Knowing my fondness for music and gadgets, Sonos sent me one of their ZonePlayer S5 wireless music systems to play with over the past few weeks. Although wired.com’s Mark McClusky had previously reviewed the unit in December, I felt it was still worth looking at. In particular, I was curious about how the S5 would sound compared to an iPod speaker dock.
The ZonePlayer S5 is a sturdy white box (there are no other color options) with a simple volume and mute control on top and a non-removable mesh grill covering the front. It weighs just under 10 lbs and a speaker port in the back makes for a convenient carrying handle. The plain appearance is a plus for parents like myself who find bright displays and flashing LED lights on some electronic devices invite the kind of attention that can end with smears, little fingerprints and unwanted food contamination.
After I unpacked the unit and the accompanying ZoneBridge 100 (required to plug into your wireless router unless you want to plug the S5 itself into your router which obviously limits its portability), setup took maybe twenty minutes or so. There is a controller application to be installed on your computer, then you’re prompted to pair the ZonePlayer to the ZoneBridge and finally there’s a step to point the Sonos system to your iTunes library (or equivalent) if you wish it to have access to this music. My iTunes library is located on an external drive which meant an extra step, but it was all quite straightforward. A computer is required to be powered up and accessible if you wish to use the ZonePlayer to stream music stored on it, but if you’re listening to Internet radio, the computer isn’t needed. I also downloaded the free Controller App for my iPod Touch (works for iPhone as well), which replaces the $349 remote Sonos also sells. In the time that I was using the ZonePlayer, connectivity to my iTunes music was solid. There was never any stuttering during playback, although there is a slight lag when scrolling through track lists.
The ZonePlayer S5 is not an iPod speaker dock. That being said, because of the compact size, single enclosure design, price range and the fact that music being played is likely to be MP3 files, a higher end speaker dock makes a better point of comparison for audio quality than a full blown stereo system would. I own a JBL Radial that’s several years old, but still holding up well as my preferred speaker dock and I sat the two down for some head-to-head competition. Out of the box, my first generation iPod Touch doesn’t do Internet radio, but there are plenty of Apps available to rectify that situation. I dropped $1.99 for Tunein Radio to even the basic capabilities out a bit.
Despite radically different appearances and a different target audience, there are a few similarities between the Radial and the S5 ZonePlayer, including external sound controls limited to volume up and down buttons, the ability to accept an external input and multiple speakers encased behind the grill. After that, there’s not much to compare. At $300, the JBL iPod speaker dock was less expensive than the $399 Sonos and can’t quite match the white box for acoustics. The Sonos weighs in at 9 lbs (vs. 2.5 lbs) and packs five speakers (two tweeters, a pair of 3 inch midrange drivers and a 3.5 inch woofer) each individually powered by a dedicated Class-D digital amplifier, into its cabinet. The Radial sports a 3 inch subwoofer and four full-range drivers powered by a 60 watt amplifier. The difference in sound quality wasn’t overly noticeable when listening to Internet radio; while fine for casual listening, the compression utilized by most streams makes for a less than satisfying listening experience at higher volumes, no matter what system it’s being played on. However, when playing 256kbps encoded tracks purchased from the iTunes Store, the Sonos handily beat the Radial. Its bass response packed a much bigger punch that the Radial’s downward firing woofer and it was capable of much higher volume without distortion. The ZonePlayer S5 is quite capable of filling a large room with music. The default EQ setting suited the rock and electronic tunes I threw at it, but the remote application app allows for fine tuning of bass, treble and balance. I used the two set-ups together for several weeks and noticed that while both were subject to the odd hiccup or pause when streaming Internet radio, the Sonos seemed less prone to this issue (despite maxing out the cache setting on the iPod’s App).
If you’re in the market for an iPod speaker dock, the ZonePlayer S5 is probably not for you. While you can connect an iPod as an external input, there would be no remote control functionality, the unit doesn’t offer video output and the iPod wouldn’t recharge. Mind you, it would sound great.
The key to the Sonos system is its expandability. As a device to deliver music to various rooms in your house without the bother of wires and with the ability to synchronize music between multiple units, or have units in different rooms (or outdoors) independently playing music from different sources, it’s very attractive. The ability to use an iPod Touch or iPhone as a fully capable remote control in place of the $349 Sonos remote is a nice option. The unit can also be controlled through any computer. Spending $500 on a single ZonePlay S5 (along with the ZoneBridge needed if you intend to use the speaker system without physically connecting it to your wireless router) is on the high end for a portable, wireless system, but once you start expanding the network, the value proposition is better.
In his review, Mark was impressed with the sound, but found the price a bit steep; he ended up giving the S5 a rating of 8/10. I didn’t find the price as out of line, especially given the sound the unit produced. I loved listening to iTunes tracks on the S5, especially when my wife was at work and I could really crank up the volume, and being able to easily haul it out into the back yard for the neighbours to “enjoy” as well was a plus. Since I already have a capable stereo and decent iPod dock, I can’t justify buying an S5 myself; when either of the two fails, I’ll reconsider, but at $500 (for the S5 and the ZoneBridge) it’s definitely too high for an impulse purchase.
Wired: excellent sound easily fills a good-sized room, portable unit can be picked up and carried where you need it (including outdoors) so long as there’s power, free Controller App for iPod Touch/iPhone is fully featured and saves buying a $349 remote, expandability supports creating a multi-room stereo system without wires and ability for synchronized or independent sound through each unit.
Tired: would be nice to have a color option other than white, having to spend an extra $99 on a ZoneBridge to avoid tethering the S5 to a wireless router is annoying, streaming audio is subject to network interference and Internet disruptions (although the Sonos employs mesh networking to minimize local interference).