MY FIRST MONTH WITH SONOS
So the first tech purchase of the year is complete and it’s one that’s been around for years. Today I’m reviewing Sonos as a whole and specifically the Play 3 and Play 5 Gen 2. If you’re thinking about implementing this type of system in your house, this talks specifically about Sonos but is probably applicable to other systems to some extent as they operate in a similar way.
Before I start, let’s be clear. Sonos is not high-end audio gear. It sounds great but it’s not particularly accurate. It is, however, pleasing which makes it a great solution to most consumer needs. Most people don’t want or can’t afford true high end hifi. If Sonos were in that territory it would cost thousands. This has to appeal to the masses.
BUT SONOS HAS BEEN AROUND FOR YEARS!
Before I get into the review, I want to explain why I’ve always been a little hesitant to get into smart speaker technology.
We are a family who always has music on in the house. It’s very important to us. Music is about listening and less about technology to me. If you have an amplifier and a reasonable set of speakers, you have one of the most simple reliable setups you could ask for. My main gripe with smart speakers is that they add technology and software into this mix. Now, I have not turned into my parents overnight. I love new tech. What I object to is when it makes life more complicated while making out it’s making life easier or better. Suddenly I am almost reliant on a smartphone to listen. I am reliant on software working correctly. I am reliant on support and updates from Sonos. I am reliant on a working router. Suddenly my simple music setup is something that becomes technologically redundant…fast. My current amp was bought in 1992. I’d like to bet that some people reading this weren’t even born in 1992! It’s given me 25 years of service. The idea of a smart speaker being around in 25 years is laughable.
So what’s changed? Well, nothing really. All the things listed above that I am now reliant on as part of my music setup are things I’m already relying on for many other things I do. I’ve listened to music on a computer since 1998. I’ve streamed internet radio since 1999. I rely on connectivity and software for everything. The home music setup was just the last one to get updated. I still have an amp and speakers in my living room to provide the raw setup and IO that I need. The Sonos is for convenience and practicality. As with all tech toys, curiosity and desire kicks in and you should always let technology enrich your life where it can.
Sonos is pretty ‘mature’ in this area now. This is a good and a bad thing. Clearly they’ve had time to iron out problems and hopefully establish a solid and reliable product but they’ve also got a little stale. There are much more advanced speakers integrating much more capable AI such as the Google Home Max. While Sonos are adding support for Amazon Alexa and also now in 2018 adding Airplay 2 support, they’re not really innovating anymore themselves. They’re just adopting technology from other companies.
For me personally, this isn’t important. I want a speaker that sounds good and that works reliably. Everything else is fluff and gimmick if a speaker cannot do that. So I went with the old timer. I bought 2 x Sonos Play 3 speakers for the bedrooms and a Sonos Play 5 Gen2 for the kitchen to replace the amp and speakers on top of the cupboards.
Having used it for a week, here’s my review.
Setup was unbelievably straightforward. It kind of reminded me of the simplicity of setting up my Apple Watch. I know from experience that designing a technical product in a genuinely user friendly way is incredibly hard to do. Sonos have done it. Each speaker was picked up one at a time and required a single press on each one. Then a bunch of updates downloaded (which took about 5 minutes) and that was it.
Build quality and feel is outstanding. The Play 3 and Play 5 feel like quality products. I haven’t seen a teardown of one but Sonos claim that everything is designed by them from the ground up. They sit solidly and inspire a lot of confidence. Even the unboxing experience is delightful. There is no expense spared in this department. Sonos claim that they intend these products to sit in a home for 10 years. This is quite a comforting statement from a technology company. It’s more common for something to be well made but the real intent is to aggressively get consumers to upgrade. In reality, maybe that’s still true for Sonos but handling and hearing the devices give the impression they are well made.
I love the design of these speakers. They’re all pretty much the same really across difference manufacturers but the design is clean, minimalist and practical. I wouldn’t change anything really. There is a choice of black or white. When it comes to tech, I accept that black is fine. White might fit a certain room now or feel right in 2018 but it has the potential look more dated. The Play 3 has physical buttons which look a little less sleek than the Play 5 Gen 2 with the touch zero profile buttons on the top. Both are designed to be used vertically or horizontally.
