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Sonos adds a portable music player with room filling sound

Sonos, best known for wireless music systems that link to your iTunes library and internet services like Pandora, Rhapsody and Napster, is offering a one piece, 5 speaker system that can be placed in any room. It's called the Zone Player S5 and it's US $399 direct from Sonos or dealers around the country.

Sonos shipped me a review system to try for 30 days, and I thought the sound was great. I already had a mutli-room Sonos system so adding the new portable player was just a matter of plugging it into AC power and pressing two buttons on the S5.

If you don't already have a Sonos system, you have to plug your unit into a router to connect to your music library and the internet. If that doesn't work in your home layout, you can buy what Sonos calls a Zone Bridge (US $99) that plugs into your router and lets the S5 make a wireless connection. Once that basic pairing is made, you can add as many other Sonos music systems as you like, all connecting over a wireless mesh network.

The system sounds quite good, given the limits of the small desktop-friendly size (8.5 x 14.4 x 4.8 inches). There are 5 speakers, two tweeters, two 3" mid-range drivers, and one 3.5" woofer all driven by individual amplifiers. The woofer is a ducted port design and the rear port serves double duty as a carrying handle.A small system like this can't work miracles in a large room, but the sound was robust and fulfilling. Even playing the Saint Saëns Symphony #3, with large orchestra, pianos and a pipe organ did not cause the system any distress. Rock and jazz sounded fine. Separation is limited because of the size of the unit, but there was a suitable stereo image.

There are several ways to control the S5. There are buttons on the top for volume and mute. Sonos also supplies desktop control software for PC and Mac, allowing you to create playlists, listen to your existing playlists, or tune in any of the thousands of internet radio stations or services like Pandora. The company also offers a free app for controlling the Sonos from your iPhone or iPod touch. You can also get a dedicated controller for $349 but buying an iPod touch is cheaper, and it functions as much more than a Sonos remote.

Happily, you can also plug in an external source like a DVD player, TV set, iPod, or other device and listen from either the S5 or another Sonos system elsewhere in your home of office. Sonos also provides a headphone jack for private listening.

Any downsides? A couple. On my review unit the headphone output was defective. Lots of static and noise, with just a hint of music coming through. More serious is what happens when you unplug the unit and take it to another room. In a perfect world the unit would log back into the network and be ready to go. In my testing, the S5 was part of a group of other Sonos players all in sync. When the S5 was plugged it, it established itself on the network, but not as part of the group I had set. That meant I had to go back to my computer and re-set the S5. For a unit that prides itself on plug and play ease of use, that shouldn't happen. My guess is it will be fixed in a software update.

I like Sonos products. In many ways, they exemplify the gestalt of the Mac; easy to use, minimal controls, and good value for money.

There are many other ways to get music around the house. There's the Airport Express with AirTunes, and solutions from Logitech and others. The Sonos approach, however, is elegant and highly satisfying. If you are just looking to buy a single piece system with easy expansion capabilities, Mac friendliness, and have access to almost unlimited music, this is the system for you.

TUAW policy is to return or donate all hardware provided for review. For more details, see our policy page.

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