Panbo

Sonos WiFi HiFi tested: excellent at home, maybe for boat

... written for Panbo by Ben Ellison and posted on Mar 23, 2014

Sonos_Play_1_test_cPanbo.jpgI knew little about Sonos wireless hifi a month ago. While the ads suggested an elegant Apple-like design, I had the impression it also came with Apple-like premium prices and was certainly not suitable for boats. But now that I've lived for a month with the relatively new Play:1 seen above, I may have been wrong on both counts!  Many reviewers have already praised the little speaker/amp's hardware and audio quality compared to similar wireless speakers. I want to detail the superb Sonos audio access and control software that you can tap into with just one $199 Play:1(though adding more components will be a huge temptation) and also discuss how Sonos can make sense afloat.

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There's a lot happening in the Sonos Controller PC app screenshot above and I hope you'll click on it for a bigger view. Starting at left you'll see that I have two "Rooms" set up -- Sonos loaned me two Play:1's and also a Bridge for review -- and that each is playing a different source. I can control either room from my desk or with any of the mobile iOS and Android apps seen running in the top photo. I can also group the two rooms to a single source or set up the two Play:1's as a stereo pair in one location.
   On the right are my primary music sources. Some are Sonos standards like Favorites, Playlists, and a remarkable selection of online Radio stations (for instance, they even list the two small community radio stations in my area plus a scanner feed for the county sheriff's department).  I had to set up other sources like the Music Library (in my case, two iTunes libraries on my main PC), along with my Amazon and Stitcher accounts, but all that was so easy that I've been experimenting with Pandora and Spotify and will probably try others in Sonos's deep Music Services list.
   The middle column shows what I'm listening to in the selected room, along with a queue that could be an old iTunes playlist, a list of today's podcasts collected in Stitcher, or a custom mix of many sources that I can save as a new playlist. I've messed with a lot of audio players over the years, but this is a whole new level of easy everything.

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Setting up or changing the Sonos hardware system is also extraordinarily easy. In fact, the automatically collected product registration data seen on the Sonos site above suggests that once I'd registered and downloaded the iPad software, it took just seconds to get a Play:1 and the Bridge operational. Just plug the Bridge into your WiFi router and AC power, "Add a Sonos Component" in the app, tap the button on the Bridge...done. Plug the Play:1 into any AC outlet in the wide range of the Bridge, add component again... done. Note that the Bridge is not necessary if you can run an Ethernet cable to a Play:1 or any other Sonos component; they can all serve as bridges. I tried this and didn't even have to add the Play:1 component again; it just replaced the Bridge without losing any settings except the unsaved music queue.
   Note, too, that by using the Sonos Connect I'll get a new "Line In" audio source that will be anything playing on my living room stereo and perhaps more importantly, my old but able living room stereo will become a Sonos Room that we can use with any of the Sonos app controls and digital music sources. And I say, "will," because this indeed was one of those dangerous product tests that led to a personal purchase. I've ordered two Play:1's and a Connect that should get here before I have to return the loaners. I've learned enough about Sonos to commit to at least a small home system, but the boat remains a question mark.

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For some cruisers like me the main problem with using Sonos onboard is AC power. While Gizmo has an efficient Victron inverter, I only have to use it when running the boat's work/entertainment PC and monitor/TV. By contrast, the yacht seen above probably has constant AC and it makes a lot of sense to use that big Play:5 as a portable speaker that can sit at the wet bar or easily move out on the sun deck in good weather (or be stowed in a locker if there's danger of it banging around).  When the yacht has Internet access, probably a lot of the time, all the Sonos audio sources are available and it's also common these days for such a vessel to have a PC music library or possibly just a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device, which Sonos also supports.

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Marine Professionals in Fort Lauderdale, a company that's installed a lot of Sonos gear on yachts, also sent me a photo showing how a Fusion IP700 marine stereo can use a Sonos system as a wireless speaker zone. The possible configuration -- Fusion speaker zone to Sonos Connect audio in, Sonos Connect audio out to Fusion auxilary line in -- sounds complicated but the results could be easy-to-use yet spectacular source and speaker placement flexibility even on a relatively small boat. And note that the small Play:1 can be bracket mounted -- though the audio design won't suffer jammed on a book shelve either -- and only uses about 8 watts at volume and 4 in standby mode. However, my boat experimentation will have to wait. 

