If you are like many people, your digital music library continues to grow exponentially. While physical CD sales still eclipse digital downloads, that will not be the case for long. Likewise, the proliferation of music streaming sites like Pandora, Spotify, MOG & Rdio make the ability to move away from physical CD’s even easier. The problem now for many music lovers is how to enjoy all the music trapped on your hard drive & streaming through the web. Sure, you can listen through headphones, desktop speakers, transfer to a portable music player or listen through your laptop speakers. While all of these are acceptable for background tunes while surfing the web or casual listening, what if you want to fill your house with gut-thumping bass, speaker rattling, wake-the-neighbors-up cranking volume that only your stereo system can give you? Sonos has the answer and they’ll help you in your quest of ”streaming all the music on earth”.
So what is Sonos? How will it help you liberate all your music from your computer? Will it break your bank? Do you need to be a genius to set it up? What’s with this new Play:3 unit that’s being advertised? These are all the questions we’ll answer this week in Technology Tuesday as we explore and evaluate Sonos. Additionally, we’ll answer another great question: HOW CAN YOU GET A SONOS PLAY:3 FOR FREE?
READ ON for a complete guide to Sonos…
So what is Sonos?
Quite simply, Sonos is a sound system that allows you to play your music throughout your house either with existing speakers, stereo systems, or Sonos’ own built-in speaker units. Control of the music is done through mobile devices (Android, iPhone, iPad), PC, Mac or Sonos’ own controller. While you can enjoy Sonos with as little as one speaker (Play:3 for example) or an existing pair of speakers you already own, the beauty of Sonos is the ability to create as many “zones” as you’d like. You can then play different music to each zone or easily group them together and play simultaneously.
For example, I have all my digital music on hard drives connected to my computer upstairs. I can easily listen to anything from my library in the family room with my existing Bang & Olufsen speakers, while my wife listens to Pandora on the patio and at the same time as my daughter is in the den listening to Top 40 on Spotify. Or, come party time, a quick press of a button links all the zones together.
Sounds cool! Though it must be complicated creating networks, sharing drives, and all that stuff? For Christ’s sake, I still haven’t figured out how to hook up my wireless inkjet printer to my network!
One of Sonos’ selling points is the ease of use for the end user. The company spends copious amounts of energy on what they call “time to music.” This is the time they measure for a new user un-boxing their Sonos purchase to the time music is streaming through their system. In my case, this time was about 15 minutes & involved zero frustration or hassle.
Setup consists of connecting your Sonos device to your router through the supplied ethernet cable. Then, simply install the software on your computer & add the locations that you want Sonos to index your music from. Sonos will crawl the locations you specify and automatically add album art, tags and meta-data to your Sonos library. Simply plug in any additional Sonos components to a power outlet. Note: Sonos does NOT move your music nor does it copy it over to a Sonos device. It stays exactly where it exists today. You can continue using whatever player (iTunes, WinAmp, Foobar, etc) that you are currently using. Unlike iTunes, it will not change any ID tags of your music; it merely creates an index of where it is all located. As you add music to the locations you’ve specified, Sonos will continue to update your library automatically. Likewise, should you add a new external drive or directory that you want Sonos to index, you can add it at any time. Once your system is set-up, adding additional components takes less than 15 seconds. Simply plug-in & press a button. Literally as quick & easy as turning on your TV.
That sounds good and all, but my music collection is relatively small, can I still take advantage of Sonos?
Absolutely. A partial list of music services that are supported include Spotify, Pandora, Sirius, LastFM, Wolfgang’s Vault, MOG, Napster, Rdio and iHeartRadio. Using any of these services is as simple as adding your respective login credentials to a Sonos controller. Then, you’ll be able able to listen to all your Pandora stations, Spotify playlists, Wolfgang Vault concerts, & Sirius stations anywhere you want in your house.
Still need more music? You can also browse and listen to any of 100,000+ internet radio stations. You can easily find stations near you, by keyword, by genre, by call letters or even by host. The amount of high quality internet radio stations is surprising to say the least. Adding found stations to favorites, makes cruising the internet radio dial as easy as hitting the preset buttons on your car radio.
PC player interface showing Queue, Music Services, and Zones
So what do I need? This must be the deal breaker- I heard this was expensive!
