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ZP80 Wireless Music Server System
as reviewed by Danny Kaey
In the coming series of articles surrounding computer based music playback, a certain level of computer literacy is expected and required—if you don't know how to download pictures from your digital camera, chances are you will be helplessly tied to many painful phone calls to various help desks when attempting to configure and / or use any of the described devices.
The mp3 file format has done more to advance mainstream music playback then perhaps any other format previously—sure, there's probably a billion vinyl records out there, but for the most part those are dormant and only listened to by a few people who either consider themselves audiophiles or nostalgic old school lovers. Mp3s however are being consumed in ever growing masses—Apple's ever more amazing iPod continues to fly in the face of all nay-sayers and continues to sell, sell and sell more. There are now approximately 80 million iPods in circulation and iTunes, Apple's music management and online downloading software, continues to wow users with its simplicity and ease of use. "It just works man! " The following review is but a teaser designed to whet your appetite as I explore the music server phenomenon over the next months.
As the iPod has proliferated the use of music files instead of the "hard" copy of generations gone by, so has the access to those music files. Computers (without which mp3's would not have succeeded) are now becoming more and more popular in replacing your old music "system" or "stereo" and with good reason: easy access to all your media content at the drop of a hat. No more getting up to search for your favorite disc; no more getting up to actually play something—no, you simply flick the remote to your play your favorite track, tune or playlist and voila, there you are!
I had foreseen this "server" vision years ago when I kept informing fellow audiophiles that a new dawn was at hand—indeed, audiophiles are increasingly becoming aware and accustomed to utilizing some form of computer storage format to playback their cherished vault of music files. At the rudimentary level, all that is really needed is a computer, an Ethernet connection (wireless or hard-wired) and some form of output, be it an SPDIF plug, or line level RCAs. The benefit of having some form of digital out is of course that you are free to use any D/A converter of your choosing not having to limit yourself with the mass-market product and built in DACs.
Enter the Sonos ZP80 music server bundle. Unlike similar devices, which run on a standard network protocol and are therefore open to all gremlins that our current networking protocols suffer from, the clever folks at Sonos designed their system to run on a proprietary closed network. The benefit here is that setting up your Sonos system is accomplished literally with your eyes closed and you are far less prone to network outages and other such silliness. The downside with the Sonos running on a closed network, is that you end up needing at least two ZP80 controller/receivers to make the setup work. Another tremendous benefit of wireless networking is the fact that you can add many such network players all over your house and consume different music in different rooms all through one main file server. In addition to the ZP80 receivers, you also need the actual "controller" or in the case of Sonos, a beautiful, iPod like remote (ok, so it's a fair bit larger, but you get my drift) that features as its main raison d'être a glorious 3.5" diagonal (240x320 QVGA) color LCD display! Along with the handy display, you have a few strategic access buttons as well as another cleverly implemented scroll wheel, again, much like the iPod itself. The controller can be charged continuously via its own (separately ordered) cradle and docking station, otherwise you charge it via the accompanied wall-wart power supply.
Along with the Sonos system, which in its described disguise retails for $999, you also get the proprietary Sonos system software. In its 2.0 configuration, the system software runs on Mac's (yay!) or PCs (nay!) and is intuitive, simple, and easy to learn and master. Overall, I was set up and ready to go within 15-20 minutes—a testament to the great software and fantastic design of the Sonos system overall. I immediately pointed the Sonos software to my music file folder; connected the RCA outputs of the ZP80 sitting next to my preamp to a line level input and was ready to rock it in style (not sure if my friend Josh Ray ever trademarked these words, as he uses them often and frequently!)
The Sonos controller in hand, I quickly browsed through all my hundreds of albums, complete with corresponding cover art (way cool!) and in no time was able to assemble a playlist to begin evaluating the sound of these magic semi-cubes (ZP80). On a personal note I wish to express gratitude to the folks at Sonos for including such a lovely display with their controller. I am more of a visual guy, hence being able to sort through hundreds if not thousands of albums via cover art is more preferable then having to read each title to select the one I like.
Realizing that even though the system described here retails for $999, I was not really expecting audiophile-defying performance. Truth is that with most of these devices, the DACs used are of mass-market production qualities and hence one shouldn't expect miracles. Cueing up my fab-five favorite demo tracks, I began with track 14 on Yello's latest effort, The Eye. Spacious, lease-breaking bass lines followed by artistic synth landscaping pretty much defines this Orwellian track. The Sonos ZP80 bundle sounded quite pleasing actually. Musical, spacious inviting: those are all words I used to describe the sonic characteristics. Overall, the sound was pleasant and quite listenable—very much unlike inexpensive digital of just 5-10 years ago. Vocals were reproduced with authority and good center image specificity (when the recording provided it of course); take for example Cash's American V album, another great favorite of mine. Cash's voice, though clearly strained, has a sense of power and command—the center image heard through the Zu Druids was absolutely rock solid and unwavering. Sure, I have heard this track taken a up a few notches in playback performance (notably through my reference Accustic Arts CD player but then again that retails for $7.7k), but for "simple" listening or at least until such time that you can add an outboard high quality DAC, the Sonos system will prove quite listenable. In the months that I have had the Sonos ZP80 system in my audio room, not once did I feel the need to replace it with other, often times much more costly digital gear—it's that good!
Of course, where more expensive CD playback would yield higher levels of audio nirvana, the Sonos system trumps all of them by a large margin when it comes to usability, access, and sheer comfort. Being able to quickly and swiftly change tracks at a moment's notice is something you get used to very, very quickly. Setting up various playlists from different artists, genres and performances is something you will use far more often then you'd expect (once you become accustomed to it). Therein lies the true benefit of the Sonos system when taken as a whole. You can have all the benefits of computerized music access, the visual stimulus afforded by a large 3.5" remote control mounted viewing screen, and super quality sound if you take advantage of an outboard, high quality DAC. I had originally intended to cover this part of the Sonos ZP80 system as well, alas, unfortunate timing errors and review supply problems with various DAC manufacturers crept up preventing me from following my hunch.
The digital landscape has changed dramatically over the last few years—it is only fitting that new upstart mainstream technology companies are taking charge and leading the market in various forms and guises. How long will it be before some high-end audio company beings to license Sonos' excellent approach and system and applies it with the true "audiophile" in mind? Not long, I think. Danny Kaey