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I'll close with some shots of the new controller app that Sonos has in public beta test. For me, it sealed the deal. While I was already impressed with how well everything I've described currently works -- it seems almost magic how quickly most sources start playing, for instance -- it's also great to see that Sonos is not resting on its many laurels. (Check this credible WireCutter "Best Whole Home Audio" review.)
   The new player is lovely and intuitive, and if you want, you can dig deep into settings like managing your library (middle screen above), but what really got me is how well it supports third party sources. In that third screen above I'm able to interact directly with Pandora, and the screen below shows how the new Universal Search feature can reach across multiple sources. Suddenly, my music collection is not just more accessible than ever; it's now the hub around which I can explore endlessly. Sonos likes the tag line "Steam all the music on earth" but their system reminds me of "To the future and beyond!" 

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Comments

I am also a huge fan of Sonos. I tried to use Apple's AirTunes and had consistent problems. With Sonos it just works. May not be a great boat solution until they have a 12v input but it is great for home!

Posted by: Pat McQueen at March 23, 2014 6:45 PM | Reply

Exactly, Pat, and what is the dollar value of "just works"? I don't know, but I think it may increase the older and/or busier one gets.

One move I hadn't actually tried was to make the two review Play:1's into a stereo pair. I tried it earlier this evening and it's terrible in terms of how good it sounds and how much that may cost me ;-)

But it sure was easy: I added the Bridge back into the system, moved the Play:1 that was serving as the bridge to my office, enabled stereo pair ("Press volume plus on left speaker"), and didn't even lose the Pandora station I was playing. Magic!

Posted by: Ben in reply to Pat McQueen at March 23, 2014 8:54 PM | Reply

Um, regarding the power supply - they are NOT bringing 115V in via that tiny coax jack, so there must be a wall-wart involved. What voltage is it supplying? (shud be marked, albeit in tiny print..:-)

Posted by: Hartley at March 23, 2014 11:22 PM | Reply

It's not coax, Hartley, and there are no wall warts. The power cable for the Play:1 is 18AWG, looks top quality, and shouldn't be a problem. The peak draw I saw playing bass-heavy reggae at an uncomfortable volume was 9 Watts of 120v AC.

I don't mean to discourage negative opinions about Sonos, though. I already made a purchase, but there is a 45 day "any reason" return policy ;-)

Posted by: Ben in reply to Hartley at March 24, 2014 7:48 AM | Reply

I have Sonos for my whole house music system. I bought a starter system years ago and have added along the way. It is a great product and their technical support has been excellent.

Posted by: Lookout Sailors at March 24, 2014 8:26 AM | Reply

I used to keep 3 zoneplayers on the boat. It was the AC power that's convinced me to, once again, try without them.

Sonos units don't like to be turned off. They need an IP Address from DHCP and they quite often need updates from the Internet. One problem you can experience is Sonos components at different revision levels. If your Sonos iPhone app updated and you head to the boat, you could be out of luck until you update the Sonos components. That's happened before.

I've also had problems with the Sonos if I turn it off and then power it on just when I want it. They miss getting an IP, or lose connection to each other, or to the music library sometimes.

Lastly, for power, the Sonos does not go into standby power unless the queue is empty.

None of these are a problem for home use, but on a boat with limited AC, it can. Last year my AC waste was really high. From TV''s, stereos, Sonos, and NAS units that were powered on, but mainly in standby, I drew my inverter bank down and needed a lot of generator time.

I had tried to use Airplay early last summer as a way to avoid the Sonos. My Pioneer stereo in the salon supported it, so it was a no brainer. I added an Airplay router to my fusions (connected with RCA cables to the Aux input).
Airplay was terrible. It cutout for a few seconds quite often and didn't connect a few times when I had people over and didn't want to play with it. Apple says it was a wireless issue, but it was through my gigabit ethernet connected laptop to the pioneer and apple devices - all wired. The other problem was that the 2 zones were out of sync by about a second, so as you passed from one zone to another, you would hear that.

