Sonos Play:3 Wireless HiFi System

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Sonos Play:3 Wireless HiFi System

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Sonos_Play3_music_system_review_front.jpgThe iPad and iPhone applications are different but similar. With the iPad, the control screen is divided into thirds with control bars on the top and bottom. The left third provides a listing of the Sonos playback units on the system and their status. The units can be grouped together so that they are all playing the same music or each can operate independently. The middle third is dedicated to whichever device was last accessed. The top portion displays the screen art and information on the track that is playing with the queue displayed below. The right portion of the screen displays the available music sources. The sources include your music library, radio, streaming services, Sonos Playlists and the line-in on a Sonos component. The top tool bar includes basic transport controls and volume. The bottom bar allows you to pause the entire system, edit the queue, set alarms and sleep timers. I did not think that the alarm and sleep timers would come in handy, but they did. I used the sleep timer when putting my son to sleep for the night and alarms not only to wake myself up but to also to pre-set music for dinner time or as a reminder to do something in the particular room where that Sonos component is located.

Using the Connect was straightforward. I plugged the single ended analog output into my preamplifier and the coaxial digital output into a PS Audio PWD MkII DAC. I also plugged an iPod into the analog input to give the line-in feature a try. A neat feature of the Sonos system is that any device plugged into the line-in of one device can be played back through any other Sonos device. This means when your friend brings over his favorite mix disc and you put in in your CD player next to one Sonos unit you can listen to it on the Sonos in the backyard or anywhere else. The sound quality of the Connect was decent through the analog outs.

The sound quality was comparable to a decent mid-range CD player. If you are used to a high end playback system you will likely find the analog output of the Connect to be a little rough around the edges and lacking detail. If your normal rig consists of a mass market CD/DVD player, the Connect will keep up with it. If your normal rig includes high end electronics, you will want to use the digital output. When I fed the digital signal from the Connect to a PS Audio PWD Mk II DAC via a Kimber DV-75 cable, the sound was nearly indistinguishable from my Oppo BDP-95 or McIntosh MCD-500 via the same coaxial cable. For the 1 percent (or more likely less) that are seeking even higher performance, there are companies such as Wyred 4 Sound that offer modifications to the Sonos Connect which are said to make a noticeable improvement to the sound quality of the digital output.

I found the Play:3 to be the most intriguing product. The Play:3 allowed me to grab the speaker in one hand and set it down wherever I wanted music, plug it into the nearest power outlet and listen to just about whatever I wanted to. It was reminiscent of the days of my youth when I simply grabbed a boom box to bring my music with me as I moved from one part of the house to another. Of course, with the Play:3 all my music came along without have to lug extra cases.

With a little bit of care with positioning, the individually amplified drivers and adjustable equalizer provided fairly clean and well balanced sound although careful positioning greatly benefits the low end. The Play:3's utilize a rear firing passive radiator to fill out the lower octave which benefits from being placed near a room boundary for reinforcement. I usually ended up with the speaker about a foot away from the wall behind it. Regardless of positioning the laws of physics prevent the tiny Play:3's from providing room pounding bass, but they went low enough to give you a good taste of what was happening. For example when listening to Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" (21 -Columbia) the bass notes and drums are clearly heard but have much less weight than a true full range speaker. The passive radiator provides greater bass extension and a sense of fullness, but this does not come for free. The bass that is reproduced by radiator is less controlled and detailed than that of the active drivers. I noticed it as a slight smearing of acoustic bass notes. While this might bother some listeners, more are likely to appreciate the fuller low end that comes along.

When paired, two Play:3's together, form a stereo pair. In this configuration there was a significant improvement in performance. I was not surprised about the larger soundstage and improved imaging. I expected that when I switched from a single player to two units placed five feet apart. The surprise was the refinement in sound quality. Having twice the midrange drivers to cover each channel provided a fuller, more natural midrange with greater detail. With only one Play:3, the soundstage was bigger than I expected from a single speaker, but not as large as a decent sound bar. With two Play:3's, the soundstage grew to the width the speakers were placed apart and there was a noticeable increase in depth.

