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June 26, 2011 • Reviews

The Sonos Wireless Home Audio System Review

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If Apple were to release a wireless speaker system, it would probably look and function the way the Sonos Zone system does. Fortunately Cupertino doesn’t need to go to the trouble, since Sonos beat Apple to it — and there isn’t a whole lot of room for improvement.

Sure, I understand that those opening sentences sound more than a bit fanboyish toward both Apple and Sonos, but hey, I love my Apple products; in the last month or so, I have also become a Sonos evangelist. How much do I like the Sonos system? Let me put it this way: I received a one month review system on Wednesday morning and immediately set it up. By Thursday at noon I had placed an order for my own system in order to ensure that there would not be a period of time when the system was not in my house. I like the Sonos system enough that I dropped the money I had been saving up for a home audio system on it within a day. I now have four rooms with Sonos sound, and I’m seriously considering adding a few more.

I like the Sonos system that much.

So I guess a review is pretty much unnecessary at this point, right? But review I shall, so read on to get a bit more insight into why this reviewer is now a Sonos-convert.

From Sonos:

The reason Sonos works so flawlessly all over the house is because we designed a complete multi-room music system from the ground up, one that’s as expandable as you’d like. And we made sure it all works together seamlessly and wirelessly. Which is why you can play the same song in every room with perfect synchronicity or simultaneously play different songs in different rooms. Of course, how many rooms of music you have is up to you — start with one or fill the entire house by adding ZonePlayers wirelessly. That same spirit of flexibility applies to our Controllers. Use one or many to play your music. That’s the joy of multi-room music with Sonos.

If you love music, you’ll love Sonos: It’s as simple as that. Because only Sonos makes it so easy to add music to your life. In one room. Or many. Playing the music you own or endless songs and stations streaming from the internet. It’s a wireless multi-room music system unlike any other. One that sets up instantly and expands effortlessly. So, are you ready to experience Sonos?

Instant access to endless music: Sonos gives you a world of music at your fingertips — from the Internet and your computer. Play all the songs stored on your PC or Mac. Tune in to thousands of free Internet radio stations. And enjoy millions of songs and stations from the most popular online music services.

Wireless that works like magic: Sonos takes wireless to a whole new level. Our mesh network technology provides whole-house coverage, ensures synchronous music playback, and avoids sources of wireless interference. Which means the music gets to all the right rooms — near or far — at exactly the right time.

A multi-room system that’s flawless, flexible and fun: At Sonos, multi-room music is our mantra. That’s why we created a system that flawlessly delivers synchronized music to every room and expands instantly without wires or hassles. So, whether you’ve got a one-room studio or a three-story house, Sonos makes it easy to fill your life with music.

Setup that’s out-of-the-box simple: Sonos was designed to work right out of the box — no technical expertise required. All you need is a high-speed Internet connection and a router to get started. Then simply open the box, decide where you want music and enjoy.

Sonos has a clear mission: The company is out to make all the world’s music accessible, and they have made a good start on that. The Sonos system doesn’t actually have any music resident on it. Instead, the system streams music from a networked computer, an NAS (Network Storage Device), or from one of a myriad of services currently available. Sonos makes set-up and use of the system a breeze, but before we get to that, let’s take a look at the hardware the company offers.

Sonos has a relatively small number of device options, which is an Apple-esque move allowing them to focus on making a small number of devices the best they can, while also simplifying the shopping process. I don’t think this “simplified shopping experience” should be overlooked. There are many home stereo systems available today with near infinite options, and it often becomes difficult to find the right combination and get everything working together. By limiting the choices available, Sonos helps ensure that everything is easy to set up and use and works without having to think too much about what you are doing. [Side note: the book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less makes a good case for this approach, and explains there is a point of diminishing returns and heightened anxiety when we are faced with too many choices at one time.]

