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Should I replace my hifi separates with a Sonos system?

  • 2 September 2016
  • 82 replies
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My system comprises an all British set of separates, including a pre-amp and mono blocs. It still sounds great after twenty years, but things change and technology marches on. Whereas I used to listen to CD's, I now stream my music via AirPlay. A Cambridge Audio DAC is the interface between the hifi and Apple TV. I'm considering selling the whole system and replacing it with Sonos kit, principally for music but also to integrate and upgrade my TV sound. My question is, should I expect the Sonos units to be truly comparable to the high end hifi I've known for years?
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Best answer by Kumar 2 September 2016, 15:10

My system comprises an all British set of separates, including a pre-amp and mono blocs. It still sounds great after twenty years, but things change and technology marches on.
Another angle on this: I don't know what make these separates are, but I know of one make - Quad - that is brilliant in supporting their kit for decades. Their UK service set up in particular, is excellent and can run a check on all electronics ever made by Quad and bring it back to As New, with even a limited guarantee. I have used this service from as far as India, and I know people from EU that also have nothing but praise for Quad service.

The reason I say this is that from a sound quality perspective, there has been a lot less audible progress than one might think. Depending on what and how good the passive speakers are, of course. Where Sonos has added features is in making a lot more music easier to access and to play. There may therefore be a case to keep this set up, and add just a Sonos front end in the form of a Connect. You could also add the cheaper Chromecast Audio, but having used both I think the easier to use Connect - even just the few control buttons that the Connect has - easily justifies the higher price when use over a few years is taken into account.

As I said, just another point of view to take into account.
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It isn't "accurate" but it is enjoyable.
What's more important for music listening pleasure over extended sessions? Accuracy is for test instruments, and perhaps for mastering professionals.
fwiw I have always had a good stereo setup, though not overkill. I also have a desktop studio setup where I have Focal near field monitors that are brutally honest and articulate. I first purchased the Playbar hoping to do a dual-use TV-music setup and getting rid of my stereo (Cambridge Audio, NAD, and Dana). The Playbar alone didn't impress for music or TV. Adding the Sub made the TV awesome, but music still...not there for me. Added a pair of 1s as surround and remembered that I really don't crave 5.1 (and I don't use a lot of good 5.1 sources), so the Playbar went back. I was ready to ditch the whole thing but decided to run the pair of the 1s with the Sub. Bingo - was very impressed. It isn't "accurate" but it is enjoyable. I'm tired of chasing "accuracy" and really if I want that I'll go listen to my Focals and hear every scratch and breath.

For me the Playbar just couldn't give a wide enough soundstage. With the Play 1s I could spread them as far as I wanted. The Sub is pretty much a must-have though - that said I run it probably at a bit lower level than most people. Which is odd since I'm a bassist but go figure...

The legacy stereo setup will get donated or sold. For TV I'll just keep using the TV speakers like I have since forever. Ymmv
My style of listening is long playlists in shuffled mode that play for days with breaks, so the Sonos software antics don't trouble me.
If there is an audible effect on bass punch that is present in the source signal, it is distortion and good luck with getting that bit fixed. My normalisation is a different issue, it affects play units and Connect/Connect Amps as well.
That was someone else. I am concerned that the digital output is not bit-perfect and any possible effect on bass punch. There is compression applied that cannot be disabled. Ryan said they are looking into it. I know you were asking about volume normalization too. Perhaps there are some DSP issues with the Connect related to all three problems that require attention. In the meantime I continue to enjoy the music and get frustrated with the software 🙂
. I find myself scared to click!
Lol. Have you sorted out the Connect distortion?
Yes, but you are forgetting that the Butterworth review did not include a Sub. A bit of kit with a lot more packed in it than even something bigger than a small amplifier. And I for sure don't know what will give better sound than a play 1 pair for less than USD 400. Cables thrown in as well.

And for what it is worth, a quote from the review : " This is performance that the designer of a $3,000/pair speaker could be proud of."

I have no idea about why any inconsistencies arise in the review, I did not write it. And as I said, it may not be much, but is as good as any other casual comment about the unit that can be found on the net.

By the way I have to ask: I have extensively used high end legacy kit as well as a 1 pair + Sub. Have you any experience of the latter?
http://stereos.about.com/od/Wireless/fl/Review-Sonos-Play1.htm

Please don't try and compare a simple internet review to the proper test - it's the same as quoting an article that says that 24 bit is superior, so it must be true.

Apart from the fact that he is simply saying that Sonos is probably the best in it's niche (which I'm not disputing) are we actually reading the same review?

At one point he says "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. " - so he is admitting that a fairly basic setup can outperform a Play1 - that's entirely what I'd expect.
I have a reasonable separates setup in one room, and a 5.1 setup (playbar, sub, 2xPlay1 satellites) in another. Both rooms are the same size. Occasionally I've moved the 5.1 setup into the same room as the separates. The sound is different, and I slightly prefer the separates, but I really enjoy listening to music on both systems. Better still, I often have both systems going at the same time filling the house with music. The perfect synchronization is a joy! I could never achieve this with Airplay.