While in the past it was quite expensive to enjoy the Sonos music listening experience, that is not necessarily true anymore. The total upfront cost depends on several factors. First of all, a Sonos component needs to be hooked up to your router. So if you simply desire a one-zone system and you will be listening in the same room as your PC, you can get by with just a Play:3 or Play:5 which are priced at $299 & $399 respectively. If none of your Sonos devices will be in the same room as your router and you need to add them wirelessly, you will have to plug a Bridge into your router. This is $49.
Not much bigger than a couple decks of playing cards, the $49 Sonos Bridge
If you want to connect Sonos to existing speakers, you will need either a ZonePlayer 90 or ZonePlayer 120. Which one you need will depend on if you have an existing amplifier. The ZonePlayer 90 is not amplified while the 120 has an amplifier built in with 110 Watts of power to amplify your speakers. These are $349 & $499 respectively. While the $499 may seem expensive for the ZonePlayer 120, recall that it can replace your amplifier and other components: just connect your speakers directly to your ZonePlayer.
There’s no longer any need for the Sonos Control ($349; stand-alone dedicated touch-screen controller) as the iPad, iPhone, Android, PC & Mac apps (all free) more than adequately, capably and easily control your system.
So the entry point in getting into Sonos has been drastically reduced with the cost of the Bridge being reduced to half its former price, no need for a controller, and a very reasonable option in the Play:3.
Android Controller: Now Playing & Queue
iPad Control. Works stunningly well in both portrait & landscape mode.
So more important than all the sources it can play, the ease of setup, the vast array of devices that can control the system and the price…the MOST important question: How does it sound?
The ZonePlayers will afford you the same sound quality that you are accustomed to with your existing speakers as Sonos gives a bit perfect reproduction of the source through its digital output.
The Play:5 consists of a 5 speaker system with 5 digital amps, 2 tweeters, 2 mid-range drivers & 1 bass driver all built into a compact design. I have used this as my primary listening device for about a year and couldn’t be happier with the clarity, bass and overall room-filling sound. While of course it is impossible to have full stereo separation from speakers so close to each other, the Play:5 is nonetheless able to offer distinct audio from each each channel. I listened to an Alan Parsons’ Dark Side of the Moon unreleased mix, a vinyl rip of Phishs’ Time Turns Elastic from Joy and Miles Davis’ Isle of Wight album. In every case, it was hard to believe the music was coming from a “single” speaker. The highs were high, great mid-range tone and the bass driver was doing its job with enough bass to rattle the glassware when pumping loud volumes. I can only imagine what a pair of Play:5′s sound like when optionally paired as a stereo array.
As far as power & volume, that too is impressive. I used my Play:5 and the line-in jack to connect to my laptop to play audio for a movie I was screening for two dozen teenagers projected outside. The Play:5 was more than adequate in filling the large viewing space with sound, with clear dialog and full sounding soundtrack.
Sonos Play:3 (black), Play:5 (white), and optional Dock for iPod
The Play:3 is Play:5′s little brother with a couple tricks up his sleeve. Just like the Play:5, the Play:3 is available in black or white. A nice feature is the smaller size and a sensor built it that can adjust the speaker’s EQ according to whether it is in portrait or landscape orientation. Additionally, a standard 1/4″ mounting thread affords you the flexibility to mount the Play:3 on a ceiling bracket or it can unobtrusively be placed just about anywhere. Like the Play:5s, with an additional unit, you can pair them together in a stereo-pair to create true stereo.
The Play:3 is a 3 driver speaker system with 3 digital amps, 1 tweeter & 2 mid-range drivers with a bass radiator. While its sound is impressive for its size & price, it doesn’t quite match the Play:5′s tones. However, I was still impressed listening to the same samples that I evaluated the Play:5 from. Floyd’s Money is a great track to evaluate speakers with as the cash register in the beginning, the vocals, the bass and the stereo effects give much to listen to. The Play:3 handled it all quite well yet at times it definitely seemed a touch more muffled and muddy than the Play:5. While the Play:3 is more than able to fill a decent sized room with sound, I’m not sure how well it would do on it’s own in a large party situation or as a sole listening device for critical listening. Yet, I can still enthusiastically and highly recommended the Play:3 for quickly, easily and affordably adding Hi-Fi sound to rooms that currently are devoid of sound. Having easy and free control apps in both Android & iOS means bringing sound to such places as the kitchen, office, play-rooms or children’s rooms a no-brainer.
Other Quick Facts and Good things to know:
- Sonos Supports Airplay: With an AirPort express plugged into the line-in jack on any ZonePlayer, Play:3 or Play:5, you can watch an iPad movie or listen to music on a visiting friend’s iPod using AirPlay on your Sonos system.
