Sonos plus Tidal is a high-end, user-friendly wireless audio setup that’s hard to beat

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The Sonos Play:5 speaker.
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Matthew DeBord/BI

I spent almost two years researching a new audio setup for my house. By way of background, I don’t own any TVs and although we pay for a variety of video-steaming services, I don’t watch them all that much (everybody else does, on laptops, tablets, and iPhones).

However, I do listen to a lot of music. Before I moved from Los Angeles a couple of years ago, I had a kind of evolving hybrid old-school/new-school audio setup. At any given time, there was a component hi-fi stereo plus a Wi-Fi streaming rig and of course the car radio. There were CDs and even some survivors from my once-vast vinyl record collection. There were cassette tapes. There were iTunes libraries and a stray iPod or two.

When I came back to New York, I decided to commit to a simple Bluetooth setup. So for a while, it was iPhone + Bluetooth speaker. But it wasn’t a very good Bluetooth speaker. I missed the old component configuration I had lugged around for two decades, in the 1980s and 1990s. I realized that I wanted to listen to music and have it sound good.

So began the quest. Fortunately, I wasn’t in a hurry. And I had reference points. It boiled down to whether I had in mind a static or dynamic listening experience. Or perhaps better stated as stationary or ambient.

A key point of reference was my father-in-law’s budget audiophile arrangement, with NAD components mated to a pair of excellent Ohm speakers. Good sounds!

But to really enjoy that setup – which I was familiar with from my own systems – you have to commit to sitting in a chair or on a couch, figuring out how to best position the speakers, and in this day and age go for an amplifier-turntable-speakers rig and start rebuilding the vinyl. It’s also a wired system, so there are, you know … wires.

The listening experience is unparalleled, of course. But as I worked through my options, I realized that I don’t listen to music that way anymore – unless I’m in a car, where I get to sample no end of multi-speaker, high-end audio systems.

We listen to music holistically, and we want to fill our house with it. So you can probably guess where I’m heading here.

Yep, we took the Sonos plunge. But what an odyssey it was before we finally made that decision!


We have a kind of medium-sized, three-story house, with small and medium-sized rooms. Acoustically, the living room or family room is quite good, but it’s also not an ideal place in which to locate an elaborate audio system.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

We had been making do with a group of Bluetooth speakers. We had some old component systems and some refugee speakers, but they weren’t going to work as the main rig.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

I used to own about 500 vinyl records. But I sold them and made the switch to digital, not always with great results, audio-wise. So I explored setting up a new, vinyl-centric system.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

But my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t want to re-spend years scouring used record bins. That said, I did want to preserve a vinyl option, so I made one of my criteria that what I eventually chose had to be vinyl scalable.

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John Stillwell/PA Images

I’ve never been a true audiophile, but I’ve been around plenty. So I have a strong sense of what the possibilities are when it comes to audio systems. For my own part, I played music quite a bit as a kid and a teen, and I still play music. So I gravitate toward natural, nuanced audio.

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I’ve been listening to a lot of good old Bob lately. Congrats on the Nobel!
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Thomson Reuters

It became obvious that I was going to have to balance several key concerns. I wanted an unobtrusive, room-filling system that could deliver high-quality digital audio with the option of an analog fallback.

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My personal playlists range from rock to pop to folk and country, with healthy doses of classical, jazz, and blues.
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Aasimah Navlakhi/flickr

My first idea was to go for a decent compact, all-in-one hi-fi with Bluetooth. Teac makes one. But I rejected this idea.

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Screenshot via pickmyturntable.com

Then I thought that I’d upgrade my existing Bluetooth setup, simply by buying one of the best Bluetooth speakers out there — one that I could also plug a turntable into at some point.

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Digital Trends

Enter the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin, a legendary speaker. I have a small Bose Sound Dock, so I was familiar with where B&W was coming from. Also, B&W has one of the best car audio offerings on the market. I had been routinely blown away.