The Sonos had none of those problems. Sound was perfectly in sync between zoneplayers, never dropped, and never had an issue. All mine were connected via 4G router to the Internet (having all my devices access the internet was a big "Costly" mistake that I won't repeat this year).

This year, I'm using the Fusion BT module to get wireless sound in, then I'm running a set of RCA cables from the Fusion OUT to the Pioneer IN. I just connected the BT Module and it seems to work out ok. I haven't tuned the stereo for this, so the bass is a bit high (and the boat isn't in the water so that may affect things also). I'll be wiring the RCA cables next weekend to see if that gives me control over the whole system.

Bottom line - if you can afford the Sonos and its power requirements, there is nothing more flexible and powerful.

Posted by: Cameron at March 24, 2014 9:34 AM | Reply

We have been using Sonos at The Yacht Club at Channel Islands Harbor for almost 2 years. It is easily expandable and we can control music from both the PC's and I can control music anywhere in the club with my IPhone or IPad.

As we add music to our ITunes, it updates easily to Sonos as well.

As we add wireless speakers, it is quick and easy.

The ONLY negative is sometimes there is WiFi interference which can stop the music. Fortunately this is not frequent, but it is the negative compared to hardwired speakers.

Posted by: ValkyrieYachts at March 24, 2014 10:37 AM | Reply

Thought I'd share my Hifi Wifi experiences with you. I enjoy simple.
I recently ripped out the old car stereo in our 42' sailboat along with the external speakers (nothing like 2 6" holes in the cockpit to allow water in whilst in a storm). I searched for bluetooth speakers and came up with the UE Boom http://www.amazon.com/Ultimate-Ears-Wireless-Bluetooth-Speaker/dp/B00CM0XHP6/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1395678039&sr=8-2&keywords=ue+boom

Works great and gives us about 9 hours of play time on a single charge. Nothing fancy, just great sound.
Love your website and have purchased items based on what I've read here (Vesper etc.).
Best Marcus

Posted by: Marcus at March 24, 2014 12:23 PM | Reply

As an alternative, I already had a sat dome on my boat and a subscription to DirecTV.

I picked up one of these Bluetooth transcievers from Amazon http://amzn.com/B00713RSE0. It can receive music from my iDevices and play it on the nice system attached to my TV or, even more useful, can broadcast the DirecTV music channels over a portable Bluetooth speaker.

Not cheap if you don't already have the sat dome but it is a very low cost addition if you have a family that already requires TV in remote areas.

Posted by: John Williams at March 24, 2014 12:46 PM | Reply

I'm a little a bit less techie, but I recently got a rechargeable blue tooth JBL Flip. It simply blue tooths to my Ipad, iphone, or other source. The sound is really good and it's small and less than $100. Phone calls also go through it. It can be placed on a table and I can walk anywhere on my 55 ft trawler, it will keep playing from my iphone in my pocket. Charge lasts about three hours.

Posted by: Bill Gardner at March 24, 2014 1:22 PM | Reply

I'm afraid that any product I write about sounds "techie" because I tend to get into how it works and what the possible complications are. But I really do appreciate an easy, fast interfaces, especially when it leads to powerful functionality. And that's the Sonos story in my view.

In fact, one major reason I'm starting a home Sonos system is that I think my very non-techie spouse will be able to use it, and will really like what she finds.

Posted by: Ben at March 24, 2014 7:43 PM | Reply

Ben, I have had Sonos at home now for over 7 years and they are great. I set up a two zone/5 listening area system in my boat and couldn't be happier. To achieve this I use one sonos connect amp for the flybridge and a second one with two Dayton amps driving sub-woofers, for the cockpit and inside. Also tied to their i-Pod unit as media server and one of their remote units. Also use i-Pad and Android phones as remotes.

One comment made was about different revision levels creating update situations. I also experienced this as I use my phone as controller in both the boat and home. No major problem as I have internet on my boat and a router setup. Also handy for Pandora or internet radio stations. System is beautiful and Sonos is top notch as a company. I have needed their assistance, and warranty for the controllers, and all I can say is they are superb.

If your boat has a genset I can strongly recommend it.

