I could tell what Sonos and its PR firm thought about the product as I walked in.
Festooned over a thousand square feet of penthouse atop one of San Francisco’s finest boutique hotels were samovars of fresh coffee, pitchers of fresh-squeezed juices and a banquet table overflowing with edibles under picture windows filled with panoramic views of Union Square and the San Francisco skyline. The layout was also outfitted, front-to-back, in a couple thousand dollars worth of Sonos gear — including the subject of this review, the Sonos Play:3 ($299).
Ambling through a tour of the suite, the product manager explained that the demo was designed to show how Sonos products performed “in the real world,” something a cramped convention hall meeting room at Macworld or CES could never achieve.
Starting in the plush, bookcase-lined “study” at one end of the suite, the product manager introduced another Sonos rep, who sat at a desk clacking away at her MacBook Air.
“What kind of music do you like?”
I said, “how about some Allman Brothers?” and with a couple of clicks on the laptop trackpad, the tiny room filled with the rich, lonesome tones of Greg’s B-3 and Dickie Betts’s piercing guitar.
But it’s not hard to fill up a hundred square feet of carpeted study, even with a single speaker no bigger than a loaf of bread. Moving back out to the main sitting area, the product manager whipped out his iPhone and with a couple of swipes, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” filled that room, too.
A look around revealed just two more of the Play 3 speakers, communicating wirelessly with the network connection set up back in the study, and powering a full-range sound with depth and definition one would more likely expect from speakers three or four times the size — and at least twice the price of the Play:3.
Heading back to the master bed and bath, the iPhone controller made those rooms come alive, too, again on the strength of just two more speakers that fit comfortably on a bedside nightstand and the dresser across the room.
I was stunned at the quality of the sound and soon impressed by how easy it was to change the music, to separate the selections — playing Beethoven in the bedroom, The Allmans in the public area and They Might Be Giants in the little study — with no bleed-through from one space to the other, and no glitches switching from one source to another. A Sonos app on the iPad in the bedroom, another on the iPhone walking back and forth from room to room, or the desktop app on the MacBook Air in the study could each control one or all three zones with full access to playlists and volume settings for each.
And yet, a luxury penthouse suite outfitted with nearly two grand in sound gear is “real world” for none but a very few, and decidedly not for the many who make do on salaries akin to that of a mere scribe; so the PR folks sent over a pair of Sonos Play:3 speakers to install in my more pedestrian digs on the south side of town.
The Real Test Drive
There are plenty of speaker systems on the market designed to work with iTunes, to work with iOS devices, and with the Cloud — even to rope in pay services such as Sirius, Spotify, Rhapsody and more. But none does it as well, as seamlessly, or with sound quality comparable to the Sonos Play:3.
The heart of the matter, as mentioned previously, is a speaker about the size of a loaf of bread, albeit one weighing nearly 6 pounds.
And though one speaker provides enough full-range sound to fill a 500-600 square foot room, the fact that two Play:3s can be configured to act as independent left and right channels of a stereo pair means for about $600 the music lover in you can have a phenomenal wireless Internet sound system that would cost hundreds of dollars more to match in sound quality — and which you couldn’t match for features — with components from an audiophile store.
And a pair of these babies has power enough to keep your house party rockin’ in up to 1500 square feet of space.
Aside from the first-rate construction of this little box, which includes a three driver speaker system — one tweeter, two mid-range drivers, and one bass radiator, with each driver individually powered by a dedicated Class D digital amplifier — there are other features to admire about the Play:3.
There’s the ease of set-up: plug one speaker into an open ethernet port on your network switch or router (or spring $49 for a Sonos Bridge to anchor the network connection) and as many additional speakers as you’d care to power connect wirelessly and become configurable and controllable by the Sonos desktop app or its iOS counterpart.
The interface on everything is clean, clear and intuitive and — like the Apple products the Sonos experience calls to mind — just works.
A Sonos system gives you access to your iTunes library, to all the music stored on your Network Attached Storage device (as long as it supports CIFS, a common file management system), to your paid accounts at nearly a dozen Internet music streaming services and to Internet radio stations across the globe.
In 30 days with a pair of Play:3s set up in stereo in the living room, I worked in my office fifteen feet away, enjoying more of my own music collection than I had listened to in a year, gaining newfound appreciation for Pandora and Spotify, and discovering a dozen new favorite Internet radio stations — all because the sound was exquisite and controlling it all was an effortless joy.
A word about Sonos customer service: early on, a set-up snafu revealed the company had sent a defective speaker unit. One phone call and 24 hours later, a replacement unit arrived at my door with a pre-paid label for returning the bad box. Everything about Sonos, from the company’s marketing, to the design-build aesthetics of its products, to its friendly and efficient customer service makes it clear that user experience drives the company’s mission — much like the ethos of another company readers of this article may be entirely familiar with. And that seems to be guiding Sonos and its customers to a sweet-sounding future.