Sonos ZP80 & ZP100 WiFi Music System Page 2

As supplied, the Zone Players' line-level analog inputs default to lossy compressed WMA. This saves WiFi bandwidth, but results in both a quality hit and significant latency. This was not a problem with the ZP80s, which had been integrated into an existing system and whose analog inputs were thus superfluous. But my wife and I watch movies in the bedroom, and I wanted to connect that room's ZP100 to the DVD player's analog output jacks. However, the latency makes the input unusable, the sound lagging behind the picture by 3 seconds. Fortunately, the analog input's encoding can be set to the uncompressed WAV format, which both minimizes the latency and sounds better. However, this is a global preference that will apply to all the Zone Players in your system. If you need to reset one of them to WMA, you'll need to remember to reset all of them to WAV the next time you watch a DVD.

The ZP80 is limited to the normal low sample rates, but it also seems restricted to 16-bit music data. I have a large number of 24-bit AIF and WAV files on my Mac mini; while I could browse these files with the Controller, attempting to play them either gave a "Corrupt File" error message, or the file immediately switched to Pause. But when used to feed 16-bit/44.1Hz digital data to my high-end Mark Levinson No.30.6 DAC, the ZP80 performed flawlessly. I was hard-pressed to hear much of a difference between the Levinson driven by the ZP80 receiving Apple Lossless Compressed or AIF files, and the original CDs from which I had ripped the tracks, as played back by the Classé or Ayre players feeding the DAC the same data via AES/EBU links (footnote 3).

Anyone who harbors doubts about the legitimacy of computer-based audio needs to hear a high-end DAC fed by the ZP80's digital output. During the review period I was mixing and mastering my latest CD for Cantus—songs for soloists and chorus accompanied by cello, guitar, and piano—and auditioning my work on the Mac mini using headphones. But for serious auditioning of the changes I'd made, I simply walked into the listening room and auditioned the same files on the combination of Sonos ZP80 and Levinson DAC. In the past I had either to run a domestically unacceptable 45' length of Canare AES/EBU cable to the Levinson to audition my work, or use the sneakernet, burning the files to CD-R and physically carrying them into the listening room.

When I played back files representing a complete album's worth of music, there were no glitches between tracks, and no clipping of the start of a track. This was particularly noteworthy with CDs such as my new recording of Robert Silverman performing Beethoven's Diabelli Variations (Stereophile STPH017-2), where there are almost no gaps in the music between variations/tracks.

The ZP80's analog outputs were not near the same class as those of the megabux Levinson fed by the ZP80's digital output, with levels matched to within 0.1dB at 1kHz. This is to be expected, of course. But even with the Benchmark DAC-1 ($1000), again with levels matched, the ZP80's analog outputs had a flatter presentation, both with respect to soundstage depth and musical involvement, and had less low-frequency weight. But to put the ZP80's performance into perspective, its analog outputs sounded significantly more refined than CDs played by the $50 Toshiba DVD player that was the subject of so much Internet buzz a year or so back, and by the $150 Pioneer DV-578A SACD player that I bought as a reference for budget CD sound.

In my report last month, I had expressed the opinion that the Slim Devices Squeezebox was pretty much equivalent to the Pioneer when it came to the quality of its analog outputs. Compared to the Squeezebox, the ZP80 had more solidity and image depth, as well as a little less treble hash. It's fair to note, however, that this is with the Squeezebox powered by its wall-wart supply, which some feel compromises the sound quality of its analog outs. Even so, while I don't recommend the unmodified Squeezebox for use as a high-end source other than when used with its digital output feeding an external DAC, the ZP80's analog outputs are good enough to be used in noncritical applications, such as a bedroom system including an older two-channel receiver that lacks a digital input.

I didn't use the ZP100 in my listening-room reference system, so my thoughts on its ultimate sound quality are perhaps more of anecdotal than definitive usefulness. But the ZP100 provided sterling service in my bedroom system, driving the Celestion speakers to high levels without strain and with excellent woofer control. The treble balance seemed a bit more airy than I was used to with these speakers driven by a Linn Classik receiver, and the sound a little drier overall. The ZP100 did sound very clean, however, and produced a wide range of dynamics from movie soundtracks fed to its line inputs.

Zumming up
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Sonos Zone Players. While I feel the optimal way of integrating the ZP80 into a cost-no-object high-end system is to use its digital output to feed an outboard D/A processor, the sound of its analog outputs was acceptably good overall, taking into consideration the very affordable price. The ZP100, too, offers excellent value for money, and is a no-brainer purchase for setting up a distributed-audio system in a room that doesn't already have a sound system.

I also love that CR100 handheld controller. Not only are its ergonomics superb; the sheer convenience of being able to browse my music collection from wherever I am in the house, and to control music for any system in the network regardless of what room I happen to be in, are boons. I should also give a shout-out to Sonos' superb user manual, and the support information on the Sonos website.

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.

Footnote 3: The lid mechanism of my usual CD transport, a Mark Levinson No.31.5, recently broke after a decade of nonstop service.