Sonos: I'm a Convert

June 2016

Whenever I start getting snobby, the only one who loses is me. You’d think I’d learn. After all, it happens with enough regularity that I ought to be able to recognize the warning signs.

Usually, it starts like this. I run across the work of a musician or winemaker or writer or engineer. They appear to be cutting corners to attain popularity, usually pandering to the lowest common denominator. My immediate reaction is to mock the effort and refuse to pay attention to anything they do.

Examples from the music world include CTI Records, smooth jazz, country-music hat acts, and Justin Timberlake. I was forced to try CTI when I first heard Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay.” It had everything I love in jazz: a memorable tune, complex solos, intimate sound, and quick-witted musicians with an instinctive grasp of theory. Digging into CTI’s catalog led me into an obsession with the music of Hungarian jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo. I can’t even imagine how many opportunities to see him I squandered, all because I thought he might not be up there with my other guitar heroes, like Joe Pass or Barney Kessell.

Same thing happened when I had the chance to see smooth-jazz artists Kirk Whalum (tenor sax), Gerald Albright (alto sax), and Ramsey Lewis (piano) -- I found out that, no matter how their albums sounded, they could blow most other artists right off the stage. As for country, it only took two artists to change my mind about hats: Brad Paisley and Jamey Johnson. And Timberlake . . . well, has there ever been a less promising start than being on The All New Mickey Mouse Club, dating Britney Spears, and being a founding member of ’N Sync? Still, one listen to Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience, especially the mini-masterpiece “Blue Ocean Floor,” should demonstrate that he’s worth paying attention to.

Sadly, my list of prematurely dismissed audio gear is so long that I could fill a 2000-word article with just the companies’ names. Obvious examples would be all the many witches’-potion items sold to unsuspecting audiophiles. All of you tube owners need socks for your 12AX7s, don’t you? Even worse are the companies that foist bad-sounding products on the ill informed but well heeled. When I was a kid, I worked in the top stereo shop in town, all carriage-trade business, selling brands like McIntosh, Klipsch, Bozak, ReVox, and Thorens. The owner decided the rich people would prefer a smaller speaker, the Bose 901. It didn’t matter that the 901 sounded like crap, that its sound was so diffuse a pair of them had no imaging whatsoever, and that its frequency response resembled a bell curve. The sales guys sold the hell out of them.

I snobbily assumed that the powered speakers made by Sonos Inc. were uninteresting, overpriced “lifestyle” products. Without ever hearing them, I consigned them to the category of Probably Not Even As Good As Bose. Luckily, this time I recognized some of the warning signs of snobbery, and decided to listen to some Sonos speakers at shops around town. They were widely available, and I found that they sounded better than I’d predicted -- but everyone demonstrated them either as single mono speakers or as a stereo pair. I’ve since come to realize that that’s a mistake. Also, the salespeople made a big deal about how you don’t have to run a wire to them. Well, you don’t have to run a speaker cable to them -- Sonos speakers do need a power cord.

Sonos Play:1 and Play:3

But while all the salespeople I met did mention the two most important things about Sonos speakers, none of them made a big enough deal of them. I’ve decided that that’s my job.

The Trueplay and Sonos Control are software products that come with these “wireless” speakers from Sonos: the small Play:1 ($199 USD each), the medium-size Play:3 ($299 each), and the larger Play:5 ($499 each). While these speakers sound very good on their own, especially for their sizes and prices, the real magic happens with Sonos Control and, even more, with Trueplay.

I’m getting ahead of myself. When I learned that the Play models actually sounded good, I contacted Sonos to see if I might borrow some. We decided, after some discussion, that they’d send me two Play:1s and two Play:3s. The speakers came thoughtfully and carefully boxed, and while concise directions are included, I recommend following the detailed instructions on from beginning to end. You can use Sonos speakers in music or home-theater systems, or anything else you can think of that requires a speaker. I can even picture taking them outside for careful, supervised use, though I wouldn’t dream of exposing them to extreme temperatures or dampness.

Sonos Play:1

The speakers themselves are substantial and well-built assemblies of metal and plastic. Place them where you want, push a couple of buttons on the speakers, and start waving your iPhone or other smartphone or tablet. You’ll look silly, but the microphone in your iDevice will read the sound coming from the Sonos speaker and automatically adjust the Sonos’s amplitude and frequency response.

Here’s what you won’t learn about Sonos speakers from most other venues. Most stores will try to sell you fewer but more expensive speakers, but that presents a problem: Because a single Sonos speaker will play a stereo signal, but sum it to mono, many people are guided to make one of two mistakes.

First, one Sonos will disperse sound nicely for a single mono speaker, but it still sounds like a single mono speaker. Most customers are so used to stereo that they tend to want two speakers no matter what. Well, if you use two Sonos speakers as a stereo pair, the dispersion is so wide that their outputs will interfere with each other.

Sonos Play:3

If you have a large space -- a great room, say, that includes den, dining, and kitchen areas, or something equally expansive -- then I propose a shocking concept. We didn’t use the Sonos speakers as part of our home theater. Instead, we used them only for music: everything from background music to block-rockin’ party time. There was no way to make good use of Sonoses as stereo pairs, so I tried something bold and placed them where I actually wanted sound, as opposed to where a pair of them would best image. My thought was that if Trueplay worked as advertised, I might be able to set all four Sonoses to mono and get a nice sound.

