Sonos has made quite a name for itself in the wireless audio game over the years, turning out some cleverly-designed components that magically transform your existing audio system and speakers into a whole-home, streaming audio network. Unfortunately, that sort of wizardry never came cheap, either: We’re talking a cool grand for systems based on the ZonePlayers 120 and 90 that Sonos built its name on.
All of that changed a couple of years back, however, when the company introduced its ZonePlayer S5. Coupled with Sonos’ $49 Bridge wireless transmitter, the $399 S5 network speaker (recently renamed the Play:5) made it eminently more affordable to stream music all throughout the house. Since then, Sonos has introduced the Play:5’s smaller, more compact sibling, the Play:3. But with an even wallet-friendlier price tag of $299, can it still deliver all of the quality and user friendliness Sonos is known for? We put the Play:3 through its paces to find out.
Out of the box
Pulling the Play:3 out of its box, we were immediately impressed with its surprising heft and solid feel. The Play:3 measures a compact and tote-friendly 5.2 x 10.6 x 6.3-inches, yet its nearly 6 lb. weight let us know we were dealing with a well-built, high-quality piece of gear. We were also smitten with the Play:3’s aesthetics. Its form smartly follows its function, and every exterior surface – such as the thick, inert plastic casing, front and back rubber trim rings, and non-removable, metal mesh grille – all speak to a properly thought-out design that should stand up well in a variety of listening environments. Along with the speaker, we found a power cord, flat Ethernet cable, and user guide in the box
Just like its bass mate, the Sub, Sonos’ Play:3 speaker doesn’t have any visible features to speak of, save for an Ethernet port and a threaded mounting insert on the back. The Ethernet port allows the speaker to offer an Internet connection to another component, such as a STB (set-top box) or gaming console, should you need a handy way of stringing along another Internet-enabled device.
Since the Play:3 system is designed to work only with other Sonos equipment, it doesn’t have any traditional speaker wire connections, either. It is, however, self-amplified, using three separate Class-D digital amplifiers to power its twin 3-inch midrange drivers and single tweeter (amp power not given). There’s also a built-in, rear-facing passive radiator to help extend the bass response.
The Sonos music player does offer one outstanding feature built into it by default: It is part of Sonos’ wireless music network. Every device within the network is controlled by Sonos’ Controller app, which works on both Mac and PC computers and also with Android or iOS tablets and smartphones. The Controller app also allows access to a dizzying array of music services, including over 100,000 internet radio stations, online music services like Amazon’s Cloud Player, Spotify, Pandora and Rhapsody, and of course your own networked music files such as your iTunes library.
The Sonos network allows for an unlimited number of compatible music player devices, too. That means you can have as many Play:3s in your home as you’d like. Each one can be assigned to play different music in different rooms while being controlled from a networked computer, tablet or smartphone. For example, you could simultaneously pipe your iTunes library into your living room, play Spotify in the den, and stream an Internet radio station to your bedroom while controlling it all from your smartphone, tablet, or any computer that’s connected to your home network.
Sonos’ Play:3 does have another practical, less obvious feature, which is its placement-versatile design. You can position the Play:3 either horizontally or vertically and in a wide variety of locations; a quartet of rubber bumpers along the left edge of the cabinet facilitates placing the speaker upright without marring your furniture. Other features include active DSP circuitry, adjustable bass, treble and loudness controls, and a stereo pairing option – a feature which allows two Play:3 speakers to be mated as a stereo pair – all of which are accessible from Sonos’ controller app.
Since the Play:3 is designed to mate exclusively with other Sonos devices, we needed the appropriate ancillary devices to test it with. Sonos kindly sent along a pair of Play:3s, its Bridge wireless transmitter, and Sub subwoofer (which we recently reviewed independently). We started our set up by first connecting the Bridge to our computer network’s Wi-Fi router, then booting up the included disc on our laptop and following a series of prompts in the instructions. Once the software is installed on your computer, a peer-to-peer wireless “mesh” network is setup between your computer and the Bridge, making available to the Sonos system the music files stored on your computer or network drive. From there, you can add in any online music services you’d like. You then add your Sonos amplified components to the network by following the instructions on your computer or controller device followed by a simple push of a button on the device itself.
