“Multiroom sound system? There’s an app for that.”
That’s not Sonos’s slogan for its new ZonePlayer S5 wireless speaker consoles, but it could be. Now, in addition to tracking your weight, calculating recipes and identifying bird calls, your iPhone or iPod Touch can serve as a touch-screen remote control for the music playing in different rooms of your home.
It’s a pretty giddy feeling. You stroll magisterially through your dwelling, browsing your music collection on your phone. You can start playing some Broadway in the bedroom, Latin in the living room and rock in the rec room. All with a few taps on the screen of your iPod/iPhone.
You can adjust the volume all at once or room by room. If you like, you can sync everything up so that the same music is playing in every room.
In short, you can pretend to be a well-wired rich person — without having had to pay $10,000 for somebody to install a “system.”
This, of course, has always been the Sonos specialty: multiroom stereo system components that communicate wirelessly, operate effortlessly and require very little technical ability.
In the past, though, Sonos provided only electronic receiver boxes ($350 apiece); you had to supply your own powered speakers to plug into them. You still undercut the price of a professional sound system, but for a wireless system, you wound up with a lot of wires.
The S5 ($400 per unit) is different; it has both the wireless receiver and the speakers built into a single box. Five speakers, actually: two tweeters, two midrange speakers and a woofer for bass, all built into a 14 x 8 x 4-inch white cabinet that looks a lot like one of those white Bose speaker docks for the iPod.
This time, though, there’s no socket for the iPod. Instead, like the speakerless Sonos boxes before it, the S5 speaker is designed to play the music collection you keep on your Mac or PC.
But already, this system, famous for its simplicity, is starting to sound complicated. And it’s true that there are a bunch of different pieces to it:
1. Some music to play. For most people, this means a collection of music files. It might be your iTunes collection on a Mac or PC, or even a bunch of MP3 files sitting in folders.
(If you have some of the older, copy-protected iTunes songs in your stash, they won’t play. When Apple eliminated copy protection from the iTunes Store, I’ll bet nobody whooped louder than the Sonos gang.)
So what happens if the computer is turned off or, worse, gone (because it’s a laptop and you took it with you — hey, it could happen)? In that case, nobody else at home can play any music until you return. It’s nice to be missed, of course, but not after you’ve just spent $400 on a music system.
In those situations, you can copy your music collection to a network-attached hard drive (or Apple Time Capsule) either attached to the S5 or somewhere on the network.
There’s also an audio input on the back of each S5 speaker (and a headphone jack). That’s so you can connect an iPod, CD player or some other directly connected audio source.
2. A home wireless network, complete with a router. Presumably you already have this part.
3. An S5 speaker unit, or more than one.
You’re supposed to plug the first S5 directly into your router. Additional S5s don’t have to be connected to anything but a power outlet; that’s the beauty of Sonos’s “mesh network.” Each S5 repeats the wireless signal from the first one, rebroadcasting the music up to 100 feet at a time.
Ah, but what if the router is someplace awkward — like a utility closet, where you presumably don’t listen to music very often?
In that case, you’ll have to spend another $100 for something called a ZoneBridge. It’s a little white box that connects to your router, wherever it is, and sends its signal to the S5s, wherever they are.
4. Playback software. The only buttons on the S5 speaker console itself are volume and mute. So you need a way to start and stop the music, choose which music you want (by song, band, genre, playlist or whatever) and so on.
For this, you have three options. First, you can download Sonos’s free iPhone or iPod Touch app, which is beautifully designed and wicked fun to use. (My only criticism: Too many confirmations. If I tap the Pause button, I don’t need the software to ask, “Do you really want to Pause?”)
Second, you can use the free Desktop Controller software on your Mac or Windows machine.
Third, you can buy Sonos’s hand-held, touch-screen remote for $350. (Hint: If you buy an iPod Touch instead, you’ll save $130 and have a lot more fun after hours.)
All three of these playback tools can operate both S5s as well as Sonos’s earlier wireless music boxes.
Sonos sent me two S5s and a bridge for testing. My router isn’t where I wanted the music, so I connected the bridge thing to my router, and parked the S5 speakers in two different rooms.
To get started, the instruction card says to open the Controller software on the Mac or PC, and then, while it’s “listening,” press the volume and mute keys together on the S5. That’s how you introduce the first S5 to the computer.
It didn’t work. The computer didn’t find the S5.
I called the help line. A friendly technician told me to introduce the computer to the bridge first, and then the S5’s. That worked, but why on earth wasn’t it in the instructions to begin with?
But never mind; I was flying. I was a multiroom maestro, starting and stopping music in two distant rooms, all from the privacy of my breakfast nook.
Better yet, two taps let you tap into the Sonos’s menu of 25,000 podcasts and Internet radio stations (including and ). Christmas music, anyone? Kiddy tunes? Neo-grunge? It’s all there.
The Sonos can also play Internet music from paid services like Rhapsody, Napster and Sirius.
The music sounds fantastic. Obviously, there’s not much sense of stereo-channel separation unless you have a very skinny head. But holy cow, the bass, the distinct instruments, the clarity — it’s all there. And with serious power. The higher volume settings are literally ear-splitting indoors. One S5 could fill a very large backyard with sound, and probably a school gym, without distortion or skipping.
This all sounds great, and it is great. But you hecklers in back are no doubt thinking: “Well, duh! Why not just buy a $95 AirPort Express pocket Wi-Fi base station, connect speakers to it and then control playback using Apple’s free Remote app on your iPhone/iPod Touch?”
This is true. That’s a wireless music system for a lot less money. There is, however, a caveat or five: the price doesn’t include speakers. That system doesn’t work when the computer is off or iTunes isn’t running. It doesn’t let you control the volume of each room. It doesn’t let you pipe different music to each room. It’s not nearly as easy to grab by the back-panel handle and carry out to the patio for a party. And the music sometimes drops out because it’s using Wi-Fi instead of Sonos’s much more reliable, stutter-free music signal.
So no, the Sonos S5 may not be just what the doctor ordered for everyone, especially in recessionary times. But $400 is a reasonable price for the S5’s size, sound, portability, control, refinement and pure pleasure.
And yes, now there’s an app for that.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org.