Review: Sonos 'Play:3' wireless speaker makes streaming a cinch

Like so many other technophiles, I'm eager to embrace wireless for everything in my home. My dream is to cut the cables, but my reality is nowhere close to that.

To enjoy music on speakers, I either have to connect my computer or iPhone through an audio-out cable or dock the iPhone into a 30-pin compatible boombox. That's hardly an elegant solution that befits my wireless fantasies.

That's where the Sonos Play:3 steps in. It's a speaker that can blast music wirelessly from hundreds of online music services and stations that I can control entirely from any iOS or Android device with an master app. There are plenty of wireless solutions cropping up on the market right now, sure, but Play:3 makes it easy as pie, and doesn't completely drain your piggy bank in the process.

As part of a rebranding effort for its wireless "ZonePlayer" speakers, Sonos's former $400 S5 sound system is now the Play:5 and all new speaker systems going forward will be named "Play:" and then a number. We're told this is being done to provide less confusion and simplify the naming conventions of letters and numbers.

Still Have All My Hair: Easy Setup

As if inspired by Apple's ethos, Sonos's Play:3 really is a machine that's so simple, it almost feels too easy to set up. This is how it all went down. In about five minutes (literally timed it) my Sonos review units were up and running. No joke.

First, I connected two Play:3 units to the outlet, attached the wireless Bridge to my router via an ethernet cable, installed a Sonos computer app from an included CD (also available as a download), followed some very friendly (or at least, it felt dainty to me) on-screen prompts, pressed one button on the Bridge, then two buttons on the Play:3 to sync them to my Wi-Fi network and that was it.

After syncing the first Play:3 speaker, the installer kindly asked me if I want to add any additional Sonos devices. Because I had two units on-hand to test out, I selected "Yes," pressed two buttons on the second Play:3 and presto — done. No ripped out hair, no holes in the walls and no shouting matches with any Sonos customer service reps.

The last piece of the puzzle involved downloading the Sonos Controller app to my iPad and iPhone. That took all of 30 seconds.

I let my non-techie mom give it a go — it took her seven minutes. If you can read and follow simple instructions, you can set this system up.

Good Enough For All Your Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber Needs

With the original Play:5, Sonos courted the cutting-edge/early adopter audio freak. For $300, the Play:3 aims a little lower and its specs took a slight dip. Compared to the Play:5 with its twin mid-range drivers and tweeters and single bass driver, the Play:3 only has two mid-range drivers, and a single tweeter and bass radiator.

That's not to say the sound quality is awful, but you'll notice the audio isn't as rich when you start playing music that's not auto-tuned, such as Bach or a few high-quality Yo-Yo Ma MP3s.

Despite the lower sound quality, the speaker is exceptionally loud. I popped in a few low bitrate songs by Taio Cruz (don't judge) and switched on a radio station to see what's hot in pop nowadays, cranked the volume up to full and the amount of static noise on the tunes was just horrifying.

If you plan on pumping your music in your home, make sure your digital music is of a high bitrate. Those 2MB songs you pirated from the old Limewire and Napster aren't going to cut it.

Teaching The Ol' Speaker New Tricks

While Sonos played up some neat features on the Play:3 — the built-in orientation sensors for switching it from horizontal setup to vertical, streaming from more online music services than you'll ever need, the power to split audio into dedicated left and right stereo channels with two Play:3's connected — none of it is exactly mind blowing.

When flipped vertically, the Play:3 adjusts the acoustics to align with the new positioning and the change is really so-so. You'll hear a slight change in the way audio is projected, namely that it doesn't sound as flat as when it's set horizontally, but to most listeners, the difference will be negligible after a few minutes of adjustment.

For myself, I have a large enough library of music that I won't really need a gazillion online music services, but it's definitely nice to have if you're moving to the cloud or have a subscription with say, Spotify.

I thoroughly enjoyed the split channel sound and controlling two Play:3 speakers from one iPad app, but buying multiple units can get really pricey.

The other sweet feature that's not overly talked about is the alarm. You can set it to play music or a radio station instead of a beep or chime. How'd I use the alarm? In typical geek fashion, I woke up to the Star Wars theme at 7:30 a.m. with the Play:3 in my bedroom, and by the time I finished brushing my teeth, washing my face and taking a nice wake-up shower, the Play:3 in the living room had already automatically turned on the radio to keep me up to speed on the world. Automation isn't new, but boy, when you have it, and know how to use it, it'll change how you think of your home as mega gadget.

Hidden Costs

To go wireless with the Play:3, there's a catch. You see, the Play:3 needs to be connected to your home Wi-Fi network and in order to do so, it needs to either be tethered to your router through its own ethernet cable (which defeats the purpose of being able to place it anywhere but right next to your router) or attach wireless via the $49 "Bridge" (formerly called the ZonePlayer 100).

So the Play:3 might come advertised as $300, but that added Bridge will bring the total up to $350.

I used the free Sonos Controller app from Apple's App Store, but what if you don't own any iOS or Android device? (Yes, those people exist.) Well, the only option you'll have for controlling your music other than from your computer is to pick up a Sonos Control for an outrageous $350. Yep, that's more than the Play:3 itself. So with that tacked on, your total comes out to a whopping $650 for the whole rig.

Hell, it'd be cheaper to just buy an 8GB iPod Touch for $230 or look for a refurbed one that sells for less and download the free Sonos app.

It's All About Tradeoffs

There's no question that I really enjoyed using the Play:3 to listen to music around my home (discovering a heap of new music in the process). Sure, it's light at 5.71 pounds, comes in white and black finishes and is more than enough audio boom for my untrained ears, but the Play:3 is not for everybody — mainly because of the price — and those hidden fees above, if they apply to you. Adding additional Play:3 speakers for that split channel sound and multi-room audio will only propel the starting price upward.

It also would have been nice if the Play:3 had audio-in for hooking up generic music players via a cable and a 3.5mm headphone jack for listening in private and the plastic, despite it being non-glossy could be less prone to your finger's oil stains, but that's just me nitpicking.

For the audio jacks, you'll need to step up to the pricier and bulkier Play:5, which just happens to include a dedicated subwoofer as well.

Of course, to hit the $300 price, Sonos had to make tradeoffs. Trained ears will cringe at the Play:3's sound at higher volume levels, but that's not who Sonos is shooting for. The Play:3, like the rebranding the company is pushing out, is aimed at simplifying the entire experience, through easy setup and broad support for the vast online music services. It's aimed at folks like moms and dads who just want to listen to lots of great music in a small system.

Passable (but loud) sound that the regular listener won't really notice might have been an byproduct, but it roped me in. Now, I just need to decide whether or not I should ask for one for Christmas.

Via Sonos

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