The second point I'd like to make is that a 5.1 system fills a room with sound in a different way to a classic pair of speakers. It surrounds and envelopes you. Very enjoyable!

In agreement with Kumar, I have listened to so much more music since getting the Sonos gear. That is the best part. Ultimately this is about the music.

Finally, my enjoyment lately has been somewhat tarnished by 6.4 - I never know what I'm going to get when clicking on a song, or album graphic. I find myself scared to click! It's been a backward step. I hope Sonos come to their senses and revert to good UI design principles.

Cheers, Peter.

I don't see what the place of purchase has to do with it

Quite right, it should not. But I know of audiophile thinking that runs on the lines that Amazon/Best Buy = mass market products = products that by definition not able to meet their standards for sound quality. And sub consciously, for the need to be exclusive.
A similar line of thinking to that which runs: high price = high end = higher fi that cheap Sonos kit. Home Audio in particular is rife with expensive rubbish. Note that this isn't the same as saying expensive audio kit = rubbish kit.
Probably because it can be bought on Amazon and Best Buy.

I don't see what the place of purchase has to do with it - either it can be proven (e.g. independent double blind in a controlled environment) to hold up to very expensive kit, or it can't...
More on the play 1: a linked review with measurements and conclusions on the speaker, including when two are used as a stereo pair.
http://stereos.about.com/od/Wireless/fl/Review-Sonos-Play1.htm
Now I understand the potential problem with all reviews on the net and these cannot be ruled out from this review either, but it certainly deserves as much credibility as do casually tossed comments, I suggest. And this one has a semblance of measured performance information to back up the conclusions. Note also that this does not address what the Sub does to address the observed limitations of the unit when it comes to delivering credible low bass, and this review also predates Trueplay.

Beyond this, the advantages in general of a satellite active speaker pair + Sub set up - not just those made by Sonos - are fairly well known.
but that doesn't mean that everyone else will.

Of course everyone won't, never said otherwise anywhere, did I? But and on the other hand, many have found it to be so, not just I. And I have still to hear any one dismiss a well placed and true play optimised play 1 pair + Sub set up as something that doesn't have a chance. Till now. Comments I have heard seem to be about a single unit casually placed somewhere and then dismissed - and in that case, rightly so.
But you miss the point - and that is don't trash a 1 pair + Sub set up without trying it out with an open mind, in a room that isn't too big for it, with True play tuning done. Which kind of mind anyone even asking the question in the thread title would presumably have, and the Sonos returns policy makes it easy to do so, for such people. And beyond that is the 5 pair + Sub. Though I am sure you will find people that will dismiss that using the exact same words that you have quoted. Probably because it can be bought on Amazon and Best Buy.
I found very little loss of heard sound quality......

Yet others dismiss the Play1s - "as a replacement for a top flight separates not a chance".. Clearly there is a vast disparity in the criteria for sound quality. The fact that you personally found the Play 1s an acceptable compromise in your particular environment is great - but that doesn't mean that everyone else will.

I don't recall seeing any double blind tests to prove the sound quality issues one way or the other, only personal anecdote. It would be really interesting to see what would happen. As I'm unlikely to get approval to put electrostatics in my living room, it would be wonderful (and much cheaper) if I could get identical sound quality simply by using Sonos kit.
And for the benefit of others that may chance upon this thread and find their way here:
I replaced a USD 7500 hifi system with a play 1 + Sub; a system that was the last of a few I have been lucky enough to own over the last couple of decades. In my living room that can comfortably seat 8 people, I found very little loss of heard sound quality and none to the extent that it affected my listening pleasure - which actually has increased substantially after installing Sonos because I now listen to a lot more music, a lot more often than ever before.

I found the play 1 pair to be close but not equal to the mid range that my legacy set up delivered, while the Sub did a better job with instruments like the double bass in a jazz trio and in providing a better sense of presence overall to the music during low volume level listening. The combined effect was good enough for me to not regret making the change even for a day. Perhaps things would have been different if I had a living room large enough for all the advantages of the legacy set up to come through, but I don't, so that point is moot for me. And even in that case, a 5 pair + Sub would probably be enough to compete on level terms. Not that surprising really, when one considers the many years of difference in technology - passive speakers based kit is technology from the last millennium. And when one analyses the reasons why it is still priced as high as it is, reasons that have nothing to do with objective sound quality delivered.

For completeness, I have to say that I took as much care over speaker/Sub placement as I would over any hifi kit I have used but that was also a lot easier to with the 1 pair + Sub than with any other kit I have used in the past. And finally, Trueplay did the last little tweaking to take care of what still needed to be done to take room response into account.

So to the question posed in the thread title I'd say - it depends - because to start with, the phrase "hifi system" is fuzzy and inadequately defined. That said, I'd say that in most cases there is a very good chance that replacing the hifi system with Sonos can be done without a sound quality compromise. And in every case, i'd suggest that given the potential benefits of a replacement, and given that Sonos kit is returnable in many places if found inadequate at home, the effort involved in listening to an appropriate replacement set up from Sonos at home is very worthwhile and with care in selection and placement, will most probably be successful.

