Sonos S5 ears-on review: a premium iPod speaker dock without the dock

We had the opportunity to hear a preview of the $399 Sonos S5 all-in-one speaker ahead of its 27 October US launch (November 10th in Europe). For comparison, we had it staged side-by-side with a pair of Sonos 100 speakers -- a setup that costs $678 ($499 for an amplified Sonos ZonePlayer Z120 and another $179 for the separate loudspeakers). Unfair, perhaps, since Sonos is actually positioning its five speaker (two tweeters, two 3-inch mids, and a built-in 3.5-inch sub) S5 with five dedicated amps against premium iPod speaker docks like the $600 Bose SoundDock 10, $600 B&W Zeppelin, or legacy $349 Apple iPod Hi-Fi. So how did it sound? About what we expected, which in this case is a good thing. Click through to find out why.


Here's the thing: Sonos is not known for making speakers. True, it does sell a single pair of self-branded speakers but that's only to make the buying experience easier for the consumer. It is, however, known for delivering a high quality, easy to setup wireless audio listening experience for every room in the house that just works -- something we can't say for most wireless audio solutions. In other words, we expected a lot from the S5.

Let's be clear though: the S5 is not an iPod speaker dock -- you use your iPhone or iPod touch (with the free Sonos app installed) as a remote control, not as a docked or streaming audio source. This concept can be easily lost as Sonos attempts to better explain what its products can do for a generation of audio lovers weaned on iPods and MP3 audio. Sonos will, however, source audio from many locations including your iTunes library, CIFS NAS storage, line-in connected devices, thousands of free internet radio stations, or subscription music services like, Pandora, Rhapsody, Napster, Sirius, or Deezer depending upon your geographic location. It will then send it to any Sonos zone in the house courtesy of its meshed, proprietary wireless network.

The near-final prototype Sonos S5 we heard was running version 3.1 software which is scheduled to mirror the release of the S5 on 27 October. This update includes Twitter integration as well as some unannounced UI tweaks like unique icons to easily identify the various music services you use or subscribe to. Of interest to you Star Wars nerds, Sonos tells us that it visited Skywalker Ranch for advice on tweaking the sound characteristics of the S5 during development -- something it can do courtesy of the S5's programmable DSP. So consider the S5 Wookiee approved.

Now, even though the S5 was smaller than we expected from the initial round of product images, it easily filled a room in a city apartment measuring about 30 square meters (about 320 square feet) with well-rounded sound. And the portability of the unit makes it ideal for dragging out to the terrace for a summer party or to occasionally add audio to spaces such as a formal dining room when entertaining guests -- any room, actually, as long as there's power. While the S5 couldn't compete with Sonos' own loudspeakers for stereo separation, naturally, it did a decent job with Bohemian Rhapsody at a listening distance of about 6 feet. Overall, we were impressed with the sound -- it was certainly on par with those premium iPod speaker docks costing much more. However, like any all-in-one bookshelf-type system, deep-bass selections from the likes of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion could easily overwhelm the unit's 3.5-inch subwoofer at high volumes. Nevertheless, the unit did manage to drive a decent amount of thump suitable for party goers of a certain advanced age.

Obviously, you won't be purchasing the S5 for critical listening -- that's not the point of this Sonos offering. It's our opinion that the S5 delivers on its promise of "room-filling, ear-impressing sound" for iPhone- or iPod touch-carrying music lovers while opening the Sonos experience to more people thanks to a significantly lower (though not low) cost of entry. That makes it an important product for anyone looking to make a first serious step into whole-home audio.