Sonos wireless system: everything you need to know

11 Mar 2014

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 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 spend some serious cash on a home install system.

The rise of digital audio and computer-based music libraries has 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 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 your home wi-fi connection. There are different ways to do this, different products and technologies, but one of the companies to lead has been Sonos, successfully carving out a niche as a mainstream "Wireless Hi-Fi" solution.

There are other players in the home wireless sound system game, too, with manufacturers such as Bose, Cambridge Audio and Pure now offering ways to enjoy your music collection, wherever you are in your home. In this guide we'll be focusing on Sonos and its alternatives.

 

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 its system's flexibility and functionality. 

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. 

Back in 2004, Sonos launched the amplified ZonePlayer ZP100 and CR100 controller and hasn't looked back. The ZP90, ZP120 and CR200 followed, later rebranded as the Connect and Connect:Amp at the same time that Sonos launched the Play speaker brand. 

It has continued to innovate with new products to expand and enhance your listening experience at home, all the while adding streaming services to its ever growing roster.

There are two main types of product in the Sonos system – all-in-one Zoneplayers such as the Play:1 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 your TV.

In addition to your own digitally stored music collection, which can be streamed from a NAS device (Network Attached Storage), Sonos can access a multitude of services to let you customise your playlist and explore new or forgotten music. These include, but are by no means limited to, Spotify, Napster, Deezer and Last.fm. in April 2014, Sonos also announced support for Google Play Music. Note, though, that you will need paid subscriptions for many of these services.

Furthermore, French company Qobuz has been added to bring a CD-quality streaming service to Sonos for the first time. While other services offer files at 320kbps, Qobuz on Sonos offers unlimited streaming access to CD-quality FLAC files at 16-bit/44.1kHz for a monthly subscription charge.

Sonos Labs acts as a beta testing area for new music services so it's worth checking for new apps being added.

MORE: Sonos adds Qobuz for CD-quality streaming

 

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 directly using an ethernet cable. If you don't want to do that – or want to play music elsewhere in the home – connect a Bridge (£40) to the router.

The Play:1 (£170) is arguably the most flexible of the speakers and can be moved from room to room easily. The Play:3 (£260) and Play:5 (£350) move up the size, bass and cost scale. The Connect (£280) will turn your stereo into a streaming system, while a Connect:Amp (£400) works with your wired speakers.

If you have opted for the Bridge, you can now link the Play:1, Play:3 or Play:5 over the wireless mesh network to stream music. After installing the software on your computer, you can control your system with Sonos's own controller, with your computer, or use the free Sonos iPhone/Android app.

 

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.

You can also buy Sonos bundles from the official Sonos shop, with options to buy a Play speaker + Bridge, 2 x Play speakers + Bridge and a Playbar + Sub. And look out for the occasional Sonos deal, too.

Christmas 2013 saw a number of retailers offering a free Bridge with certain purchases. Sonos products in the sale are a little harder to come by, however – a sign of their consistent popularity.

Sonos Play:1
5 stars
Tested at £170 – 14.10.13

The Play:1 won us over in the same way the Play:3 and Play:5 did. Its 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 you’re 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

Sonos Play:3
5 stars
Tested at £260 – 24.10.11

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

 

Sonos Play:5
5 stars
Tested at £350 – 31.12.09

Sonos Play 5

When 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

Sonos Playbar
5 stars
Tested at £600 – 04.03.13

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, the Sonos Playbar will do the trick.

MORE: Sonos Playbar review

 

Sonos Playbar and Sub
4 stars
Tested at £1200 – 23.08.13

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 boost your TV's sound and deliver another roomful of music. The sub certainly helps fill the sound out, too.

MORE: Sonos Playbar and Sub review

 

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 that 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 multiroom functionality, nor the brilliant interface of the Sonos app. 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.

It is possible to add an AirPort Express to Sonos models with a line input, however and Sonos does allow direct streaming of music from your Android or iOS device's music library.

Awards 2013: Best wireless speakers and docks

 

Sonos Alternatives: Other wireless music systems


"So if I want a wireless multiroom 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 multiroom sound systems on the market that challenge Sonos's dominance.

 

Bose wireless music system

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 multiroom system.

MORE: Bose SoundTouch wireless systems take aim at Sonos


Pure Jongo system

Last year saw the launch of the Pure Jongo S3 speaker – the first product in Pure's own multiroom 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 multiroom 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 S3 review

MORE: Pure Jongo T2 review

 

Simple Audio

Simple Audio had rather a stuttering start to its multiroom music life, but the system is another alternative to Sonos.

Launching with the Simple Audio Roomplayer 1, the big bonus of the system is its support for 24-bit high-resolution audio music files. We weren't wholly convinced by the product the last time we tested it, but saw enough to get us interested, not least if audio quality is your key concern.

MORE: Simple Audio review

 

Bluetooth speakers

For those of you who aren't so bothered about the idea about listening to music around the home, but are considering wireless speakers for your audio set-up, you aren't going to be left short of choice.

From Sony to Cambridge Audio, there are speakers to match your needs and your budget.

The Cambridge Audio Minx Go (above), for example, was crowned Best Wireless Speaker Up To £150 in our Awards 2013.

At the other end of the spectrum was our Best Wireless Speaker £500+ – the Audio Pro Allroom Air One. And since the turn of the year, we've heard Philips is about to launch the Fidelio E2 system.

Also worthy of note is the Arcam rCube, which has been around for a few years now but does offer the advantage of being able to daisy-chain together with rCube speakers to make a basic multiroom system.

MORE: Best Bluetooth speakers to buy in 2014

 

by Pete Hayman

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Comments

Indeed, Bluesound certainly looks interesting but we haven't tested it yet. Funnily enough I had a meeting with Lenbrook (who own Bluesound) only yesterday, but we won't have review samples for a month or two yet. They're going for a 'soft launch' in the UK, with a big push in September. We've written about it in News:

http://www.whathifi.com/news/bluesound-hd-wireless-music-streaming-system-takes-on-sonos

No mention of Bluesound? This must be one of the main rivals to to Sonos, offering muti room and higher quality streaming. 

Good spot, now corrected. Thanks.

"all-in-one Zoneplayers such as the Bridge or Play:1"

This is a little mis-leading, the Bridge is not a player at all. It's just a network Bridge, nothing more.