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Sonos Play:3 review

Wireless Hi-Fi takes on AirPlay

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Sonos Play:3
Sonos Play:3

The Sonos Play:3 might be small for a speaker but it's a critical part of the company's strategy to increase its visibility. As such, the entry-level all-in-one "Wireless Hi-Fi" had better perform -- capable of impressing current Sonos customers already accustomed to a premium wireless music experience that just works, while attracting mainstream attention from consumers increasingly seduced by Apple's AirPlay siren.

Sonos' plan is two-fold: 1) lower the price of entry, and 2) simplify its elevator pitch. While $299 / €299 / £259 for the Play:3 sounds expensive, it's actually one of, if not, the cheapest all-in-wireless speakers competing at the high-end of the audio market. Really, the only comparative all-in-one speaker is the Zeppelin Air from B&W priced at $599 -- twice the price of the Play:3.

The company signed Greg Perlot, Sonos' new Chief Brand Officer, to execute the second part of its plan. While we don't normally concern ourselves with marketing execs, it's worth noting that Greg is the former Microsoft director of advertising responsible for the Rolling Stones-infused "Start Me Up" campaign for Windows 95. More recently, Greg was the CMO at Quiksilver promoting the brand's casual, youth-oriented lifestyle. That makes Greg responsible for the abundance of tribal art you see tattooed on wayward suburban kids, in addition to the simplified Sonos logo and new psychedelic artwork, itself inspired by the speaker circuitry inside the Play:3.

John MacFarlane, Sonos CEO, readily admits the difficulties he's had explaining what his company does. "If you were sitting next to me on a plane and asked, 'what does Sonos build?' I'd say, 'a multi-room wireless music system.' Then I'd get into, 'we want to fill your house with music and play everything on the planet.' At that point, you're already five minutes into the conversation," concedes the chief executive. MacFarlane turned to Greg Perlot to clarify the message, who in turn responded with a two word pitch: "wireless HiFi." "That makes so much more sense," said MacFarlane, cognitively kicking himself for not coming up with the phrase on his own, "it elicits the right questions."

With Perlot's help, the company has also simplified its naming scheme around verbs. The "ZoneBridge" become "Bridge," the "Controller 200" becomes "Control," and the "S5" becomes "Play:5." Even the Sonos website has been overhauled with a slick, more intuitive look for the launch of the Play:3.



The Play:3 lacks an amplified subwoofer, relying upon a passive, rear-firing bass radiator

The Play:3 wireless speaker measures 5.2 x 10.5 x 6.3 inches (132 x 268 x 160 mm) and weighs 5.7 pounds (2.6 kg). I can easily lift it with a single stretched hand. The bigger Play:5, by comparison, measures 8.50 x 14.40 x 4.80 inches (217 x 365 x 123 mm) and weights 9.15 pounds (4.15 kg). To achieve its smaller size, the Play:3 is limited to a single Ethernet and power jack on the back compared to the Ethernet pair, headphone, line-in, and power jacks found on the Play:5. However, unlike the bulkier Play:5, the Play:3 also includes a standard 1/4-inch, 20-thread socket for easy placement on the wall using a standard satellite speaker wall mount.

Naturally, the Play:3 had to scale back the individually amplified drivers as well; just three -- one tweeter flanked by two 3-inch mid-range drivers -- compared to the five drivers found in the Play:5. Notably, the Play:3 lacks an amplified subwoofer, relying upon a passive, rear-firing bass radiator. That makes the Play:3 more sensitive to placement unlike the Play:5 with its powered 3.5-inch bass driver (more on that later).

In addition to wall mounting (via standard third-party mounts), the Play:3 can be set on a table horizontally or vertically. While small rubber feet along the bottom and left side (only) indicate which direction is down, it's easy to reverse orientation, especially when placing the speaker vertically (flipping it upside down in horizontal mode blocks the mute and volume controls) -- not that this made any noticeable difference to the sound.

The smaller Play:3 solved two placement issues I had

Placement of the Play:3 is more flexible than the Play:5 thanks to its smaller size. In my own house, I was able to slip the Play:3 horizontally into the gap between the ceiling and my kitchen cabinet -- a crevice too small for the Play:5 -- liberating the counter space once occupied by the Play:5. I placed another unit on the floor in the corner of my office. The angled side (now bottom in vertical mode) of the unit meant that the music was aimed upward into the room. The smaller Play:3 solved two placement issues I had with Play:5 without having to resort to a wall-mount. Your mileage, will of course, vary.



