In times gone by, listening to your entire music collection anywhere in your home involved overcoming some major logistical issues. You'd either need to move your sound system from room to room, put up with wires and cables trailing under doors and rugs and up the stairs, or you could spend a fortune on a custom install system.
The rise of digital and computer-based music made things easier by adding the element of portability to your audio collection. But that didn't solve the question of moving your system or trailing leads around the home. Then, along came the wireless revolution...
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You can stream audio from a range of devices to speakers around the home using a wireless connection. There are different ways to do this, different products and technologies, but one of the companies leading the way is Sonos, which has carved out a niche as a mass-market, mainstream solution.
There are many players in the home wireless sound system game, with manufacturers including Bluesound, Bose, Cambridge Audio, LG and Samsung offering ways to enjoy your music collection anywhere in your home.
Here, we'll help you with the answers you need to set up your own multi-room system.
What is Sonos? How does it work?
Sonos is an American company founded in 2002 with one simple aim – to transform your home sound system for the digital age. It has released products and software designed to "fill every room" of your home. Its real bonus is the flexibility and functionality of its products.
The Sonos wireless sound system works by connecting one single device to your home network to play music – from either online or local sources – before adding more Sonos devices (up to a maximum of 32) that all connect using a secure wireless mesh network known as Sonosnet.
Sonos launched the amplified ZonePlayer ZP100 and CR100 controller back in 2004. And it hasn't looked back since, continuing to innovate with new products to expand and enhance the listening experience at home, while adding streaming services to its ever growing roster of offerings.
There are two main types of players in the Sonos system: all-in-one Zoneplayers such as the Play:1, Play:3 and Play:5, and CONNECT-branded products that can turn existing audio equipment into a Sonos Zone. There's also a Sonos Sub, the Sonos Playbar soundbar and the recently announced Sonos Playbase soundbase, for use with a TV.
Sonos apps and services
In addition to the ability to play a digitally stored music collection, which can be streamed from a NAS (Network Attached Storage) device, Sonos comes with a multitude of music apps and services that allow you to customise playlists and explore new or forgotten music.
Qobuz and Tidal bring CD-quality, lossless streaming to Sonos. While the other music services offer files at up to 320kbps, Qobuz and Tidal on Sonos offer unlimited streaming access to CD-quality FLAC files at 16-bit/44.1kHz for a monthly subscription charge.
"So if I want a wireless multi-room speaker system in my home, I should turn to Sonos?"
Not so fast. There are other options to consider, some of which offer more or do certain things better. There are plenty of alternative wireless speakers and a number of multi-room sound systems on the market to challenge Sonos's dominance.
The key hook here is support for high-resolution audio and in turn the musical, punchy sound. Setting the system up is simple, there's a good selection of speaker models and a great control app, too.
Bluesound is a worthy rival to Sonos, and may suit your needs better should you want to listen to hi-res music - Sonos has recently stated that hi-res audio support is not currently in its plans.
In 2013, the Pure Jongo S3 speaker was launched – the first product in Pure's own multi-room music system, which has now blossomed into a five-unit family of music streamers. They can be used solo or grouped together, offering an affordable entry into the realm of wireless and multi-room audio systems.
As well as streaming locally stored music from your phone or tablet over wi-fi, the Pure Connect app also offers over 20,000 streaming radio stations and around 200,000 on-demand programmes and podcasts through the system.
Crucially, the Pure Jongo speakers bring Bluetooth to the party, allowing you to stream music directly from your Bluetooth-enabled smartphone, tablet or computer, whether that's your own music or from apps such as YouTube.
MORE: Pure Jongo review
More after the break
The three launch products can stream music directly over wi-fi from any connected computer, tablet or smartphone, and also support Apple AirPlay streaming. And you can link multiple speakers for a multi-room system.
Samsung R series multi-room system
After having a first try with its Shape Audio System, Samsung has introduced the R series of multi-room speakers to take the fight to Sonos.
The R6 and R7 have dome-shaped cabinets to help deliver 360 degree omni-directional sound. The system supports 24-bit/192kHz hi-res audio as well as all the major streaming services. The accompanying app is also a breeze to use.
As a more complete multi-room system though, Sonos wins this fight hands down.
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Those who aren't so bothered about the idea of listening to music around the home, but are considering wireless speakers for their audio set-up, aren't exactly short of choice.
Sonos: Getting Started
A Sonos system is fairly straightforward to set up. If you want to play music in the same room as your wi-fi router, you can just hook up a Play:1, Play:3 or Play:5 speaker. It used to be the case that you'd have to do this directly using an ethernet cable or connect a Bridge (£40) to the router, the latter being particularly helpful if you wanted to play music elsewhere in the home.