What Sonos will NOT provide are the psychological underpinnings as to why the legacy hifi kit may still sound superior to some, including the eye candy like dancing backlit VU meters, glowing tubes and the like. For those that need that to complete the listening experience, Sonos isn't the answer, though a Sonos Connect can still bring many Sonos advantages without losing any from the legacy kit. Disadvantages of legacy kit like messy cables, large footprint, dedicated furniture to keep its components on, probable absence of instant start and the like will however remain.
You certainly did. I meant that to get the highest sound quality a low frequency limited satellite speaker like the play 1 can provide, a Sub needs to be in the system. That's some way away from "highest sound quality ever delivered by any system ever made anywhere in the world, for any price"!:-)) Which is what you understood.
Again, feel free to put that down to my poor English communication skills.
I don't remember ascribing "highest sound quality" to it though.....

Sorry, perhaps I misunderstood your "I certainly need a Sub for music of the highest sound quality in the home"

I may be wrong, but I thought that Kumar espoused the use of 2 x Play1 + a sub...

Yet Kumar refers to them as "highest sound quality".

I do espouse that set up and it is what convinced me of the merits of satellite speakers + Sub set ups configuration in general.

I don't remember ascribing "highest sound quality" to it though, or to anything else - I only said it is as good as any I have heard in the room of the kind I use them in, for the music I like, but I would not be surprised if better sounding ones exist because there is so much kit out there. But from my experience of many kinds of kit I am quite happy in the knowledge that nothing will offer me more listening pleasure to the extent I have to keep looking.
As always, YMMV. I should put that acronym in a signature, I think:-).
You dont need the sub for music.

I may be wrong, but I thought that Kumar espoused the use of 2 x Play1 + a sub...

These are the same Play 1s that you have evaluated - "I've already dismissed the 1s as anything more than a hi fi kitchen speaker, as a replacement for a top flight separates not a chance". Yet Kumar refers to them as "highest sound quality".

I learnt many years ago that we're all different, and have very different quality standards when listening to music. I used to have a Quad + Kef setup. Nothing exotic, but not too bad for the time. I was astonished when a friend admitted that they couldn't hear any difference whatsoever between this setup and their own combined mini system (IIRC cost about £100) other than my system went louder. To me, it was chalk and cheese - their system sounded horrible...

IMHO, it's almost impossible to have a meaningful discussion about perceived sound quality in an on-line discussion....
Slightly unfair as the NAD is not an amp to drive big ATC speakers
Digressing a little: presuming this to be the 370, why isn't it good enough for these speakers? I ask because I have used smaller NADs extensively in the past and still use the excellent 325 for my TV audio . The 370 was too heavy and powerful for my needs.
OK, at gig levels they're not as clean as my old system
This may well change if you add the Sub - just a thought, I haven't any experience to back this up.
Umm....with small active speakers that don't do much below 100hz, I certainly need a Sub for music of the highest sound quality in the home, even for the kind of music I mostly play, acoustic jazz. And not having to struggle to do what little they can with these frequencies allows these speakers to then be better at what they do well. The Sub also does a lot to add depth to music played at low volumes much better than the loudness switch does. Another advantage is that placing two full range speakers that both put out a lot of low frequency energy can be a bigger challenge than doing the same thing for one Sub. With the Sub in place, little needs to be done for the satellites beyond making sure that they are aimed in the general direction of the listening area.

But proper integration of the Sub with the satellites is a must if this is to work.

I haven't tried a 5 pair with/without Sub, but there are some here that think it adds value to that as well, for music. But with the 5 capable of decent energy down to 40-50 hz, I agree that the Sub may not be necessary. I don't know enough of the 5 units to say more than that.
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You dont need the sub for music.
I am a convert to the small active speakers + Sub philosophy. High and mid range can be well handled by small boxes that are easier to place in an optimum location, and the Sub does the rest. Provided it integrates well with the speakers in the manner the Sonos unit does.
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So, a month or so in. The big ATCs went last week, and I admit it was depressing. Years of researching and listening, wallet driven optimism and item mistaken gone in the back of a random passat estate. Just me and the 5s left. I've already dismissed the 1s as anything more than a hi fi kitchen speaker, as a replacement for a top flight separates not a chance. The 5s though are in a different league, and I'm really impressed. You can't beat a tightly screwed down box with multie small long throw drivers for fast response, I guess adding the active amplification is the final bit of the jigsaw because these things rock. OK, at gig levels they're not as clean as my old system, but they are much better than any passive system at the price. The guy that bought my speakers brought his NAD C370 and 540 CD player, which I know well as I had them a few years ago, and the play 5 was a better compromise. Slightly unfair as the NAD is not an amp to drive big ATC speakers, but that's the point. I'm a convert to active speakers.
So long as you enjoy what you hear, it doesn't matter if it's true or not. If I want to listen to real instruments, I'll pay to watch someone do it or play it myself.
Now that - all of it - is something I can agree with 100%! Except for being a duffer at playing any instrument.