The children being born now won't own physical media when they reach record-buying maturity. And while we might lament this sad fact, their lofts will be less cluttered, they'll have a high-quality archive of every piece of music they ever bought and, most importantly, they'll be able to access their music on everything from their phone to a multi-room home audio system.
That brings us neatly to one such multi-room audio system. In this case, it's part of the much-loved Sonos range, and it's called the Play 5. It costs £350, connects to your home PC and the Internet and can entertain you with more music than you ever dreamed of. Perhaps more crucially, it's what your kids will want you to buy them for Christmas, instead of a hi-fi.
Sonos isn't an entry-level piece of kit, which you probably realised as you read the intro -- we heard the sharp intake of breath. Yes, £350 is loads of money to spend on something so, well, simple-looking.
The Play 5 is basically a speaker with a built-in amplifier and, of course, all the Sonos electronic trickery that makes it do awesome things. It's the only piece of Sonos equipment you can take out of the box and use straight away, without connecting to external speakers or an amp of some kind.
Fantastic to look at, the Play 5 comes in two different colours. We were sent one in black and one in white. The version you buy will depend on where you plan to put it, and what your home decor is like.
The front of the Play 5 is simply one large speaker grille. At the top, there's a volume control, mute button and status LED. At the back, there's a headphone socket, line-in and pair of Ethernet sockets.
You can buy a Sonos-branded remote, but it's very expensive at £280. By far the better option is to buy an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad. With the iPod touch starting at £190, it's a comparative bargain, and you get a portable music player that works in exactly the same way as the official controller.
Sonos actively encourages this thrifty substitution. It even admitted that users were better off buying the Apple hardware for use with this product, as it simply can't compete with the iPod on price. It's pretty decent of Sonos to admit this, and we agree -- the iPod interface is excellent.
We do think the company should make an Android app, but in the meantime, there's a simple third-party solution for that platform that has basic functionality. Search the app store for Andronos to get it for free. Sonos will eventually develop an Android app, but it moves quite slowly on these things.
If, like us, you make use of powerline adaptors around your home, you might be a little short of Ethernet sockets. Even if you're not, with more and more stuff requiring network access these days, you may well run out sooner than later. The Sonos includes two RJ45 sockets to alleviate this problem, and the device acts as a switch, which means you can plug something else into it -- handy if you're down to your last network port.
If you're feeling flush, it's a very simple process to combine two Play 5s. This gives you more coverage if, for example, you're in the garden having a pleasant Sunday afternoon barbecue. You can also combine any other Sonos hardware on your network with what are called 'groups'. In theory, you could have 32 separate pieces of Sonos hardware -- that would cost £11,200 if you wanted to use Play 5s -- and play them all together.
While using these devices together might sound simple, it isn't. Because of the way networks work, there is no way for a standard network to deliver music like this without the risk that some zones -- those further away -- will be out of sync. This isn't necessarily a massive problem. Sonos has special software algorithms which mean the music will always be in sync.
We've reviewed the rest of the Sonos range before, but to get you up to speed, we'll give you a brief rundown on the other hardware:
ZonePlayer 90 At £280, the 90 is the cheapest piece of Sonos music hardware -- apart from the controller. It doesn't have an amp built in, so you must connect it to a stereo amplifier, hi-fi, separate system or your home theatre.
ZonePlayer 120 Costs £400, but has a built-in amplifier, so you simply need to connect it to a set of speakers -- sold separately -- and you're good to go.
Bridge All Sonos hardware has an Ethernet socket built in. However, the strength of this system is that it's also wireless. The Bridge, which costs £80, acts like a wireless bridge to your wired network, and is useful if you don't have network points near the ZonePlayers. Although the Sonos is wireless, it won't talk to Wi-Fi home networks, so make sure you can connect it via Ethernet before spending money.
All Sonos hardware has a line-in socket. It sounds average when you first hear about it -- 'great, I can plug my MP3 player in, like I can with every iPod dock on the planet'. Well, this is Sonos, and it's way cooler than that. With the Sonos, you can share one line-in socket on one piece of Sonos kit with all the other zones in your house.
We love that, because it means you can send audio from your TV to the bedroom or garden and listen to your iPod wherever you are. Each line-in can be accessed from anywhere, too.
Sound from the Play 5 is good. It has a decent range of bass and clarity, especially for such a small unit. Its size does mean that it doesn't have as much potential power as you might need in a large room, but it will fill a bedroom or kitchen really well.
Audio quality from the headphone jack is good, but we noticed that, when no music was playing, there was a low-level hiss. While this doesn't really affect the perceived quality of the machine, it will have a slight impact and indicates less than perfect audio hardware in the device. Even so, we liked the sound of music from this product. Songs came across rich in bass, without overdoing it, and with clear and crisp mid and high-range sound.
If you're after the best possible music fidelity, get the ZonePlayer 90 and use your own amplifier -- the 90 has digital and analogue audio outputs, the digital promising best quality.
In some ways, the online services are the most impressive part of the Sonos range. Straight out of the box, the devices can access Napster, Last.fm and some more, less-known services like Deezer. There is also access to virtually every digital radio station in the UK, and thousands of online-only stations. It's an impressive array of music options, and one of our favourite things about Sonos.
Last.fm -- owned by CNET UK's parent company, CBS -- offers radio streams based on your favourite artists. Type 'Prodigy' into the 'start new radio station' box and you should get a current Prodigy track, followed by music from similar artists. It's a great way to find new music and it's free, too.
For specific tracks, you would use Napster or the newly launched Spotify. These two services cost money, which is charged monthly for full access to their data. Napster is cheaper and has a massive library in excess of 3 million songs.
Spotify is newer to Sonos -- as we write this, we're using a preview of the service, which will launch at the end of September 2010 -- but has some impressive reasons to choose it, too. For example, you can access its music stream not only on Sonos, but also on a mobile phone or PC. For £10 a month, you get high-quality audio -- 320kbps instead of 128kbps for non-subscribers. You can also store music for playback when you're not connected to the PC. But the main reason to use Spotify is to access its music library, which, while not as large as Napster's, is still impressive.
If you were picking a service based on price, Napster would win at just £5 a month. The problem is, Napster doesn't offer a mobile service and its quality is significantly worse. The PC software also sucks, especially when compared to the lightweight and speedy Spotify alternative.
The Sonos Play 5 is a fantastic device with oodles of great features that make it incredibly appealing. The addition of Spotify is a big deal in Europe, where the service is becoming very popular. The quality of the hardware is excellent and, as a multi-room audio solution, we don't think it can be bettered by its rivals.
Of course, it's expensive, especially if you buy more than one piece of kit, and that might put it out of reach for most punters. Still, in a world where people will pay £500 for an iPad, we have to assume there's some of you out there prepared to buy cool gear when it appears.
Edited by Emma Bayly