In my earlier blog article I commented on the first rate fit and finish of the new Sonos PLAY:1. This time I want to share some of my experiences combining different Sonos pieces – I wanted to configure different systems for more functionality and performance compared with typical usage of the Sonos products. What I found was that the products were surprisingly configurable. This aspect of Sonos system capability is admirable and probably not accidental – I think it a result of their considering all the possibilities and testing them exhaustively.
In this article I will share my experiences setting up a Sonos 2.1 system (pair of speakers plus a subwoofer) including some less-than-obvious configurations combining Sonos and non-Sonos equipment. To start, I should say that only the pure-Sonos sub/sat 2.1 system is in the domain of most users. The other options I am suggesting are for people with a bit more audio experience.
2.1 System option 1 – PLAY:1 pair plus a Sonos SUB
This configuration is an obvious choice for making a true full-range, separate-stereo-speaker, high performance system. I would consider this a normal “stock” usage of the Sonos products. The $199 PLAY:1 units are inherently mono, a pair of them will give the $399 stereo PLAY:5 a run for its money, even without the Sonos SUB. Whether you would want one or the other is a matter of space consideration and desire for stereo speakers to be placed apart for a bigger stereo effect. I found that the pair of PLAY:1 speakers running in stereo did not have as much bass as a single PLAY:5, but that the bass was cleaner, with the PLAY:5 prone to mid-bass “bloom” (unwanted resonance). The PLAY:1 and PLAY:5 have fairly different tonal character (true whether the PLAY:5 is run single-unit-stereo or with two as a stereo pair). I don’t have any PLAY:3 units on hand so I didn’t compare those. (Full disclosure: for that comparison I used two older ZonePlayer S5 systems, same product as the PLAY:5 but with the original product name.)
The Sonos SUB is a natural addition to the pair of PLAY:1 speakers, or the other PLAY models as well. The configuration was easy and the automated level set-up seemed pretty spot-on in my environment. The bass level was a bit high in the neutral “0” setting, which I think is the right decision for Sonos addressing the mass market. I preferred the -1 setting. The quality of bass is quite good.
The change to a stereo pair and the addition of the sub don’t really change the basic character of the PLAY:1, which is a bit flat and compressed sounding, regardless of sound level. Spatial imaging in the stereo configuration is good, but I don’t find the overall sound to be as engaging as I could imagine. Maybe Sonos will offer an improvement with future firmware revisions. A slight improvement, in my particular listening room, can be obtained by increasing the treble control 2 steps (out of the possible 10). However, this does not bring the clarity and openness I would prefer. I am nitpicking – the overall effect of the stereo PLAY:1 plus SUB system is pretty impressive, capable of high levels and suited to a wide range of music.
It’s also worth saying that the PLAY:1 is in a completely different league from speakers like the Beats Pill or the Jawbone Jambox. While those products are Bluetooth-connected and battery powered, offering different utility, they don’t have the tight clean sound of the PLAY:1. I would liken the PLAY:1 to a self-powered pro speaker like a Genelec or Mackie.
With the SUB added, the system automatically applies a high pass filter (HPF) to the PLAY:1 pair, thus limiting the bass going into them which will likely allow them to play a bit louder. I confirmed this HPF bass cut-off by moving the SUB across the house (the Sonos mesh wireless network doesn’t care) to an inaudible location and then clicking the “sub” box on and off in the desktop Sonos controller. Sure enough, the bass coming from the PLAY:1 speakers directly changed level with the choice.
2.1 System option 2 – PLAY:1 pair plus any subwoofer
I am sure I am not the first to figure this out, but the Sonos system makes it easy to incorporate any other subwoofer. If you dream of using a huge JL sub with your little PLAY:1 system, here is how. I have a vintage Sonos ZonePlayer100 whose functionality is sort of a mash-up of the current CONNECT and CONNECT:AMP products but without digital outputs. Simply connect the outputs of the ZonePlayer to the sub’s input, then group that ZonePlayer to the stereo pair of PLAY:1 units. When you adjust the group level, you can also adjust the relative levels of the combined pair via the Sonos user interface.
I used a Boston Acoustics PV900 sub with 12” woofer and built-in 300-watt BASH amplifier. I was concerned about synchronization, so I experimentally used a pair of passive full-range speakers from the ZonePlayer at the same time as the PLAY:1 pair, confirming the synchronization is spot on, and I assume this extends to the ZonePlayer line and sub outputs. I am not surprised because the Sonos whole-house proposition depends on this synchronization. This is important because if somehow the ZonePlayer introduced a significant delay to the non-Sonos sub, or if the sub itself caused a time-shift, the performance would suffer. (By the way, this synchronization is blown to hell if you use a non-Sonos product that DOES introduce delay, such as my Denon AVR-3313CI AV receiver, but such a piece of equipment wouldn’t be necessary to just connect a subwoofer.)
I assume but have not confirmed that the current Sonos CONNECT unit with its line output would function the same way. And that model or the CONNECT:AMP would likely work using their subwoofer outs (and ignoring their line or speaker outs), although I haven’t tested this explicitly. If any reader has tried this, please comment!
2.1 System option 3 – Any pair of speakers plus the Sonos SUB
Frankly I was surprised and impressed that the Sonos set-up allowed this option. The CONNECT:AMP and earlier ZonePlayer models do provide a subwoofer line out, but could I use the Sonos SUB with my own speakers? It turns out it was easy to run a pair of passive speakers from the ZonePlayer ZP100 along with the Sonos SUB. In this case, I used the Sonos desktop controller to assign the SUB to the ZonePlayer, which means the SUB will be playing with any connected speakers. The set-up user interface even offered the option of different speaker “sizes” meaning choice of bass cut-off for the main speakers. I expect the current CONNECT:AMP would have the same ability as the ZP100 in this case. I was using the fine-sounding and relatively inexpensive Boston Acoustics A25 speakers (5 ¼ inch two-way, $400/pair). The combination with the Sonos SUB worked fine and sounded good – no major complaints. Funnily enough, the A25 speakers – while not at all large – seemed to dwarf the tiny PLAY:1 speakers.
The only glitch I ran into was that the Sonos SUB took about a quarter-second longer to respond to the MUTE command compared with the ZonePlayer and Boston speakers. So every time I hit MUTE the sub played noticeably longer than the main speakers. I don’t think this is evidence of a synchronization delay, just a longer MUTE response time.
Anyone in the business who has seen Sonos’ trade show booths knows that they usually show multiple Sonos speakers in stacked arrays, looking a lot like miniature rock concert set-ups. These stacked arrays play loud – needed at noisy consumer electronics trade shows. I don’t think people would use the speakers this way at home, but certainly most Sonos users use multiple speakers around the house, playing the same or different music. That’s one of the main reasons to own these products. It is admirable that the configurability allows such a variety of other connection options, for audio enthusiasts or owners of legacy gear they would like to continue using.
Have you tried such configurations? If so, please comment!
NEXT BLOG – in Part 3 of this Sonos “Why I like the Sonos PLAY:1” blog series I will describe using the PLAY:1 as a computer speaker system (adding the line input the PLAY:1 lacks) and creating a big audio soundstage with a THREE-channel SONOS set-up. Coming soon…
© Copyright 2013 Stephen Shenefield