Competition and Comparison
The closest competition is the Logitech Squeezebox system. Logitech offers units that are source units akin to the Sonos Connect and a Squeezebox Radio which has a player and powered speaker in one component, which could be compared to the Play:3. The Squeezebox Radio includes a small screen and controls making a controller unnecessary and the Squeezebox system also offers high resolution audio playback. The Squeezebox's wireless operation relies upon a wi-fi system and its ergonomics have vastly improved from their early systems but are not yet as intuitive as Sonos. I say 'yet' because this is one area where each manufacturer can and should continue to refine and improve.

The Downside
The Sonos system being an open system that utilizes an outside computer system for media storage and obtains the benefit of easily expandable and relatively inexpensive storage. Any media server which is not a self-contained, closed system is subject to problems with the computer network storing the media files. A couple of times during the review period, I picked up my iPhone, selected some music from my library through the Sonos application and there was nothing but silence. Once I learned that there had been a brief power failure when I was out and my Network Attached Storage had not yet rebooted; another time I found that my computer had restarted and the Sonos desktop controller had not been opened. The Sonos system itself had done nothing wrong and was up and running, which allowed me to stream music from the Internet but I could not play my own music files until the computer system and desktop controller were up and running again.

Another item that is not a problem with the Sonos system itself, yet it is something to be aware of is iPhone/iPad/Android control. While using hardware you already own saves money and the control interfaces are well designed, intuitive and extremely easy to use, it brings about its own set of problems. Primarily, as the Sonos components are spread out throughout the house I find that my iPhone or iPad is not necessarily at hand when I want to adjust my stereo. This is because it is a multi-function device and it could be next to the computer being synced, being charged or simply being used by someone else. When it is actually there, it is a great interface except for those times you are using an iPhone and someone calls you on it. In my opinion this isn't enough to prevent me from using an "i-device" with the iPad being my favorite. If it becomes a problem for you, one could always purchase a few lower capacity iPod Touch devices for the price of a single Sonos controller.

I understand the Sonos system is not designed to be an audiophile playback system for high resolution files (although an audiophile version would be very cool, hint, hint) but so long as you have to have the desktop controller running it would be nice if it could transcode your high resolution files for playback. For example, I was perusing my music library through the Sonos application and saw an album listed that I had downloaded in above CD resolution but was told the format was incompatible when I selected it for playback. Unfortunately, I do not have a standard resolution of the album so I was out of luck (unless and until I use another program to save a standard resolution copy). It would be great if a future update of the Sonos system either did not display incompatible file types, or even better, if it could transcode those to a compatible file type on the fly. Then you truly would have all of your music available at your fingertips.

The Sonos system is easy to recommend to anyone looking for an easy to use multi-room system. What sets the Sonos apart is its ease of use. There are other systems that have similar or even better specifications, but fail to provide the intuitive, ease of control that Sonos does. The Play speakers are well suited for use in multiple locations and the Connect for fixed locations where you can take advantage of your preexisting stereo (or just your preexisting speakers with the Connect:Amp).

During my time with the Play:3s they were on and being listened to more than any other system I can think of. Their portability meant I could grab them and bring them to wherever I was and be listening to music within a minute or two. While I would not choose the Play:3's to do a critical evaluation of audio qualities of a recording, they were certainly more than capable of providing an enjoyable listening experience. When I wanted to really listen closely to a piece of music, the Connect, when used with my DAC filled that need.

The Sonos system is impressive. It provides plenty of options and expandability through a reliable and easy to use system. Moreover, it was fun to use and I spent hours exploring and listening to music with Sonos. The only time I got tripped up is when I saw one of my high resolution audio files in my music library but could not play it as it was incompatible. An update that provides transcoding from incompatible file types or perhaps an audiophile version that is high resolution capable, would bring the Sonos system even closer to perfection. In the meantime, the Sonos system is a must audition for the 99 percent who want an easy to use multi-room system and do not care about high resolution audio.

Additional Resources
� Read about related products in our Media Server Review section.
� Explore bookshelf speaker reviews by's staff.
� Learn about similar topics in our Streaming, Apps, and Downloads News section.

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HTR Product Rating for Sonos Play:3 Wireless HiFi System

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