• Sonos S5 - Sound Quality and Simplicity

    I’ve used the Sonos S5 ZonePlayer for the last several weeks and have really grown to like the unit. At first I was skeptical and thought an Apple Airport Express based system would easily equal or better a Sonos system. After setting up the Sonos S5 a couple times and using it via the desktop and iPhone interfaces, not only do I like the all-in-one system, but I am certain the S5 is perfect for its target market. The simplicity and comparatively good sound quality of the S5 make it a luddite's luxury.



     

    The Pieces

    First and foremost the Sonos S5 system is not a kludge. The pieces required for playback have been greatly simplified by Sonos. In fact Sonos has eliminated the need to understand computer networks and network file sharing. The easiest method to get music pumping through an S5 is to plug the unit directly into a wired Ethernet network and run the mindless setup program on a computer. In this scenario a computer, a network, and an S5 are the only prerequisites. Since I wanted to use the S5 in many locations throughout the house, where Ethernet ports were impractical, I needed to add the Sonos ZoneBridge to the system.

    Requirements for wireless use:

    • Sonos ZonePlayer S5

    • Sonos ZoneBridge

    • Ethernet Connection for ZoneBridge

    • Computer



     
    Optional:

    • Sonos Controller 200 or iPhone

    • Network Attached Storage NAS


     

    Sonos ZoneBridge

    The ZoneBridge is key to the simplicity of the Sonos S5 system. Neither the ZoneBridge nor the S5 require wireless network setup. To accomplish this level of simplicity the ZB acts as a go-between. It simultaneously connects to an existing wired Ethernet network and connects to the S5 via its own SonosNet 2.0 wireless mesh network. Since nearly all wired home networks use Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) the ZB can automatically communicate with devices on an existing home network with a simple CAT 5 connection. All Sonos devices speak the SonosNet *2.0 “language” and converse fluently amongst themselves with ease. Thus, the bridge between an existing home network and the Sonos S5 is established without a single configuration hassle.

    The S5 cannot connect directly to an existing home wireless 802.11 network. At first blush this appears to be a hassle in itself. However this lack of communication with an existing 802.11 wireless network results in simpler and finely tuned communication between Sonos units. Using this SonosNet 2.0 wireless mesh network the Sonos system remains independent of a home wireless network and its possible communication problems. There are no WEP, WAP, or SSID settings to configure like there are with other devices that must access an existing home wireless network (think Apple Airport Express).

    Using an iPhone with the Sonos app, remote commands travel from the iPhone to an existing home wireless network access point to an existing home wired network to the ZoneBridge via Ethernet to the S5 via SonosNet 2.0 wireless network. This may seem like a roundabout way send commands to an audio device sitting right next to the listener but the number of network hops really don’t matter. Communication between iPhone and S5 is instant. No annoying lag time.

     

    Sonos ZonePlayer S5

    The ZonePlayer S5 is the all-in-one component that all non-technical audiophiles need. Wired or wireless there is no configuration needed on the actual device. The software, either iPhone app or desktop app, has a simple wizard that lists the available music on a computer or network (NAS). Simply selecting the folder containing music is easy enough for even the most luddite-esque listeners.

    The S5 has a nice complement of hardware. It contains five drivers and five digital amplifiers in a compact ported design. This is the type of configuration that active loudspeaker aficionados rave about. An amp for each driver. Talk about system synergy. The drivers consist of two tweeters, two 3” mid-range woofers, and one 3.5” subwoofer.

    The S5 was designed with simplistic but effective form and function. The top of the player only contains three buttons, volume up, volume down, and mute. It’s very hard to incapacitate an audio system with these buttons. During the review period I move the S5 around my house quite a bit. The rear of the unit has a very nice built-in grip that doubles for an acoustic port. Only kidding but the sturdy port makes it very easy to carry the S5 while transporting around the house. The S5 is not flimsy at all and one should not worry about damaging the unit while carrying it from room to room. Also on the rear of the S5 are line in and headphone ports. The headphone port was most useful to me as I listening to headphones while going to bed every evening. With the S5 was next to my bed for a couple days I really enjoyed easy access to all the Sonos iPhone app had to offer. Not only access to all my music but just about every audio program on the Internet that I could ever want.

    According to Sonos the S5 supports 44.1 and 48 kHz audio streams. During my tests I narrowed down this support to include only 16 bit selections. Attempting to play my 24/44.1 and 24/48 albums produced a message stating the albums were encoded at an unsupported sample rate. I also tried to play some 24/96 and 24/192 music. During these tests I received some messages stating the files were not encoded correctly. No biggie because the S5 does not claim to support these files. The test was more out of curiosity than anything. My music collection contains several file formats including MP3, AAC, M4A, WAV, AIFF, and FLAC. All of these formats were handled by the S5 without issue.