Sonos System Components

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The S5

I suspect that for most people like me, the s5 is going to be the Sonos component of choice. The S5 is a five-speaker system that is both a speaker and an amplifier that connects to the rest of the Sonos system. It is fairly small, has clean lines and sounds… Awesome!

The S5 is a high-performance, all-in-one wireless music system that delivers crystal-clear, room-filling sound. Simply plug it in wherever you want music and enjoy. The 5-driver speaker system is individually powered by 5 dedicated digital amplifiers and includes 2 tweeters, 2 mid-range drivers and 1 subwoofer for high-quality sound that rivals much larger, more complicated audio equipment. The S5 is available in both black and white.

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Sonos introduced a back S5 some time ago. It was the first time the company strayed from their traditional white devices. I think it looks great!

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The back is quite simple. There is a headphone jack, an input jack (this becomes relevant when we discuss AirPlay support), the power cable input and Ethernet inputs in case you are using the S5 as the Wireless bridge for the system. More on that shortly.

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The S5 also has a built-in handle on the back. This makes it easy to grab the S5 and bring it into a different room if you choose to listen somewhere different than normal. It does make me wish the S5 had a built-in battery. How nice would it be to grab the S5 and bring it outside without worrying about finding a power source?!

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The ZonePlayer 120

If you want to use the Sonos system with a pair of unpowered speakers, then you will want to get the ZonePlayer 120. It connects to the Sonos system and has a built-in amplifier to pump out the music.

The ZonePlayer 120 has a built-in state-of-the-art digital amplifier to deliver superior audio to any room. Just connect the ZP120 your favorite pair of speakers, large or small, and fill any room in your house with unlimited songs and stations.

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The ZonePlayer 90

If you have a pair of powered speakers or want to connect an existing audio system or home theater to your system you will want to ZonePlayer 90. It offers no speakers or amplification. It simply connects an audio device to the Sonos system.

The ZonePlayer 90 lets you play all the music you want, all over your house, on all the audio equipment you already own — your home theater receiver, stereo system, powered speakers, and more. Just connect the ZP90 to any amplified audio device in any room and it’s instantly part of the wireless Sonos system.

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ZoneBridge

The first thing you need with any Sonos system is a bridge that lets the system access your WiFi network; this is accomplished through the bridge. It connects to your router via Ethernet and becomes the bridge (hence the name) to the rest of the system. The bridge is a small box that doesn’t do much of anything but is central to the system functioning properly.

As Sonos explains: To start playing music, one ZonePlayer or ZoneBridge must be connected to the router, then all the rest work wirelessly.

The Sonos ZoneBridge™ makes setting up your Sonos system super fast and easy. It’s the ideal solution if your house doesn’t have Ethernet wiring or your router is in a room where you don’t want music. Just connect the ZoneBridge to your broadband router to instantly activate the SonosNet wireless mesh network. Now all ZonePlayers and Controllers will work wirelessly, anywhere in your house. The ZoneBridge can also be used to extend the range of your Sonos system and expand the Controller’s wireless coverage.

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Sonos Controller 200

The Sonos Controller 200 is a handheld device that lets you control your entire Sonos system from anywhere in the house so long as you are in the same wireless network as the Sonos system. As Sonos explains:

The Sonos Controller 200 (CR200) gives you instant, wireless access to all your music and all your rooms at the touch of a finger. It’s 100% dedicated to multi-room music control so every time you pick it up or touch the screen it’s instantly on. And, with SonosNet it works wirelessly all over the house.

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Until recently, the Controller 200 was an integral part of the ecosystem. Thankfully it is far less important due to Sonos rolling out a series of free Controller apps. Currently there are Sonos Controller apps for the iPhone, iPad and for Android devices; there is also a Controller program for both Mac and PC.

The Controller for iPad is especially nice thanks to the large touch screen.

