Following the success of its Play:5 networked speaker--formerly known as the S5--Sonos has added a smaller, less expensive speaker to its lineup, the Play:3. At $299, it's the most affordable Sonos streaming-audio component to date.
For the unfamiliar, Sonos is a streaming-audio system that lets you enjoy all manner of digital audio. Another big part of the appeal of the system is that it can stream your iTunes music collection and also easily connect to such streaming services as Aupeo, iHeartRadio, Last.fm, Mog, Napster, Pandora, Rdio, Rhapsody, SiriusXM Internet Radio, Spotify, Stitcher SmartRadio, TuneIn, and Wolfgang's Vault. (Disclaimer: Last.fm is a part of CBS Interactive, which also publishes CNET.) In recent years, as Sonos has come out with free iOS and Android applications for controlling its system from existing smartphones and tablets like the iPad, the company has been growing rapidly. The introduction of the Play:5, which integrated a speaker with the wireless networking component, made setting up a multiroom system easier and has led to a big leap in sales.
We've long been big fans of the system and were happy to hear that Sonos was expanding its speaker family with the Play:3, both a more compact and a more affordable option for people wanting to add additional rooms to their systems. It's mostly a very good addition to the Sonos line, but going smaller certainly has its trade-offs when it comes to sound quality, so read on to find out how the Play:3 stacks up against the Play:5, as well as other small single-speaker systems.
The Play:3, which comes in white and black models, has a nice, clean design with only three buttons on top (volume up/down and mute) and a single power cord coming out the back. While it's not nearly as beefy as the 9.15-pound Play:5, the Play:3 has some decent heft to it, weighing in at 5.7 pounds.
In terms of specs, the Play:3 contains three Class-D digital amplifiers and three drivers--one tweeter and two 3-inch midrange drivers, as well as one passive, rear-firing bass radiator. The cabinet has volume and mute control and its dimensions are 5.2x10.5x6.3 inches, which means it will fit on a bookshelf, side table, or night table just fine. It always remains powered on, but drops to standby mode when not in use.
What's interesting is that the speaker can be laid down horizontally or positioned vertically. According to Sonos, an internal sensor detects which position the speaker is in and will switch from stereo mode (horizontal) to mono (vertical).
Part of the reasoning behind this "smart-directional" design is that you can add two Play:3s to the same room and "stereo pair" them, with one Play:3 as a dedicated left-channel speaker and the other as the right-channel speaker. (You can do this with a pair of Play: 5 speakers as well.) Obviously, getting two Play:3s will cost you $600, but stereo pairing them does dramatically improve stereo separation and boosts the overall sound quality.
As for connectivity, the Play:3 is about as sparse as you can get. There's a single Ethernet port (as we'll explain below, the first Sonos component in your system needs to be wired). By comparison, all other Sonos components have two Ethernet ports, which allows them to double as Ethernet bridges for other components (TiVos, Xbox 360s, Blu-ray players, and the like). And, unlike other Sonos components, the Play:3 has no audio input. Sonos now offers such a wide range of audio services that there's not much you'll want to plug into it. But no line-in means that the AirPlay workaround available to other Sonos components won't work with the Play:3. Still, that's no big loss in our book, since nearly anything you can get via AirPlay is available on Sonos in other ways.
Some may lament the lack of a clock, but the Sonos does offer a sleep timer and detailed alarm options. From the control apps, you can set up to 32 alarms (specific to one or more of the Sonos systems in your home), tweaking the days of the week, alarm duration, and what you'd like to wake to--an alarm chime or a specific track, playlist, or online music source. Tap the mute button to kill the alarm. To snooze, you'll need to have your remote handy.
On a final design note, there are holes for mounting the speaker on the wall or ceiling, though no hardware for that is provided.
Setup and use
What's a bit confusing to wrap your head around is that while the Sonos Play:3 does have wireless built in, it can only interact with other Sonos products. The Sonos components talk to each other via a wireless mesh network, SonosNet. That's separate and distinct from your home's Wi-Fi network. The advantage of that separation is that it protects the Sonos' audio streaming; the dropouts and interruptions that are all too common with Wi-Fi-based audio streamers are basically absent here. It also makes setup potentially easier; there's no need to deal with passwords or wireless access points.
If you happen to have Ethernet in your walls, you can simply plug the Play:3 into an open Ethernet port in a room and you'll be good to go. A second option is to use a variety of Wi-Fi alternatives such as power-line-to-Ethernet adapters to link your router with the Play:3 in another room.
If you do want to go wireless, you'll need to interface with another piece of Sonos gear that's already wired to your home network. Think of it like one of those cordless phone systems: one base station needs to be plugged into the wall, while other handsets communicate wirelessly with that first unit. So if you already have a Sonos player, including another Play:3 or a Play:5, you just need to make sure you keep the Play:3 within range of it. Otherwise, you'll need to purchase a Sonos Bridge ($49), which plugs into your router and instantly creates a SonosNet wireless connection for Sonos players to tap into. You can have a total of 32(!) Sonos products (players and Bridges) wirelessly interconnected in your home.
As we said, the Play:3 itself has only three buttons: volume up, volume down, and mute. To access your music, you'll need to control it from afar. You can use the included Sonos software (available for Windows or Mac) or purchase Sonos' high-tech (but pricey) CR200 touch-screen remote, another SonosNet device that can communicate directly with any Sonos player. But the most convenient method is to use an iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, or Android phone as a remote. The Sonos controller app is a free download from the iTunes App Store and Android Marketplace, and it duplicates nearly all of the functionality of the dedicated Sonos controller. You just need to make sure that your device can access your home's Wi-Fi network.
This may all sound complicated, but Sonos makes it fairly easy to set up, particularly because adding new rooms, aka zones, is a snap and you don't necessarily have to tie into a library of music on your computer or a networked hard drive to instantly have access to a lot of tunes. Instead, you can choose to go with any one of the aforementioned online services that are embedded in the Sonos system. Free options include TuneIn Radio, Pandora, Last.fm, Stitcher, and thousands of Internet radio stations, while Rhapsody, Napster, Sirius XM, MOG, Rdio, and Spotify are the major paid services. First-time Sonos owners get a free, no-hassle 30-day trial of most of the premium services as well. For now, the only major service that's missing is Slacker.
You can also stream your entire digital music collection from any Windows or Mac computer on your home network, as well as most NAS (network-attached storage) drives that support SMB sharing. The Sonos supports most standard playlist formats as well, so you can, for instance, easily access your entire iTunes collection without a problem. Note that the Sonos can stream nearly all non-DRM audio file formats, but older, copy-protected iTunes files will need to be upgraded.