Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sonos S5

Almost exactly four years ago (crap, seems like yesterday!) Fred wrote about his first experience with Sonos. He summed up the experience pretty well:
[The Sonos system] delivered a premium experience for me and if you are looking for a simple, elegant solution for integrating digital music and music services like Rhapsody and Internet radio into your home audio system, you should give Sonos a really good look.

It rocks.
I remember being intrigued, and a few months later Fred dropped in to say hi to the Sonos team, and talked about what a remarkable group they were.

I don't know why that post stuck with me, but it did. A few months later, Google acquired FeedBurner. I splurged and bought a Sonos bundle, similar to this package that you can buy at Amazon. I wrote about my initial impressions in August of '07, remarking that "I couldn’t be happier. If you’re a music lover, you need one of these. It’s as revolutionary for audio as TiVo was for video."

Two and a half years later, I remain as happy with the purchase as I was then. They released an iPhone app, which made the overall system even more valuable (now both Robin and I could control the Sonos from anywhere, without needing to have a laptop on or be near the Sonos remote). We added a zone, giving us a total of three separate zones (one of which I plugged two sets of speakers into, so technically we have the Sonos delivering music to four zones in the house). From an iPhone (or a computer, or the Sonos remote), we can instantly pull up any of millions of tracks from Rhapsody (we pay a monthly subscription to Rhapsody), or stream any of Pandora's music anywhere in the house, or listen to just about any Internet radio station in the world (including our favorite, WMVY from Martha's Vineyard), or listen to our own MP3s. You get the idea.

Recently, Sonos announced the S5, an all-in-one music device that's a bit different from their usual fare. Unlike the devices I've got (which either connect directly to speakers or to a receiver, which carries the music to the speakers), the S5 is a set of speakers, along with the hardware that connects the device to your network. We used to own a Bose Sounddock, which we would park our iPod into... the S5 has a similar form factor, and invites comparison to that class of product.

Over the last couple years, I've gotten to know Thomas, the guy who manages PR for Sonos. I've sent some suggestions for the Sonos (a few of which have found their way into the product, a few of which he's explained - politely! - why it's unlikely to happen), and he's occasionally given me an early glimpse into upcoming Sonos releases.

A couple weeks ago he pinged me and asked if I'd bought an S5 yet. I told him I was intrigued, but hadn't figured out how to convince my wife that we needed one. To be clear, if there's any technology I've purchased in the last decade that Robin couldn't live without, it'd be the Sonos. It's given us more to listen to, encouraged us to sample music we wouldn't ordinarily sample, and track artists who we'd otherwise miss. But I didn't think I'd get away with adding to the system. Thomas, eager to get my feedback on the unit, put one in the mail. (More on this in a minute.)

I unpacked it last night, and am floored: within a couple minutes (literally - it might have been under two minutes) of plugging the unit in, I was streaming crystal-clear music from Pandora. It's immediately linked to my other Sonos zones (and therefore has access to my credentials for the services I've already configured; new users would have a few minutes of setup to get to that point), and was instantly controllable from my iPhone.

Sonos S5 ZonePlayer Wireless Multi-Room Music System
Sonos S5
The biggest question for any all-in-one device like this is the sound quality. I shouldn't be surprised, given my prior experience with Sonos, but I was still floored at how rich the sound from the unit was. I have decent speakers at the house, so I was prepared to hear a less full (and certainly less bass) sound... and I was completely wrong. I can't come up with anything other than "full" to describe how rich it sounds. Really impressive.

It's hard to imagine why you'd spend several hundred dollars for a higher-end iPod dock when you get so much more from the S5. In addition to your entire music collection(s) (on any hard drive connected to your home network), you get the advantages of all of the Internet-connected services (like Rhapsody, Pandora, and as well as hundreds of streaming radio stations. I can't recommend the S5 highly enough - and unlike the earlier Sonos price points that are $1k for the bundle and $500+ for individual zones (without speakers), the S5 is a great way to jump in at just $399. Bottom line - it's just a perfect example of what a great team can build when they remain laser-focused on the user experience.

Disclosure: As mentioned above, the S5 was sent to me at no cost from Thomas at Sonos. My other 3 Sonos zones are all purchased units.


  1. Does it have connectors on the back for local audio sources? For example, could you route the sound from a TiVO to play through an S5 sitting atop the TV?

  2. You forgot to mention the biggest bargain of all. For $5 a month, a subscription to Napster (now owned by BestBuy) gives you complete access to their entire 7 million song catalog. You can create playlists on your own or use the ones they've already built. I agree with you that the S5 is another solid performer in the Sonos stable of devices. Couldn't live without our system either.

  3. I love the S5. Awesome sound, relatively compact device, great control from the iPhone app. I do have two requests... SLACKER! I need Slacker. I've pretty much moved off Pandora in favor of Slacker and my Sonos is sad and lonely. Second, it's time for an Android app. I'm hoping we see both in 2010. (And I did put a Slacker exec in touch with Sonos. So I'm hoping for the best.)

  4. Ha! And I put Android folks in touch with Sonos. I think we'll both see good results this year... :)