In this blog series on the Sonos PLAY:1 I’ve been describing observations and experiences with the product in a variety of configurations, so far concentrating on stereo usage and adding a subwoofer – either Sonos’ own SUB or any sub you want, using my vintage ZonePlayer (similar to the current “CONNECT” or “CONNECT:AMP” products).
Used in its purest form, the PLAY:1 already does a great job in several very different (but more routine) applications. Most people will just use 1, or maybe 2, of the speakers on a shelf or kitchen counter or nightstand. Custom installers will find applications for PLAY:1 units around the house, owing to its humidity resistance (important in a bathroom or covered porch), small size, and integral threaded insert on the back (for wall mounting with an Omnimount 10.0 W/C or equivalent). This time around I want to show two usages a bit more off the beaten path – using the PLAY:1 as a desktop computer speaker and also building a three-channel stereo system.
As a computer speaker…
As designed the PLAY:1 does not have a line input, so there is no direct way to send the computer’s audio directly into a single PLAY:1 (or a stereo pair of PLAY:1 units), the way you would with a typical desktop audio system. This is unfortunate because the PLAY:1 is a great size, shape, and design for desktop usage. The Sonos website acknowledges this – in fact a customer service support posting explains that only the PLAY:5 has an audio line input suited to accepting any audio input directly. The PLAY:5 can play the music locally and also makes the music available for synchronized playback across the whole Sonos network.
I am somewhat surprised that the Sonos desktop app doesn’t allow for the computer’s own audio to be play as essentially a line input. I suspect this is because Sonos prefers to control its ecosystem a bit more, and allowing any computer audio to play opens the product family to the wild west of audio players and likely would result in a more confused customer experience. I also suspect that this limitation is brought on by the presence of copy-protected material on the PC, whether DRM-protected songs or movie soundtracks – Sonos has to be careful how it allows protected digital material to travel around a network.
Turns out it was pretty easy to use a pair of PLAY:1 speakers as a desktop computer system. I did need one more piece of gear – in this case my trusty ZonePlayer ZP100 – and this functionality would be duplicated by the current CONNECT and CONNECT:AMP products. Yes, I am cheating a bit by using a separate piece of gear. But in a world where people are using expensive self-powered “monitor” speakers for desktop audio, this doesn’t seem so crazy.
I simply needed to send the line-level audio output of my computer (its headphone jack) to the line input on the ZonePlayer. Once attached, this auxiliary line input become a selectable source for any products in the system, including the pair of stereo-configured PLAY:1 speakers on my desk. Attached as such, the speakers act pretty much like regular computer speakers.
There are a few items that keep the system from being ideal. The first is that I might want to use the sources “built in” to the Sonos – the music services and such – but have the computer audio (blips and beeps) layered on top. Computers themselves have this mixing functionality. Sonos could offer a “desktop” mode that mixes a local line input with audio playing in the Sonos PLAY speakers. Since only the PLAY:5 has a line input built in, I guess one would have to ask if one would actually use the PLAY:5 as a computer speaker. I have done this with a stereo pair of PLAY:5 speakers, and it’s a great, if not expensive, computer speaker.
I encountered one expected issue – a surprising amount of glitches (breaks in the audio) ranging from a brief moment to 30 seconds or more of silence. This seemed inexplicable since the ZonePlayer was 18 inches from the PLAY:1 stereo pair. When the audio returned after one of the longer pauses, one PLAY:1 would start playing roughly 5 seconds before the other. This issue occurred regardless of the type of source to the ZonePlayer’s analog input. I tried several sources to rule out this variable. I tried power cycles. I did not try factory re-sets, however; perhaps that would offer a fix. By the way, this PLAY:1 pair works fine streaming internet-sourced material directly via a distant Sonos BRIDGE.
I found a solution, however. The solution was to hard-wire the PLAY:1 pair by Ethernet Cat-5 wires directly to the ZonePlayer. Problem solved. By the way, I added the Sonos SUB to my desktop system, and it works fine! This is a very potent desktop audio system.
3-channel stereo with Sonos
Cinema sound, and home theater by extension, is based around a 3-channel front speaker array. In fact, the center speaker is considered the most critical and important, as it carries primary sounds and dialog. The front left and front right speakers are “effects” speakers, providing left/right cues and special effects. The historical origin of this was that the first movie theaters had only one central screen speaker. When multichannel cinema appeared, the left and right channels were added to make a front array behind the screen. Surround speakers in multichannel systems take this even further.
