TUAW review: Sonos S5
A few weeks ago, I had a chance to visit the Sonos offices in Cambridge, MA to speak with Jon Reilly, Sonos product manager, and get a demo of the ZonePlayer S5 and the iPad app (free). Sonos makes wireless home music systems, which we've covered here before. I've also spent the last month with 2 S5 demo units. I can say that it's a fantastic product that could not be simpler to set up and use. With one in my office and one in my kitchen, my family has been rocking all month long. The S5 and iOS controllers are a beautifully executed union of hardware and software that's as simple as it is powerful and just plain fun. In fact, I'll be sad to ship these back! Here's our full review of the Sonos S5.
Click the link below to read more, and to see a gallery of the iPhone app, the iPad app and the Mac desktop app!
Jon told me that one of his company's main goals is to make the "time to music," meaning the minutes between opening the box and bopping to your tunes, as short as possible. In this they've succeeded: It took me more time to physically remove the S5 from its box than it did to get music playing. What's more, my 7-year-old had the iPhone app (free) figured out within 5 minutes with no help from me. But before we get to the apps, let's look at the unit itself.
Upon opening the box you'll find an instruction booklet, power cable, Ethernet cable, setup CD, audio cable and the unit itself. Each S5 has 5 individual speakers (two tweeters, two 3" mid-range drivers and one 3.5" woofer) with individual class-D digital amps. On the top you'll find a volume toggle button, a mute button and a status indicator light. On the back you'll find a power jack, two Ethernet jacks, audio line in (3.5mm auto-detecting) and a headphone jack. There's even a carrying handle that's quite comfortable yet completely invisible from the front.
Setup begins by connecting the S5 to your local network, so that it can stream your iTunes library as well as music from services like Pandora, Napster, Rhapsody, SIRIUS and Wolfgang's Vault plus Internet radio.
I wasn't exaggerating the simplicity, as you'll be done in 3 steps if you've got one unit, and 4 if you have two. Simply connect it to your router via the supplied ethernet cable and then install the software from the CD, which establishes a network connection and asks where your iTunes library lives. Finally, grab the iOS app of your choice. It will recognize and pair with each S5 unit it finds pretty much on its own.
Each S5 unit works as a "zone" that can be placed anywhere within your network (note that one must be physically connected via ethernet). Once a single unit has been set up as descried above, another can be added by simply plugging it into a wall outlet. It'll find the first unit wirelessly. For example, you might place one in an office (name it "office") and another in the family room named, you guessed it, "family room." Each zone can play music independently of the other, simultaneously or in stereo. Jon told me that up to 32 zones can exist in a single network, and most homes average 3 zones.
Again, getting the S5 up and running was remarkably easy. Within minutes I had the office unit playing music from my iTunes library and the family room unit streaming Pandora. Imagine that you're moving into a new home. You'll want music to get you through the dreadful unpacking process, right? Of course! Set the S5 up in the amount of time it would take you to haul in the first three boxes and you're good to go.
Speaking of Pandora, those who use similar streaming services are in for a treat. Access to each is built into the S5 and super simple to set up. Additionally, service-specific features like Pandora's thumbs are included. Here's how those services work with the S5.
Jon told me that Sonos works with those providers to integrate the cool features that are unique to each. Remarkably, they've done so without adding clutter to the iOS apps. For example, Last.fm via the Sonos app lets me start and new station, tag stations or artists and "like" or "dislike" certain tracks. Likewise, Pandora lets me vote a song up or down with the familiar thumbs icons. Honestly, I'm so in love with Pandora and Last.fm in my pocket. Yet, it gets better with the Sonos queue.
All queue'd up
A big part of the S5's appeal is the ability to make live, on-the-fly playlists. For example, perhaps I want to listen to the Sideways soundtrack, followed by some Jack Johnson and David Grey (how's that for the soundtrack to a 40-something dinner party?). The process is easy: I just select each album in turn and add them to the queue. If I like, I can add individual tracks or shuffle the order as the music plays.
But the real fun begins when I pull a track from Pandora into the queue. Or Last.fm. Or a French radio station that plays house music. Again, it can all be accomplished from where ever I happen to be standing with my iPhone.
It gets better with party mode. Let's say you're having a get-together with some friends. Those with iPhones can arrive with the Sonos app installed and, after you enable the party mode feature, add music to the queue or re-arrange the order of songs on the fly. That way everyone gets to play DJ. Neat, eh?
There are four ways to interact with the Sonos S5: The iPhone/iPod touch app, the iPad app, the Mac desktop software and Sonos's own hardware controller. As I said earlier, setup of the iPhone app is a cinch. Once you're done, you get a listing of all available zones. Either can be controlled as long as you're within the same network. Additionally, you can group or ungroup zones with a couple of taps from the iPhone app.
To get started, select a zone and view all of the options. You'll see your library listed along with any streaming services you've enabled, plus playlists you've created both via Sonos and iTunes, a line-in option, alarms and settings.
Begin with your music library and everything is immediately familiar. You can initiate a search or browse artists, albums, composers, genres or tracks. Finally, browse music folders if you're not using the standard iTunes storage location. When I was in Cambridge, they were pulling music stored on a Time Capsule, which was very cool.
Select a track and you've got four options: Play now, replace the current queue, add to the current queue or read info on that track. Jon demonstrated the "power scroll" to me, which lets you quickly scrub through the artists, for example, alphabetically. Think of how the strip of letters works in Apple's iOS Contacts app to get the idea. In fact, I like the Sonos implementation better, as it puts a big letter front-and-center representing your place in the alphabet. It's much easier to avoid zipping past your target letter.
While a track is playing, you can go full screen with the album art (this is especially beautiful on the iPad app and updates automatically as the music changes) and do the usual things like pause, skip and jump back.
While the original iPod put 1,000 songs in your pocket, Sonos bumps that number up to infinity. Between your home library, streaming services and Internet radio, you'll never be wanting for music. The convenience of having all of that available from a device you've got with you anyway is tremendous. The S5's sound is a bonus.
What does it sound like?
That's the question, isn't it? All the convenience and cool features in the world won't matter if the sound is rubbish. Fortunately, that's not the case.
To test this out, I tried a variety of music styles at different volume settings and placement. The S5 performed admirably in all of my tests. The heavy bass in jazz tracks by Rolfe Kent and dance tracks by Björk sounded just as good as Alex Van Halen's tinny cymbals and Eddie's squealing guitar. I found no distortion, plenty of volume and subtleties like brushes on a snare drum to be handled well.
That said, the S5 might not satisfy the serious audiophile. A stand-alone device like this simply can't compete with a custom system that has it beat on hardware and price (many times over). However, the line out feature is still a bonus; just connect the S5 to your rig and enjoy all of the benefits I've described plus your top-shelf goodies.
The S5 is a stellar way to enjoy your iTunes library, streaming services and Internet radio. Setup time is negligible, the apps are well done (like I said, my 7-year-old was blasting Selena Gomez within minutes with no help from dad), the hardware is well-built and sounds great. For US$399 (or get the bundle, 2 S5s and a hardware controller for $999), you can't go wrong. I can see these in offices, dorm rooms and family rooms. If you're lucky, maybe you'll find one wrapped in holiday paper this winter. TUAW is happy to "definitely recommend" the Sonos S5 to nearly anyone who enjoys music.
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