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Sonos Play:1 vs. 3 vs. 5

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In today’s speaker world, it’s not enough just to make products that sound good. As technology has advanced, more speakers have become wireless, Bluetooth-compatible and able to synchronize.

Sonos speakers are unique in that they can operate individually or be building blocks toward a greater audio system. On top of providing superb sound quality, their sleek designs and advanced features put them ahead of many speakers on the market, though at a high price. Are all the bells and whistles worth the cost? Let’s look at the Sonos Play:1, Play:3 and Play:5 to find out.

Sonos ecosystem

The Sonos speaker system is complex. Though each device is advertised as a singular speaker capable of providing high-quality sound on its own, users get the most value when investing in a multidevice system.

Unlike most wireless speakers, Sonos products use your home’s Wi-Fi network to connect to each other, as well as the music source. The Sonos app can be used on a smartphone, tablet or laptop to play from supported streaming services such as Pandora, Spotify and Apple Music, as well as the user’s own personal iTunes library.

Each individual speaker is synced to the Sonos app so that users can play music from multiple devices throughout the house. When several speakers are linked together, each Sonos device becomes a component of a greater sound ecosystem.

The individual Sonos speakers are just the start of what makes this sound system unique. See how models compare with each other and how they all interact within the Sonos ecosystem.

The speakers: At a glance

Every Sonos speaker comes equipped with at least two drivers: one tweeter (which reproduces high-frequencies) and one midrange (which handles all midlevel components such as vocals, instrumentation and bass). Each driver is powered by an amplifier tuned through Sonos’ Trueplay feature.

By activating Trueplay, Sonos can measure the acoustics of a room through the microphone of a user’s phone. Once turned on, users walk around the room while the app emits audible triggers to calculate how sound bounces off objects in the room. This allows the speaker to tune itself accordingly and produce the best sound for its environment.

The speakers: Up close and personal

Sonos Play:1

Most users’ gateway Sonos speaker is the Play:1. The smallest of the Sonos speakers, the Play:1 is a cylindrical device with push-control buttons at the top. It can deliver a crisp, rich sound that can hit peak volumes without distorting. Despite its small stature, the Play:1 manages to produce the full-bodied Sonos playback thanks to the tweeter and midrange drivers squeezed in. Sonos Play:1

Users said the Play:1 was great as a bedroom speaker by itself or sometimes paired with another Play:1. At $199, it’s the least expensive Sonos speaker on the market, and most users said they were so impressed by the Play:1, it drove them to expand their Sonos full home listening system.

Sonos Play:3

The Play:3 is the middle-tier speaker in the Sonos trio. At a bit more than 5 pounds and occupying less than a square foot of space, the Play:3 is only slightly heavier than the Play:1. It is equipped with an additional midrange speaker and a bass radiator for extra audio power. Users complimented the bass levels and the crystal-clear highs when listening to music on this device.

At $299, the Play:3’s value depends on how you use it. With the driver power it has, the Play:3 might be overqualified for a bedroom speaker. If used to entertain, the Play:3 really shines when paired with another Sonos speaker, whether with a second Play:3 or another device in the Sonos family.

Sonos Play:5

The biggest of the Sonos speaker family, the Play:5 is more than twice the weight of its sister devices. Some users said they had a difficult time finding the perfect spot for their Play:5, but once they did, the sound outweighed the speaker’s bulk. Sonos Play:5

The Play:5 is equipped with six digital amps, each one backing one of the three tweeters and three midwoofers. Users praised the sound quality. Many said the bass felt natural, while instruments and vocals were well-defined and crisp.

The Sonos Play:5’s price is listed at $499, a hefty price to match the hefty speaker. Many users said the Play:5 was great on its own for both listening and entertaining purposes. Others said the speaker worked extremely well with a Sonos Playbar, the brand’s home theater speaker.

Sonos app

The Sonos app is the singular avenue for streaming all your music sources to the Sonos speaker system. The app supports many services: Apple Music, Pandora, Spotify, Google Play Music, SiriusXM and more. It was easy to navigate and play music; however, some experienced issues with compatibility across devices.

Though the selection of supported streaming services was wide, users noted that paid subscriptions worked best. The sound quality was better, and the service operated more seamlessly. Users also didn’t like that they couldn’t play YouTube videos through the app.

For some, playing iTunes was bothersome. With Sonos, users have to index their library through the app to play it. For casual music fans, indexing their libraries might happen once in a while. But for those who frequently update their collections with new music, their libraries have to be reindexed in the Sonos app whenever they want to listen to recently added tunes.

The verdict

The Sonos audio system lies somewhere between a wireless speaker and full-fledged home theater system. That’s a wide gap to close, but the Sonos ecosystem has several pieces and nuances that differentiate it from other speaker systems by more popular brands such as Bose, Beats by Dre and JBL.

Such complexity comes at a heavy price. Some users were content with owning only one Sonos speaker. But many others agreed they got the most value when pairing multiple speakers together. Expanding the Sonos system then becomes an investment, as the prices on the more advanced speakers start to climb toward the $300 to $500 range.

The good thing about Sonos is that it gives you options. There’s no right or wrong way to build a Sonos system, whether you opt for one speaker or five.

If you’re looking for a stand-alone speaker that sounds amazing and is ahead of the curve technologically, the Play:1 and Play:3 are solid options.

If you like the idea of a modern-day, smart speaker system that doesn’t have to be confined to one room but can still operate as a singular listening setup, then building a complete Sonos ecosystem might be for you.

Nina Tabios is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: ntabios@nerdwallet.com.