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The Sonos Controller for iPad™ is a free application that takes music control to a whole new level. Optimized for the iPad’s large touch screen, finding and playing music has never been easier…or as much fun. With the iPad’s multi-pane view, you can see your music menu, what’s playing in every room, and what’s in your queue, complete with vivid album art. You can browse, search and drag and drop to create the perfect playlist. Then, share the music experience with friends and family—in either landscape or portrait mode. The Sonos Controller for iPad works over your home WiFi network. And you can download it for free on the App Store.

The offerings from the company also includes a few accessories such as a wireless dock for your iPhone or iPod touch, and Klipsch speakers. In addition, a number of blogs also reported that something new from Sonos made a brief appearance with the FCC last month; we’ll let you know what it is as soon as we get official word.

So that’s the overall system. There are just a few available components, but they ensure that you can bring Sonos sound and integration to any room AND use existing components in the process.

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Setup

As noted above, the Sonos system starts by tapping into an existing wireless system via Ethernet. This can be done by plugging one of their ZonePlayers into an open Ethernet port on your router or, if there are no ZonePlayers within range of the router, one of the Sonos ZoneBridges. When you take the ZoneBridge route the device simply does what the name promises — it creates a wireless bridge between the router and the system you are installing. When the ZonePlayer route is taken the device service both as the bridge and the music source for that room.

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In Sonos parlance a “Zone” is a room or, more accurately, a specific Sonos player. Once the initial connection to the home router is created it is time to begin adding Zones to the system.

Setting Up a New S5 Zone

Step 1. Unbox the S5.
Step 2. Plug it in
Step 3. From either the desktop application of one of the handheld apps choose Settings and then Add a Sonos Component

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Step 4. Do what the screen says and press Mute and Vol+ on the ZonePlayer or “Connect” on the new ZoneBridge or wireless Dock
Step 5. Give it a name.
Step 6. Enjoy a new Zone of music!!

Seriously it is THAT easy.

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If you are using the ZonePlayer 90, you will need to take the added step of plugging in the self-powered speakers or amplified music component you will be using with it.

If you are using the ZonePlayer 120, you simply plug in the speakers that will be used and let the 120 provide the stream and the amplification.

And since the S5 has the speakers built right in there is nothing else that needs to be done.

In short, the system is simple to set up, easy to use and convenient since you can pretty much control everything, including the settings from a computer or one of the apps.

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Mesh

While the ZonePlayer needs to hook into the wireless network it goes beyond it by creating a “mesh” wherein each device on the Sonos system is a repeater that grabs the signal it receives and then pushes it out anew. That’s the reason I have not experienced the drop-offs and stuttering I often find when using AirPlay. Here’s how Sonos explains it:

The key to designing a music system that plays music all over the house is having a wireless network that works all over the house. That’s why Sonos created a wireless mesh network called SonosNet to deliver the range and performance required of a multi-room music system. When you need to stream music wirelessly, the network you use really matters. When a network is overloaded or stretched to its limits, you hear echoes and delays from room to room, and your Internet speed can be sluggish. Not so with Sonos.Sonos chose a mesh network because a traditional network with a central hub relaying all the traffic didn’t provide the house-wide coverage we wanted. What’s more, access point networks were plagued by performance issues. SonosNet changes all that — providing the extensive range and superior performance you need to enjoy music in every room without requiring a massive wiring remodel.

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My Experience

So here’s my story with Sonos.

I have had my eye on the Sonos system for some time, but never jumped in because of a rather high cost of entry. The initial setup is at least $400 and it can climb significantly as you add rooms and other features. I met with company representatives in Las Vegas this past January while attending CES and had a chance to check out the system up close. I was impressed with the look and features but, because there were other people in the room speaking with other company representatives, I didn’t have a chance to actually hear the system. And, after all, a system like this is all about the music.

Recently my interest in the system was renewed when I read that they had added support for Apple’s Airplay. A company representative had hinted at this in January but gave no firm date for commitment. I wrote to Sonos once again and asked if it might be possible to arrange a loaner system, and it arrived a few days later.

