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Review: Sonos Play:1 Wireless Sound System

The Play:1 is the smallest Sonos yet. Does it sound small?

About.com Rating 5 Star Rating

By

Sonos-Play-1-wireless-speaker
Brent Butterworth
Sonos-Play-1-black
Brent Butterworth
Sonos-Play-1-frequency response

Frequency response of the Play:1

Brent Butterworth

The relatively tiny Santa Barbara-based company Sonos pretty much rules wireless multiroom audio, but the Play:1 wireless speaker it's launching today faces serious competition. Bose and Samsung both launched WiFi music systems last week.

Based on the prices alone, I'd say Sonos is in a good position. Bose and Samsung introduced products starting at $399. The Play:1 is $199.

Sonos built the Play:1 to compete with larger Bluetooth speakers like the Jawbone Big Jambox. But Sonos' wireless system is a lot different. It needs a WiFi network to operate, and it can work with multiple devices throughout a home. Bluetooth doesn't need WiFi but it works with only one device over a short range. (For a complete explanation of wireless audio standards, see "Which of These 5 Wireless Audio Technologies is Right for You?")

To skip to my full lab measurements of the Play:1, click here.

Features

• Controllable through computers, smartphones, and tablets running Sonos app
• Can be used singly or in stereo pairs, or as surround speakers for the Playbar
• 1-inch tweeter
• 3.5-inch midrange/woofer
• Available in white/silver or charcoal/gray finish
• 1/4-20 threaded socket on rear for wall-mounting
• Dimensions: 6.4 x 4.7 x 4.7 in / 163 x 119 x 119 mm
• Weight: 5.5 lb / 0.45 kg

Setup / Ergonomics

One of the coolest things about the Play:1 -- and the larger, $299 Play:3 -- is that they're like audio Legos. You can start with one Play:1, add a second to form a stereo pair, then add the $699 Sonos Sub for more bottom end. You can put more Sonos units around your house and control them all from any networked computer, smartphone or tablet. Sonos offers free PC, Mac, iOS and Android apps that control volume, bass, and treble for each Sonos product, and also select what's playing.

The "what's playing" part is where Sonos enjoys an edge over every competitor to date. All Sonos devices can access 21 different streaming services at last count (see the list here). Of course, there's the expected stuff like Pandora and Spotify, but also exotic services targeted more toward specific tastes, such as Wolfgang's Vault and Batanga.

And then there's all the stuff you own: Sonos will also access all the music on all the computers and hard drives on your network. It can play 11 different formats, including not just MP3, WMA and AAC but also FLAC and Apple Lossless.

If it seems like this might be complicated to set up and use, it's not. One Sonos product has to be connected directly to your WiFi router with an Ethernet cable. The rest can go wireless. Adding more demands only that you go through a couple of simple steps on the computer, phone or tablet.

Performance

Sonos sent me two Play:1s and a Bridge (which can be wired to your router if you don't have a Sonos audio component nearby). Fortunately, I had a Play:3 on hand to compare it with. I also had a Connect, a box that lets you use other companies' amps and speakers and also route signals from other devices into the Sonos system. Using the Connect, I was able to perform lab measurements on the Play:1.

The Play:1 is the product I always hoped Sonos would make. The company's other products are built like soundbars or dock-type products, with multiple drivers in various configurations. They all sound good, but none, in my opinion, sound amazing. The Play:1 sounds amazing. That's because it's built like a normal minispeaker, with one tweeter placed directly above one woofer. This arrangement gives it broad, even dispersion in every direction, which you hear as a natural, ambient sound -- even though you're listening to just one speaker. (If, of course, you're listening to just one.)

Although I think anybody would be impressed with the clarity and natural tonal balance of the Play:1, the bass is what blows me away. I can't recall hearing another box of this size produce so much boom. Even the deep, deep bass notes that start Holly Cole's recording of Tom Waits' "Train Song" come through loud and clear, with desktop-shaking power.

But it's not boom, really. I expected that Sonos would have had to employ a highly resonant, one-notey, "high-Q" tuning to get so much bass from this little thing. No: It's nice, tight, well-defined bass. It's a little bit boosted, but not much, and the overall tonal balance is so natural and even that it's hard to imagine a better bass tuning for a device like this.

I'd say the Play:1 sounds ever-so-slightly on the warm side -- just a tad tame in the treble -- much like one of my favorite minispeakers, the $379/pair Monitor Audio Bronze BX1. Still, I found the treble detail remarkable for a $199 product, and far superior in this regard to most of the AirPlay and Bluetooth speakers I've heard (many of which use full-range drivers instead of separate woofers and tweeters).

The Play:1 absolutely nailed my favorite -- and toughest -- midrange test, the live version of "Shower the People" from James Taylor's Live at the Beacon Theatre. Taylor's voice and guitar sounded exceptionally clear, with no bloat in the lower range of the voice and guitar, and no "cupped hands" coloration (a nasty tendency many lesser speakers have to make singers sound like they have their hands cupped around their mouths). This is the same kind of top-notch tonal neutrality I heard in Paradigm's best-in-the-business MilleniaOne satellite/subwoofer system.

Flaws? Well, jeez, it's a speaker with a 3.5-inch woofer, so of course it has some flaws. It plays nice and loud, and in fact it sounds a lot more like a large wireless speaker like the B&W Z2 than it does like a Jawbone Big Jambox. But it doesn't have much in the way of dynamics -- i.e., kick -- especially in the midrange. I noticed this especially on snare drum. On my all-time-fave pop test track, Toto's "Rosanna," the snare sounded more like a toy drum than whatever high-end, perfectly tuned snare drummer Jeff Porcaro used on the recording. But I can't think of a product anything like this that would perform better in this instance.

I liked the Play:1 better than the Play:3. It doesn't play quite as loud, but its midrange and, especially, treble sound smoother and more natural.

So what did it sound like in stereo? The same. But in stereo. And I must say, the soundstaging was pretty spectacular, with a really, really deep ambience on the classic Chesky recording of the acoustic guitar group The Coryells.

Measurements

As I usually do in my reviews, I performed full lab measurements on the Play:1. (Real measurements, not "stick a mic in front of the speaker and play some pink noise" measurements.) You can see a tiny version of the frequency response chart here. To see the full-size chart, along with a more in-depth explanation of the measurement techniques and results, click here.

To sum up, the Play:1 measures extremely flat, comparable to what I might usually measure from a very good $3,000/pair tower speaker: ±2.7 dB on-axis, ±2.8 dB averaged across a listening window. To put that in perspective, any speaker with a deviation of ±3.0 dB or less would be considered a pretty well-engineered product.

Final Take

The Play:1 is my favorite Sonos product to date, and one of my favorite wireless speakers to date. It sounds much more like one of the better large wireless speakers (the B&W Z2 or the JBL OnBeat Rumble) than like other products in its size and price range. And it looks simple and sleek -- perfect for an office or den, or anywhere, really.

I'm sure my friend Steve Guttenberg over at CNet will dutifully inform you that you can get better sound for less from two separate stereo speakers and a small amplifier. He has a point. But my guess is that if you're considering a Play:1, you're not considering a traditional stereo system. And of course, a traditional stereo system doesn't give you multiroom capabilities. And then there's those wires to run. And, possibly, complaints from cohabitants about your ugly stereo system. Small wonder Target's gonna sell the Play:1 and not the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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