Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Review: A Compelling Package: Sonos S5 Internet Speakers + Rdio and Pandora

Posted by Tom Foremski - April 2, 2011

The first time I heard the Sonos S5 multi-room speakers, I was ready to throw them out - they were way too bassy and boomy. But now I really like them and have gotten addicted to controlling them through my iPhone, iTouch, or iPad.

And combined with online streaming music service like Rdio and Pandora, plus access to all your music on your computer -- the combination is compelling.

The Sonos S5 is not a large speaker system, its just nine inches tall and 14 inches wide but it packs a punch and that was the problem: the factory settings over-emphasize the bass -- it sounds like the thump-thump of a low rider -- fine for the streets but horrid in your living room.

But if you hunt diligently enough through the Sonos user interface, you will find access to a panel of basic treble and bass controls. I turned the bass way down and it dramatically improved the sound.

To control the speakers you hook them up wirelessly to your home Wi-Fi and then download a free desktop, or iPhone or Android app. Then you go through a setup that links it to your music on your computer making it streamable to the speakers; then you log it into your online music services such as Rdio, Pandora, etc.

It also has a preset selection of radio stations in your locale that it can stream to your speakers, so there are plenty of choices of music sources.

The Sonos user interface is pretty good but it needs improvement. There's way too many nested menus to go through but the interface is quick so it doesn't feel like too much of a chore.

The user interface is good enough that it could be a great Trojan Horse application because it replaces all the other music user interfaces. For example, you access Rdio and Pandora through the Sonos app interface and not their's -- you don't see their interface at all.

As the user interface for the Sonos app improves it potentially becomes a familiar and a preferred way to access all of your music, online, or on your computer. I'd love see an extended version of the app that gives me control of my living room Hi-Fi which has better sound than the Sonos speakers. That's also why you probably won't be using the Sonos speakers in your living room because it is already set up with a higher quality audio system but for use in other rooms, even the kitchen, it's perfect.

It's small enough to fit on any shelf, yet it can fill any room with music loud enough to draw a few knocks on the cieling from more distant listeners.

The multi-room feature is nice because your music can follow you into another room, or you can play different songs in each room.

It's also very easy to move the speakers to another room, just plug it in and it quickly reconnects wirelessly with all your music sources.

At $399 list price it's a good value primarily because the software makes up for some of the limitations of the speakers, which can be improved considerably with a bit of tweeking once you hunt down the deeply buried graphic equalizer.

Using the Internet to control a speaker in the same room might seem like a long way around the simple solution of an infra-red remote but it works surprisingly well.

It also improves the experience of using and listening to streaming music services because it takes it away from the desktop or laptop. It's very much a "post-PC" system.

What I love about music streaming services such as Rdio, is that I can be chatting about an artist or a song with friends and then we can quickly find it and hear it.

I could never do that with my CD collection, it would take forever in comparison to find the CD, that's if I had it, and then load it and find the song I wanted.

That's what's great about using the iPad Sonos app, the iPad is very easy to integrate into a social setting with friends, where using a laptop would be awkward and a bit anti-social.

There's a lot to be said for post-PC products such as Sonos because the user experience of digital services is made richer and more useful. That's especially true for streaming music services.

I used to subscribe to Yahoo Music for many years, which was pretty good. But LaLa.com was my favorite until Apple bought it and closed it.

I tried MOG but I don't like the interface and the alphabetical listing of songs for each artist is lame -- you want to see the most popular songs--that's the best way to quickly sample and discover new artists.

I like Rdio better than MOG but its collection is small -- it will show you albums but when you try to play the songs they are often grayed-out meaning it doesn't have them to play. This is very frustrating but Rdio tells me they are about to sign a big deal that will add more than a million new songs.

And at just $4.99 a month I'm not going to complain too much about missing songs because there are still plenty to find and play.

Pandora is free and it's also a very good service. You can't choose a specific song but you choose a playlist based around the sound of an artist.

With Pandora you rarely get exactly what you want but you get close enough, which often happens to be good enough.


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