Sonos Bundle 150 wireless multiroom music system Page 2

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PEFORMANCE

The CR100 controller is the heart of the Sonos system, and I'm surprised it doesn't cost $1,000 by itself. It's similar to the instrument cluster on a sports car, delivering a large amount of important data in short order. With only 3 1/2 inches of screen real estate, the Sonos controller maximizes functionality without wasting space. When music is playing, the screen shows album art; the track, artist, and album name; a time elapsed/remaining bar; and what's coming next. It also indicates the active zone, the wireless signal strength, and the battery status.

Besides volume up and down, the primary controller buttons you'll use are Zone, which selects the specific Player to control; Music, which takes you to the selection screen; and Back, which returns you to the previous screen. Navigation is carried out entirely by using the scroll wheel and the OK button.

I learned how to use the system in no time, and I loved using its controller. Of course, a reviewer always has nitpicks, and I'd recommend three minor improvements. First, I would've preferred a touchscreen so I could type in information on a virtual keyboard. Second, I wish the scroll wheel incorporated the specific click-wheel control functions of my Video iPod. And, third, the controller really should have a stand for when it's resting on a desk or table, so it doesn't have to lie unceremoniously on its back.

Sonos says that its controller can operate anywhere within 100 feet of any ZonePlayer, but my range seemed closer to 50 feet, and it really dropped off when I stepped outside the house. But I was very pleased with the battery life, which usually lasted 2 days off the dock with fairly regular use. Besides the CR100, you can operate the Sonos system on a computer running the Desktop Controller Software. But it would be far nicer if you could just type in a Player's IP address and control it by using any Web browser.

With those 7,000 songs in my library, I'm not interested in systems that require too many button pushes to slog through my list of artists or albums. But Sonos tames even the largest music collections with an awesome Power Scroll option that brings up an A-to-Z list that lets you jump to the first letter of your search target.

Any source connected to a ZonePlayer's line-level input can be listened to on any other networked Player - a very cool way to add a ton of additional sources to your music system. Line-in audio sources can be compressed prior to distribution or passed through uncompressed. But the Bundle's biggest shortcoming is that the only control you get over the connected sources is volume up and down. This is the one area where an advanced, custom- installed house-wide audio system will most obviously yield superior results.

Each Sonos system includes 30-day trial subscriptions to Sirius, Pandora, Rhapsody, and Napster. These subscriptions can all be activated from the controller and they run simultaneously. You can also enjoy a virtually unlimited number of free Internet radio stations.

While this isn't a review of the trial music services, they're such a terrific part of the Sonos system that I'd be remiss not to mention them. One incredibly cool thing is that with one paid subscription, you can listen to a different feed or playlist in each zone. (This makes Sonos the first multiroom application for Sirius that doesn't charge you on a per-zone basis.) Beyond that, I loved exploring Napster, Pandora, and Rhapsody - services that provide a brilliant opportunity to seek out new music.

You can use the controller to tweak bass, treble, balance, and loudness settings for each zone. I always like this sort of feature; a small bass boost can help my outdoor speakers sound larger and fuller, but my surround system generally doesn't need any kind of boost. Like most digital amplifiers, the one in the ZP120 only had a narrow band of usable output, with sound becoming too soft below the 60% volume setting. But it was quite loud at the 75 to 90% level, providing my poolside speakers with enough juice to fill the backyard with sound.

Music played through my receiver using the ZP90's digital-audio output sounded slightly better than it did through the analog connection. It was more focused and had an extra layer of presence; piano notes, for instance, displayed greater depth, and bass lines were tighter. More important, I never experienced any dropouts when listening to music through a wireless connection.

BOTTOM LINE

For a system that's available factory-direct for DIY installation, the Sonos Bundle 150 proved to be a superb performer. Install a few ZonePlayers throughout your home, and you'll have a virtually limitless world of music at your fingertips.

Yes, a more expensive, custom system would offer better integration with any manner of external sources. But for anyone looking to maximize his music collection as well as dip into the world of online media streaming, the Sonos works brilliantly, and its wireless performance was strong enough to make me a believer. The Bundle might not be right for everyone, but it will be perfect for many.

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