Posted by: Rolando at March 25, 2014 2:33 AM | Reply

Note that Cameron is also sharing his extensive Sonos-on-a-boat experience over on the Garmin Fusion-Link thread:

http://www.panbo.com/archives/2014/03/fusion-link_n2k_garmin_happy_together.html

Posted by: Ben at March 25, 2014 9:41 AM | Reply

I'll admit that reading this article is making me rethink my removal of my Sonos, or at the very least not worried about having to add it back if I do :)

Posted by: cameron at March 25, 2014 5:00 PM | Reply

I'll admit that reading this article is making me rethink my removal of my Sonos, or at the very least not worried about having to add it back if I do :)

Posted by: cameron at March 25, 2014 10:23 PM | Reply

My laptop adapter, like the Sonos, wants 120v, and I also like to occasionally use my coffee maker and microwave. I use Coastal Explorer on the laptop for navigation and AIS. However, I surely don't need the 120v power to the battery chargers, refrigerator, or water heater.

I added a double pole single throw switch and run my modest 1500w inverter through it so that it does not power anything 120v that I don't need. I do power my outlets so I can use my coffee maker OR microwave, which includes the laptop.

With just the laptop drawing power my 12v DC ammeter that feeds the inverter only takes about 1 amp. Thus, I surely don't have to run the genset just to get 120v.

Similarly, you could barely measure the draw on your inverter to power the Sonos, plus you could have 120v power available for laptops or whatever.

Posted by: armand at March 26, 2014 1:13 AM | Reply

It depends on your sonos unit. The ones without amplifiers would draw less power certainly. If you have music queued up or are listening to streaming music, then the Sonos is at full power (and so is the amp), even if you're not listening to it. I learned this the hard way, by just pausing music at night so I could pick it up in the morning.

All Sonos units have wifi and there is no way to disable it, so even in standby, that's on also.

I'm not saying these units are power hogs, they're really quite efficient - for home units. Sonos never really intended their products to be used on a boat with limited power, so I doubt it's something they cared much about. To them, instant on, and functionality would have been much more important.

Posted by: Cameron at March 26, 2014 9:29 AM | Reply

Here's an interesting question for somebody: If I have a Sonos Connect and plugged it directly into my JL Audio amplifier (bypassing the Fusion entirely), what would be the downside?

Right now the Fusion does have some balance and other sound tuning settings, but I wonder if this can be replicated via the Sonos itself, or whether the Fusion plays a valuable part?

Posted by: Cameron at March 26, 2014 9:31 AM | Reply

Cameron, my Sonos connect is scheduled to arrive today and I plan to try it with my old Adcom home amp and also the Fusion 700 set up in the lab.

Also, Sonos apparently uses Class D amps, which are supposed to be power efficient and are also used in Fusion's higher end marine stereos. Even the Play:1 has Class D amps according to Popular Mechanics:

http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/gadgets/reviews/sonos-play1-hands-on-review-16064757

Posted by: Ben in reply to Cameron at March 26, 2014 9:39 AM | Reply

Cameron, We have never tried connecting a SONOS Connect directly to an amp. To my knowledge the SONOS Connect does not provide the balance and fade features of the stereo. The Fusion stereo is a perfect solution for the audio IN/OUT of the SONOS, as Ben described above, " -- Fusion speaker zone to Sonos Connect audio in, Sonos Connect audio out to Fusion auxilary line in --"

Posted by: Marc Curreri at March 26, 2014 4:43 PM | Reply

Marc,

The answer is yes. I have it connected in two zones exactly that way at home. If you look at their manual you can see that you can even connect them directly to powered speakers. The volume and balance function is handled with the Sonos remote (iPhone, Android, dedicated remote).

Posted by: Rolando at March 28, 2014 1:36 AM | Reply

Marc, forgot to mention that the controller not only selects the music to play but also where to play it and at what volume in EACH area. This is important as most of the time when adjusting the volume you really want to affect the area YOU are listening to. Let others adjust theirs or go physically there to check the appropriate level.

