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 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.)