Sonos is synonymous with ease of use and nothing changes in that regard with the Play:3

Sonos is synonymous with ease of use and nothing changes in that regard with the Play:3. Current Sonos owners already have a SonosNet -- a secure AES-encrypted, peer-to-peer wireless mesh network -- in their house so adding the Play:3 is dead simple. Just press the mute and volume up button simultaneously on the top of the Play:3, and select "add a Sonos component" from any of the free Sonos controllers for Android smartphones, iOS devices, Macs, or PCs; or the dedicated $349 Sonos Control. Voila, you've just added sound to another room in your house.

First time Sonos owners must bridge the SonosNet to their home network in one of two ways. The easiest (and cheapest) way is to run a cable between the router and the Ethernet jack on the back of the Play:3. Unfortunately, not everyone's home is wired for Ethernet thus limiting speaker placement to the same room as the router. To solve this, Sonos sells a $49 Bridge that connects to the router, freeing up placement of all your subsequent Sonos speakers. Either way, after the SonosNet is up and running you must install at least one Sonos controller to activate the Play:3 on the network. Simple in practice but difficult to explain to Ma and Pa McLuddite at retail.

Two Play:3 speakers can be setup as a stereo pair, assigning one speaker to the left channel and the other to the right. While this feature has been available for awhile, pairing two Play:5s, impressive as it sounds, is overkill for most homes. The smaller and cheaper Play:3, however, makes the perfect stereo solution for larger rooms. In fact, you can purchase two Play:3s for the price of a single B&W Zeppelin Air resulting in a substantially better listening experience..




Sonos is making a pretty bold claim with the launch of the Play:3: "Stream any music on Earth." While that sounds hyperbolic, it's actually fairly accurate. Sonos streams music from more than 100,000 free internet radio stations and dozens of subscription music services including Spotify, Rhapsody, MOG, Rdio,, Deezer, and more depending upon your country. It'll also stream the obscure music collection you amassed during that year abroad at Saint Martins. So really, if a song's been digitally recorded, Sonos can stream it over the internet or off your hard disk.

iTunes users will be happy to know that Sonos works seamlessly with your iTunes library and playlists. Otherwise, Sonos also supports any music library stored on a NAS supporting SMB/CIFS. All Sonos devices can play MP3 (compressed), WMA (compressed), AAC (MPEG4), iTunes, Ogg Vorbis, Audible (format 4), Apple Lossless, Flac (lossless), WAV (uncompressed), and AIFF (uncompressed) formats.

Note: The Mac OS X Lion update broke compatibility between Sonos systems and music libraries stored on Macs. Sonos has promised an update to fix this "very soon."

Sonos can even stream from AirPlay-enabled devices via a bolt-on solution. However, this requires the purchase of a $99 AirPort Express that you attach to any Sonos component with an audio-in connection (like the Play:5 but not the Play:3)..

"Stream any music on Earth"


A single Play:3 easily filled my average-sized room with sound — two Play:3s setup in stereo quickly overwhelmed it

So, it's small, relatively cheap for an all-in-one wireless speaker, and streams all the music on Earth. But is it any good? Yes, yes it is, very good in fact.

Surprisingly, even though the drivers are close together, the Play:3 was able to deliver decent stereo separation. Standing the unit on its side, however, centered everything (except the logo) in the second or so it took for the motion detector to reprogram the audio. According to Sonos, horizontal mode is meant to create a wider stereo response, while in vertical mode, music is meant to sound "brighter on the highs and crisper on the mids." And you know what? Although I didn't hear it during my initial hands-on, I clearly heard it when testing the units in the quiet of my own home.

I tested a pair of Play:3 speakers in a variety of rooms and orientations with all equalizer settings centered and loudness on. For comparison, I used a pair of Play:5 speakers as reference, sourcing 320kbps music streams from Spotify. It was quickly apparent that, like real estate, the most important consideration when setting up the Play:3 is location, location, location.

In general, the sound emitted from a Play:3 positioned in the middle of a room (like the press shot above) pales in comparison to a Play:3 nestled up to a wall. The reason for this has everything to do with the Play:3's subwoofer, or lack thereof. Remember, the Play:3 lacks a powered sub relying upon a passive, back-firing bass radiator. While the passive driver coupled with the active drivers allows Sonos to deliver reasonable bass in such a compact enclosure, it can't match the raw thump of the Play:5's 3.5-inch powered woofer. Don't get me wrong, the sound was surprisingly full even with the Play:3 positioned in the center of the room (about five feet from any wall). However, placing the back of the Play:3 just a few inches from the wall helped reinforce the low-end bass significantly, while rounding out the mids.

