Editors' note: Since this review was first written, the product reviewed below is now available in white and black versions. The name has changed from "Sonos ZonePlayer S5" to "Sonos Play:5." Also, support for the Spotify music subscription service is now available on Sonos to users in the U.S. Finally, Sonos has released a smaller, more affordable networked speaker, the Sonos Play:3.
We've long been fans of the Sonos Digital Music System, which lets you stream all manner of digital audio throughout your home, but we were always a bit disappointed that Sonos didn't sell a speaker that had the system's ZonePlayer networking component integrated right into it. Well, that's exactly what the Play:5 is: envision a Bose SoundDock with Sonos' streaming technology built-in. The Play:5 is pretty much everything we were hoping for in a Sonos speaker, except for perhaps a slightly lower price tag.
If you already have a Sonos system, you're probably just interested in knowing how this thing sounds, so you can jump down to the performance section toward the bottom of this review. But if you're new to Sonos, we'll spend a minute explaining how the whole thing works, and what makes it so appealing.
Cosmetically, the Play:5 looks a lot like an iPod speaker system that just doesn't have an iPod dock. It's an attractive, elegant unit that takes its design cues from Bose and Apple but doesn't try to stand out too much. The speaker measures 8.5 inches tall by 14.4 inches wide by 4.8 inches deep, which, in terms of design, puts it somewhere between the Bose SoundDock II and the larger SoundDock 10. Weighing 9.15 pounds, the Play:5 has some nice heft to it, but it's not so heavy that you'd have trouble moving it from one room to another if you had to.
What's a bit confusing to wrap your head around is that the Sonos Play:5 does have wireless built-in, but it can only interact with other Sonos products. The Sonos components talk to each other via a wireless "SonosNet" mesh network. That's separate and distinct from your home's Wi-Fi network. The advantage of that separation is that it makes the Sonos's audio streaming more bulletproof; the sort of dropouts and interruptions that are all too common on 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:5 into an open Ethernet port in a room and you'd be good to go. A second option is to use two Powerline-to-Ethernet adapters to link your router with the Play:5 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. For those who already have a Sonos player (including another Play:5), you'll just need to make sure you keep the Play:5 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 like the Play:5 to tap into. You can have a total of 32 (!) Sonos products (players and Bridges) wirelessly interconnected in your home.
While the need to have one wired connection can be annoying, there is a bonus: the Play:5 has two Ethernet jacks and can double as a network bridge. So once it's online, you can also plug another non-Wi-Fi device into it (such as a TiVo, Slingbox, or Xbox 360).
The Play:5 has a single power cord, which cuts down on cord clutter, and its white, neutral tone fits in with a variety of environments. (As of June 2010, the Play:5 is now available in black as well.) In addition to the dual Ethernet ports, the Play:5's backside offers a headphone jack and a line input for attaching other audio devices (you can connect any audio source to the unit and stream music to the rest of your Sonos network via the line-in connection).
The Play:5 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's high-tech (but pricey) CR200 touch-screen remote. 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. (By contrast, the CR200 is another SonosNet device that can communicate directly with the Play:5, or any other Sonos players.)
This may all sound complicated, but Sonos makes it fairly easy to set up, particularly because adding new rooms (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 a number of online services that are embedded right into the Sonos system. Free options include TuneIn Radio, Pandora, Last.fm, Stitcher, and thousands of Internet radio stations; Rhapsody, Napster, Sirius XM, MOG, Rdio, and Spotify are the major premium (paid) services. (Disclosure: Last.fm and CNET are both subsidiaries of CBS Interactive.) First-time Sonos owners get a free, no-hassle 30-day trial on 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: the Sonos can stream nearly all non-DRM audio file formats, but older, copy-protected iTunes files will need to be upgraded to play.)
Adding the Play:5 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:5 and press the mute and volume up buttons simultaneously on the device. Within 10 to 30 seconds, the Play:5 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 on your iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, or Android smartphone with the Sonos app running.
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 another.
If you're new to Sonos and setting up the Play:5 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--and the setup that's involved--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, Crestron), you'd be looking at thousands of dollars per room instead of hundreds.
So, while the Play:5 does require other components to make it work, as we said in our introduction, what's nice about it is that you get a speaker and ZonePlayer combined into a single unit for a relatively affordable price. Previously, you had to connect a set of speakers to a ZonePlayer to hear any music and the setup wasn't ideal for certain spaces, particularly kitchens or bathrooms, where you don't want to deal with trying to hide speaker wires running from a little box that has to be plugged in. It also doesn't help that certain ZonePlayers, like the ZP90, are ampless and require you to have powered speakers that also need to be plugged in.
As for the sound quality, it's quite good, comparatively speaking. The Play:5 boasts a total of five drivers: behind the non-removeable grille, a single woofer is flanked by two midrange drivers and a pair of tweeters, each of which are powered by a dedicated digital amplifier. The only problem is that similar to all compact iPod speakers, the drivers are spaced so closely together that you don't get a whole lot in the way of stereo separation (these types of speakers tend to sound best when you're sitting about 4 feet away from them).
That small knock aside, the Play:5 is 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 listened to a wide variety of music on it, from Elvis Costello to Bach to Rihanna to assorted techno, ambient, and electronica tracks, and its sound was consistently smooth and never brash.
Against the competition, it measures up quite well to various "refined" iPod speaker systems we've seen from Bose, B&W, and other luxury brands in this price class, and bested B&W's smaller $400 Zeppelin Mini in our tests. When we put it up against Bose's larger and pricier SoundDock 10 ($600), it didn't sound quite as big, but it wasn't far behind in terms of overall sound quality.
Sonos also allows you to "stereo pair" two Play:5s, so you can set them as the left and right speaker for wider stereo imaging.
Bottom line, we liked what we heard, and the Play:5 clearly marks an important step for Sonos as it works toward offering a more streamlined product offering. The combination of iOS and Android phone compatibility and an integrated speaker/ZonePlayer make the Sonos system that much more appealing, especially when it comes to adding Sonos to rooms where speakers are hard to place. Our only (minor) reservations come from the setup caveats for first-time Sonos customers--the requirement to go Ethernet or invest in the $49 Sonos Bridge accessory. But for existing Sonos customers, the Play:5 will be a welcome and enthusiastic addition to the system.