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Review: Wireless speaker system keeps rooms in sync

Mark Milian
The Sonos Play:3 is the company's most affordable speaker that interfaces with the wireless music system.
The Sonos Play:3 is the company's most affordable speaker that interfaces with the wireless music system.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sonos recently released the Play:3, at $299 its most affordable speaker
  • Sonos creates a proprietary wireless network in a home to keep speakers in sync
  • The company's products have traditionally been expensive

(CNN) -- Despite all the entertainment options the digital age has unlocked, one-button simplicity is fast disappearing.

Take music, for example. A sizable portion of the world's discography is available on demand and often hyperpersonalized to our tastes. However, this access requires clicking, tapping, searching and queuing, rather than punching a single button on, say, a radio.

Meet the Sonos wireless speaker system, which is set up in a way that lets anyone in the house figure out how to pump up the jams. (This can be a good or a bad thing, depending on their tastes.)

I've spent the last week testing a pair of Play:3 speakers, which Sonos introduced a few weeks ago. It is the least expensive speaker the company offers, but at $299 each, these are still luxury items. The costs add up because the Sonos concept doesn't pay off until you purchase units for several rooms.

Gadget Review
What: Sonos Play:3 wireless speaker

Price: $299 apiece

The Verdict: easy to set up, powerful-sounding but probably too pricey for the casual listener
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Each speaker has three buttons on the top for mute and volume controls. Mute can function like an on-off switch if the system has been programmed to constantly stream tunes. The units can be situated horizontally or vertically.

The Sonos system is unique because it creates a proprietary wireless network in the house that keeps each device in sync.

This requires me to keep one Play:3 in the bedroom, where my Internet equipment is stored, because at least one Sonos component needs to be plugged in directly to a wireless router. For those who keep their web of Web wires and hardware in a closet, Sonos sells a $49 bridge.

But the so-called SonosNet allows me to set legacy radio, Sirius XM or Pandora on one speaker, and a playlist from Spotify, Rdio, MOG, Rhapsody or any of the many supported Internet streaming services on another. Or have one music list play simultaneously on all speakers in the house, which is my preference when I have the place to myself.

The settings, playlists and song queue can be tweaked from the Sonos software available for Windows and Mac computers, iPhone, iPad and Android. Unlike iPod docks or Apple's wireless AirPlay feature, Sonos isn't reliant on an outside device to be connected or even powered on in order for music to continue playing, unless I'm streaming, say, obscure songs only available in my iTunes library.

During setup, all of Sonos' literature suggests that users install the computer software first. I attempted to use the iPhone app for initial setup -- especially with all of this talk in the industry about a "post-PC world." I hit an error in the process, and had to delete and then reinstall the app. It worked fine after that. I had to do the same when setting up the Mac version later. A Sonos spokesman said this is unusual.

People who use the new Lion version of the Mac operating system will not be able to stream music files stored on their computer to Sonos. This is believed to be the result of a bug in Apple's software, Andrew Schulert wrote in a message to customers. A fix is expected to be posted within the next few weeks, a spokesman said.

The apps Sonos provides were mostly robust and reliable in my testing. They pack plenty of power-listener features. (Even the alarm clock has "advanced" settings.)

The software offers equalizers and access to seemingly endless music and radio catalogs, many of which are free. I managed to tune into coverage of the London riots after searching for a BBC radio station within the iPhone app.

With all this power comes some design compromises. Many pages, especially on a smartphone's smaller screen, are overly cluttered. Tapping a song does not play that track, but instead presents several options: Play Now, Replace Queue, Add to Queue or Information. Features like that are handy for wannabe DJs but annoying for non-tech-savvy people who may just want to listen to a particular Tom Petty record.

I'd like to have a cheap plastic remote control that could be kept near the shower, say, to advance songs or adjust volume. Unfortunately, the only standalone controller is a bulky touch screen gizmo made by Sonos, and it costs $349.

But once the tunes are flowing, the speakers come to life. Sonos has clearly honed its talents as an audio-equipment manufacturer, cramming some powerful noisemakers into a compact and sleek package.

The Play:3 doesn't get as loud as its more expensive and bigger brother, the Play:5, but the sound and bass are superb for the size. In addition to being larger, the $399 Play:5 has a line-in port for iPods and an additional ethernet jack for plugging in extra hardware. The ZonePlayer line of devices, starting at $349, lets Sonos owners hook up an existing audio receiver to the network.

While the new Play:3 is more affordable, the $299 per-unit price could deter casual music listeners, who may be better served by an iPod docking speaker.

Apple is apparently gunning for the wireless music market as well, with audio manufacturers releasing receivers with AirPlay streaming built in. But that feature only works with Apple products, and the systems so far have been neither significantly less expensive or superior in quality to Sonos. Several tech companies have adopted a competing standard called DLNA, but most people haven't heard of it and fewer know how to use it.

This makes Sonos a pitch-perfect option. The cheaper but still high-quality Play:3 can sing for people looking to outfit their homes for the Internet age of music.

[TECH: NEWSPULSE]

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