The review system included two S5 ZonePlayers and a ZoneBridge. Sonos also offered to send an Apple Airport Express so I could try out the new Airplay functionality. I already had an extra one so that didn’t need to be included.

I pulled the ZoneBridge out of the box and plugged it into my router. I downloaded the Sonos Controller to my iPad. I went to settings and added the ZoneBridge to my “system”.

Total time: 2 minutes.

I unpacked the first S5 and plugged it in. On the iPad I opted to add a new ZonePlayer. I pressed the Mue and Vol+ buttons when prompted and, a few seconds later was asked to give it a name. Since it would be in my home study I chose “Office”.

Total Time: 2 minutes.

I unpacked the second S5 and plugged it in. On the iPad I opted to add a new ZonePlayer. I pressed the Mue and Vol+ buttons when prompted and, a few seconds later was asked to give it a name. Since it would be in my livingcroom I chose “Livingcroom”.

Total Time: 2 minutes.

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I went to my MacBook Air, downloaded the Mac Controller app and checked out what music services I could add to it. I had a Pandora account, so I followed the instructions for adding it. I then added my RDIO account. I wanted to try the MOG service (it directly competes with RDIO and Rhapsody), so I activated a free trial and added it. I added the iTunes library running on the MacMini (since sold), and the Sonos system began to index the music on it. I was disappointed to see that Slacker Radio is not yet available through Sonos, but hopefully we will see that some time soon.

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Total Time, including browsing around to see what else was available: <20 minutes.

I started listening to music and was blown away. While the S5 won’t offer real stereo separation since it is a single unit, I was still impressed with the quality of the sound.

I later discovered that I can actually use the S5 to get true stereo separation by putting two S5s in one Zone and selecting the option to use each as either the “Right” or the “Left” speaker. Sure, with the S5 running $399 each that is rather pricey, but if you want stereo and can afford it, then this arrangement is an option.

I began using the system and was blown away. I tried playing different music in each Zone and was amazed by how well it worked. There were no hiccups or other issues. I then grabbed the iPad and “Grouped” the two zones. Now the same music was playing in both Zones. And, thanks to the iPad Controller I had the option to adjust the volume separately for each Zone or to raise or lower the volume in tandem.
I
Was
Impressed.

How impressed was I?

I went back into my home study, pulled up Safari, went to the Sonos Web site and placed an order for my own system, since the one that had arrived would need to be returned after this review. I ordered a ZoneBridge, two S5 ZonePlayers in white, one ZonePlayer in Black and a ZonePlayer90 for use in the den with the powered speakers I currently have and with the home theater I hope to install at some point.

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Two days later my system arrived. Yes, even the Sonos ordering process is as simple and straightforward as can be. I put a white S5 in my study, a white S5 in the living room, the ZonePlayer90 in the den, and the black S5 in the bedroom. It was then that I discovered that the Controller app has a section for creating alarms that can be set to go off in any or all Zones at specified times, AND you can select from songs, music services, playlists or built-in sounds. Yes, the bedroom S5 ZonePlayer has even become my alarm clock.

Extras

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NAS Networked Music

When I got the Sonos system, I was using a Mac Mini as a music server. I decided to sell it, but later realized that it left me without access to my iTunes library unless my MacBook Air was on the network. I fixed that rather quickly by formatting an external drive, partitioning it into three with one section as my TimeMachine Backup, a second for Elana’s, and the third for my iTunes library.

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I copied my entire 83GB library to the drive, attached it to my Airport Xtreme and added it to my Sonos system as a library. The system then set out to index the music. It took quite some time since the library is so large, but once done I had access to the entire library in every Zone.

