The Times They Have A-Changed
If you dig back through the internet archives and read reviews of the original Sonos Digital Music System from 2005, you'd think it would have taken the audio world by storm. Finally, multiroom audio distribution was easy, elegant, and although not necessarily cheap (assuming you don't consider a cool grand cheap), it was certainly an economical alternative to full-fledged custom-installed solutions. Its elegant controller beautifully mimicked the familiar iPod interface, and the player's built-in 50 watt amp and line-level audio outputs made it a flexible little performer capable of plugging into an existing audio system or driving a pair of bookshelf speakers with ease.
Let's face it, though: it ain't exactly 2005 anymore. These days, if your toaster doesn't wirelessly steam your iTunes library to the kitchen, it's time for a new toaster.
Sonos hasn't taken the commoditization of streaming music lying down, though. In addition to a metric buttload of new streaming audio services (more on those in a bit; and yes, the metric buttload is the official unit of measurement for streaming audio services), the company has also updated its control mechanism to bring it from the old-school click-wheel era into the fully modern touchscreen age (with both the standalone Sonos Controller 200 and a free downloadable iPhone/iPod touch app), and introduced the ZonePlayer S5, a fully integrated, portable audio player with built-in speakers and amplification, at a price point less than the beloved (and amplified, but speaker-less) ZonePlayer 120.
[editor's note: the ZonePlayer S5 is now called the PLAY:5]
Despite the hardware updates and the fancier-schmancier control, a Sonos system built around the ZonePlayer S5 is just as easy to setup as I remember the original being back in the old days, when the adjective "social" was still more apt to be applied to diseases and drinking than media and it was still okay to make fun of Michael Jackson. It's really as simple as installing the software on your computer, connecting the Sonos ZoneBridge (sold separately) to your router, pressing a couple of buttons, and saying "Bob's your uncle" or "Weeeell doggies," depending upon which side of which pond you live on, and whether or not it's cement.
But yes, the ZonePlayer S5 does sound sweet. Surprisingly so, given its size. The S5's 3.5-inch woofer, pair of 3-inch mid drivers, and two tweeters -- each backed by its own Class D amplifier -- deliver an aural experience that, while certainly not on par with a pair of MartinLogans and a Anthem amp hooked up to a Micromega AirStream DAC, is to these ears unquestionably superior to a [redacted by the Big Picture Big Sound Legal Department. Let's just say it rhymes with "Joe's Cave Radio"].
Granted, such small drivers aren't going to sound superb with everything you throw at them. I find that the S5 sounds better with softer, mid-rangier music: your Alison Krausses and Joanna Newsoms and Andrew Birds and Sara Watkinses. Needless to say, with only three and a half inches of woofage behind the grill, the S5 doesn't exactly pump out the big bass, though. Kudos to Sonos for not applying ridiculous EQ curves to the bottom end (I'm looking at you [Joe's]), but with something like the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, you definitely miss out on the oomph, even if the unit's shockingly sumptuous stereo imaging does render the funky phase shift at the beginning of "Hey Ladies" with more authority than it has any right to.
That's a very minor, beef, though, more than made up for by the portability of the system. I can't count the number of times over the past month that I've unplugged the S5, dragged it into a new room, or even out of doors, and plugged it back in, only to have streaming audio at my fingertips in mere seconds. It's perfect for a musical fix whenever and wherever you can find a mains outlet, whether you're working on repairs in the master bath or sipping a glass of Hennepin on the back porch at sunset, and for a heck of a lot less money than it would cost to have a full-blown dedicated multiroom audio system running to all of those places. And while the S5 isn't exactly crank-worthy, it plays at more-than-acceptable listening levels without any significant distortion.
I did mention a slight hiccup in the setup process, though, didn't I? In my case, at least, I found it impossible to sync my iTunes music folder directly with the device, something you're supposed to be able to do. After two hours on the phone with Sonos tech support, the agent who answered my call wrote it off as "spyware or something" on my computer, and suggested that I try using my laptop. One clean install of Windows 7 and a switch to a completely different PC, though, with firewalls disabled and security software disengaged, and I can only assume my router is the problem.
Because while the Sonos system does have its own proprietary mesh network, it ultimately requires you to connect either a ZoneBridge or another ZonePlayer directly to your home network (which, incidentally, adds at least $99 to the cost of the $399 ZonePlayer S5 if you want to use it wirelessly. And who doesnt?).
It Ain't No Big Thing
You'd think being unable to sync my iTunes music folder directly with the system would be a big deal. Really, it's not. I already have Windows Media Player set to monitor my music folders for use with various DLNA systems that waft through my home from time to time, and the Sonos System recognized that and added a direct link to it on the main page of the controller without any effort on my part. So it's one extra button press to access everything iTunes has to offer throughout the home. I believe the phrase is "No big whoop," in the parlance of our times. There isn't a music file on my hard drive that I haven't been able to access quickly and easily via the system, despite the various formats and file types that comprise said collection.
And the truly amazing thing is that Sonos' user interface is so slick, so intuitive, that you'll never get lost digging through this massive amount of music (or talk radio, for that matter, from ESPN to National Public Radio, if you're not into the whole brevity thing). Seriously, if you don't instinctively know how to use this thing the instant it hits your hand, I doubt you have a digital music library anyway.
Whether you're considering the ZonePlayer S5 as an addition to an existing Sonos system, or simply as a portable standalone audio system, it's a smart, compact device with sound quality that belies its small size. That, combined with its plethora of available streaming audio services (forgive me, El Guapo) make it hard to resist.
Manufacturer's Contact Information:
223 E. De La Guerra
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
ph: +1.805.965.3001; Toll-free (US): 1.800.680.2345
On the web: sonos.com
Where to Buy: