers. The problem is granting that wish usually involves one of three things: inconvenience, know-how or money.

Any would be MacGyver armed with wire strippers, a drill, and a staple gun, can lay the ground work (literally) for a home audio system that stretches far beyond its man cave roots. Likewise, home networking extraordinaires who understand the term RAID is not in reference to a household insecticide can jerry-rig a server to allow their music to flow anywhere the internet can. That is as long as they’ve had the foresight to know which of the myriad of home audio equipment out there can handle their own particular batch of software, hard drives, and networking.

This brings us to the last category of funds, which is where the relatively pricey Sonos BU250 bundle and its related accessories snugly fit. Designed to seamlessly integrate with traditional equipment already in your home, convenience and functionality are where Sonos blows past pretty much every other competing setup on the market.

To read our full take on the system, check out our full in depth review below.

Hardware:

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Sold in an initial starter package which includes two ZonePlayer (one ZP90 and one ZP120) base stations and one CR250 Controller, right out of the box the Sonos BU250 bundle is perfect for anyone wanting to listen to a variety of digital music sources in a separate room away from there main home audio setup.

Getting down to the included components, the ZP120 is the bigger of the two Zoneplayers mainly because it houses a fully fledged, 55-watt dual channel, Class-D digital amplifier. It also includes two pairs of high-quality speaker binding posts, a set of analog stereo inputs, a subwoofer output, and two Ethernet ports. Based on this feature set, the ZP120 is meant to serve as a remote audio outpost, which once connected to speakers can fill a room with music without the need for any other additional audio equipment.

Similar to the ZP120, the ZP90 also sports a variety of connectivity options including two digital-audio outputs (one coaxial, one optical) for single-wire setups to connect standard home audio components to the home network. However, since it lacks built in amplification, it’s much smaller and does not include binding posts for speakers.

Rounding out the kit, the CR200 remote is in many ways the crown jewel and the main point of distinction between the BU250 bundle and the older CR100 system; or any other competing wireless home music system for that matter. Clearly inspired by the iPhone though slightly more hefty, this attractive remote features a capacitive LED-backlit touch screen which supports full VGA resolution (double that of Apple handhelds). It’s also quite responsive to touch commands and required almost no learning curve to use. To make navigation to certain functions slightly quicker though, four hard buttons are also placed below the screen to adjust volume levels, mute music entirely, or adjust which “zone” of sound you’d like to control.

Getting it Working:

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First and foremost, it should be made clear that though the Sonos BU250 is designed to transmit your music wirelessly throughout your home, that does not mean its components are wireless. Keep in mind that at least one Zone Player must be hardwired to an Ethernet jack in order to work, that is unless owners purchase an ZoneBridge wireless adapter for an additional $100. Since this additional component was included in our review setup, we experimented with installing the system both ways in order to put the technology completely through its paces.

On our first wired attempt, we connected the smaller ZP90 to our router, as well as to our main home theater receiver via optical. Next we brought the larger and separately amplified ZP120 to an adjacent room and connected the set of SP100 unpowered monitor speakers Sonos had sent along as well. From there, with the press of literally two buttons, we then connected the two players wirelessly via a secure peer-to-peer 802.11n “mesh” network. Outside of convenience, Sonos’s decision to use this form networking has it’s ups and downs. While its unique signal will not tax your existing wireless networks bandwidth at all, on the down side it also eliminates any possibility of using the Zone Players as extension points to expand Wi-Fi signals throughout the home. However thanks to the Ethernet ports present on the back of each Zone Player, at least other devices can be connected via Ethernet cable to access the web.

With the hardware synchronization done, one final step of installing the Sonos Desktop Controller was required to start listening to music stored locally on our Mac throughout the lab. We also had to select room names from a list of options in order to distinguish which zones we’d like to create. Sadly Man Cave was not an option, but after a few mouse clicks using the wizard based setup, this last step was completed almost as quickly as installing the hardware. We found the process to be just as easy the 2nd time around after using the previously mentioned ZoneBridge to wirelessly connect our ZP90 to the internet.

Taking It For A Test Drive:

Once everything was properly configured, we then put the system to the test by accessing just about any form of music content we could think of, playing it synchronized across both of our two zones, or in one zone alone while another song played in a different area. Toggling between zones and play modes while testing simply required hitting the zone button on the bottom of the remote and selecting what song we’d to play where.sonoscr200_1

In our first test, we successfully granted Eric’s wish of streaming Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” in both MP3 and larger lossless WAV format from his iTunes Library to the other room setup without a hitch. The system even recognized his ultimate teen idol iTunes playlists and music stored locally on our Apple Time Capsule backup station. Fidelity wise, these streamed files sounded great across our main home theater setup and on the monitor’s wirelessly connected in the other room. Only Eric’s highly trained audiophile ears could detect any difference between Miley’s shrill exclamations over the wired connection vs the Sonos wireless stream.

However we did run into a few snags when switching computers and playing more content. The first was that some of our older DRM encoded purchased tracks from iTunes could not be played. Unfortunately it is one file format the system is not equipped to deal with, though for an extra $.30 more, those desperate to hear these songs can upgrade to the DRM free iTunes plus version. The second was that we ran into issues regarding the size of our library. While it’s unlikely to phase most of you, our initial attempts to access another combined library ran into system file caps. Apparently Sonos for now can only support and index libraries with up to 65,000 items, so needless to say we had to scale back our test library slightly to get things back on track.

After discovering and dealing with those small hiccups, we then moved on to try Pandora and Last.fm. Both worked in a similar manner to our previous iTunes test and did not require any changes or setup on the mac to run. It’s a beautiful thing that these services along with similar paid versions like Napster and Rhapsody can all work independently without a computer; even displaying album artwork on the CR200 remote’s gorgeous display. A quick input of our local zip code, and nearby online streaming radio stations were just as easily accessible.

Though we admittedly did not take Sonos up on their free trial offers for various paid music services, we’re confident they perform just as admirably as other sources. Also though we’ve never really been tempted to cough up the extra cash for these “premium” services, it is worth noting that those who do can use the Sonos software to set up customized playlists which can combine both tracks stored on your local library with favorites from the likes of Napster or Rhapsody.

Just because Sonos specializes in digital music playback doesn’t mean it’s the only kind of source the bundle can play. We also connected an iPod to our ZP90 and managed to stream its content wirelessly as well. However in this scenario, the included remote gave us only the limited ability to activate or deactivate the device, and changing tracks required us to physically get up to interact with the iPod.

Conclusions:

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While this Sonos 250 Bundle is by no means cheap, in our opinion its overall ease of setup, robust functionality, and surprisingly straight forward navigation makes it definitely worth the expense, especially for those scared of networking and technology to begin with. To be frank, it’s hard to understand just how much our various music sources are trapped by their associated hardware, until you experience the freedom and control provided by having a Sonos system.

Since it’s designed to be expandable, buyer aren’t however locked down to purchasing the entire system that meets their needs all in one paycheck imploding hurrah. We will note though that you do save $200 for buying this initial bundle compared to picking up its included components piece meal overtime. Iphone owners truly looking to skimp howevercould easily get away with buying just the individual ZonePlayers, and using Sonos’ excellent iPhone application instead of the CR200 remote.

Cost: Sonos BU250 Bundle $984 | Sonos ZoneBridge 100 $99 | Sonos Loudspeaker (SP100) $180

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