Sonos ZonePlayer S5 Hands-On: Sonos for the Masses

Sonos, best known for their premium-priced (but adored) wireless audio systems, announced an all-in-one receiver and speaker recently, and after seeing and hearing it, I'm impressed—but not blown away.

Whether you're taken with the S5 largely depends on how you feel about Sonos in the first place. If you've been itching for an elegant way to play music and internet radio over your home network, and you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, you'll probably love the S5. It's not very different from Sonos's other products, really: Instead of plugging in your own stereo, the S5 simply supplies its own. Navigation, playback and music discovery are unchanged from previous Sonos products, so I'm going to focus on the hardware, mostly sound quality.

The receiver/speaker all-in-one is smaller than you'd expect, no bigger than a mid-sized iPod dock, and conservatively styled in white metal with a grey grille. I tested it alongside the winner of our iPod dock Battlemodo, the JBL OnStage 400p, for purely sound-specific purposes, since the actual products have a different feature set. Hardware-wise, the Sonos S5 lacks the JBL's iPod dock (as it doesn't really have a need for one) but does have Wi-Fi, ethernet and audio-in and -out.

Sonos ZonePlayer S5 Hands-On: Sonos for the Masses

It's super easy to set up; the iPhone app discovers any Sonos hardware, which you name and then have access to from the main menu. You choose music, either from a location on the network (like a computer, or in my case an Apple Time Capsule) or from streaming services like Pandora, Napster and Last.FM. Streaming was very quick, with only a split-second lag before the song started, and streaming music (both from a saved location and from the internet) played back so smoothly you can't tell that it's streaming. The Sonos iPhone app is excellent, as always—check out our review for more on that. Suffice to say that it's extremely fast and easy to use, whether you're searching through Last.FM for an artist or just streaming your own tunes from a computer.

Sound quality was actually very slightly disappointing, in that it didn't totally blow me away. It sounds quite good, don't get me wrong, and played far louder (without audible distortion even at its highest setting) than the JBL OnStage 400p, but on the whole I preferred the JBL. Though the Sonos is packing two tweeters, two mids and a subwoofer, bass wasn't nearly as full and rich as on the JBL. EQ can be tweaked via the remote (iPhone/iPod Touch or Sonos controller), but its stock setting was a little jarring on the highs and slightly thin-sounding compared to the JBL. At low volumes, the difference wouldn't be noticeable, but blasting Discovery's "Orange Crush" showed a distinct difference between the two.

I don't want to imply that the S5's sound quality is lousy in any way: It's definitely above-average for an all-in-one system, and I was impressed with the lack of distortion and clarity. But I kind of expected to be wowed, and I wasn't. That doesn't mean it's not an interesting and worthwhile product, but it could be better.

The S5 worked flawlessly with other S5s, able to play different songs simultaneously—but if you want one to stop playing its song and join in with another S5 to play in tandem, it can do that too, and sync perfectly. It's pretty cool and worked well, but I'm not sure why you'd need two all-in-one units to play the same song at the same time in different rooms.

Sonos ZonePlayer S5 Hands-On: Sonos for the Masses

I really like the Sonos S5 as a speaker for a room where you don't want a full stereo—like the kitchen, say, or the back porch. It's great to be free from wires yet still have access to all of your music, and services like Pandora. If you already own an iPhone or iPod Touch, it's actually a solid deal, provided you're sold on Sonos: The ZonePlayer 80 costs $300, but for $100 more you can get a portable (and pretty decent) speaker with the S5.

But the question I was left with: Is it worth the $160 premium over the JBL OnStage 400p? I'm not sure, really. The S5 is a more elegant solution, certainly, but a lot of users just want a quick-and-dirty playback device, and the S5 is too refined for that. If you're already a Sonos devotee, the S5 is an interesting and affordable addition to the lineup, but if you aren't sold on the whole concept, I don't think the S5 will change your mind. [Sonos]