In this eight year period, the rest of the world has not been idle. Network capable products come in all shapes and sizes and the supporting network technology has become more and more user friendly. In light of the competition starting to get their act in gear, does Sonos still do enough to warrant their perceived spot at or near the front of pack? To this end, rather than review a single component, we were sent units that might make up an “average” system to better test the whole house concept that Sonos are keen on extolling.
In reality, this makes for a system that is subtly different from the competing UPnP based systems on the market. In the week before the Sonos system was installed, my house featured my “reference” Naim ND5 XS in the listening room, a Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6 in the lounge and the review Onkyo CR-N755 also present in the listening room as well. All three of these units, were placed on my standard home network and once “live” will look for any device that is set to act as a UPnP server on the same network. Despite coming from three very different design backgrounds, all three units do the same thing - confirm their network status and look for servers.
Sonos effectively reverses this process. Having installed the control software, you then use it to hunt out Sonos devices on the network. This is done by pushing the mute and volume buttons simultaneously on any Sonos device and waiting for it to be found. Without the Sonos software present on a computer, the units are inert - even if you have other network audio products quite happily streaming audio from the same computer.
This is also down to the fact that Sonos products are making use of the network but are not “on” it in the conventional sense. Every Sonos system from the most basic to the most ornate makes use of a Bridge. This little £39 box attaches to your router and effectively provides a parallel network for the Sonos components. If you are buying a single Sonos unit - particularly a smaller one - spending £40 on a device purely to make it work might seem a little steep but the more units you add, the more nominal the cost is.
Of the units that were supplied for review, the Connect:Amp is the most powerful of the components and designed for working in the largest space. The unit is effectively a 120 watt amp with decoding on board to handle the audio stream received from the Bridge. The Connect:Amp is also able to support an additional line input and is fitted with a sturdy pair of speaker terminals and a subwoofer output. Sonos doesn’t make speakers any more (beyond an active subwoofer) but with 120 watts on tap, your choices shouldn’t be too limited.
It is an attractive bit of kit too. The Connect:Amp joins a list of products that look and feel much better in the flesh than photos suggest they do. The metal chassis is well finished and although the unit is relatively small, it feels extremely substantial. Whilst £399 is not a insubstantial some of money, this is a well built and well finished piece of equipment that goes much of the way to justifying the asking price.
The second of the three units is the Play 5. This connects to the network in the same way as the Connect:Amp but is a completely self contained active speaker with no less than five drivers on board and digital amplifiers for each one. At £349 the Play 5 is cheaper than the Connect:Amp and completely self contained. It is slightly larger than the iPod docking systems that featured in the recent group test and although it lacks the metal detailing of the Connect:Amp, it is still a solid and well constructed piece of equipment. Sonos doesn’t specify a power output but the Play 5 is suitable for use in rooms of a reasonable size without sounding strained.
Continuing the theme, the Play 3 is a similar concept but reduced in size. The £259 all-in-one makes use of three drivers (again, each with their own digital amp) and has a correspondingly smaller footprint. Sonos describes the Play 3 as “sexier” than the Play 5 which is a curious term as while the fit and finish of the Play 3 is as good as the larger units, it lacks some of the design features that I think give them their styling edge. Again power output is unspecified but the Play 3 seems able to handle reasonably sized rooms including bedrooms and kitchens. It can be wall mounted and also used as a stereo pair which is an interesting idea but not one I could test.
None of these units are supplied with a remote control. Sonos has abandoned the production of their own two way remote in the face of the onslaught of the smartphone and tablet. The Sonos app is free and is available for iOS and Android. Provided that the Bridge and your units are talking to one another, the app will show you the same information that the computer software will. You can have more than one smartphone or similar involved in controlling the system at once and the Sonos will update every device running the app in real time.
As well as the ability to play files stored on a device, Sonos has also put considerable effort into their additional services. While some of the competition can proudly claim Last.FM, Aupeo and one or two Spotify services, Sonos has the works and then some. Every service I am aware of being available in the UK (and a few I wasn’t) are here to be selected. Internet radio is also available courtesy of TuneIn radio. These services can be selected even if the central software point is offline which is handy.
