Sound Off: Three Approaches to Wireless Music

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Clockwise from top left: Pioneer Music Tap, Sonos Play:3, Soundfreaq Sound Stack

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Pioneer also offers a free iOS app, Air Jam, that lets up to four people collaborate on one playlist for the Music Tap. It's an interesting idea, but it could use clearer instructions. And I wish there were a smart-phone app to control the system's many features. Instead, you do that using a color LCD screen, buttons on the device and a garden-variety infrared remote control.

Then there's the Play:3, the smallest, cheapest member of Sonos's ever expanding family of wireless hi-fi products. Whereas the Sound Stack uses Bluetooth and the Music Tap uses wi-fi, Sonos calls on its proprietary wireless technology — the goal being to deliver high-quality audio without dropouts and other glitches. If your home's networking router happens to be close to where you'd like the Play to live, you can hook up the two devices with an Ethernet cable; if not, you need to plunk down another $49 for a Sonos Bridge, a little box that plugs into the router and lets you put the Play wherever you want.

The Play:3 is more diminutive than Soundfreaq's and Sound Stack's systems — roughly the size of a shoebox and completely unobtrusive. Its only adornments are volume controls and a Mute button, and there's no dock connector. It packs two midrange drivers and a tweeter, and while the audio had less stereo separation than the other, larger units, it was rich and warm.

Unlike the other products I looked at, the Play:3 doesn't come with an infrared remote to access its functions. Sonos does sell a nicely designed touchscreen remote, but you probably don't want it: it's $349, or the same price as a Play:3 and a Bridge.

More likely, you'll use an iPhone, an iPod Touch, an iPad or an Android device to control the Play:3, courtesy of one of Sonos' apps. Unless you've bought Sonos' $119 iPod/iPhone dock, the apps can't stream music that's stored locally on any of these mobile devices. Instead they find music stored on PCs or hard drives on your network.

But the coolest thing about the Play:3 isn't that it can play your music collection. It's that it excels at playing the far larger collection that lives in the cloud — the one offered by free and not-free services such as Mog, Napster, Pandora, Rdio, Rhapsody Spotify, thousands of radio stations and more. You can use all of them within Sonos' apps, and since they stream directly from the Internet to the Play:3, high-quality playback isn't dependent on a perfect connection between your Apple or Android device and the Play:3.

The Play:3 is a blast all by itself, but it's most meaningful as a building block of Sonos' whole-home music system, which lets you stream one audio source to every room or different music to different areas. You can configure two Play:3 units as a single speaker setup, allowing you to create as much stereo separation as you please. Or you can start with one Play:3, then build out your Sonos system with additional speakers in other rooms, controlling the whole shebang from your smart phone.

So which of these three contenders is the champ? That's a tough call. As I said, they're a study in contrasts. I liked them all, for different reasons.

Check out the Sound Stack if its simplicity sounds appealing and you aren't alarmed by Bluetooth's limitations. Take a look at the Music Tap if you want the setup with the most features. Investigate the Play:3 if you are a fan of Internet music services, don't mind that it can't stream music stored on mobile devices and are intrigued by Sonos' vision of multiple-room music — or if you just like its pint-size profile.

If you end up choosing any of them, you'll get more out of your favorite music than if you piped it directly into your earlobes via headphones. Even if you're the only one listening, you'll feel as if you're unleashing the songs that are normally trapped inside your skull. And if one of these systems helps you enjoy music in the company of friends and family, you'll be doing your part to prove that this alleged age of musical selfishness isn't so selfish after all.

McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he's @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday on

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