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In the realm of multi-room wireless audio systems, the Sonos Wireless Hi-Fi System has dominated the marketplace for quite some time. There are many reasons to love this system, but chief among them is that it offers both a hardware and software system that works together seamlessly, making it easy to set up and operate. In fact, software entrepreneur John MacFarlane founded the company about a decade ago with the goal of redesigning the home stereo for the digital age. From the beginning, the company was planning for the future of home audio, which now has evolved to incorporate streaming services and handheld mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. All their components are engineered for the digital age; they’re minimalistic, with clean lines, evocative of Apple’s modern yet functional approach to product design. Sonos also provides frequent software updates with consistent support, and customer feedback is often incorporated into the construction of their products.
While competition includes the Bose SoundTouch Wi-Fi Music System, Samsung Shape M7, and previously Logitech’s Squeezebox line, the Sonos Wireless Hi-Fi System offers more than most. Once it's set up, the system gives you access to an array of sources like the Internet or a PC/NAS (Network Attached Storage) setup in multiple rooms. You can cue your iTunes playlists, stream from Internet services and play nearly any type of file format: compressed MP3, iTunes Plus, WMA including purchased Windows Media downloads, AAC (MPEG4), AAC+, Ogg Vorbis, Audible (format 4), Apple Lossless, FLAC (lossless) music files, as well as uncompressed WAV and AIFF files. As the holidays approach and you're getting ready to entertain friends and family, having a multi-room wireless audio system could make your holiday parties much more fun.
Sonos components communicate with each other via an AES-encrypted peer-to-peer wireless mesh network called SonosNet, which is separate from your home’s Wi-Fi network and reduces the amount of wireless interference during playback. Sonos uses MIMO (Multiple Input, Multiple Output) technology, which incorporates the use of multiple antennas and radios together to boost signal strength and reach remote locations.
Sonos hardware includes three speakers, a home theater soundbar, and three wireless-enabling components that all connect to the network. In a multi-speaker setup, just one speaker needs to be hard-wired to your router using the included Ethernet cable to create a wireless network, and audio is then sent wirelessly to your other speakers. You can add as many speakers as you like throughout your home or living space (up to 32 rooms). You could have a single speaker in one room, and then add more to create a cohesive sound system throughout your home. You can also choose whether you want to play music from one source, or from different sources, in each room.
If you don’t want to hard-wire one of your Sonos speakers and you want them all to function wirelessly, you can connect the optional Sonos BRIDGE to your router. This gives you the freedom to put all your speakers wherever you like within your space or throughout your home. The BRIDGE is a small, square-shaped device and is very discreet (it's just 1.6 x 4.3 x 4.3 inches). It also has a two-port Ethernet switch that lets you add Internet connectivity to other devices like a set-top box, DVR, Blu-ray player and more. You can connect to up to 32 rooms using a single BRIDGE.
One of the stand-out features of the Sonos system is its flexibility for control. The free downloadable Sonos Controller app for iOS and Android mobile devices walks you through an easy setup. Simply press two buttons on each speaker, and follow on-screen prompts through the app as each component is recognized. In the initial setup, you can choose in which room of your house your speaker will go: the bathroom, bedroom, dining room, etc. You can name each room and change it if you move any of the speakers to new locations. The app is easy to use and provides a fluid, clean control interface. Since smartphones and tablets are an ever-growing part of our lives, it's really convenient to be able to use a mobile device as a controller for your music while you walk around the house. It even keeps track of your queue so that you can go back and listen to a song previously played, or make playlists within the app. You can also adjust the bass, treble, loudness, and balance for each room, or adjust volume by groups of rooms or an individual room.
Additionally, the included Sonos Desktop Controller software (compatible with Windows XP SP3 and higher and Mac OS X v10.6 and higher) allows you to control your music from a computer. Using your mobile device or computer, you can access your iTunes library as well as music services, including more than 100,000 free Internet radio stations, podcasts, and shows. You can also set a sleep timer or alarm, letting you listen to music before bed, or wake up to a playlist of your choice. Besides streaming radio stations and your personal music library, you can also stream from Internet services including Spotify, Pandora, Last.fm, and more.
The smallest Sonos speaker is the recently released PLAY:1, which is designed for use in a kitchen, bedroom, or anywhere else you want a compact speaker option. At first glance, it is as minimal a design as speakers can be, with three buttons: Play/Pause starts or stops music with one press and skips to the next track when pressed twice, and a Volume Up/Down rocker. A white LED light indicates that the speaker is powered on. There's a 3.5-inch mid-woofer for mid-range frequencies and bass, and a tweeter for crisp and accurate high-frequency response. Two integrated dedicated Class D digital amplifiers are powerful and energy-efficient.
Since the PLAY:1 is also humidity resistant, you can use it in places like a bathroom. It can be wall mounted via a standard 1/4”-20 threaded mounting hole, which connects to most wall-mounting brackets. It measures just 6.4 x 4.7 x 4.7 inches and weighs about 4 pounds, so you can easily move it around from room to room in the house. If you’re using it with a BRIDGE, you can use its Ethernet jack to add Internet connectivity to other devices. The PLAY:1 features a custom-designed power cord that conducts 100-240VAC power, and it’s available in white or black.