    Support for Internet based content through the Sonos S5 is really good. Some of the Internet based content I used was from iheartradio, Last.fm, Pandora, Wolfgangs’s Vault, and many traditional FM stations broadcasting over the Internet. The Sonos desktop app and iPhone app work wonderfully together when using the aforementioned music services. For example I connected to each of the music services via the iPhone app by entering my username and password. Never leaving the Sonos app interface to enter this information was very nice and is a tremendously underrated feature. Once my information was entered via my iPhone I was able to use the same services from the desktop app without entering in the same information on the desktop app. Again, very nice and an underrated feature. It’s features like this that remind me of opposite “features” used by many large company’s call centers. There is nothing like entering 16 digit account number via the telephone keypad only to repeat the same account number vocally to the person on the phone ten minutes later. Sonos has it right. Enter information once time and let the application take care of the rest behind the scenes.

     

    Remote App

    The S5 and all other Sonos units can be controlled via handheld device by the free iPhone app or the Sonos Controller 200. Sonos did send me the Controller 200 for review in case I didn’t have an iPhone or iPod Touch. I used the Controller 200 for about five minutes before switching to the superior iPhone interface. Not that the features of the Controller 200 are worse than the iPhone app, it’s just that the iPhone is capable of so much more outside of the Sonos app and the touch screen is hard to beat. Readers with an iPhone 4 will also much prefer the clarity of the retina display over the Controller 200’s display.

    Note: See video below for a preview of the forthcoming Sonos iPad app.


     

    Desktop App

    At first I avoided the Sonos desktop application like the plague. It seemed awkward. After forcing myself to use the app I started to like it’s simplicity. A straight forward list of controllable Zones, a list of playable music, and a currently playing window with “next up” queue is all that’s really needed for the S5. Like the handheld apps the desktop app has a volume control that operates without any lag. There’s nothing more annoying than a volume control that lags behind. One isn’t left pushing and pulling the volume slider across the screen wondering if it’s going to respond. Fortunately this control is very responsive as are the handheld versions. These volume controls are said to be 24 bit digital controls. Since all source material played on the S5 is 16 bit one can reduce the volume level quite a bit without serious sonic degradation.

     

    Sonos S5 Sonics

    The S5 is not the be all end all in sonic performance but it’s not mean to be the best. For $400 USD the S5 delivers great performance for its target market. I was able to fill individual rooms with really nice sound from the compact S5. It’s certainly possible to spend $400 on another product and get sound quality that isn’t nearly as good as the S5. I played plenty of my Jazz favorites from Art Pepper, Eric Dolphy, and Chet Baker. All sounded great in areas of the house where I don’t usually have high quality music playback capabilities. I was also interested in putting the S5 to the pop music test. I brought up the new Christina Aguilera album Bionic and let it rip. With the volume set very loud the S5 was still really fun to listen to even with pop music.

    As I said earlier 24 bit albums were unplayable on the S5. Fortunately the S5 plays up to 48 kHz material. All my DVD-Video concerts I’ve ripped to 16/48 FLAC and AIFF files were playable without issue.

     

    Miscellany

    An additional nice feature that I was unable to test during the review period is the ability to group two S5s in a stereo pair. This sounds appealing for normal listening as the units could easily be separated for “abnormal” listening in other rooms as well. One complaint I have is with the music library setup part of the applications. Luddites bare with me while this gets a touch more technical. The apps only allow selection of a network share. The top most folder in the share must be selected as the folder containing the music. There is no way to select a sub folder and only allow the Sonos units to use that music for playback. This can be a problem for users with a couple different versions of their music files on the same network share. For example I have a folder containing FLAC files and a mirror copy containing AIFF files.

    //network-volume/music/flac
    //network-volume/music/aiff

    Since the actual share point is the music folder I could not limit the Sonos to only the FLAC or AIFF files. A long term solution is to simply create two shares. One for AIFF and one for FLAC files and only share one of them with the Sonos. Not a show stopping issue rather a geeky gripe.

     

    Conclusion

    The Sonos ZonePlayer S5 along with the ZoneBridge are very well though-out components. Sonos made the right decision creating the ZoneBridge instead of a multitude of instruction PDFs about home networks of all shapes and sizes and creating a larger call center to handle problems not associated with the Sonos products but network problems causing issues with Sonos setup. During the review I never once worries about my wireless network. I had the feeling that Sonos took care of that part for me with the SonosNet 2.0 wireless mesh network. The S5 has really enjoyable sound quality that will not leave users disappointed. The S5 can handle all the fun party tunes while sitting on the deck during the Summer and it can handle the lush sound of old school Jazz with ease. I enjoyed my time with the S5 and recommend it for readers not interested in the technical details or learning the skills required for similar products.