Once we added the Play:3s to our Sonos network, all that was left was selecting whether to set them up as a stereo pair or put each in a different room. We decided to try them as single speakers in two different rooms first, followed by evaluating their performance as a pair. Once the software was installed on our computer and we downloaded the controller app to our iPhone, we were ready to get our groove on. The whole process from setup to playback readiness took us less than 5 minutes, not including the time it took to get the software and apps installed on our laptop and our iPhone 4.
As soon as we settled in to listen, we had to do a sonic double-take. The Sonos Play:3 delivered a huge, room-filling sound, coupled to a full, yet highly resolving tonal balance. In fact, the sound field at times seemed so big, we initially had to check that our A/V system’s main speakers weren’t running, too. The Play:3 somehow managed to project more sound into the room than many other speakers more than twice as large. And once we tried them in stereo, we heard an even bigger wall of sound, compelling us to just sit in front of the speakers, relishing in the excellent soundstaging, imaging, and depth that comes from going from mono to stereo.
Once we were able to wrap our brain around what we were hearing, we started noticing the Play:3’s other sonic virtues, too, like its neutral and even-handed tonal balance. This little Sonos wonder could move from Mozart to Miles Davis to Massive Attack with ease. The Play:3 always delivered a clean, clear and fairly well-detailed sound, regardless of music we played, making all of it sound highly enjoyable and easy to listen to.
Even though the Play:3 didn’t have any deep bass to speak of (no surprise given its size), we were more than just a little impressed with what bass it did have. The Play:3 always delivered low end that was rich, full and cleanly reproduced, even on more demanding fare like Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreaks or Deadmau5’ latest, >album title goes here<.
Perhaps the Play:3’s only consistent sonic bunion lay in the midrange. Listening to something like the Beatles’ recent remastering of Magical Mystery Tour, we could hear just a bit more compression than normal right in the heart of the mids along with a little more spittiness and shoutiness than we’re used to. And if we turned up the volume a bit too high, we could start to hear a fair bit of guitar distortion on the Fleet Foxes’ track, “Sun Also Rises.” Still, these are minor criticisms for such a low-priced and well-rounded wireless music system .
We should also note that the Play:3’s operational performance was just as good as its sonic performance. Both of Sonos’ PC and iPhone controller apps worked flawlessly throughout our testing, and we appreciated how easy it was to explore and save internet radio stations to our favorites list for repeated listening. Every control and playback feature was easy to find and understand, and navigating the apps couldn’t have been more intuitive.
Whether we were streaming to a Play:3 placed in another room or literally in another house, we never had any trouble with its signal transmission, nor did we ever experience any random hiccups, resets, or drop outs. The Sonos’ mesh network worked perfectly, linking up our system regardless of configuration every time and without fail. Buyers looking for an easy and low cost multi-room or whole-house solution without any retrofits to their dwelling should seriously consider the Sonos Play:3.
Sonos has a real winner on its hands with the Play:3. Its blend of excellent sound, smart style, dependable operation and ease of use makes it a standout performer in the world of wireless audio. And considering just how much you get for your money, the Play:3 has to be the best value component yet to come down the Sonos pike. Whether as a single unit or a stereo pair, in one room or many, no other network audio solution that we know of makes it this easy and this much fun to enjoy your favorite music. We can’t think of a higher compliment than that.
- Huge, room-filling sound, small footprint
- Highly enjoyable sound with all kinds of music
- Multi-room setup is remarkably simple
- Sonos controller app a joy to use
- Solid, inert construction
- Mids can sound a little distorted
- No standard speaker inputs, i.e. only compatible with other Sonos gear