Posted by: Rolando at March 28, 2014 1:41 AM | Reply

Thanks, Rolando. I'm also having a good experience here with the Sonos Connect line out to my old Adcom pre-amp/amp and Bose speakers. I can control volume, bass, and treble either with Sonos or Adcom (though I suspect it's best to leave one near neutral). And there's no hiss or other noise on the old stereo when the Sonos source is off.

If I put a nearby Sonos Play:1 on the same source as the stereo there is a noticeable time lag, but if I Group those speakers they synchronize fine.

Incidentally, by adding the Connect and the two new Play:1's to the review hardware, I didn't lose any of the Controller sources and settings I'd already set up. Then I just moved the Ethernet cable from the review Bridge to the Connect, unplugged the two review Play:1's and sent them all back. All good!

Posted by: Ben at March 28, 2014 9:56 AM | Reply

Ben,

You are right about the lag. Its the one area where I was left wanting as I wanted to output the TV sound in my boat through the Sonos so we could watch football games outside in the cockpit or movies with good sound. The Sonos will only accept audio-in through the RCA inputs which must then be converted to digital, eg. time lag, and there is no digital input available. For playing music without a video source its no problem but for watching a movie you have lip sync issues. The delay issue will allways happen if you hear a sound source that is also fed to the Sonos, but this except where I mentioned before, I have never have felt was a limitation.

Posted by: Rolando at March 28, 2014 12:37 PM | Reply

I think the Sonos is a great simple solution, I think it would be nice if they offered a DC version for the marine RV market as I think the two together may be large enough to support it. I have family members with the Sonos system and I agree it is very user friendly and they love it. In comparison I was on a boat recently with a Nuvo system that just seemed way to complicated for a 50 ft boat.
http://www.smarthome.com/8271GM/NuVo-Technologies-Essentia-6-Source-6-zone-Audio-Distribution-System-Amp-Only-NV-E6GM-DC/p.aspx

Posted by: Colin A at March 28, 2014 5:09 PM | Reply

I am convinced enough to try putting my sonos units back on the boat.

I'm going to install and a-b switch so I can switch between the sonos and fusion audio input to the main amp that powers the bridge. I am still insure how best to handle the transom speakers. I have the fusion remote (connected via nmea2000) on my transom that can control them, and that is convenient. Last year the transom had its own sonos zone player zone player and that worked well too. I have some wiring issues with the speaker wires there so the zone player placed near them eliminated the need to run new wire through the boat.

I'll figure that out shortly.

I'm very encouraged that I should not have power-on issues! Those were my biggest complaint. My Dad has a sonos system through his winter house and leaves it on all summer just to avoid the power-on problems when he arrives too.

I certainly cannot complain about the interface, it's the nicest and most powerful by far.

Posted by: Cameron at March 29, 2014 9:36 AM | Reply

Hope it works out, Cameron, and that you'll report back however it goes.

I do want to clarify the different time lag issues seen by Rolando and I. I can make it happen by playing the same source on a Play:1 and the Connect going to my amp, but it goes away if I Group the two "rooms" (which is very easy to do and undo).

But I can see that what Rolando is doing -- using the Connect's line-in as a source -- would create time lag between the Sonos audio and the video (or speakers) associated with the third party amp source. It might in part be the difference between analog and digital input on the Connect but I think it more likely that Sonos buffers its audio a bit so that it can deal with intermittent wireless interference.

Buffering might partly explain why the Sonos sound seems so solid and also how it can synchronize sound in Group mode.

Posted by: Ben in reply to Cameron at March 29, 2014 10:11 AM | Reply

Ben,

I have not had any experience with the Sonos speakers systems. They do look like a great alternative. I do have many years of experience with Airplay and have had some occasional interference with the signal. The many advantages of AirPlay with the flawless integration of my iPhone, iPad, iTunes, screen mirroring, Apple Remote app and Apple TV more than make up for a little interference.

It sounds like Sonos is not immune to interference either. Both systems us the same 2.4 and 5ghz frequency bands so they are not that different.

One thing that might help is to use a dual band router that allows the separation of traffic on the WiFi network between the 2.4 and 5ghz bands. There are many articles on the web that will help you do that.