I seriously recommend this. The speakers can work entirely on your wireless network if required but my purchase and placement was entirely based around having one able to easily access the router via ethernet. So far, use over Sonosnet has been flawless (we live in an urban area in a building with solid thick walls and are able to see over 60 access points). Don’t think Sonosnet is some exclusive military style network on it’s own frequency and high power output. It’s got a nice name but it just uses the standard 802.11g protocol. However, it’s different because it’s a mesh network. This is crucial. It makes it much more robust and reliable than a single access point design and allows much greater range. Put very simply, it’s a little bit like every single phone, laptop, or computer on your wifi actually being a wireless extender and able to serve all other devices with connectivity just as your router can. It’s a mesh….you get it. It’s kind of self explanatory.
“Sonos does wireless a bit differently from your standard 802.11x network, which lets the Sonosnet system overcome some distance limitations. In standard WiFi, there is one centralized access point and range is limited to the distance from it. In the Sonosnet each ZP is, effectively, acting as an access point; signal is bounced from ZP to ZP, creating a ‘mesh’ of radio signals. In theory, if the WiFi signal only carries 75 feet, you can put four ZPs 50 feet apart and, effectively, have a range of up to 225 feet from the first ZP. Each ZP acts as a repeater of sorts, bouncing the signal from one to the next.
Although the SONOS transmissions are based on 802.11g protocols, the use of the hardware in a mesh network increases the distance that the network can cover, according to the company. The coding used by Sonos is proprietary, and doesn’t communicate with standard 802.11x. equipment.” (Tom’s Guide)
Connecting one device with ethernet means you allow Sonosnet to be used keeping all traffic totally separate from your wireless network (except communicating with the app).. Without it, the Sonos is continually streaming music over your wireless network impacting performance for everyone using it and disabling its ability to mesh the devices.
The Play 3 sounds nice. Not amazing but nice. It’s a little flat and uninspiring. I feel given the size and solid build, it could do better. You can EQ it but that tends to sound a little harsh and falsely emphasised rather than better. I have tried different placement but it doesn’t make too much difference. It’s loud and remains quality at high volume but sat next to the Play 5, it’s a little feeble. The Play 5 Gen2, on the other hand, is impressive. Forget the sub. You don’t need it. Bass is rich and solid and the treble bright but not harsh. It fills the room with ease and copes well with high volume. I was made up with the replacement in the kitchen and was soon cooking to music at stupidly high volume, exactly as I did with the amp and speakers. I can see why it get such excellent reviews. It sounds great and can really bring music to life in a way that you had forgotten if you’ve been using some average old phone dock. You can see why this is the flagship product and commands a much higher price.
This is the most important topic for me. I’m only going to discuss the features that really stood out to me. I am using this on iOS so that’s what this relates to. There is also a PC and MacOS application. This allows you to control your devices from a desktop or laptop. I found the software a bit clunky. It reminds me of the software Sony used to supply with Minidisc player which was a tragic mess.
The most important function of Sonos is having the same music in multiple rooms that is perfectly in sync. I did this back in 1993 using FM transmitters. This was simple. All analogue and no encoding or decoding. It doesn’t sound like a big ask today but it’s surprisingly tricky using digital systems with unpredictable latency. This is the key selling point really. Without this, I would never have bought it.
All your music is controlled through the Sonos app (or desktop app). Music can be added from services such as Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music, TuneIn Radio etc. but you can also add a music library from a shared drive on your network or a NAS drive or a DLNA device. When you search for a track, the app returns results from all your added services. Pretty nice.
This will cover the needs of most but it can be a real limitation. Don’t expect to be using this to play tracks stored on DropBox or CloudBeats. You are tied to what Sonos decides to support which will be a deal breaker for some. Without TuneIn, this would be useless for me. As it stands, Sonos and TuneIn are buddies so I’m not feeling the pain.
WHY SHOULD I USE THE SONOS APP?
This makes me feel like it’s more complicated; more restricted. Why the hell do I have to do this through the app? Well, there really is a good reason.
The most crucial thing to remember is that your phone isn’t really doing anything apart from telling your Sonos devices what to do. The phone is a remote control and interface into the software on the Sonos. That’s all. As a result, the Sonos has to support the service to be able to authorise with it and play through it. If you’re listening to internet radio, your phone is not streaming anything. You can turn your phone off if you want. As soon as you hit play, the Sonos connected to the router streams the content via ethernet and then out across the mesh network in an uncompressed format. Very nice.The music plays through the Sonos connection to the net.