Equally, what Sonos will not do is play any high resolution audio. The system has a maximum resolution of 16bit 44.1kHz and anything bigger than this will simply produce a “cannot play “ message on your controller. Outside a tiny number of “enthusiasts” this isn’t really an issue. High res audio is still something of a minority activity and it doesn’t really affect the proposition that Sonos offers. What is more annoying is why - with file metadata so clearly available on the files themselves - the software cannot identify files that will not play and remove them from the music library. As the units will try and select - and then not play - high res audio tracks when in shuffle, this is pretty much the only point where Sonos appears anything other than exceptionally slick.
The two “all-in-one” units were tried on a dedicated equipment rack and then moved into more usual locations you might consider using them such as work surfaces, table tops and shelves. I used them in various sized rooms and at all volume levels up to and including the anti social.
The Connect:Amp was initially tested with a pair of Mordaunt Short Mezzo 1’s as these are priced at a level that might commonly be partnered with the unit. In the interests of a more absolute sonic test, I also used my Audio Note AN-K’s which are easy to drive but extremely revealing and my Neat Momentum 4i’s which are a fairly demanding electrical load. As both speakers new are roughly eight to ten times the cost of the Sonos, this was more in the interests of seeing what the unit could do than a real test of the hifi credentials.
The control app was installed on my iPhone 4 and my wife’s Samsung Galaxy and iPod Touch. This allowed for multiple commands to be sent back and forth (with the laptop chiming in for good measure) to see how the system behaved. Music used was a collection of FLAC, MP3 and AAC files. I also used the Spotify and TuneIn radio services available through the control app.
The new Rival Sons album Head Down is a boisterous and lively effort that manages to be tolerably well recorded. A CD rip to FLAC revealed that the Play 3 can create a sufficiently believable space to let the band sound like the band. It is easy to follow the performance and get a sense of the musicians relative to one another. Voices are well handled and the tonality overall is pretty good. The chassis seems to be sufficiently damped to allow the Play 3 to work fairly well on resonant surfaces but absolute bass extension does have limits. It goes impressively loud for a small box though and doesn’t harden up or distort until you are at the sort of volume levels that are fairly anti social.
If you can find the extra £90 for the Play 5, the jump in performance is considerable however. With five drivers instead of three and a larger frontal area to mount them, the Play 5 is more effortless and rich than its little brother and has significantly more impact. Rather more subjectively, it also sounds more fun too. There is a sense of pace and timing to the performance that is more than a simple increase in cubic capacity. Anything with a moderately up tempo pace to it, fairly rips along and generally gets heads nodding and toes tapping.
Like the smaller Play 3, the Play 5 manages to convey an impressive sense of realism with voices and instruments generally sound impressively “right” as well. Coupled with the increase in low end “oomph”, the Play 5 is easier to sit back and enjoy as an audio source full stop and not a small speaker with a trick operating system. For many people, this is all the loudspeaker they will realistically ever need and for almost everybody else, it is all the loudspeaker their bedroom or kitchen will ever need.
The Connect:Amp is a slightly different proposition to the one box units. Connected initially to the Mordaunt Short Mezzo 1’s the result was slightly surprising. The first and indeed overriding impression is how transparent it is as a device. By this I mean that the Sonos is simply a device for decoding the audio stream and amplifying it. The sonic behaviour of the system will almost entirely be decided by the speakers and how they perform.
This neutrality is extremely admirable and slightly different from the one box speakers. Connected to the Mordaunt Shorts, the resulting partnership was essentially neutral with a slight top end lift. Substitute a pair of Audio Note AN-K’s and the incredible midband that these speakers possess is the dominating factor to performance. In a sense, if you have a pair of speakers where you are happy with their performance, the Sonos will simply allow them to strut their stuff. There is commendably little digital fingerprint to the performance and the same impressive soundstage that the other two speakers possess is also present.
