Sonos ZonePlayer S5 Wireless Music System Speaker System for iPod and iPhone

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Worse Than a Drug Addition

May 31, 2011 (Updated Jun 3, 2011)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Very easy to set up and use. Reliable and has lots of features. Fabulous sound.

Cons:Expensive for most home users.

The Bottom Line: The best sounding, most reliable wireless music system I have seen.


With some extra time, I came back to add other information and make distinctions about this product as some people might make a wrong assumption about where this product fits in the market. Most of the updated info is in new sections of ‘Purpose', ‘Description’ and ‘How it Communicates.’  I’ve put much more technical info for the geek squad, yet technophobic users might want to overlook it.  Any 10-12 year old kid will be able to setup and use Sonos, so don’t dwell on the technical jargon.

Purpose:
I got hooked on something worse and more costly than drugs. It’s called Sonos!  Fortunately that is my only addiction.  If you saw a review of the Zone Bridge, then you know the basics about Sonos.  The Zone Player is a self-contained amplifier, speaker, and Wireless communication system (NOT WI-FI) that can be placed anywhere in your home or office where an electric outlet is located.  Music from your collection is streamed to the Zone Player either wirelessly from a related Zone Bridge or from a wired Ethernet network connection on the back.  In some cases, a Zone Bridge might be needed to connect to your network and stream music to one or more S5 units, so you can place it literally anywhere you don’t have an Ethernet connection.   However, if at least one Zone Player is placed in a location where there is a wired network connection, then a Zone Bridge is not needed… saving $100.
Foremost important, the S5 is not targeted as a replacement or alternative to a home entertainment system, but it could be.  It certainly is not the case in my home.  I have a separate AV receiver and speakers in the family room along with the TV and other devices.  The Sonos system is used to push music to other parts of the house that my AV system does not serve.  Thus the main purpose of Sonos is for remote audio distribution.  Although an S5 can accept audio from a home entertainment system, I have it as a separate system to grab music from a network storage device and from internet radio stations.
Before buying Sonos, I looked at other wireless solutions and also evaluated add-on wireless transmitters and receivers (with separate speakers) to send music from my AV receiver to other parts of the house.  I tried two such systems. Those solutions were equally costly, less features, and not reliable.  Also it is hard to find an AV receiver that supports pushing different music to multiple zones although I expect to see this feature becoming more available in the future on high-end receivers.
It’s probably worth a mention that the S5 is one of three variations of Zone Players from Sonos.  Other models allow connection to add your own selection of speakers and/or want a different stereo solution.

Description:
The S5 is quite attractive in white or black housing with a metallic looking cloth grille.  The size is approximately 8 ½” high, 14 ½” wide, and 5” deep.  Weight is a little over 9 pounds.  It feels beefy and solidly built, yet it is still easy to grab the recessed “carrying area” to relocate to another place in the house as might be done during a party.  It contains five Class-D digital amplifiers that each drives five separate speakers to handle various frequency ranges (two tweeters, two 3” mid-range drivers, and one 3.5” woofer.) 
There is an audio line-in on the back to allow selection of an alternative music source via an easy-to-use software selection.  This comes in handy to use with an iPod or device such as an Apple AirPlay music source.  A 3.5 mm headphone connection is also included, yet it might get little or no use in most environments.  You probably won’t have the unit that close to where you listen to music privately.  The only buttons are for volume up, volume down, and mute. I doubt you will use these buttons unless the S5 is placed within easy reach. Volume settings are more conveniently changed from any of the remote control devices.   As with most electronics, it supports 120V/240V, 50-60Hz with an auto-switching power supply.

How it Communicates:

Each S5 includes a 2-port Ethernet network switch for communicating to a local network and optionally out to the internet.  This is one means of accessing other Sonos equipment and network music sources.  If just one Zone Player is wired to a network, then other Zone Players can communicate via the Sonos wireless network. However, if there is no wired network connection in any location where Zone Players are placed, then a “Zone Bridge” can be used near a network router to wirelessly connect a local network to Zone Players.
Let’s get something cleared up right away because I see reviewers on the internet confusing S5 wireless communications with Wi-Fi, likely because of the 2 Ethernet jacks.  Sonos wireless communications and Wi-Fi are two different animals.  They operate in the same part of the radio spectrum, but don’t see each other, don’t talk to each other, and there is no need to talk. 
The S5 communicates to related Sonos devices by a proprietary secure AES encrypted peer-to-peer mesh network and automatically generates its own encryption keys and IDs (called SonosNet).  Unlike Wi-Fi, there is nothing a user needs to configure except to press a button one time!  Some advantages of a mesh network are better range, fewer dead spots, and better performance than what is occurs with conventional Wi-Fi.  Perfectly synchronized signaling is needed in a wireless sound system so there won’t be issues such as annoying echoing from a unit in a nearby room due to content delivery delays. Such events sometimes occur in a Wi-Fi system that is heavily loaded. Also, Sonos does some smart frequency analysis to automatically select a communication channel with the least amount of interference.
Although Sonos does not officially “support” an internet hub feature at this time, they acknowledge it was designed to work and does work in most situations.  In other words, you can connect an Ethernet device to your Sonos.  Specifically, I moved a computer and network printer to a bonus room where there is no network connection.  I wanted my son to use a desktop computer and printer in that location.  The S5 seamlessly allowed him to have an internet connection via the S5 Ethernet connection.  Then I got carried away and connected an internet enabled TV in a guest room to an S5 also in that room.  Thus the S5 is acting as a wireless network hub.  It does this by sending traffic across the Sonos wireless network back to the Zone Bridge at our router.  It’s a cool unexpected feature, and one that I bet most users don’t realize.  I didn’t buy it for this reason, yet it is a nice extra ability.
But there is more.  I discovered when I added another S5 in a location TOO FAR from the Zone Bridge that a nearby S5 was acting as a repeater.  That was also an unexpected nice surprise.  I called Sonos to confirm this benefit.  When an additional Zone Player (or other Sonos product for that matter) is placed in the system, then it only needs to be as close as to communicate with the nearest product.  Essentially, the Zone Player is performing as a wireless network repeater.  Content is automatically routed to the most optimum path.
And a last tip:  A Wi-Fi extender can be connected to one of the Ethernet ports on an S5 to extend the range of a Wi-Fi network. Therefore the extender does not need to be within range of the main wireless router.

Set Up & Software Installation:
As with the Zone Bridge, Sonos packs their products very well and there is little chance of shipping damage. Set up of a Zone Player is so simple, you will be impressed. Just plug it in the wall, plug in a network connection (unless you prefer to use wireless communications), and run the computer software. Getting the software to identify a Zone Player requires nothing more than pushing a couple of buttons on the unit when directed.  An IP address is automatically assigned to each unit by your router and the software communicates to it via IP address.  Expansion allows up to 32 Zone Players.  Finding my music selection was easy.  The software automatically saw and displayed my network shared devices and the WDTV Live Hub; a NAS device which I store music without need for a computer being on.
Any Firewall issues?  Not that I found.  Ok, more geek stuff here, so if it sounds complicated, just skip over it.  You need not worry about it unless you plan to pay for a special internet music service.  Even so, you will probably be ok.  Since the software can stream music from a variety of internet sources, it needs to get past a firewall.  In most cases, it uses standard HTTP connections (port 80) which won’t be blocked because you use it for web browser site surfing.  Some services like Rhapsody and Napster communicate over custom ports such as port 443, yet many firewalls know about these ports and auto-configure to allow them.
I tested the S5 with firewalls I had on hand and none of these caused any issue… Bit Defender, Kaspersky, Windows firewall, AVG, and Trend Micro.

Does This Little Box Sound Any Good?
You bet it does. Sorry Bose. Take a back seat to Sonos from my point of view. The sound is rich and easily fills a room to a level of loudness that is more than sufficient.  Although an S5 basically has a monophonic sound output by combining the left and right audio channels, you can set up two of them in the same room and designate each of them to left and right channel with the software configuration. Thus, you can have stereo in a room if desired (at twice the price of course).   Personally, the sound quality and experience is fine with just one speaker, but if you really want stereo in every room of the house, then a lesser expensive alternative is to buy the cheaper Sonos 90 Zone Player (does not include speakers) and use your own favorite brand of speakers.  We are pleased with just one S5 in each room.