This makes the system fundamentally different from a Bluetooth speaker where you phone is not only having to stream the music but also stream it again via Bluetooth and is also the device with the login to the streaming service. It does have limitations but is a different type of solution so can’t really be compared with huge advantages for phone battery life and robust playing. If you leave the house, the music stays on an can be turned off by another phone or on the devices.
You can group devices as you wish and play different things on each device in each room (not very practical for us in a small flat). Volume is controlled as a group or independently to get the balance you want. Each device has its own EQ. It’s a little fiddly at first but makes perfect sense after a day or so.
Alarms are fantastic. The alarm is added using a phone but set on the device. If the phone dies in the night, your playlist or internet radio will still come on in the morning. It’s completely independent. An alarm can trigger any or all devices each at their own volume and the volume ramps up when the alarm goes off.
Adding additional phones, really takes 5 seconds. Install the app, launch it and connect. Everything syncs back to the device and you are presented with rooms (which can be given your own friendly names) and music services as added at first setup. No need to login. The login is all on the Sonos itself. It’s a beautiful system and after 1 week, I am finding it hard to fault.
PROBLEMS WITH THE APP?
I’m putting this in a separate section because I hope this is nothing but a glitch with the current app version.
For me so far, the app has a major, major problem, at least on the iPhone. The battery usage is horrendous…I mean, really bad. Unless you close the app with an upward swipe, the app chews through battery life faster than Skype. Since using it, the percentage of battery used on my phone is anything from 25% to 80%!!
If you close the app, you lose the ability to easily change the volume from your lock screen. This is a big problem that needs addressing.
Both the Play 3 and Play 5 have built in power supplies. They have a C8 (figure of 8) mains socket at the back and use the common C7 mains connector. This is very welcome. My hope here is that the internal PSU is one that is capable of doing the job of supporting the power demands of high volume music rather than some cheap generic chinese power block that pops at the first sign of hard work. There is a reason amps get hot. Driving speakers takes a lot of power. They seem to be well up to the job.
INPUT AND OUTPUTS
With the Play 3 and 5 there’s not much to say. It’s bad. Really bad. You are almost entirely reliant on a phone and the Sonos app. 2018 is bringing Airplay 2 connectivity but physical connections are all but non-existent. The Play 5 has an 3.5mm input on the back and the Play 3 has nothing whatsoever. There is no bluetooth so no way to connect wirelessly without the Sonos app. You are putting your eggs largely in the Sonos basket when you invest. It has to be good. So far it is.
Connected technology, by its very nature and name, is permanently on. Just over a year ago, I began making an effort to turn off amps, PC etc. to save wasted electricity. It made quite a difference. This is a backwards step. Sonos devices have to on all the time. How much is that going to cost me.
Even the Play 5 is small and compact. I describe these as lifestyle audio components. They are meant to look good on a surface and complement a modern house. Being compact is a big part of this. I expected the Play 5 to be much deeper but it’s really not. In fact, the Play 5 probably has the same volumetric size as just one of the previous Wharfedale speakers I was using. Size wise, these are going to fit anywhere with relative ease.
As I mentioned earlier. Sonos is, relatively speaking, behind the curve. As AI gets slotted into this sector more and more, they will need to keep innovating to keep up with the likes of Amazon and Google. All I wish is that quality always comes first. As lifestyle devices for the home, a lot of people buying these seem to be (and I’m guessing) homeowners, professionals, 30+, families or older people embracing connected technology for the first time. Priorities are different at this time in your life. Technically I’m interested in what Google are doing with the Home Max but I don’t feel I need it for my home.
Sonos are not going to win any hardcore audiophiles with their kit. The IO on the devices makes them no good for audio producers. They’re not made for that. If you want a bit of IO, they have the Sonos Connect product. This gives you digital SPDIF and TOSLink out and RCA phono connectivity. With this you can add Sonos wireless features but use your current amp and speakers.
Sonos devices remind me of the old 60’s record players that are built into a cabinet. They bring music to the home in a practical and fashionable way. Things will have moved on in 10-20 years and they will suddenly become dated and undesirable.
For now, however, I chose Sonos in the hope that I would get a reliable product that sounds great. I am not disappointed.
If you have any questions, please add a comment.