The Sonos PLAY:3 speaker is outfitted with two midrange drivers, a tweeter, and bass radiator, which is tuned to use the energized air volume inside of the speaker to provide deep, clean, and powerful bass. It also features three dedicated Class D digital amplifiers. This speaker has additional rubber grips so that you can position it either vertically or horizontally in order to fit onto shelves or other tight spaces. A sensor allows it to switch to stereo mode automatically when it’s horizontal and mono when it’s vertical. Like the PLAY:1, it’s wall mountable and includes the same 1/4”-20 threaded hole and single Ethernet jack. In place of the Play/Pause button is a Mute button. It measures 10.6 x 5.2 x 6.3 inches and weighs 5.7 pounds. Given its larger size, you'll likely want to keep it in the same room rather than carry it around the house. But it's easy to make minor adjustments to its placement for directing sound where you want it. It’s available in white or black.
The PLAY:5 has several step-up features and offers richer, fuller sound. Suitable for larger rooms or spaces, it has the same design aesthetic as the other PLAY speakers and the same button configuration as the PLAY:3. It's equipped with dual integrated midrange drivers, dual tweeters, a bass driver, and five Class D digital amplifiers. A small groove in the back acts as a rear acoustic port to direct sound throughout your space—but it doubles as a carry handle that makes it easier to pick up in case you want to move it around your space or from room to room. The PLAY:5 adds a 3.5mm auxiliary audio input, so you can connect external audio sources such as a portable CD player, MP3 player, tablet, or radio to the speaker and play music from that source through all the Sonos players in your system. The PLAY:5 has two Ethernet ports so you can add Internet connectivity to another device. It also has a 3.5mm headphone port in case you want to listen through headphones. A 3.5mm audio cable is included as well, so you can easily connect other devices. The PLAY:5 measures 14.4 x 8.5 x 4.8 inches and weighs 9.2 pounds, so it's a little larger and heavier than the other PLAY speakers. It runs on AC power and its cord is detachable. It’s available in white or black.
If you have a pair of PLAY:1, PLAY:3, or PLAY:5 speakers, you can create a stereo pair in which one speaker acts as the left channel and one acts as the right channel. This setting is selectable through the controller app or software.
Another recent addition to the Sonos family is the PLAYBAR wireless soundbar speaker system. The PLAYBAR is designed to complement your flat-panel TV with a matching aesthetic and substantially improved sound quality. In addition to the inclusion of the standard Sonos digital music software with wireless capability and mobile device/PC control options, the PLAYBAR delivers three-channel audio with six midrange drivers, three tweeters, and nine Class D digital amplifiers. The soundbar has the same three buttons, and like the PLAY:5 provides dual Ethernet jacks. The digital optical audio input makes it easy to connect to your TV. The soundbar-style design allows you to lay the PLAYBAR flat on your TV table or mount it horizontally on the wall below your flat-panel TV using the optional Sonos wall mount kit. Its built-in Night Mode boosts clarity at lower volumes so you can enjoy late-night viewing sessions without waking the whole house. The PLAYBAR's other features include support for Dolby Digital and compatibility with most IR remote controls. It measures 35.4 x 3.4 x 5.5 inches, so it's designed to complement a variety of flat-panel TV screen sizes.
When testing the PLAY:3 and PLAY:5 in a 300-square-foot studio space, I found the speakers performed well and the software made it easy to control. Both speakers excelled in reproducing classic rock, folk, blues, electronic dance music (EDM), and tech house. Vocals, guitar solos, and house breaks all sounded crisp and detailed, without distortion, even at high volumes. Muddy Waters' “My Home is in the Delta” reproduced with great detail, while Animal Collective’s “In the Flowers” sounded rich and spacious. There was a slight delay when skipping tracks, but so minor it was hardly noticeable.
By pressing two buttons on the speaker and a button on the BRIDGE, I added them all to the wireless network without a problem and the speakers functioned completely wirelessly. I ran the software on a MacBook Air and desktop PC, and downloaded the app on an iPad mini. Using all three, I was able to make and edit my Spotify playlists. Being able to play different sources is a key feature of this system and I was easily directed through the app. I selected one source for the PLAY:3 in the studio entrance, and another for the PLAY:5 in the main room. To play the same source, I simply selected "group rooms" within the app. I also listened to both local New York radio shows and several real-time broadcasts from Portland and Chicago that were streamed through the system. One example of Sonos's frequent software updates is that they’ve already released one that makes the mute button function as Pause/Play for all components, including these two speakers.
These speakers are ideal for a wide variety of applications, and there are a number of other ways to put the Sonos system to work in your home or space. For example, if you have a two-story house with three bedrooms, you could install two PLAY:5 speakers in the master bedroom for stereo sound. A single PLAY:3 speaker would be ideal for the children’s bedrooms. For the bathroom you could use a single PLAY:1. And in the living room, you might try a multi-channel surround sound setup using the PLAYBAR with two PLAY:3 speakers. And you can add a BRIDGE to make all your speakers completely wireless.
Two more optional Sonos components allow you to add existing equipment to your wireless Sonos setup—first, the Sonos Connect connects to a home stereo system, home-theater-in-a-box or AV receiver. It has a line input, a digital optical output, a digital coaxial output and an analog RCA output for connectivity. Also, the Sonos Connect:AMP provides an amplifier to power a pair of passive speakers. It delivers 55W of stereo power to each channel and has a line input, unpowered subwoofer output and binding post/banana plug connectors. If you connect a subwoofer to it, the Connect:AMP will automatically detect it and select an 80 Hz crossover. Both of these devices support the standard Sonos software and mobile device app for control, in addition to granting access to the same Internet sources and your personal music library as all other Sonos components offer.
All in all, this versatile sound system provides flexible control, clear sound quality and the ability to build a system that matches your needs and budget. Whether you’re looking for just one speaker or want to create a multi-room setup that can be controlled through mobile devices or a PC, the Sonos system won’t disappoint. From its intuitive software to modern hardware designs, it’s a system that’s easy to integrate into any space.