Stereo music recording developed on a different path, and at the beginning many channel configurations and microphone/speaker arrangements were tried. Among these variations was 3-channel stereo. Ultimately 2-channel stereo came about because 2 speakers are the minimum needed for stereo effect, and it was a lot easier to create a 2-channel long playing record format, building on existing record groove technology.
Once stereo music became available commercially, people began trying all sorts of placement variations and multi-speaker set-ups to magnify the stereo effect. Perhaps the most well-known is the “Hafler circuit” (named after Dynaco founder David Hafler) which uses a left-plus-right sum to create a center, and left-minus-right difference (or right-minus-left) for spatial effects. The original Dolby Surround (played through Dolby Pro Logic in the home to get left-center-right-surround) is based on this concept, but adds encoding in the recording studio to place sounds in the desired speakers, and adds steering (the “pro logic”) to magnify the playback location of sounds in each channel.
While the Sonos PLAYBAR features Dolby Pro Logic decoding (of two channel sources) as well as Dolby Digital 5.1 channel decoding, I am taking a step BACK to earlier Hafler-circuit stereo and suggesting a mono (left-plus-right) speaker be put between a regular stereo pair of speakers.
In my case, I used a pair of PLAY:5 speakers (older S5 models, actually, but they are the same), set up as a stereo pair. Typical stereo placement puts the left and right about 60 degrees apart (think 11 o’clock and 1 o’clock, if you are familiar with old-fashioned clock devices with hour and minute hands). The PLAY:5 stereo pair sounds good this way, or even with the left and right a little farther apart.
Place them farther apart and there is a “hole” in the image. By wide I mean 90 degrees (think 10:30 and 1:30 on a clock) or more. It’s not to say the stereo effect is defective – in fact the exaggerated stereo effect is appealing. But the wide spacing detracts from the coherence of the stereo image.
Then, I add a single PLAY:1 as the L+R “center” channel. This is easy, since it already is a mono speaker designed to play left-plus-right. The PLAY:1 is placed straight ahead, at 12 o’clock. Ideally all three speakers are the same distance from the listening position.
Group the mono PLAY:1 with the stereo pair of PLAY:5 speakers and you are done. This could also be done with 3 PLAY:1 units, or other mixtures as well. I bet the PLAY:1 is the best for this L+R center channel, because it is the closest to being a point source, while the PLAY:5 has two tweeters about a foot apart.
Adjusting the relative levels is pretty important. Depending on the left-right spacing, you may want the center louder or softer. Experiment! What I found was that on very spacious recordings sounded really big, but with good localization of instruments across the soundstage. (I used Dire Straits’ “Fade to Black” from the On Every Street album). The sound also seems more separated from the speakers.
The sound being separated from the speakers (so the speakers “disappear”) happens for a reason that any movie sound mixer would know instantly. In movie sound, if you want to place a sound halfway between the left and center speakers, you mix it to both those channels in equal levels. This placement is known as “half left.” You don’t place a sound at half left using the left and right speakers (which would be your only option in a 2-channel system). In our Sonos 3-channel system any sound destined for left will actually end up at about half left, a nice imaging effect, and this can be adjusted by the center speaker’s level.
Off-axis listening is also improved a bit, with the center speaker anchoring the image, but not to the extent that you would get in a steered or 5.1 channel surround system. This is because if you are off-axis, you are likely closer to either the left or right speaker, so you hear it louder and it pulls the image to your side. The solution here is an old hifi trick, which works pretty well on the PLAY:5 when each speaker is operating on a single channel. Toe in the speakers – in other words angle them in towards the center of the listening area. This de-emphasizes the closer speaker, because you are more severely off its main axis. What you’ll find is that this, along with your added center speaker, keeps the image more centralized.
I am curious if other people reading this would share experiences with similar set-ups. It is a testament to the versatility of the Sonos system that every combination worked that I have tried so far. I know I am a bit nutty to try all these arrangements, but over the years I have tried a lot of different arrangements for 2-channel and multi-channel sound, so why not with the Sonos products?
And to Sonos: those of us out here in the Sonos user community appreciate the care that has gone into the configurability of the products!
© Copyright 2013 Stephen Shenefield