Sonos now a high end audio system contender


Although I haven't heard it, the Sub/Play3 or 5 pair combination seems to be a high quality sound system for music at home, giving a high end audio system a run for its money, provided one doesn't want head banging levels of sound. I am guessing that a sub+play 5 pair will do that duty as well, in most homes.

The truth of the matter in most homes is that the wives either tolerate or hate most 2 channel audio separates systems, for the wiring that mars the esthetics in a home.

Thus far, Sonos has been an icing on that cake though, bringing in the benefit of internet/digital music to existing high end 2 channel set ups.

Now it looks like it can be the entire iced cake - a play 5 pair, and a discreetly placed Sub, with wires running just to the mains power. No more CD players, DACs, amplifiers, speaker stands, and component/CD racks. With sound as good as that of mid range 2 channel audio systems. Owned music, with lossless rips on a NAS, hired music from internet service providers, and free internet radio from the thousands of stations. All controlled from a handheld device of your choice.

Plus all the Sonos conveniences and flexibility, that Sonos users know so well. One can even break up the main system by moving the play units around to rooms/balconies/patios, as and when required, where budget is a constraint to buying more dedicated units. No dedicated 2 channel audio system provides that capability.

Way to go! And since Sonos thus far has always provided backward compatibility to the installed base, good news for existing customers as well.

All backed up by a world class support service, free for life.

What's to not like?:D - for all the long suffering wives/partners too...

PS: And unlike a dedicated set up, one can start small, and build up to the desired set up by getting just a play 3 or 5 unit first, starting the journey with that small step. No dedicated 2 channel set up can match that, got to get all the basic elements in to even start listening to music.

38 replies

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Kumar... it does have one drawback! It's totally addictive! Once you have your first zone, you will just want to have more.
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I've had the SUB for a few days now, and I have to say it makes a huge difference to my twin Play:5 setup.

Aside from the obvious gain in bass presence and quality, as a bonus there is a huge improvement in overall definition and sound transparency as well. I'm very, very impressed, and if you can afford it, do go for it. You won't regret it.
[b]It's totally addictive! Once you have your first zone, you will just want to have more.

Tell me about it - mine has grown to 4 zones, and I find myself mulling over a zone to add:)

The reason for starting this thread was listening to two zones at a time in my open plan living+dining space. The living room system is a connect/preamp/amp driving a pair of good speakers, while I have a solitary play 5 in a corner near the dining table.

I was listening to both zones putting out some jazz vocals, when I was struck by how good the play 5 sounded, once volume levels were balanced across the two zones. That led to the extrapolation in my mind to how good a play 5 pair+Sub would sound, at a combined price that would be about 25% of the price of my living room system. And minus all the paraphernalia of speaker stands, component racks, interconnects and speaker cable runs.
One reason why a well selected separates system would be better is in the area of longevity.

My preamp/amp is ten years old, with flawless service. It has a reputation for long life, so I expect another ten years from it.

Not much goes wrong with passive speakers, and again, the ones I have are known for build quality.

I am not sure that Sonos will meet these performance levels. Plus, a competent technician can fix the electronics in the separates, in case a component fails. I am not sure what I would do if a Sonos unit fails after a few years. Throw it away and buy a replacement, I guess.
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The problem is you still have to plug all that stuff in...and my business is hiding electronics.

Got a system installing now with 14 ZP120s in a rack....i need a more compact solution.:D
I've had the SUB for a few days now, and I have to say it makes a huge difference to my twin Play:5 setup.

Aside from the obvious gain in bass presence and quality, as a bonus there is a huge improvement in overall definition and sound transparency as well. I'm very, very impressed, and if you can afford it, do go for it. You won't regret it.

I think the improvement in the Play5s is due to them not using the bass reflex port. If you plug them up, I think a paired setup has enough bass and sounds a lot tighter, even without a Sub. Sonos says that plugging up the ports (with matching color socks) interferes with ventilation and might damage the units though.
I think the improvement in the Play5s is due to them not using the bass reflex port. If you plug them up, I think a paired setup has enough bass and sounds a lot tighter

In my case for my solitary play 5, I found that using the controller to tune down the bass to the center position and playing around a little with the wall distance was enough to tighten the bass. Before doing this the all important midrange was muddy too, and the unit sounded like a mediocre iPod dock. Now, it is as good as the best standalone docks.
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I think the improvement in the Play5s is due to them not using the bass reflex port. If you plug them up, I think a paired setup has enough bass and sounds a lot tighter, even without a Sub. Sonos says that plugging up the ports (with matching color socks) interferes with ventilation and might damage the units though.

Agreed, the P5 sounds a little boomy...but many residents of NA really crave that.
Some quotes from the above may be of interest to critical listeners that are potential Sonos buyers.