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Screenshot via Bowers & Wilkins

Because I’m a child of the hi-fi stereo era, I like stereo separation, and of the Bluetooth all-in-one speakers, the B&W Zep has the best. But the thing about stereo setups that establish a beautiful “soundstage” in front of you is that it’s hard to preserve that impression of you move around much. I would sit in one spot and listen to “Dark Side of the Moon” on vinyl in 1980. Now, not so much.

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Harvest

So I forgot about both true stereo separation and emulated separation (the B&W Zep puts some of the speakers far enough apart to fake it convincingly). But not before I drifted toward the system that I probably should have focused on all along.

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Colin Kinner/Flickr

Sonos! I have some friends on the West Coast whose house is similar to mine. They had Sonos, and I remembered it sounded pretty good. I also have another West Coast friend who was using a new Sonos product, the Play:5 speaker, when I visited last November. I was impressed.

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Sonos

My wife and I decided that it was worth it to invest in some serious audio, given how much time we spend listening to music at home. But we didn’t want to tear our living room apart to make it all work.

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This is the general area in which we wanted to locate the system.
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Matthew DeBord/BI

Meanwhile, I started looking for a better-quality streaming service than Pandora, Spotify, or my personal fave, Sirius. This led me to Tidal, the Jay-Z owned service that offers “loss-less” audio. The service costs about $25 a month. I already pay for Sirius, Spotify Premium, and buy much of the music I genuinely like. So it didn’t bother me too much to lay out the extra bills. Music has never really been a cheap hobby, if you’re honest with yourself.

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Getty

Why not just get some incredible headphones, you might ask? Well, as much as I’m a child of the stereo age, I’m not a child of the headphones age. I’ve used very good headphones, both professionally when I worked in radio and as an enthusiast, but the core experience for me is still sound waves in the open atmosphere.

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Amazon

Tidal is, to my ear, very good. I’ll get to why I think so in a bit. In any case, I’ll be subscribing monthly from here on out.

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Beyoncé is also involved in Tidal — her most recent album, “Lemonade,” was released on the service. Loss-less hi-fi streaming is $20 per month.
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Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The only remaining question was whether I absolutely, positively had to have that stereo thing. So I went to the Sonos store in Soho and listened to their Play:1 dual speaker setup, configured in stereo, against the Play:5 and the Soundbar plus a subwoofer. I had already decided that the the Play:3 wasn’t going to be enough for my main listening room.

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A Sonos listening room.
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Screenshot via Sonos.com

Two Play:1’s in stereo are actually quite sweet. But ultimately I realized that the more massed sound of the Play:5, with some separation, would be a better choice. I also thought I could add a subwoofer later, and unlike the Play:3, the Play:5 can handle a turntable as a plug-and-play option.

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Sonos

A word (or two) about Sonos itself. The company, based on Santa Barbara, was started in 2002. It’s become the pre-eminent multi-room wireless audio system because it uses your home wi-fi setup to create a “mesh” network that allows the different speakers to all play the same music at the same time.

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The more I thought about my decision, the more I realized that being able to start with the Play:5, then adding perhaps a Play:3 but more likely a pair of Play:1 was a good game plan for my house. The Sonos Sub could also join the party.
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Screenshot via Sonos.com

Anyway, I wound up getting a nice deal through Verizon Wireless to buy a discounted Play:5, and that cinched the deal. On to the unboxing and setup. Believe me, this won’t take long! The Play:5 arrived a few days after I ordered it.

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The normal price for the Play:5 through the Sonos site is $499.
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Matthew DeBord/BI

You have to “unlock” the box …

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Matthew DeBord/BI

… like so.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

It’s a nice, neat package.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

You plug it in, push a button on the back, and it comes to life.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

The instructions are almost comically simple.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

The Sonos system sets up a mesh wifi in your home, so that music can be streamed wirelessly through your broadband connection – and so that the Sonos app can coordinate all the speakers.

