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Sonos ZonePlayer S5 system

November 7th, 2009
Sonos excels with its first speaker equipped streaming hub.

Venturing into Sonos' world has historically been expensive and partly redundant: listeners have usually needed at least two pieces of equipment, and it isn't at all uncommon to see setups that cost over $1,000. The ZonePlayer S5 aims to fix this with a single-piece $399 speaker and receiver that relies on what you already have -- such as a computer or an iPod touch -- to provide its multi-room audio. Our full review will let you know whether the drop in cost is a better bargain. design and the initial setup

A quick glance at the S5 won't draw much attention, but arguably the design accomplishes its ergonomic goals well. It looks elegant but unintrusive, as you would expect for an all-in-one audio device. The only controls are a small but easy to use set of mute and volume controls on the top. We do wish Sonos had added a dedicated power button or switch, however; short of unplugging the power, the system always has to drain a minimum amount of energy even if you don't plan on using it for extended periods.

The simplicity extends to actually getting the ZonePlayer on the network. Once it's on the network, either through Ethernet or wirelessly through another Sonos device, the desktop software walks you very simply through scanning for the device and telling it how to get its music (such as through an iTunes library). The lengthiest procedure is simply waiting for the software to index your collection for the first time.

About the only flaw of the design is the one that dictates the lower than usual price: the lack of a Wi-Fi connection. If you truly intend to make the S5 the only device you buy, you'll need to string Ethernet to its location. That's perfect for notebook owners who simply want to untether or for those who can place long Ethernet cables, but it will be an inconvenience for those whose network router and listening area are at opposite ends of the home. Thankfully, Sonos does supply a flat ribbon Ethernet cable, and buying a ZoneBridge ($99) still makes this less expensive overall than a typical ZonePlayer setup.

the interface: computer and iPhone/iPod

It used to be that a truly multi-room Sonos system was best off with a unit that already had a controller in the box, such as the Sonos Speaker Bundle 250. These are excellent, but Sonos has thankfully realized that many already have either a notebook or a handheld device they can use; in the case of the S5, those are not only the least expensive options but what the company actively recommends.

The software is largely the same as ever and is straightforward to use once music has been indexed: pick a source (library, radio, or a service) from a hierarchical list and play it. If your computer is a desktop and can't move, it's possible to go hours without loading more music as you can queue up large amounts of songs. Those with notebooks will by far have the best experience in a computer-only scenario as they can bring their library to the speaker itself. Like before, it's possible to send different music to different ZonePlayers.

There are nice touches, too, such as being able to set alarms or to integrate social services like Last.fm into the mix. Plays on a Sonos system can count towards the music recommendation network's profile, for example.

By far the best experience, though, is had when you bring in an iPod touch or iPhone and the companion Sonos app (free, App Store) to steer the music on your computer. The mobile software provides an intuitive and more natural remote control feel and has virtually all the same features as the desktop app, albeit without the ability to view what's playing at the same time as you navigate the menu. And while Apple's current OS limitations prevent the Sonos app from running in the background, the queuing system does mean you can quit the app without music coming to a halt.

The latest version of the iPhone software, 3.1, also adds an interesting Twitter component that lets you update what's playing for your friends, although we don't suspect users will depend on this heavily; it's primarily convenient for sharing a memorable song rather than a continuous status update.

There are limitations that are under varying degrees of control for Sonos itself. As of this writing, either control system isn't ideal for podcasts. It will recognize podcasts but won't treat them any differently than regular music; we'd like it if it would organize them by date or bookmark the last-played position so you can switch tracks or quit the app without losing your place. Also, the iPhone app feels like a missed opportunity as it can't play music from the iPhone itself, although doing so would require staying in the Sonos app to remain active. Even so, we'd still consider Sonos' current implementations well-executed.

audio quality

Sonos is relatively inexperienced when it comes to actually producing audio systems of its own, and the S5 represents its first real effort. However, that effort is surprisingly -- if appropriately -- quite strong. Unlike most single-piece units, the S5 has discrete tweeters, mid-range drivers, and its own internal subwoofer. The effect is to produce a pleasantly full sound that provides very deep bass (we were particular fans of techno and trance Internet radio) without sacrificing much high-end detail for classical or jazz.

The system isn't flawless, but in our experience it appears more a virtue of the inherent limits of a one-unit audio system. Sound is occasionally tinged by the nature of the cabinet and that neither the satellites nor the subwoofer are separate from each other. It's also somewhat directional due to the sound field emanating from a single point; it's great across nearly all of a single room, but the sound quickly fades out once you leave for a different room. Some may consider that an advantage, such as in an apartment building or with living companions sensitive to your choice of music, but it does mean that filling a whole floor with music may require more than one ZonePlayer depending on the environment's acoustical properties.

wrapping up

Sonos has earned a reputation for providing a genuinely high-quality alternative to elaborate media servers, and in our experience that continues on with the ZonePlayer S5. Aside from needing at least one network wire involved and the few (if real) quirks of the controller software, this is by far one of the best ways to move audio away from the computer. The audio fidelity is perhaps the most surprising aspect; it's true that a single-piece $399 device should sound good, but that it does and add a networked component makes it just that much more compelling.

Our only real reservation will depend on the particular layout of your home. If you want audio well away from your network router, be prepared either to pay for a ZoneBridge or to consider an alternative like an AirPort Express. And of course, if you need discrete speakers, an earlier ZonePlayer unit will be more effective. But if you need to buy one device that produces good quality and can either afford a wireless link or the wired link, the S5 is hard to top.

- Excellent audio quality.

- Least expensive overall way to get into Sonos.

- In-depth computer and iPhone controls.

- Graceful but subtle design.

- No explicit support for podcasts.

- Needs either an Ethernet link or another Sonos device to get online.

- Sound slightly limited by nature of the design.