We live in a loft in a downtown high-rise, with no walls between rooms, and wow! Once everything was set up, I was more than a little shocked. The whole place seems to play music from a single point source that somehow follows me around. For those of you who live in more traditional houses or apartments, with walls and smaller rooms, don’t even consider putting a single speaker in a room: Mono significantly degrades the sound. Use a stereo pair. But if you have wide-open spaces, see if the multimono approach doesn’t thrill you as it has me.

Second, forget what your salesperson says about the wisdom of buying fewer but more expensive speakers. If my budget were limited to $1000, I wouldn’t buy two Play:5 speakers. I’d buy five Play:1s. Or two Play:3s and two Play:1s -- just what I requested for this review. And in case it sounds as if Trueplay is a rip-off of Dirac Live or Audyssey MultEQ, the good folks at Sonos must have figured that, with the size and tuckability of their speakers, folks might end up putting them anywhere.

Here’s a weird story. About halfway through the evaluation period of the Sonos setup, we were invaded by a crew of very nice renovators intent on re-creating our kitchen as an artistic statement designed by my wife and a highly decorated, CotY Award-winning kitchen designer. Nice thing, right? Well, it turned out to be a magnificent trip, but one not without sonic setbacks.

The first step was demolition. The crew brought in an industrial HEPA filter big enough to suck up any dust they might generate anywhere in our loft. Then they protected the parts of our home they didn’t intend to destroy. Things too heavy to move were covered in plastic sheets or had a wallboard enclosure built around them. That included (yikes!) my main audio system and two Sonos speakers. Our maple floors were covered with wallboard to keep them from damage. To make the wallboard fit, it had to be cut and taped, which created gypsum dust fine as talcum powder. Next, down came our cabinets, out went the old kitchen island, out came the ceiling lights. Much sawing and fine sawdust ensued.

The HEPA filter worked valiantly, but I couldn’t help wondering if I should have removed my speakers and equipment. Could I really trust the combo of HEPA filter and plastic sheeting? Too late now . . .

At that moment I was struck by a lemon-into-lemonade inspiration. Why just sit around feeling distraught when I could experiment? With two of the Sonos speakers under plastic, could Trueplay make them sound individually listenable? More important, could the plastic-covered set retain the spacious multimono “imaging” I’d come to love?

I redid the setup process, and the “imaging” popped back perfectly. Of course, I doubt that any frequencies above 10kHz made it through heavy plastic sheeting at all -- but I can tell you that the “imaging” was absolutely spot on.

More interesting were the reactions of the parade of folks who’ve visited us and almost immediately asked where the music was coming from. In terms of expertise, it didn’t matter whether it was the local MartinLogan distributor or my lovely wife. Everyone was struck by the quality of sound. And no one asked, “Is that mono?”

Sonos Play:1

I’ve written about audio equipment for more years than I can count, including 16 here at SoundStage!, and an ongoing bone of contention between me and my wife is that, every time I install a new component, she has to relearn how to run the audio system. She’s found it so frustrating that now she just carries a Tivoli table radio from room to room. I convinced her to at least try the Sonos system. I taught her how to use the Sonos Control (ten minutes tops), after which she spent 20 minutes playing with it, trying different types of her favorite music. At the end, she came into my office, gave me a big kiss, and said, “I am so happy. Thank you for giving me music back again.”

The next day, she said, “I have never listened to so much music. Can we keep all this stuff? Please!”

This time, I got a hug. That was all the endorsement I needed.

At the beginning, I said that the Sonos Control wrought a somewhat lesser magic. Functionally, I love what it does. You can set up multiple zones so that people can listen to what they want in different parts of the house. If you want to roll your own playlist, Control lets you compile it from selections offered by Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, Tidal, and your own music. If you want radio, commercial or non-, Sonos has Radio by TuneIn, which offers, they claim, over 100,000 stations and is about as good as such services get. TuneIn is available on dozens of other platforms, but the Sonos search system is really helpful, especially for local stations. I spent an entire and very pleasant day (!) searching through the TuneIn treasure chest. The first thing I noticed was that Sonos lists less than 1% of all the stations TuneIn offers -- but search any station you want by name and it pops right up. Hopefully, that will be fixed.

I’m almost afraid to tell you what my favorite station is, for fear it will get popular enough to be tempted to go commercial, but here goes. NESS Radio plays, 24/7, some of the most fascinating modern music, targeting sophisticated Millennials as well as intelligent Gen-X and -Y types. The music is almost always medium to downtempo, and influenced by jazz. While writing this, I heard some really raw hip-hop, Miles Davis’s “Peaceful,” the stripped-down folk of Fink and John Legend doing “Move On Me,” and the music-box meandering of Hundred Waters. Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard a lot of the music. NESS is based in Marrakech, Morocco, and the music played often leans toward French and African. Fine with me.

Sonos Play:3

Back to Sonos Control. If you’ve used Roon, Sonos Control just looks sloppy and thrown together. Given all the care that has obviously gone into every other part of the Sonos package, the looks of Sonos Control will just not do.

If you have an older home with lots of walls and smaller rooms, a Sonos system will give you a flexible way to allow different people to listen to different music throughout the house. If you want a lot of bass, you’ll want a stereo pair of Play:1s and their subwoofer, or a pair of Play:5s. If you prefer background music, a pair of Play:3s will make beautiful music. And if you have wide-open spaces, consider the multimono approach: Buy as many Play:1s or Play:3s as you want, place them everywhere, run Trueplay, and be prepared to love whole-house music, soft or loud.

. . . Wes Marshall

Sonos Play:1 Compact Wireless Loudspeaker
Price: $199 USD each.
Sonos Play:3 Wireless Loudspeaker
Price: $299 USD each.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.

Sonos Inc.
Phone: (800) 680-2345