On the model that preceded the current Connect:
"When used to feed 16-bit/44.1Hz digital data to my high-end Mark Levinson No.30.6 DAC, the ZP80 performed flawlessly. I was hard-pressed to hear much of a difference between the Levinson driven by the ZP80 receiving Apple Lossless Compressed or AIF files, and the original CDs from which I had ripped the tracks, as played back by the Classé or Ayre players feeding the DAC the same data via AES/EBU links (footnote 3)."
And it reports that testing of the Connect continues the recommendation.

On the Connect Amp:

"Though limited to sample rates of 44.1 and 48kHz, the ZP120 exhibited a well-managed gain architecture and performed admirably on the demanding high-frequency modulation test, found JA"
And in the detailed measurements section, the Connect Amp is measured to deliver what it claims - 55wpc.
"When used to feed 16-bit/44.1Hz digital data to my high-end Mark Levinson No.30.6 DAC, the ZP80 performed flawlessly. I was hard-pressed to hear much of a difference between the Levinson driven by the ZP80 receiving Apple Lossless Compressed or AIF files, and the original CDs from which I had ripped the tracks, as played back by the Classé or Ayre players feeding the DAC the same data via AES/EBU links (footnote 3)."
Assuming the rip was accurate and the DAC reclocks, the "differences" are likely to be down to errors introduced by the CD players. 🙂
Assuming the rip was accurate and the DAC reclocks, the "differences" are likely to be down to errors introduced by the CD players. :)

Or, just as likely, there really wasn't any difference, but it was not easy for a high end audio oriented publication to say so:)

In another part of the review, the analog output of the Connect, reflecting its built in DAC performance, was stated to be not as good, but still more refined than that from budget CD/SACD players.

Finally, another quote from the end of the review. I thought that the last sentence truly takes the cake!

"But the real beauty of the Sonos system is the way in which it marries excellent audio engineering to a system design that allows foolproof and efficient setup of a distributed-audio system. It's just a shame, I guess, that these groundbreaking audio products didn't come from an established high-end audio company."

There are also reviews on how the Airport Express and the Ipod, when using their digital outputs, can easily be part of a high end audio system.

It underscores an opinion I have, that the only meaningful innovations in the home audio industry in the last decade have come from Apple and Sonos. The rest of the industry has stagnated, and is now selling old wine in new bottles at higher and higher unit prices, to retain a semblance of profitability in a market where volumes are shrinking.
"It's just a shame, I guess, that these groundbreaking audio products didn't come from an established high-end audio company."
Interesting how they view Sonos isn't it, despite the fact that Sonos is evidently mopping up world class acoustics engineers. It could almost be a lament for a lost era, and for the fact that so many so-called high-end players can see the writing on the wall.

Of course many have altered course, such as Linn with its DS. I woke up when the guys I dealt with at AVI told me they'd discontinued CD players, they couldn't repair mine, and what was I thinking of anyway when a secure rip was better that the best CD? In fact they pointed me at Sonos and the rest is history.

What gets my goat, though, is audio vendors jumping on the bandwagon, dressing up standard computer bits as something revolutionary and charging the earth for it. Okay, simplicity and convenience can have their price but IMHO they're trading on customer ignorance and techno-fear.
One of the things that I think Sonos could be looking at is how to make the system even more stable at the source end. It is the stablest around, but for some people even sending a diagnostic and then getting in Sonos support could be a downer in terms of how to do that, and I hesitate to recommend it such people I know. These folks would even hesitate to get into the reboot all devices process that is common practice to fix a glitch.

One reason I see for the remaining instability is the plethora of devices that are used to feed the bridge - I am referring to the varied third party devices such as routers, modems and NAS devices, that are needed upstream of Sonos. An all in one Sonos box that bundles all of this together, that just needs a broadband feed, and that also broadcasts home wifi for non audio needs perhaps? The standardisation of this package would reduce the need for support even further, I would think. A Sonos box on the lines of Apple's time capsule?

On the other hand, I am unable to understand why anyone would prefer to spend a lot more money on streaming solutions, that are a lot more expensive, from companies such as Naim or Linn to name just two. What advantage do they bring for the significantly larger price, as compared to Sonos? I can't figure that out, and would welcome education about that.
Finally, another quote from the end of the review. I thought that the last sentence truly takes the cake!

"But the real beauty of the Sonos system is the way in which it marries excellent audio engineering to a system design that allows foolproof and efficient setup of a distributed-audio system. It's just a shame, I guess, that these groundbreaking audio products didn't come from an established high-end audio company."


