In times past, you'd come across some fairly major logistical issues if you wanted to be able to listen to your entire music collection anywhere in your home. You'd either need to move your sound system from room to room, or put up with wires and cables trailing under doors and rugs and up the stairs. Or, of course, you could spend a fortune on a home install system.
The rise of digital and computer-based music made things easier by adding the element of portability to your audio collection. But there was still the question of having a system that didn't need constant moving or the trailing of leads around the home. That's where the wireless revolution comes in...
You can now stream audio from a range of devices to speakers around the home using a wireless connection – with no great compromise on sound quality. There are different ways to do this, different products and technologies, but one of the companies to lead has been Sonos, carving out a niche as a mass market, mainstream solution.
Now there are many players in the home wireless sound system game, with a range of manufacturers like Bluesound, Bose, Cambridge Audio, LG and Samsung offering ways to enjoy your music collection – wherever you are in your home.
That's why we're here to help, providing 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 a 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 or Play:3, and CONNECT-branded products that can turn existing audio equipment into a Sonos Zone. A subwoofer and a Sonos-enabled soundbar have also come to the market 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.
French company Qobuz and the now Jay-Z-owned Tidal bring CD-quality, lossless streaming to Sonos. While other services offer files at 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?"
While the short answer to that may well be 'Yes', 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 that now challenge Sonos's dominance.
Not merely an alternative but in some respects our preferred multi-room system, Bluesound took home our Product of the Year gong in our recent 2015 Awards.
The key hook here is support for high-resolution audio and in turn musical, punchy sound. Setting the system up is simple, there's a good selection of speaker models and a great control app, too.
All told, Bluesound is a worthy rival to Sonos and may better suit your needs should you want to listen to high-res music.
2013 saw the launch of the Pure Jongo S3 speaker – the first product in Pure's own multi-room music system.
The series has now blossomed into a five-unit family of music streamers that can be used solo or grouped together. And they offer 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
Bose has also come to the party with three new wireless streaming music systems – the SoundTouch Portable, SoundTouch 20 and SoundTouch 30 – as part of its new SoundTouch line, which will be joined by a host of other wireless products.
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.
The Shape Audio System comes close to providing Sonos with one of its first serious wireless speaker competitors in years.
With extensive functionality, a well-designed app and easy set-up, all it needs is better sound across all the speakers and a few more speaker options. It’s not quite there just yet, but it’s not far off.
More after the break
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.
From Audio Pro to Sony, there are speakers to match every need and budget.
The Audio Pro Addon T3 (above), for example, was crowned Best wireless speaker £100-£200 in our Awards 2015.
At the other end of the spectrum is our wireless speaker Product of the Year – the Naim Mu-so.
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 (£39) to the router, the latter being particularly helpful if you wanted to play music elsewhere in the home.
However, after 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, that is no longer the case. The app 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 (£169) - 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 (£259) and old Play:5 (£349) moving up the size, bass and cost scale. And don't forget there's the new Sonos Play:5 for 2015 (£429).
The Connect (£279) will turn your stereo into a streaming system, while a Connect:Amp (£399) works with your wired speakers.
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 £79.
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) to take your speaker through a set up process.
Running through a series of test tones and sweeps, which will be familiar to anyone who has set up an AV receiver, the process aims to tune your speaker to the room, adjusting the bass and the treble, to get it sounding as good as it can. 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 a dedicated separates system will deliver better sound for a little more cash than, say, the Play:5. Perhaps no surprise, they're different products.
And there are myriad streaming options should you value sound quality above 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 high-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. It’s ease of use is a huge draw, but it's backed up by fantastic sound quality and an affordable price. Sound quality that was boosted by an update this year, no less.
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 £349 / compare latest pricesWhen we reviewed the Sonos Play:5, it showed just how far the company had come. It is perfectly pitched, stylistically and technologically – a premium-feeling proposition we described as being '"as close to hi-fi as wi-fi gets".
MORE: Sonos Play:5 review
Tested at £429 / 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 promise to 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. And it has had an update to boost the sound quality further.
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.
MORE: Sonos System review
MORE: The future of Sonos