The system is highly scalable. Apart from the Play:1, Play:3, and Play:5 speakers, Sonos has a home-theater rig that includes a soundbar and a subwoofer, as well as streaming units that can be hooked up to an existing audio or speaker system.


Everything runs off the Sonos app, which I downloaded for my iPhone from the App Store (I later also downloaded it to an Android tablet that my mother gave me). It enables you to add your various streaming services by entering your personal login info. I started out with Tidal and Sirius.

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Screenshot via Sonos.com

Then I undertook an interesting process to tune my Play:5 to the room. I essentially used the Trueplay feature to walk around my living room while the system figured out to adjust the sound.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

Sonos explains the Trueplay system here.

The speaker itself is a modest powerhouse. This is what you’re getting, according to the Sonos specs:

•Six Class-D digital amplifiers “tuned to match the six dedicated speaker drivers and the acoustic architecture”

•Three tweeters that “create the crispest and clearest high-frequency response”

•Three mid-woofers that “ensure you’ll hear the faithful playback of mid-range vocal frequencies plus deep, rich bass – without distortion, even at high volumes”

•A phased speaker array: (three drivers on top and three on the bottom) to “create a wide stereo soundstage that directs the sound left, right, and center”

In my listening, I found all this to be valid – except the wide stereo soundstage. There is a soundstage, but it isn’t wide. So if you really must have that, you’ll need to either go with a true stereo hi-fi setup, or go with a pair of Play:1’s or Play:5’s.


Time to listen to some tunes! First up was my favorite record of the moment, “HQ” from the English progressive folk-rock musician Roy Harper. I wasn’t exploring sound quality yet. I wanted to connect emotionally with the Play:5 — in fact, to see if that would be possible.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

Then I gave Tidal co-owner Beyoncé a spin.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

I progressed through a variety of different styles of music: Pink Floyd …

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Matthew DeBord/BI

… Eric Clapton …

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Matthew DeBord/BI

…Elvis Costello…

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Matthew DeBord/BI

… a new young musician named Ryley Walker was in the mix …

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Matthew DeBord/BI

… but I eventually put the Play:5 to the ultimate test.

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Say what you will about “Stairway” — it’s one of the greatest pieces of music ever recorded.
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Matthew DeBord/BI

The verdict is obviously good.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

Yes, I got exactly what I wanted, and since the end of last year months I’ve richly enjoyed the Sonos-Tidal combination.

I still listen to Sirius from time to time, and I added Amazon Music as part of an Amazon Prime subscription.

I also listen to music from my own library on my Apple devices. What I haven’t yet done is pick up the Play:1’s that I intend to position in my kitchen and my bedroom. And I haven’t added the turntable. (I’ve also found that I rarely use Amazon Music.)

The ease of use is ridiculous. I have no prior experience with a system that works this well, sounds this good, and is such a breeze to set up. I can go back in time to assembling a multi-component stereo system, which could consume an hour or two to get right. But even the more modern options I’ve explored, while simple to use, don’t deliver the same listening pleasures.

I’m well aware that Tidal has some possible business issues, but I like the service. I’m also aware that Sonos has been making some changes to address competition from Amazon on voice-controlled systems.

Overall, however, the Sonos package is superlative. Yes, there are objectively better-sounded systems, but they’re more expensive – in the case of the Naim speakers I recently reviewed, much more expensive. Sonos speakers get the job done and get it done well, without blowing a hole in your finances.

Tidal streams its so-called “loss-less” FLAC files at 1,411 kbps via the $20-per-month hi-fi service, and to my ear, the quality is definitely there. The Sonos Play:5 emulates an old-school stereo, but what I think is really cool about it is the combination of volume, detail, and lack of distortion. It certainly does fill and room with sound – and then some. But it also creates a sort of dense core of rich tones about ten feet in front of the unit. What you lose in stereo separation you make up for with this animated block of sound.

Sonos plus Tidal has been a rewarding investment that’s taken my 21st-century listening to a new level and enhanced my love of music.