However, Sonos's 5.1 software update made it possible to connect your Sonos speaker direct to your wi-fi network using the dedicated Sonos controller app. This transforms the units into true, one-box wireless speakers and removes the need for a wired connection to your router.
That now means the Play:1 (£170) - arguably the most flexible of the speakers as it can be moved from room to room - is the entry-level price for a Sonos system, with the Play:3 (£260) and old Play:5 (£350) moving up the size, bass and cost scale. And don't forget there's the new Sonos Play:5 for 2015 (£430).
And Sonos has also launched the Boost, a more powerful version of the Bridge which is there to lend a helping hand in more challenging wireless environments. The company says it offers "complete 360-degree signals through walls and ceilings" and is twice the strength of the Bridge. It's on sale for £80.
Also announced alongside the new Play:5 was Sonos Trueplay. Now available on the existing Play:1, Play:3 and original Play:5 wireless speakers, it's a new feature in the Sonos app that calibrates your speaker to your room.
Wherever you place your Sonos speaker in the room will affect the sound. The Trueplay feature aims to counter this, using the microphone on an iPhone or iPad (it's not yet available on the Android or Windows Phone Sonos apps).
This set-up process runs through a series of test tones and sweeps, which will be familiar to anyone who has set up an AV receiver. The process tunes your speaker to the room, adjusting the bass and the treble, to get it sounding the best it can. And if you don't like the changes, you can always change it back.
Sonos: Missing features and things to consider
Of course, while Sonos may bill itself as a "wireless hi-fi system", there's no denying that, for a little more cash, a dedicated separates system will deliver better sound.
There are myriad streaming options should you value sound quality over the flexibility Sonos offers: a NAS device allows you to stream music to, say, the Pioneer N-50 or the Cyrus Stream XP2-QX, and the more streamers you buy the more rooms of music you can have.
But you don't get the multi-room functionality, nor the simple, brilliant interface of the Sonos apps. And it's notably more expensive.
You would however get hi-res audio support – something not offered by Sonos, which maxes out at CD-quality files.
There's also no AirPlay or Bluetooth functionality built in to Sonos products, meaning you can't direct stream from music apps, YouTube and others on a phone or tablet (apart from on Google Play Music, thanks to an update). It is possible to add an AirPort Express to Sonos models with a line input, however.
Sonos: Products and Reviews
Looking to invest in a Sonos wireless speaker? Fancy creating your own home sound system and don't want all those trailing wires?
Take a look at our round-up of all Sonos products that we've had in our test rooms.
Tested at £170 / compare latest prices
The Play:1 won us over in the same way the Play:3 and Play:5 did. Ease of use is a huge draw, but it's backed up by fantastic sound quality and an affordable price.
Whether you’re looking to get started on your Sonos journey, or just adding bits to an existing set-up, you won’t regret finding a spot for the Play:1 in your home.
MORE: Sonos Play:1 review
Tested at £260 / compare latest prices
Like the Play:5, the Play:3 is an all-in-one that combines a network music client, amp and speakers, making it simple to add an extra zone to an existing Sonos system.
You can also link two Play:3s together to make a stereo pair, as well as being able to stream music directly from your Android device, iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch.
MORE: Sonos Play:3 review
The new Play:5
Tested at £350 / compare latest prices
MORE: Sonos Play:5 review
Tested at £430 / compare latest prices
It may have the same model number but the new Play:5 is a big departure from the existing model. The speaker drivers are redesigned, and there's one more, while the outside has a new style, which allows it to be placed horizontally and vertically. There are also touch sensitive controls. A whole host of other upgrades and improvements make it the best Sonos speaker yet.
Tested at £600 / compare latest prices
If you’re after a simple device that will massively improve the sound from your TV and give you immediate access to more music than you could ever hope to listen to, only the Sonos Playbar will do.
MORE: Sonos Playbar review
Tested at £1200
If you sign up for the Playbar and Sub, you’ll need to take into account a couple of minor caveats – only a digital optical connection, some compatibility issues and no DTS support. Essentially an over-qualified soundbar, it will however boost your TV's sound and deliver another room of music. The sub certainly helps fill the sound out, too.
Like its Playbar sibling, the Playbase makes do with just a digital optical connection and lacks support for DTS and high-resolution audio soundtracks. Unlike the Playbar, though, it's big and strong enough to support the weight of your telly while it goes about giving some weight and dynamism to your TV sound. It's due to go on sale in April 2017.
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