I’ve been testing a new speaker that is just shy of the perfect music-playing device for the digital age. It lacks one teeny, tiny feature (that I will get to shortly), but before I explain that minor whine, let me tell you what makes the Sonos ZonePlayer S5 a product modern music lovers will adore.
The S5 is so many things: a wireless iPod dock, an Internet radio player, a local AM/FM radio tuner and a sweet-sounding speaker rolled up into one device. Further, if you elect to buy more than one Sonos S5—hey, the recession is coming to an end, right?—you can network them throughout your house.
I think of the Sonos ZonePlayer S5 as a multifunctional music server with a built-in speaker able to play whatever you want—whether that’s a new CD you just downloaded into your computer’s iTunes library or a radio station from Ireland. It switches audio sources quickly and easily, even from an iPhone. Basically, it does nearly everything you want a music system to do in this digital era. Do you love Pandora or Last.fm? You can stream those music discovery services through the Sonos ZonePlayer S5. Do you like local radio? Not only does it tune in your favorite stations, it also finds the additional HD stations being broadcast.
HD Radio is a great but horribly marketed technology. Did you know that KNPR, the Las Vegas public radio station, broadcasts three channels at once? There’s the standard KNPR at 88.9 FM but with an HD Radio you can listen to classical music on 88.9-1 or talk on 88.9-2. It’s called multi-casting, and it greatly enhances your local radio choices. One problem: You need an HD Radio to hear these free broadcasts.
The Sonos ZonePlayer S5 does all this and the device has no exterior controls, save for a mute button and volume control on the top. (And I think those are included, just so people won’t freak out that they have a music player with no controls.)
This no-control design means the Sonos ZonePlayer S5 appears as a single, elegantly shaped speaker that any room would be happy to house. It stands 8.5 inches tall and measures 14.4 inches across and is less than 5 inches thick. It weighs just over 9 pounds.
At $400, the Sonos is priced comparably with the better-performing iPod docks. While $400 is about twice as much as a typical iPod, it’s a reasonable price for a quality iPod dock—particularly one that offers so much more. For example, good Internet radio tuners, like the Ira Wi-Fi Internet Radio Player from Myine, cost $150. And that doesn’t include a built-in speaker, let alone one of good quality.
The Sonos S5 includes a subwoofer, two tweeters and two mid-range drivers. Five digital amplifiers power the sound system. And, after much feverish and highly scientific testing, I can personally tell you that it sounds darn good in my living room.
Everything on the Sonos S5 is controlled through your computer or through one of Apple’s iThings—an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad. I’ve been controlling mine from an iPhone and my laptop. I prefer using the iPhone—you need to download the free Sonos app from iTunes—because it’s like having a remote control for all your audio needs. I like to play music while I read at night or watch a game on the TV. With my iPhone on the table next to my rocking chair, I can play any song stored on my computer’s iTunes library, or switch to local radio, Last.fm, Pandora, an Internet radio station, Sirius radio (if I were a subscriber) and a host of other options.
I use the desktop controller when I’m working on the computer, where I have the same control options. It is easier to search for Internet radio stations on the desktop, but you can save the ones you like as favorites and then tune them in later with the iPhone. The integration between the desktop controller and iPhone app is excellent.
However, if you want to play the iTunes songs stored on your computer using the iPhone controller, the computer needs to be on. In my case, that means the laptop needs to be open. The Sonos ZonePlayer S5 uses your computer as if it were a server where your music is stored. You do not have this issue if you’re listening to Internet radio, local radio or Last.fm.
Setting up the Sonos (Visit sonos.com/demo/ to see how the Sonos S5 works) was easy, as the instructions are so clear that even technophobes should have little trouble having a networked music player working within 15 minutes. The Sonos ZonePlayer S5 ships with an installation disk; the set-up is fairly complex but Sonos did a fantastic job of making the steps user-friendly. I suggest manufacturers of other networked devices—particularly the maker of my Blu-ray player—buy the Sonos S5 just to learn how to present a set up that won’t lead to frustrated calls to an internationally staffed help desk.
OK, so what can’t the Sonos ZonePlayer S5 do? Unfortunately, it cannot play audio through an app such as MLB At Bat 2010, the iPhone app that broadcasts each big-league ball game. Likewise, it won’t play music or talk through any other app. (Think of the Sonos app as a remote control; it does not stream the music.) A spokesperson told me that there are no plans to add app integration, although I suspect it will come eventually.
Thankfully, there is a simple work-around: The Sonos ZonePlayer S5 ships with an auxiliary cable to attach an iThing (iPod, iPhone, or other device that functions as a digital music player) directly to the player. It’s not as elegant as relaxing in your armchair while scanning audio feeds of a dozen ball games in a single sitting, but I can live with this shortcoming.