Sonos is a company that’s been pretty visible to me lately. First, I had one of their Play:3 speakers in my place for about a month, and then I got to speak with them at CES to discuss their plans for Canada in 2012. They’re looking to be more visible with you, the consumer, as well, and the Play:3 is one of the key products to make that happen. How does it stand up as a standard-bearer?
The Play:3 is a small speaker that has three speakers inside (hence, the “3” designation), but it’s real value comes in just how much music it can stream to you wirelessly. First, I should note that the unit has a sensor inside that recognizes when it’s laid down flat or put upright. When upright, the unit can be paired with another Play:3 to create a 2-channel stereo system. A cool idea, but it can be a bit pricey, which I’ll get to later.
The unit requires a constant Internet connection to work, and it doesn’t have Wi-Fi, so you either have to plug it in close enough to your router, which may not be convenient, or use a powerline adapter to run the connection through your home’s power lines. The other option is to pay extra for a Sonos Bridge, which can not only create a wireless connection for the Play:3, but it can also connect two Play:3s together to create a “Zone”. The Bridge uses a proprietary wireless mesh standard called SonosNet, so plugging it into your router is all you need to do to get it going.
As I mentioned, the key to the Play:3 is the sheer level of music options. Not only can it stream music from your computer, but it can also tap into any music you have on a network drive or hard drive attached to your router. The software installs, and after pairing the speaker with the software, you can go ahead and add music folders (like your iTunes one, for instance), and sign in for music services you use, like Last.FM, Slacker, Rdio, MOG and others (no Grooveshark, unfortunately). You used to be able to buy music directly from Napster and play it after, but that feature is toast now that Napster has gone under. Also, at some point this year, Sonos will need to add SiriusXM Canada support, as the one offered here is only for U.S. subscriptions.
Aside from that, it’s that mix of an existing library with streaming services that makes the unit compelling. Switching from an iTunes playlist to an Rdio one is easily done on a PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch or Android device. There are apps for both mobile platforms, and though they’re generally pretty slick, Sonos does have some work to do to make searching and filtering music more seamless. Huge music collections can create a bit of a jam in getting to the music you’re actually looking for.
Admittedly, the Play:3 isn’t a true 2-channel speaker because there’s no subwoofer (the bigger Play:5 actually has one), but the two drivers and one tweeter do pack some great sound. This is easily better than an overwhelming number of the iPod docks that flooded the market. Setting up a stereo pair creates a more natural 2-channel experience, but spending $329.99 each for two Play:3s to put them in the same room makes little sense. And that doesn’t even include the $59.99 Bridge.
The wireless streaming ZonePlayer feature is more of a selling feature. Having two speakers in separate rooms that are connected to the same mesh network, and can either play the same song in sync, or two different songs, is what makes more sense.
A personal gripe I have is that the app and software don’t allow you to combine favourites from multiple sources. For example, switching from iTunes playlists to a favourite station on Slacker requires going back and forth between the menu. When meeting with Sonos, I had suggested that they aggregate the favourites so that you can easily access playlists and stations from all sources on one menu. Hopefully they consider doing that at some point.
Altogether, there are about 100,000 Internet radio stations, shows and podcasts available for free through the Play:3, which is a ton of content that is both specialized and location-specific. Stream a station from Spain, or listen to a local station, it’s all there.
For the price, the Play:3 is a bit of an investment, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some consumers opted to spend $120 more to get the bigger sound of the Play:5. But on the other hand, the Play:3 is small and can fit in just about anywhere. The software and app downsides, notwithstanding, I had a great time listening to music on this thing, and ultimately discovered a fair amount of new stuff too.
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