Sonos-ified

A couple of weeks ago I bit the bullet and started investing into Sonos products. This review is therefore partially a self-justification of my purchase.

While I'm a nerd for shiny technology things and despite the fact that a good friend of mine had his Sonos devices for quite a some time, I could never wrap my head around their raison d'etre.

So what's changed?

What is Sonos' place in an iTunes world?

I've been a heavy proponent of the Apple TV ever since its first version shipped. I've always had a pair of them, one in the living room, connected to the home cinema system, and another in the master bedroom, connected to just the TV there.

Now, when I wanted to listen to music in multiple rooms (one of the big selling points of the Sonos system), I could just use Apple's Remote iOS app, connect to either of the Apple TVs or my main Mac Pro in the studio, the home of the master iTunes library, select both Apple TVs for output with the multiple speaker option, and all would be well.

Or would it?

Apart from the occasional connectivity issue of the Remote app, which would then be unable to connect to the device I wanted it to connect to, or be unable to talk to the master iTunes library when connected to one of the Apple TVs, there was one major drawback to this setup: It wasn't self-sustaining in that I couldn't just sit at the dining table, decide it was much too quiet in the house (while the kid was in kindergarten, for example) and with just my iPhone in hand fire up the whole shebang.

The auto-standby option of the Apple TVs was the first thing I turned off. However, the home cinema system and the TV in the bedroom (housing the speakers for the output in that room) simply wouldn't turn on with me waving my iPhone at the dining table. And there'd be no way on earth I'd carry a bunch of old-school infrared remote controls around the house in a hip-bag, should the need ever arise to fire up the audio systems throughout.

Another drawback of the pure iTunes system was its lack of straightforward support for streaming music from the various services provided on the interwebs. (And I'm not even talking about the new fancy ones such as Rdio or Spotify since those aren't available in my neck of the woods yet.) Streaming music from my favorite radio stations such as SomaFM or Sky.FM, especially starting to listen to those, just from Apple's Remote iOS app has never really worked reliably for me. Of course you can stream it on your Mac and output it to an Apple TV, but it's everything but simple and straightforward.

Enter Sonos

When I started buying into the Sonos system, they had 3 "output" devices in their lineup. Two were meant for connecting existing speakers or stereo systems and, to be quite frank, their pricing is completely out of whack. Also, since I already had devices that are connected to not-remote-controllable-equipment these were the devices I was least interested in.

The only standalone product was the S5 (now rebranded the Play:5), which is a ZonePlayer (their fancy-speech for an output device, sitting on a shelf in a room somewhere) with 5 integrated speakers and superb sound (more on that in a bit). I got a set of 2 Play:5 systems, to complement my Apple TVs in the living room and the bathroom, and a ZoneBridge (now just the BRIDGE and cut-in-half, price-wise), which is an optional component, only required if there's no Ethernet connection near any of the ZonePlayers, which is, sadly, the case here.

Sonos Play:5 in our living room

Sonos Play:5 in our living room

Basic setup couldn't be any more straight forward. The Bridge, as mentioned, connects to your Ethernet and grabs its IP address from DHCP. Any of the players you deploy just need to be paired with the press of a button, which is only a problem in really large mansions, as it has to happen on both devices within 2 minutes of each other.

At this point, you need to feed it some music, which basically means installing their Mac or Windows software on a machine with some sort of music on it, which, in my case, was the aforementioned studio Mac Pro with a big honking iTunes library full of both MP3s ripped from regular CDs as well as both protected and unprotected AAC content from the iTunes Store, and pointing the software at the base of your library.

The sound quality of the Play:5 itself is astounding given its relatively small housing. It's got oomph in every kind of way and no matter which genre of music you throw at it. It's great at lower volumes, too, as a background device for smaller parties. And then, with the whole system at its max, the house is definitely thumping. So it's definitely nothing to think twice about whether or not you need to make the compromise and connect your existing speakers in fear of not getting out the volume you'd want.

So it streams

Of course, sitting in front of a Mac to control your music streaming isn't exactly better than having to sprint around the house to turn on random equipment. Sonos does offer free apps for both iOS (iPhone and iPad) and Android, which converts those devices into sophisticated managers for your music players. (And much more affordably so than the $349 for their dedicated controller device – I kid you not.) After the recent software update to include Play:3 support, they even have decent icons. (I complained.)

The standalone players have the incredible benefit of being, well, completely standalone. You can start and stop music completely from remote, no matter where you are, as long as you have an iOS device within reach. Leave the house? Hit "Pause All" and silence ensues. Back home? Hit play again and music starts streaming throughout the house immediately or simply select a different source and with a few taps you're rolling. No flipping switches, no hunting for IR remote controls, no waiting for equipment to fire up or mess with the input channels on your stereo.

Of course, feeding music to an output device is pretty much the main point of interaction. But instead of making you fiddle with one of its controllers after the end of every album you asked it to play, the Sonos system sports a "Queue", not unlike iTunes' rusty "Party Shuffle". Browsing through your library, you simply add to a stack of tracks and albums to play in order. Any order, really. Albums at a time, single track, you drive the way you want.

And if your music library leaves things to be desired? Sonos claims you can "stream every song on Earth". And indeed, it's got the easiest to use support for streaming radio stations on the planet (pun intended). The built-in radio station catalogue has listings of hundreds of free stations all around the world, nicely categorized and ready to use.

You can add stations and shows to separate, easy to get to favorite lists and even add custom streaming URLs from services like Sky.FM premium (highly recommended), containing your personal authentication token. Switching between stations is quick and music from the new channel starts streaming out of the speakers in almost no time while the controller always keeps you up-to-date regarding the song currently playing (if supported by the station).

Three is the charm

Affixed with the Sonos virus I decided to add two additional rooms to the wireless HiFi system when the Play:3 was announced: The master bathroom and the dining room.

Immediately after the official product introduction, the systems were shipping next day from the official Sonos shop. Great service.

The little brother of the Play:3 comes with 3 speakers (you may sense a pattern here) and works best in smaller rooms. Additionally, you can team two of them together as a stereo pair (one acting as the left speaker, one as the right one).

Sonos Play:3 in our dining room

Sonos Play:3 in our dining room

Sound-wise, the Play:3 is perfectly capable of delivering high-quality sound to small to medium sized rooms. And due to its smaller physical size, it really fits into spots you wouldn't be able to consider with its bigger brother. It even supports being wall mounted (if you can get the power wire there without visually ruining the benefits of wall-mounting).

AirPlay

One thing I'll criticize about the Sonos system is its very bolted on AirPlay support. Given that they touted AirPlay support on their official blog, it still requires the addition of an AirPort Express device to your network (with additional bells and whistles in its configuration, like disabled WiFi). Then, you can only stream a single stream into to your Sonos system (which may go to multiple rooms, but still) – just after you had learned to love the multiple streams feature of the Sonos system.

Here's hoping that there will be native AirPlay receiver support in a future software revision, even if it's only single stream. But I'm definitely not going to pick my AirPort Express from the litter box again.

Summary

If you're looking for an always-on, easy-to-setup, and flawlessly operating wireless music system that streams awesome sound quality to multiple rooms and don't care much for AirPlay, I can highly recommend Sonos' line of products.

Beware, though, if you've already upgraded to Mac OS X Lion on machines that house your music library: There's currently an open bug for Sonos on Lion which will prevent your system from working at all.

For further reading, coincidentally also published today and much more thorough on the technical details, there's a Play:3 review available on This is my next.