Saturday, February 24, 2024

Sonos Port review: A flawed successor to the Sonos Connect


Sonos covers all the bases: The audio component maker builds a range of powered speakers and soundbars to stream music from every source, local or on the web, but it also offers a stand-alone tuner/amp if you want to use higher-end passive loudspeakers. And for customers who want streaming music delivered to their own favorite amp or receiver and higher-end speakers, the company launched an add-on, tuner-like component: the Sonos ZonePlayer 80 in early 2006, which was succeeded by the ZonePlayer 90 in 2008. The ZP90 was later relaunched as the Sonos Connect. That product has been succeeded by the topic of this review, the Sonos Port.

Now that Sonos has launched its S2 operating system, Sonos Connect owners must make a crucial decision: Replace every Connect with a Port—at $449 a pop—or forgo upgrading to S2. The situation grows even more stressful if you have any combination of newer and legacy (pre-2013) Sonos hardware: The latter includes the aged Connect:Amp/ZP120 and the first-gen Play:5 speaker. Sonos says its older hardware doesn’t have enough processor power or memory to run the S2 OS, so any Sonos system that includes a mix of older and new components must be bifurcated and the two groups controlled separately (you’ll find more details in this story).

If you crave the benefits that S2 promises to deliver—including support for higher-resolution audio and Dolby Atmos (in the new Arc soundbar, for instance)—you really don’t have a choice. But if you can resist the urge to upgrade to the latest, greatest software, hang onto your legacy hardware and run it on the original platform (now called S1). That goes double for anyone who cares deeply about audio quality and has a Connect linked to high-end audio components.

After conducting a comprehensive series of A/B listening tests using the digital outputs on the Port and and on the Connect (and the DAC on a Yamaha Aventage RX-A3060 receiver, connected in turn to a pair of beloved Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus 803 loudspeakers), I’ve concluded that the Port sounds inferior to the Connect it replaces. Compared to the Connect, the Port’s sound field seems flattened and compressed.

Jonathan Takiff / IDG

Older components like the Connect (right) aren’t compatible with the new S2 operating system and can’t be grouped with newer components that are.

There is a workaround

But if you’re willing to tweak some settings, I’ve learned there is a means of bringing the two devices at least close to parity. The difference between the new Port’s audio quality and that of the older Connect, a Sonos spokesperson tells me, is related to the manner in which the DSP (digital signal processor) in each unit handles their analog and bitstream outputs. The DSP, according to this source, is designed to adjust for “the different characteristics [of] different recorded content… that impact volume output. The DSP helps to keep it balanced so that it protects the listener’s equipment and ears.”

This processing is nearly transparent on the Connect. But for whatever reason, it’s so heavy-handed on the Port that I was ready to give up on the new component. Why the difference? Perhaps it’s because the Port is capable of handling higher-resolution audio than the Connect. We’re still waiting to find out exactly how high that resolution will be, but it could enable the Port to deliver frequencies you might not even hear if the air conditioning is running, and uber-KA-BOOM-ing bass notes and crescendos that might agitate your next-door neighbor. But as I said, we don’t yet know.

For now, if you encounter this phenomenon and are bothered by it, Sonos recommends going into the Sonos app and changing the Port’s line-out setting from the factory-default Variable to Fixed. This change will bypass the offending DSP circuitry. First, open the Sonos app, tap Settings, and then System. Find the Port you wish to configure (you’ll want to repeat these steps for each Port you own), and scroll down to the Line Out setting. Change it from Variable to Fixed. Once I did that, the Port sounded just as wide open and almost as detailed as the Connect.

The obvious downside to this settings change is that you’ll no longer be able to control the volume levels using the Sonos app. That’s not a big deal if you’ve paired the Port with a receiver and passive loudspeakers, or if you’re using powered speakers that have their own volume control, but giving up the convenience of adjusting the volume with the device that’s nearly always within easy reach—your smartphone—is kind of a drag. 

Ebenezer Robbins
Ebenezer Robbins
Introvert. Beer guru. Communicator. Travel fanatic. Web advocate. Certified alcohol geek. Tv buff. Subtly charming internet aficionado.

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