Interesting how they view Sonos isn't it, despite the fact that Sonos is evidently mopping up world class acoustics engineers.
I haven't seen the magazine article, but my interpretation would be that they are casting shame on the traditional vendors for not keeping up with the play, rather than disrespecting Sonos innovation just because they don't have the old school credentials or pedigree.
One of the criticisms of Sonos is that it does not address this opportunity.

I find that I am unable to hear any difference between 256/320 bitstreams and Apple Lossless. HDTV on the other hand is a different matter, the difference between DVDs and Bluray, on a 1080p display, is night and day. I have all my CDs ripped into Lossless, only because it is available, and hard disc space is now quite cheap.

I also find that I cannot hear any difference between SACDs played from my SACD player, and the same disc, ripped into Apple Lossless, played through the Connect with its digital out feeding the DAC in the same SACD player.

Given the above, is there anything special about HD 2 channel music? Perhaps the special care taken in mastering for the higher priced SACDs...but then with care in mastering, CDs of the same performance can sound different.
Kumar,

If you haven't already done so I recommend you have a read of http://people.xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html

This is the crew who produce the Vorbis codec.

If you haven't already done so I recommend you have a read


Ratty,

Much obliged, fascinating reading. It is good to get a confirmation of my instinct. I was aware of the "louder feels better" thing, and why it is necessary to accurately level match before coming to any conclusion as to heard audio quality, but I assure you that I hadn't read this piece or a similar exposition about 24/192 till now:)
IIRC this was the first appearance of the reference, courtesy of jgatie. Not suprisingly it attracted its fair share of detractors...
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Ratty,

Much obliged, fascinating reading. It is good to get a confirmation of my instinct. I was aware of the "louder feels better" thing, and why it is necessary to accurately level match before coming to any conclusion as to heard audio quality, but I assure you that I hadn't read this piece or a similar exposition about 24/192 till now:)


That article was a really interesting read.
Thanks
agron
On reading the above I went and dug out some of my XRCDs, by JVC. I have a few, bought mainly because of their excellent packaging and liner notes - which is one thing that is indubitably lost with digital music, the tactile feeling bit.

I hadn't ever paid much attention to the tech stuff in the CD box till now. On careful reading I understand that mastering is done using a 24 bit ADC. In manufacturing, 24 bits are converted to 16 bits to ensure "true 16 bit dynamic range", whatever that means.

The result is marketed and sold as xrcd24 - 24 bit super analog extended resolution compact disc, that can play on standard CD players. In a box that is well made of course, with detailed notes about each track.

End of the day, just a well mastered CD, with fancy packaging.

Some time before Sonos, I bought my last CD player from Marantz, respecting the build quality of the brand. It also had the digital front panel iPod socket I was looking for, and SACD was the added bonus.

Now, with all the CDs ripped, boxed and put away, thankfully the digital inputs on the player still allow it an existence. With coax cable quite cheap, it was a no brainer to wire the digital output of the Connect to the DAC in the player. But if I was buying again, I would not buy a CD player anymore. Perhaps a DAC, but only after careful comparison with the Connect in analog output mode.

I hadn't ever paid much attention to the tech stuff in the CD box till now. On careful reading I understand that mastering is done using a 24 bit ADC. In manufacturing, 24 bits are converted to 16 bits to ensure "true 16 bit dynamic range", whatever that means.


There is a lot of marketing BS in the audio industry.

24-bit ADCs and 24-bit or better (such as 32-bit FP) digital storage and processing have been used in all professionally produced recordings for at least the last 15-20 years. In fact 24-bit ADCs have been the standard used even in most "bedroom studio" recordings for many years, even on low-end audio interfaces.

The problem is this fact is often extrapolated, by uneducated laymen, into the assumption that hires must be required at the listening end in order to fully resolve that audio signal.

This is probably the number one argument I have heard to justify hires support. There are many arguments in support of hires, and some of them are good. This one is not one of them. It is so fundamentally incorrect that if you see anyone making such a fallacious argument the one thing you can be certain of is that they are deeply ignorant of audio technology and any other arguments they make on this subject are probably wrong.

One the conversion to 16-bit, this is clearly a conversion that is required in order to support the medium which, up until relatively recently, was physical CDs and which is restricted to 16 bits. It's well documented that this standard was chosen to fully represent (in fact, to slightly exceed) the audible range of humans. Again there are some whacky theories in hifi circles about why 16 bits may not be enough, but these aren't shared with scientists, neurologists, audiologists, etc. who (contrary to speculation in some audiophile circles) actually have a very precise and detailed understanding of most aspects of how human hearing operates.