     


     

           

         



     


     


    Manufacturer - Sonos
    Price - ZonePlayer S5 - $399 [Product Page]
    Price - ZoneBridge - $99 (optional)[Product Page]
    Sonos ZonePlayer S5 Product Guide*PDF (3.09MB)
    Sonos Zoneplayer S5 Datasheet*PDF (1.3MB)


     





    Sonos ZonePlayer S5 Video:




     

    Sonos iPad App Video



     

     

     
    Comments 7 Comments
    1. DanG's Avatar
      DanG -
      Chris, thank you for the Sonos review. I've been using the Sonos system for several years and it is, to me, the exemplary balance of ease of use, features and outstanding customer support. While I understand others preference for Squeezebox or other products, the Sonos approach is so simplified and well developed that it's hard to fault for the things that it does. My only complaint (more like a strong wish) is that there is no support of 24 bit content. If the system handled 24/96 content, I'd have to say it was darned near perfect for me.<br />
      <br />
      And speaking of darned near perfect, Sonos tech support is first-rate. There are many resources available but the fact that you can pick up the phone, call a toll-free number, and talk to a support tech free of charge is sooo satisfying (and seemingly rare these days). I have had problems like loosing the mapping of my NAS music drive and other "simple" computer issues (I'm no computer whiz), that the support tech solved easily and with a friendly and positive attitude. They can take control of your computer remotely (with your permission) and get to the root of the issues right away.<br />
      <br />
      Their products always seem well thought out and debugged before release. And the darned thing just works. That's the bottom line for me. Thanks for the review of the S5. I look forward to more reviews and insight from CA into the Sonos system in the future. CA Rocks!<br />
      <br />
      DanG<br />
    1. Nes's Avatar
      Nes -
      @Erwin S If you are wiring your house anew, best to go with cat6 instead of cat5 - higher possible speeds (if matched with gigabit devices) and less interference. Price is same or only slightly higher so shouldn't be an issue.
    1. Erwin S's Avatar
      Erwin S -
      I was planning to already, thx for the reminder. Even thought to use fibre, but I was told this would be overkill. There are cables avalable that twin a cat6 and a fibre cable (for future use). Expensive for a whole house though.<br />
      <br />
      There are experiments going on using 2 cables that can create a virtual third (!) cable to triple the possible speed...
    1. DrDenny's Avatar
      DrDenny -
      OK, unfortunate that Sonos doesn't (yet) support 24-bit...does anyone have any experience with Sonos's software properly shaking hands with Amarra or Pure Music? When I queried all 3 companies on compatibility, Sonos hasn't replied after several days, Channel D essentially said "I'm not sure...", and Dietrick at Sonic Studio came back with a decent/honest "I'm not sure...but we're looking into it..." <br />
      Look, it's early in the game: as is often the case, audiophiles/music lovers get to be the beta-monkeys...it seems self-evident that running either Amarra or Pure Music over iTUNES is the wave of the near-future. Running an outboard DAC from that and then feeding a home-distribution network (?Sonos) would be the logical extension, and yet nobody has published specific info....<br />
      is there anyone out there with practical experience? TIA -DrDenny
    1. bstcyr's Avatar
      bstcyr -
      I find some comments and inferences in the Sonos review curious.<br />
      You refer to it as a luddite's luxury. You must be confused on the definition of a luddite - it is a person opposed to new technology, and or fearful of new technology, and wanting to prevent new technology. How can someone interested in technology to control and play digital audio using a wireless network throughout their house to numerous possibly be considered a luddite. Just because it is easy to use technology compared to competing technology does not make it any the less new technology pushing things ahead.<br />
      I am reading into things here but there seems to be an elitism in digital audio that, the more complex and difficult to implement a device is the better. I have taught engineering at University and I always pushed with student that good technology is easy to use, indeed the less we are aware of the technology and it just does it's job the better it is. <br />
      I am surprised that the Sonos doesn't get a more positive recomendation based on - it allows anyone to easily and simply connect all their digital music collection, as well as music from internet sources and enjoy it in a variety of locations and devices with easy control. <br />
      If anything this is good technology. Short of not being able to play higher resolutions I see no drawback to the product, well it could be less expensive too. It seems to easily equal the logitech squeeze touch (again other than less resolution, which only affects about .001% of the music available - certainly not my 3000 CD's or any of the internet available radio sources). It is easier to install, if you look at a zonebridge and a zoneplayer 90 (total $498) versus the logitech squeesbox ($299). The squeezebox has only minimally higher resolution capability - which applies to only very little music, is more complex to set up and expand, but is $200 cheaper. <br />
      Both of these products are the ones that are setting the standard for others. <br />
    1. wgscott's Avatar
      wgscott -
      The term has evolved somewhat, as has the inspirational folk hero, who became the subject of dedication of Edward Abbey's novel <i>The Monkey Wrench Gang</i>. Technology that leads to destruction of the planet and increased economic disparity is more the current focus.
    1. Djangoaudio's Avatar
      Djangoaudio -
      Look like a fun system to have around the house...