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.