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Sonos Play:3 review: Sonos Play:3

Sonos Play:3

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Mobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
David Carnoy
11 min read

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.


Sonos Play:3

The Good

You can control the <b>Sonos Play:3</b> single-speaker streaming-audio system from any iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, or Android smartphone using a free app. It offers good sound, its compact, elegant design cuts down on cord clutter, and it can stream Internet-based radio and audio services, plus your own digital music collection, from any Mac, PC, or NAS drive. Also, it's simple to set up, particularly if you already own a Sonos system, and linked Sonos players (purchased separately) can cover up to 31 additional rooms.

The Bad

The Play:3 has almost no stereo separation and doesn't offer the detail and clarity of the step-up Play:5. Also, while it can wirelessly interact with other Sonos products, you'll need a hard-wired connection or the $49 wireless Sonos Bridge accessory if it's your only Sonos component.

The Bottom Line

While it doesn't sound quite as good as the larger Play:5, the Sonos Play:3 delivers a superior streaming-audio experience that you can control from any iOS device or Android smartphone.

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.

The free Sonos iPad controller app is a pleasure to use.

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.

Adding the Play:3 to an existing Sonos setup is dead simple. You just plug it in, go to your computer and click "Add zone" in the desktop software menu, then return to the Play:3 and press the mute and volume-up buttons simultaneously on the device. In 10 to 30 seconds, the Play:3 will be recognized and added to your existing zones (you name it for whatever room it's in). Once it's part of the system, it will show up on your Sonos remote or your iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, or Android smartphone with the Sonos app running.

One big advantage of Sonos systems is that they can be controlled via iOS, Android, Mac and Windows apps. A $349 dedicated touch-screen remote (lower right) is also available.

The experience of using your phone or tablet as a Sonos remote is as good as it is because the interface of the Sonos iPhone app is quite easy to use. You can easily sync zones so the same music plays in all rooms or have different music playing in different zones. For instance, you could have Pandora playing in one room and have an album stored on your computer playing in another room. You can also choose to turn certain zones on and off and raise the volume in one room while lowering it in another.

If you're new to Sonos and setting up the Play:3 for the first time as a single or multizone system the process is fairly straightforward, but things can get a bit trickier if you want to pull all your music from a networked drive. Also, when you're dealing with any sort of networking--wired or wireless--you can run into snags that might baffle the average person (and even plenty of tech-savvy people).

But all in all, Sonos does this type of DIY multiroom audio about as well as any company we've encountered. It's also worth noting that if you were to get a professional installer to equip a home with in-wall speakers and a special networked system (for instance, something from Crestron), you'd be looking at thousands of dollars per room instead of hundreds.

For a lot of folks who already own some Sonos components or are looking at building a Sonos system from scratch, the big question is whether to get a Play:5 or a Play:3, which cost $400 and $300 respectively.

Well, we'll start by saying that both the Play:5 and Play:3 fall into the category of "good for what they are." Single speakers of this ilk--most iPod dock speaker systems, for example--have distinct shortcomings, especially when it comes to the lack of stereo separation because the internal speakers are spaced so closely together.

We were impressed with the Play:5 because it measured up well against competing speakers in its size and price class. In our review, we described it as "a well-balanced speaker that offers good detail and a decent amount of bass without sounding thumpy. It's also able to play loudly without distorting and it did a decent job filling a fairly large room with sound."

We think the Play:3 also is good for a compact speaker. But while its bass is relatively full and well-defined and the speaker is capable of playing music quite loudly without distortion at high volumes, it's short on detail and clarity.

Competing products
Now, you can't expect the world from these compact single speakers, but we're calling it like it is: the Play:3 sounds good but not great. Does it measure up to the other $300 single-speaker systems? Sure--the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Mini comes to mind--but you'll get better clarity from the mono Tivoli Audio PAL ($219), although the Play:3 does offer more bass.

How about other streaming-audio products? There are plenty of AV receivers and sound bars that offer support for online-streaming services through Wi-Fi, AirPlay, or Bluetooth--even with app-based controls for Android or iOS. However, most of them require you to cobble together multiple boxes--say, a networked AV receiver (Denon, Onkyo, or Pioneer) plus a set of speakers; an Apple TV connected to a speaker system; still-pricey AirPlay-enabled speaker systems; or a Bluetooth-enabled sound bar like the LG LSB316. Nearly all of these options carry caveats--higher cost, more wires, fewer supported services, compromised sound quality, no multiroom support, or a combination of those.

In our book, the only current alternative to the Sonos remains the Logitech Squeezebox Radio, which can be found for around $150. The Logitech offers support for many (but not all) of the same Sonos services, such as Pandora, Spotify, and Rhapsody, and Logitech now offers decent iOS and Android control apps as well. Also, the Squeezebox Radio has a more traditional "clock radio" appearance, for those who want direct time, alarm, and snooze control. The Wi-Fi Logitech doesn't scale up to multiroom coverage as well and as smoothly as the Sonos, and critical listeners will find its sound quality to be even less refined than that of the Sonos Play:3. However, it trumps the Sonos in the value department--you could buy two Squeezebox Radios for the price of the Sonos Play:3.

In the end, while Sonos may have done the best it could within the parameters it set for itself, audiophiles will be quick to note that the Play:3 shows its limitations. Of course, those same audiophiles can instead opt for the $349 Sonos Connect or $499 Connect:Amp, both of which offer the same streaming functions. The 90 connects to an external amplifier such as an AV receiver or powered speaker system, while the 120 has a built-in amplifier and connects to the standard passive stereo speakers of your choice, perhaps something like the Audioengine P4s.

In our view, the Play:3 is mostly a very good addition to the Sonos line and strengthens the company's position as the premier DIY multiroom audio system provider.

At $300, the Play:3 is a little expensive; we were hoping it would come in at $249, but Sonos reps told us they would have had to cut corners too much to get to that price. Still, the company needed a more affordable speaker to lower the cost of its starter system and to entice existing customers to add sound to more rooms in their homes. For example, we can see someone setting up a Play:5 in a larger room such as living room and going with Play:3 speakers in the kitchen, bedroom, home office, or bathroom.

No, this speaker doesn't sound fantastic, but listeners who aren't audiophiles will probably think they sound quite good for their size. That said, if you can afford the extra $100, the Play:5 does offer better sound. Although it's a taller speaker, it's still compact and is actually slightly less deep than the Play:3 and only about 4 inches wider. But if you enjoy listening to digital music or online audio services, either the Play:3 or the Play:5 will provide you with an excellent overall experience.


Sonos Play:3

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 7