However, what is very true is that the process of shrinking 24-bit audio into 16-bit audio is not altogether straightforward. Whilst 16-bit audio is capable of fully resolving audible signals, it's a fairly tight squeeze and trimming a 24-bit signal to fit can be done in several different ways, some of which have quite detrimental impacts on the audio quality. Certainly badly converted 24-bit signals will sound fairly lousy in 16-bit.

It has taken the audio industry many, many years to understand this. Early digital studio systems and Audio Engineers butchered the quality of many a recording through application of inappropriate technical solutions and incorrect techniques. It is my belief that the major reason for people not trusting the CD format is the poor quality of many commercially released CDs. These days the better recording studios and tools make it relatively easy to make great 16-bit versions which sound indistinguishable from an equivalent 24-bit version.

There's still a huge amount of art and skill in getting there though.

There's also commercial pressures at play: the "loudness wars" still puts pressure on studios to over-compress on many mainstream commercial releases. More recently, some studios have realised they can charge a premium for "hires" releases, but only if they sound substantially better than the standard version. This results in a lot of hires material being produced that is often mixed and mastered differently for the audiophile market. This is a good thing as we get better produced material. The trouble is this is most commonly used to prop up the need for higher-res formats when, in reality, if a 16-bit version was produced it would sound equally good.

In that respect, hires files can be looked at almost in the same way as WMA Lossless, or WAVPACK, or APE: simply a different file format which Sonos doesn't support. Files can be losslessly converted between all of these, except with hires files more care must be taken. You could even argue that the studio hasn't finished the job, and has pushed the responsibility for accurate conversion to you and your downstream equipment. Given the kit most recording studios has for doing this typically costs at least an order of magnitude or two more than the kit most consumers have, one could argue that getting the studio to do it would be more sensible!

By the way, Im personally in favour of Sonos adding hires support if (and only if) they can do it without compromising any of the other features of the system which are far more important than the ability to play music files without converting them to a different format.

Cheers,

Keith

By the way, Im personally in favour of Sonos adding hires support if (and only if) they can do it without compromising any of the other features of the system which are far more important than the ability to play music files without converting them to a different format.

Cheers,

Keith


It always gets down to prioritisation of scarce resources at the end of the day, doesn't it? Do they work on improving stability, delivering products like the play units and the sub, something else, or hires support?

A question: if you were to listen to the best of hires and the best of CD, played through the same high end downstream 2 channel audio components, would there be an audible difference for the better with hires?

PS: On rereading your post I see that you have answered the last question - no audible difference.
A question: if you were to listen to the best of hires and the best of CD, played through the same high end downstream 2 channel audio components, would there be an audible difference for the better with hires?
The Xiph.org article references the AES study which suggested the answer was a distinct "no".
Even at levels above the consumer, there are "wide" is better believers.

I was at an AES session and Tomlinson Holman was the presenter discussing one of his designs. Holman is in the band limited camp, believing that out of band signals cause trouble and offer no audible benefit. At the Q&A following his presentation he was challenged from the floor by a member who claimed that, using a spectrum analyzer, he recently observed response at 200KHz from his moving coil cartridge and thought that it was poor practice to start rolling off the phono preamp at 20K. (indicating that some music was being carelessly stripped)

In the row behind me was a cartridge designer and a disk cutter designer. Cutter man remarked that "we can't put 200K on the disk," and cartridge man (possibly the one who designed the cartridge referenced) remarked, "we can't pull that off the groove, it must be a resonance." None of this would have convinced 200K man that his equipment should not pass that 200K signal.

A question: if you were to listen to the best of hires and the best of CD, played through the same high end downstream 2 channel audio components, would there be an audible difference for the better with hires?

PS: On rereading your post I see that you have answered the last question - no audible difference.


I would say "no audible difference to me" having tried hires both at home, and in a high-end acoustically isolated and treated listening theatre.

I would also say "no difference to the majority of other people, especially if they are over the age of about 20, and especially if they are male". I find it slightly ironic that the biggest supporters of hires are often middle-aged men.

I also find it slightly hilarious when someone with a $300 amp feeding $150 speakers in their bedroom thinks such a system is capable of resolving hires in a way that would allow them to distinguish it from standard res, but that so many people believe that very thing is down to the insidious way that this sort of BS spreads across the Internet.

The reasons I support the concept of Sonos doing hires are largely marketing ones. There is a significant and vocal minority of users who think it's important. They may be delusional, but they are also influential and can convince buying decisions, and this fact is seized upon and exploited by the marketeers and fans of competing systems.

I don't see it as a massive problem at the moment as the madness isn't widespread, and, like you, I would generally prefer they concentrate on developing features with a real benefit; features that are useful to the majority of users. However, I wouldn't be set against it if Sonos felt it was the right thing to do in the future.

Cheers,

Keith

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