Hands On

Sensuous Sound Machine


The shift to digital has meant that music collections these days are more likely to be stored on hard drives than on a CD shelf. Consequently, our playlists are rarely connected to a high-quality set of speakers that can blast our songs all over the house. Even though most people make do with inexpensive and low-quality iPod docks, that's not good enough for aficionados who care about superior sound.

There are a number of products on the market that aim to bridge this digital audio gap. None does it nearly as well as the Sonos ZonePlayer S5. Since its launch late last year, this fantastic, self-contained, and low-maintenance player-speaker has set the standard. Whether you're listening to your iTunes collection or streaming music from services like Pandora, Rhapsody, or Sirius XM Radio (SIRI), the S5—which starts at $399—works with nearly every file format and delivers impressive and expansive sound.

While most wireless music systems piggyback atop—and slow down—your existing Wi-Fi network, the Sonos system creates its own wireless network used exclusively for your music. It's also something that practically anyone can set up in five minutes. I plugged the S5 into my Internet router, installed some software on my MacBook Pro, tweaked one setting, and suddenly Van Morrison was singing in my living room. Minutes later, I configured it to play my personal radio stations from Pandora for some classical, to log into my Sirius Satellite Radio account for some blues, and, finally, to play the live stream of Canadian radio station Jazz.FM91.

You can install as many as 16 S5 players in a single home, but for those in more modest circumstances it's easy to transport the 9-pound player from room to room. There are three ways to control the Sonos System: from an application on your computer, from a $349 handheld controller, or, most conveniently, from a free app on your iPhone or iPod touch, where album art is displayed on the screen. It's easy to adjust volume and what's playing in every room.

Since they're connected to the Internet, the players occasionally get new features courtesy of automated software updates. Expect one later this month that will add access to iheartradio.com and allow two S5 players to act like a single stereo system, one of them playing the right channel, the other the left.

Don't worry about consulting a manual. You'll never find yourself fiddling with obscure settings on your router. You may, however, find yourself listening to a lot more music.

The Alternatives...

Bose SoundDock 10: Great sound and design, with remote access, but your music is limited to one room. Price: $599.95

Tivoli Network Radio: Great sound. Tricky to set up and Web radio is hard to navigate. Price: $599

Logitech Squeezebox Duet: Similar in approach to Sonos S5 except it uses your existing Wi-Fi network. Price: $399.99

D-Link DSM 330: Streams music and video from PC to home entertainment systems in a single location. Price: $249.99

Apple AirPort Express: A middleman: extends your iTunes playlists to any stereo wirelessly. Price: $99

Arik_hesseldahl
Hesseldahl is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com
With Carlos Bergfeld in Silicon Valley

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