There are limits though and these are made apparent when you attach a more demanding pair of speakers. The Sonos has a claimed 110 watts (actually this is a combined figure and output is 55w per side) and connected to speakers that are an easy electrical load, there is plenty of headroom and you should have no problem filling a good sized room. Attaching the less sensitive Neat Momentums to the Sonos suggests that although the amp is willing enough, there are limits to the amount of current it can deliver. This is not exactly unusual with less expensive equipment though and used with speakers at a similar price to the Connect:Amp, you should have no problems.
As a system, the Sonos handles compressed audio commendably well and all but the most horribly compressed material keeps the same basic characteristics. Spotify sounds good and on the Play 3 and Play 5 is largely indistinguishable from lossless audio. If you were solely using the all-in-one models for your system, you could get away with high bitrate MP3 or AAC but if you are using the Connect:Amp, you are more likely to hear the benefit of lossless audio.
Throughout this, the Sonos control ap showed why the system continues to be as popular as it is. Put simply, while many rival apps have come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, Sonos is still incredibly slick. Simply installing the app on my wife’s iPod Touch and handing the device back with no further explanation, saw her listening to the album of choice in the room of her choice inside of two minutes. Nothing else I have used can combine as many listening options with multiple rooms and come out as self explanatory as the Sonos interface.
It isn’t completely perfect though. One of the reasons why I suspect that the dedicated CR200 remote is missed in some circles is because the Sonos app has the same weaknesses that all smartphone apps do. If the phone rings, you have a choice of muting the unit on front or top panel button or moving as quick as you can through your control device to pause or stop the music. If the phone ringing happens to be the one that the app is on then the result is at best inelegant. These issues are not unique to Sonos but such is the stripped down nature of the controls on the unit themselves, the problem is exacerbated. If the phone rings when the Naim or Cambridge Audio (or indeed the Onkyo CR-N755) is playing, there is a volume knob and front panel pause buttons that make the scrabbling around rather more elegant. Using an iPod Touch or device that doesn’t lock itself does help but a sudden need to alter the behaviour of these units after a period of inactivity is still less elegant than most of the competition.
The overall experience is still impressively cohesive though. From unboxing all the way to day to day use, the care and attention Sonos has put into the overall experience is hard not to like. One of the most impressive parts of this is that even though Sonos is a “walled garden” of its own software, because the control software simply reads an existing music library and leaves it in place, you can happily run a more “specialised” UPnP server in your main room and have Play 5’s and Play 3’s dotted about the house receiving the same information (less of course your high res files) via a Bridge. The “walled garden” doesn’t mind having neighbours.
- Seamless hassle free installation
- Superb choice of streaming services
- Likeable and natural sound
- Some limitations to app control
- No high res audio support
- Not cheap
Sonos Connect:Amp, Play 5 and Play 3 System Review
Even though the competition is really starting to shift into gear, Sonos remains a class act. There is very little that can touch the overall ease of installation, the near unconditional stability and exceptional plugin support that these devices offer. Above all of this, it sounds pretty good too. The Play 3 and Connect:Amp are both entertaining performers but for me the Play 5 is the sweet spot of the lot. This is a happy combination of size, design and simple musicality that can handle most rooms that you might choose to place it in. It isn’t cheap but then again neither are the only components that really offer any competition to it.
The system isn’t perfect though and there are matters that might need attention sooner rather than later if the system is to keep a pre-eminent place in the streaming hierarchy. Most important of these is that if the system is to depend on smartphone, tablet and computer control, it needs some means of stopping playback “from cold” more easily and this may or may not come down to an extra button on the unit itself. The other is that while the system does not play high res files, they should be ignored by the control software. I appreciate that if you start streaming with Sonos, this is not an issue but anyone adding units to an existing streaming audio household is likely to find this an issue. Of course, if Sonos went and added high res support, they’d cure this minor irritant and give the competition something else to worry about at the same time.
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