I recently put together a cost effective wireless audio and video entertainment system for my small boat. It is based on 12V and 5V hardware using Airplay. Check it out at http://i-marineapps.blogspot.com/2014/03/mobile-marine-wifi-entertainment.html.

I also came across an app called Whaale http://www.whaale.com/ for my iPhone and iPad. This app uses Airplay to stream music from multiple sources to multiple speakers in multiple zones.

Mark

Posted by: Mark Messerli at March 29, 2014 11:56 AM | Reply

Mark,
I tried the airplay last year and it was not successful. I had lots of music cutting out where network connectivity was not an issue (airplay and laptop hardwired) I also found that 2 airplay devices slightly out of sync, enough to be annoying.

Sonos has neither of these issues in any of the places I've used them. My issues relate to using it disconnected fro the Internet or trying to power them off and on when I want them.

As to wireless signal, sonos does seem to be less affected than other devices. The sonos plays my iTunes library and if I'm using the sonos app from my iPhone then it let's me stream my music from there also. In addition, at home I have really good streaming music options n the sonos.

Posted by: Cameron at March 29, 2014 9:18 PM | Reply

Thanks, Mark; that's a great "how-to" for boaters who want to try Airplay. I never have but know it's making some folks happy.

Posted by: Ben in reply to Mark Messerli at March 30, 2014 10:33 AM | Reply

I'm about to re-add my Sonos units back to my boat! I have one issue that I'm don't know how to do still, maybe somebody here can help...

On my bridge, the speakers are all powered by a JL Audio 12v amp. One problem I had in my last boat connecting the Sonos units direct to 12V amps, is that the Sonos doesn't have a connection to power the amp off when not needed.

I could add 2 switches, 1 for Sonos and 1 for the amp, but I'd be willing to bet that my wife will forget to switch one or the other off most times.

Is there a way to connect a 12v and 24V switch to a single switch?

Posted by: Cameron at March 30, 2014 10:44 AM | Reply

Cameron,

I also use power amps, in my case 2 Dayton Audio (120/230V) APA150 units, to feed both the salon normal speakers and sub-woofers. I considered using auto-on only so I could place amps in a space not requiring access every time I wanted to listen to music. I could not find this feature in 12/24V systems so went this way and very happy I did. I can understand why many prefer 12V systems but if you have big amps and several areas to ply music watch out for the amps you will be drawng and the batteries you need just for listening to music. In my case I selected going the 120/230V route and very happy I did. One feature that for me is very important in audio equipment is the sleep mode where after a few minutes of inactivity the item goes to "sleep" like a PC but turns on instantly when you activate the remote to listen to music. Sonos has it and amps made by companies in the whole house audio distribution systems do too.

Posted by: Rolando in reply to Cameron at April 9, 2014 8:07 AM | Reply

Rolondo,

Thanks for the info. I don't understand, why do you feel a 120v amp is better than 12v?
Are they more efficient?

Posted by: Cameron at April 14, 2014 9:37 PM | Reply

Cameron,

Its not the efficiency that concerns me but the amount energy being used. In my case I have music in several areas in the boat and 4 power amplifiers. This translates to about 200 Watts being used at normal sound levels. In a 12V system this would be about 30/35 amps just for music.

Most, if not all, DC amps I found were 12V and my boat, as most larger boats, would normally be 24V (32V if older) with converters to achieve 12V. In these types of installations, DC capacity is usually large for 24V but comparatively small for 12V so to achieve larger figures you dial in extra complexity.

Again, this is for me and my environment where my generator has to be on or I cannot leave the dock. US built Sportfishers usually don't have windows and require A/C for ventilation. In addition you also have refrigerators, freezers, icemakers, stoves, ovens and they all need 120/230V. As an aditional benefit, my chargers are always on so the first 80 amps (24V) being consumed don't come from the batteries. One added situation for me is that my boat does not have separate batteries for engine starting and house which means that to start engines I need to be extra careful. One time while on a fishing trip I forgot to turn on a charger and one engine would not start with just one battery and I needed to go into parallel.

Anyway, its a very personal case for me but I am sure that its boat dependent.

Rolando

Posted by: Rolando in reply to Cameron at April 16, 2014 2:36 AM | Reply

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