With the Play:3 and Play:5 next to each other on a center table, the Play:5 was the clear winner in every musical genre listened. The results weren't so clear, however, when I moved to the Play:3 within a few inches of the wall (leaving the Play:5 in the center of the room). Synth heavy pop tracks like "Smalltown Boy" from Bronski Beat actually sounded better on the play:3 which, in my opinion, was more capable of isolating the higher frequencies -- the Play:5 was more balanced, exhibiting a more overall softness by comparison. The Play:3 also kept things tighter than the Play:5 even as the volume rose to 75 percent. Again I preferred the Play:3 when listening to "Triangle Walks" by Fever Ray, but damn, it was close. Listening to a remastered 2006 version of "I Would For You" from Jane's Addiction clearly demonstrated the Play:5's ability to reproduce an overall richer and more nuanced sound than the Play:3. I also preferred the Play:5's more balanced delivery of "Revenge" by Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse (featuring Flaming Lips) with the Play:3 spending a bit too much time in the middle-to-low frequency muck for my tastes.

Moving the Play:5 against the wall next to the Play:3 gave the Play:5 an edge across the board. There were times when the bass became overpowering on the Play:5. However, this was easily rectified by clicking off the loudness. In fact, the Play:3 with loudness on and the Play:5 with loudness off sounded nearly identical at the low end. Obviously, we reinstated the loudness when a Morningwood track "Jetsetter" came into rotation for the obligatory kick to the chest.

The final test pitted two Play:3s setup in a stereo pair against a single Play:5. Unsurprisingly, the pair of $299 Play:3s blew the $399 Play:5 out of the water, wherever the speakers were placed. While a single Play:3 easily filled my average-sized room with sound, two Play:3s setup in stereo quickly overwhelmed it (not a bad thing). Remember, you can pair two Play:5s together in a stereo union, but you can't mix and match a Play:3 with a Play:5.

Two Play:3s combined in a stereo pair easily bested the Play:5 while still costing a buck less than the $599 Zeppelin Air

So, will the Play:3 see Sonos break into the audio mainstream? Probably not. Don't get me wrong, the $299 Play:3 is a brilliant all-in-one wireless speaker that fits perfectly within Sonos' lineup. At $100 less than the $399 Play:5 it can, under certain conditions, trump its bigger brother. Two Play:3s combined in a stereo pair easily bested the Play:5 while still costing a buck less than the $599 Zeppelin Air -- the only shipping all-in-one AirPlay speaker in the same class. Not only is the Play:3 the best way to introduce your family to Sonos, it's also the best way to expand the music coverage in existing Sonos households.

But for Sonos to break into the mainstream it's my opinion that it must further simplify its message. The $49 Bridge component is still confusing to first time Sonos buyers -- do I need it or not? Hell, you can see the confusion in some of the early Play:3 "reviews" that were posted (tip: it's not required). Sonos should just give away the Bridge (already reduced from $99 to $49) to first time buyers and make it a required component for setup. Of course, it wouldn't really be free as the cost would be spread across Sonos' speaker components. The other option is to eliminate its proprietary SonosNet network altogether. AirPlay partners seem content developing for off-the-shelf WiFi networks. In our experience, AirPlay, running on newer QoS-enabled 802.11n networks, is very robust. Maybe "good enough" is preferable to "it just works" when shooting for the mainstream market.

At the end of the day, music isn't rational -- it's experienced as if it had the power to communicate directly with our emotions. The repulsion you feel when hearing that Friday song is immediate, there's no processing -- it's only later, after that initial jolt of arm-flailing nausea that you comprise an appraisal. Sonos combined with a music subscription can slake that emotional jones in an instant with millions of tracks ready to stream around the home -- "every song on Earth," if you will. With Sonos, I haven't felt the need to pirate a single track in the last four years. I'm happy to pay $10 per month so that I never have to hunt, download, test for quality, and then hunt again for songs, albums, or compilations. This goes double for the less tech savvy members of my family. Clearly, Sonos isn't for everyone. Sonos CEO John MacFarlane is the first to admit that AirPlay is great if you're a college student who needs to fill a single room with sound. But if you're a home owner, with multiple family members holding a variety of musical tastes, well, there's nothing quite like a Sonos. And the Play:3 makes for a fantastic new product in the company's flexible wireless audio lineup.