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Sonos' latest networked music player tones down the sticker shock

July 21, 2011 | 10:42 am

Sonos Play:3 networked music system with Android smartphone as controller Sonos, the Santa Barbara-based manufacturer of networked music players, has introduced its least expensive model to date: the $299 Play:3. Granted, that may still seem pricey for a piece of audio gear, at least to folks who balk at paying more than $200 for a pair of speakers. But it continues the steady march toward mass affordability that Sonos has been making since it introduced its initial, $1,200 system in 2005.

I'm intrigued by this not because of Sonos' wireless technology or its software, which have earned the company a dedicated following. To me, Sonos represents an important part of the digital transformation of music. Just as MP3s liberated music from vinyl LPs and plastic CDs, so do networked music systems liberate music from the place where the digital files are stored.

That's more fundamental a shift than simply letting people tap into their iTunes library remotely. Sonos' players let users access more than a dozen music services, including MOG, Rdio, Rhapsody, Napster, Spotify, Last.fm, Sirius XM and Pandora. For about $10 a month, subscribers can browse through an online jukebox and listen to just about anything.

With the Play:3, Sonos can bring this capability to any room in the house for less than the price of an amplifier, a CD player and a pair of speakers. Users will have to supply a broadband connection and, if they don't have a Sonos device already in their home, buy a $49 wireless bridge (or wire the Play:3 directly to their router). They'll also have to use an iPhone, iPad or Android phone to control the Play:3; one of the ways the company has cut costs has been to replace a dedicated remote with a smartphone app.

Sonos also shed costs by putting two fewer speakers in the Play:3 than in its larger and more expensive cousin, the $400 Play:5. But it retains all the smart networking capabilities of the Sonos line, which means it can be synchronized with Sonos players in other rooms if you want to fill your house with a single stream of music. It can also be paired with a second Play:3 in a single room, with one dedicated to the left stereo channel and the other to the right.

Other manufacturers of networked music players, such as Logitech, are following the same cost curve down into the mass market. That's good news for the companies behind subscription music services, which have struggled for almost a decade to gain traction with mainstream consumers.

The move has been good for Sonos too. Co-founder Tom Cullen said in a recent interview that the company's sales doubled last year, thanks to the introduction late in 2009 of the Play:5 -- a far more affordable device than Sonos' multiroom systems. Cullen expects sales to double again this year. To get there, the company will have to sell truckloads of the new Play:3's, both to existing customers who want to expand their Sonos systems to more rooms and to new ones who want to bring Spotify or Rhapsody to their living rooms.

Sonos is still on the high end when it comes to price and networking features. But at least the Play:3 comes without sticker shock.

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-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

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