- Software Updates Automatically Sonos constantly adds music services and other features. Updates are downloaded seamlessly and pushed to all the components. About as painless as updating hardware can be.
- Supported Music Formats: MP3, WMA, AAC, OOG, Audible, FLAC, ALAC, AIFF & WAV
- Sonos’ Customer Support is Legendary Have a question? Something not working right? Sonos has tech. support staffed by music lovers that speak your language.
- Last.FM Scrobbling If you set up a Last.FM account, your music will be scrobbled. This option can be toggled off for when you need your fix of Justin Bieber.
- You can set alarms and have different zones play on schedules Want to wake to Jack Johnson Pandora station playing quietly in the bedroom at 7:00 am & have the kitchen zone automatically be playing a favorite playlist at 8:00 am for 1 hour? No problem, you can schedule whatever you want to hear for any duration you want. Likewise, there are sleep timers as well.
- Existing Playlists are Supported No need to recreate all the playlists you have already created in other applications. Simply drop .PLS, .M3U or .WPL files into an indexed location, and your playlists will appear in the Sonos system.
- Library Size Your library is limited to approximately 65,000 tracks. While this is a substantial amount of music, in this age of cheap storage and ever expanding libraries, it’s a limit that more and more users will be pushing up against. It will put users in a maddening situation when they’ve spent money expanding their systems only to have to decide which tracks won’t be indexed.
- No 24-Bit Lossless Support Snake-oil or not, 24-Bit files continue to be sold, downloaded and collected from various sources. It would be nice to be able to play all your music through Sonos.
- Search can be frustrating Streaming all the music on earth is an admirable goal. This lofty aim should begin with finding your own music quickly. Couple of major drawbacks in this arena: First, there is no omni-search box for your music. Sonos is unlike, say Google Music or Foobar where you can type a value into the search box and Artist, Album, Song and Genre matches are all listed. With Sonos, you can only perform one search type at a time constantly having to use the pull-down menu to toggle between album, song, and artist. Even more frustrating is searching for a song that you have multiple versions of. While you can hover over the results list to see which one is listed, why there is no additional column with the album details is completely flummoxing & a gross omission.
Which one of my Dark Stars do I want to listen to?
- Hard Drive or Computer Must Always be On: Not so much of a drawback as it is something to keep in mind. Don’t expect to use your laptop as your music library source if it is not always on. Remember: Sonos is not copying over your files to the individual components. If your computer is off and that’s where your music is stored: you will not be able to stream from it.
- Can’t Listen on Computer: Sometimes it actually would be nice to listen to listen to your music from your laptop or other desktop computer for whatever reason. While any computer in your house can download and run the Sonos control software, it would be nice if you could play to them as well.
- No Skins Everything is skinnable today. Don’t like the way it looks? Add a new skin. That is, everything is skinnable except the Sonos Desktop Controller. While the layout, colors and design generally are pleasing, it would be great if users had the ability to swap, customize and otherwise change-up the desktop interface.
Bottom Line: Sonos has geniusly designed a system the affords easy set-up, extraordinary sound, unparalleled control and access to “all the music on earth.” You are hard pressed to find a Sonos user that is unhappy with their purchase. (Quickly perusing Amazon, shows solid 5-Star ratings averages for most Sonos components). Working “out of the box” with nothing further to wire or buy makes whole house sound & multi-room listening an affordable option for many more people than previously possible.
Hey wait Parker! Didn’t you say there was a give-away?
Oops, almost forgot! Yes, through the generosity of Thomas Meyer & Sonos, HiddenTrack has a Play:3 to give to a lucky reader! For those with an existing Sonos system, add another zone with the new Play:3. For those who have never experienced Sonos, this is a great way to jump in and experience the liberation of being able to listen to all of your music easily.
Simply leave a comment here that you’d like to enter the contest. Additionally, “Liking” the article with Facebook and tweeting will give you additional entries for each one giving each user a maximum of three entries. For Twitter, be sure to include somewhere in your tweet, “I entered to win a @Sonos Play:3 on @hidden_track http://bit.ly/freeSonos”
Good luck! Contest deadline: Midnight, Monday August 29, Eastern Time. All submissions will be entered onto a numbered spreadsheet and Random.org will be used to pick a winner. The winner will be announced in this column next Tuesday.
Other questions about Sonos? Have you heard a Sonos system? Do you own a system? Feel free to leave any other comments.
Hidden Track Technology Tuesday
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