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AirPlay

I was quite excited when Apple announced AirPlay. At the time I thought it might be an issue for Sonos. After using AirPlay for a bit I realized that it had some major issues and, thanks to them, Sonos needn’t be worried. Among the issues I have is the lag between starting, stopping or pausing music on your device and the change being reflected in the sound actually playing. I can, at times, tap play on my iPad and then count to five or more before the music actually starts. It is rather annoying. Add in the fact that there are constant drop offs when some kind of glitch hits my wireless network, and it leaves a good deal to be desired.

For some reason I don’t have these issues with the Sonos system, even though it uses the wireless system; that alone makes the Sonos system a good choice.

All of this noted, I still wanted to try out the new AirPlay integration Sonos rolled out recently.

From Sonos:

Music from your favorite audio sources: Want to stream what’s playing on your iPhone®, iPad™, or iPod touch® to every room without missing a beat? Simply connect an Apple AirPort Express® to any Sonos ZonePlayer via line-in and experience true multi-room AirPlay.

Setting up the Sonos system to work with AirPlay was a simple 1,2,3 process.

1. Connect the AirPort Express to Sonos S5 via the 3.5 mm audio cable the company includes in the box.
2. Connect the S5 to AirPort Express via the included Ethernet cable.
3. Plug the AirPort Express into power and configure it with the included AirPort Utility.
There are specific instructions for setting up the AirPort Exress so it works best with the Sonos system. Among the recommendations is the step of turning off the router functionality on the Exrpess. Sonos explains why-

Sonos tested several possible configurations for the Airport Express as an AirPlay device and found the best results when using the Ethernet connection in conjunction with SonosNet. SonosNet was designed and built to serve as a dedicated platform for audio distribution, unlike a typical wireless network. Using the Sonos recommended configuration will provide the best possible AirPlay experience.

The steps are straightforward but need to be closely followed so that everything works right. (You can find instructions here.)

Once everything is set up, you can play music from your iOS device and select “SONOS” from the pop-up menu of places the device should send the audio. You then need to go to the Sonos app and select the “Line-In” source from the menu. While it sounds like a huge number of steps it is fairly simple, and once the music is streaming from the device to the ZonePlayer via AirPlay, it is as simple as changing the music on the device to listen to something new.

I don’t know that I will find myself using the AirPlay feature all that often, but I am happy to have it available.

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Conclusion

Have you ever had the experience of buying something one day, initially loving it, but then after a few days pass … you love it even more? That’s the way I feel about the Sonos system. As I wrote earlier in this review, I had been saving up for a home audio/theater system, and on impulse I used that money to get a Sonos system for good. Not only have I not had even a moment of buyer’s remorse, but I’m thinking about adding a few more rooms to the system as soon as possible. I love it.

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What’s Sonos’ secret? I think it something to do with this:

Last summer I read a book by Simon Sinek called Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. Sinek’s main message is this: Most people, institutions and business start with what they do. Some, however, start with WHY they do it, and what they do grows out of that. Such companies are few and far between, but one company that does this is Apple. That, Sinek argues is a huge reason for their success. Another such company is… Sonos. They don’t try to be all things to all people; instead they have a clear mission, a clear purpose, a clear “Why” — and they stick to it. What is that “Why”? Quite simply they want to give people access to all the music in the world, simply and seamlessly.

And that is exactly what they have done.

You can learn more and order your Sonos system from the company web site. You can also order here through our Amazon Affiliate store.

MSRP: Starter kit of 1 S5 and 1 ZoneBridge is $448. Each additional room is $349 and up

What I Like: Everything! Big, excellent sound; Easy setup; Easy to use; Easily controlled from a variety of devices using the Sonos app; Support for AirPlay; Support for numerous music services

What Needs Improvement: The system is close to perfect, but I would like to see a battery-powered offering, and I miss Slacker radio support

 

 

3 Responses to " The Sonos Wireless Home Audio System Review "

  1. Robert says:

    Thanks for the review. Very helpful and reinforced my decision to buy this!

  2. Curt says:

    Have you tried out the Sonos 3, and can you compare its sound to the 5?

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