Software Details: I already spoke about this in the Zone Bridge review, but will add a few additional comments here.  The software communicates identically with all Sonos components in a system since remote control functionality is built into each unit. Once setup, I rarely use the Windows software to manage music playing unless I am on the computer.  Mostly I use an iPhone or iPad to play music or control the units.  When using an “i-Product”, it is basically sending commands to your router via your Wi-Fi network and then forwarding to the respective Sonos device.
Languages supported are English, Spanish, Japanese, Dutch, simplified Chinese, Swedish, Italian, Chinese, and French. Audio files can be any combination of MP3, WMA, AAC (mpeg 4), AIFF, WAV, or Apple Lossless FLAC.  Supported playlists are Windows Media Player, MusicMatch (pls, wpl, or m3u), iTunes, or Rhapsody.  A point to keep in mind is since firmware updates can be pushed directly to the unit from the internet, updates to its capability are quick and automatic.

As mentioned, one of the best features is the ability to stream different music to each zone (room). Any combination of music “zones” can be combined in practically any arrangement.   The interface is intuitive and allows quick selections to be made.  Changes made by any remote control are instantly reflected on all other remotes regardless of type (iPad, iPhone, Sonos remote, etc.)  The lady of the house is particularly impressed with how easy it is to stream great sounding FM stations from Asia for free.  As a person who hates to use remote controls, she likes the iPhone interface.

Wireless Distance: I didn’t test for the range, yet in my case, the transmission was carrying through a couple of walls and outside about 150 feet. I’ve had trouble with other wireless systems such as Wi-Fi routers carrying a signal that far.  It’s definitely farther than Wi-Fi, yet hard to quantify by how much.  It seems to be about 20% farther.

Energy Use:
This is a minor complaint. I measured the S5 to draw about 6 Watts in a standby state. That’s too much. I would expect something around 1 Watt or less. All it is doing is listening for a network connection and commands. Even large Plasma TVs with built-in Wi-Fi will typically draw under 1 Watt of power in standby (off state). This may be the reason why I don’t see any “Energy Star” approvals on the device. Ok, 6 Watts may not sound like much, but if you have several of these things in a house in Northern California where the utility company scalps you for 40 cents or more per KW, then you begin to understand why I mention it. Example: In a typical Sonos system (assuming 4 Zone Players), they are consuming an extra 200 KW per year that they really don’t need to be using.

Things I’d Like to See Improved:
This is more of a wish list and not a complaint list. One item is just mentioned… lower standby power and become Energy Star certified. Someone might comment that since this is a wireless unit, it can’t be Energy Star certified, but that isn’t correct. It's all in the way the product is designed.

Bluetooth would be a good addition.  It would be nice to push music from a Zone Player to a nearby wireless headset. This comes in handy to not disturb another member of the family. Yes, the S5 has a headphone output, but who wants to the tethered to it?  Bluetooth is cheap. I’ve put it into devices costly under $20 at retail, so it would not add much to the unit cost. It could also be used to pair a handheld music player to the system.
The software could use some improvements in features.  It is reliable and easy to use, yet I prefer better “random music” selection, and the ability for a “Timed Event” to pick up the playlist from where it left off instead of starting from the beginning each time.  Overall, there is nothing to gripe about.

Support:
Fortunately, I have not needed any support during the several months I’ve used the product.  No failures or problems occurred.  However, I contacted the online chat and email support to ask questions about flexibility and features.  They were very knowledgeable and helpful, but the downside is that online chat is slow to wait in the queue.  Before you buy the S5 or a related product, I suggest you contact them to describe your setup and what you might need.  They offer advice to try to save you money through proper system selection, not trying to upsell.  They are also good at simplifying the explanation via help and online videos.  The system is really a LOT simpler than it might seem.

Where to Buy:
Not to rehash something I already said elsewhere, but to summarize, the S5 is readily available from a variety of online or brick n’ mortar stores. It’s just interesting to me that almost everyone has the same high price near the suggested retail pricepoint!

Summary:
So why am I talking about it being worse than a drug? Just buy one and see. You will soon be dreaming up all the places where you want an S5 to play music, and can't resist the temptation to buy more of them. And at $360 a pop (typical street price), you better have a small house or a big budget!

About 25% higher than I think it should cost.
Very reliable and good signal range.
No interference between other wireless systems, phones, X10, Zigbee or repeaters in my house.
Also useful as a network hub
Nicely designed to allow a variety of remote controls (iPad, iPhone)
Engineered very well and a lot better sound than you would expect from a small package.
I guess it sounds like sell Sonos or work for them, but I don’t.


Recommend this product? Yes

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