By Jeff Kitts
California-based Sonos has been issuing products for just over six years, and in that time the company has managed to transform the music-listening habits of all those who have added a Sonos device to their home. The potential for Sonos addiction is so high, however, that most users start with one product and then add more over time, ultimately creating an integrated house-wide music listening system.
When exposed to Sonos for the first time, most people ask the same two questions: What is it, and, How does it work? Sonos is basically a system of connected devices—at least one has to be hardwired to a router; the rest can work wirelessly—that stream and play back music from a large variety of sources, including computer files, iPods and other portable devices, Internet radio and podcasts, and music-streaming services like Sirius/XM, Rhapsody, Napster, Pandora, and Spotify. Control of the system is handled by either the Sonos Control handheld touch-screen controller or Sonos’s gorgeous, free iOS (iPad/iPhone) and Android apps. Think of it as a spider-web of music boxes throughout your home that all talk to each other and can be expanded to your heart’s content.
Now that we understand the basics of how the system works, let’s drill down into the various products that produce this magical network. As stated above, at least one device needs to be hardwired via Ethernet to a router in order to start the SonosNet mesh network and assign each additional playback device into its own “zone.” This can be either the Bridge, which offers no playback ability, or one of four available zone players.
The zone players come in several varieties. There’s the small Connect unit that plays music when connected to a stereo or receiver via RCA or optical jacks, and the beefier Connect:Amp box that has its own speaker connections and a built-in 55-watt-per-channel digital amplifier. There are also two all-in-one tabletop listening units: the PLAY:5 and its new little brother, the PLAY:3. The PLAY:5 (formerly known as the S5) contains five integrated speakers and five digital amps and succeeds as a small powerhouse of a player suitable for just about any room in the home, particularly bedrooms and offices. For larger spaces where a more robust speaker system is desired (party rooms, man-caves, outdoor areas), the Connect devices provide the necessary power and sound quality. As the newest offering in the Sonos product line, the PLAY:3—with its three integrated speakers and three digital amplifiers—is ideal for small rooms, bathrooms, apartments, or places in the home (like the garage, basement, or workout room) where you want background music without spending a lot or fretting over fidelity issues. The unit can be placed horizontally or vertically depending on the space, and it automatically adjusts using an internal sensor to ensure clean, balanced playback quality. If a more room-filling sound is desired, two PLAY:3s can be paired together so each plays a dedicated left or right channel.
Each Sonos device, be it a Connect or a PLAY unit, becomes its own unique zone, and regardless of where you are in the home, each zone can be controlled separately or joined together in groups using either the dedicated Sonos Control handheld unit (which comes with a charging cradle), the Sonos Desktop Controller PC/Mac software, or the Sonos app. You could be out on the patio listening to the Lynyrd Skynyrd channel on Pandora while the kids are in the den listening to the Radio Disney channel on Sirius/XM and the wife is in the office enjoying her iTunes library—with full track selection, volume control, song-skip, and music source for all zones controllable from a single device or computer.
When it comes to Internet-based music-listening services, no system offers as many options as Sonos. Tried-and-true subscription services like Napster, Rhapsody, Last.fm, Pandora, and Sirius/XM are available (premium services require pay subscriptions), as are lesser-known platforms like the all-live-music Wolfgang’s Vault, the Berlin-based Aupeo! radio service, and the hot new kid on the instant-streaming block, Spotify. And of course, there are thousands upon thousands of Internet radio stations to be heard. Sonos even offers streaming access to local FM and AM stations, regardless of whether or not you’re in range of the actual radio signal. In other words, between your own music library, Internet radio stations from the far reaches of the globe, local terrestrial radio, inputs for iPods and other music gadgets, and just about every music-streaming service in existence, Sonos gives you fingertip access to the largest music library on earth—any song, anytime, anywhere in the house.
LIST PRICES: Sonos Control touchscreen controller, $349; Bridge, $49; Connect, $349; Connect:Amp, $499; PLAY:3, $299; PLAY:5, $399