Gone are the days when your music or hi-fi system was restricted to one room, tethered by cables.
Listening to your entire music collection anywhere in your home used to involve 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, a multitude of streaming music services, and wi-fi in nearly every home changed that. The wireless revolution paved the way for a whole new realm of possibilities.
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You can now stream your music from a range of devices - smartphone, laptop, NAS drive - to multiple speakers around the home using a wireless connection. There are plenty of manufacturers that offer this multi-room experience, but US company Sonos continues to lead the way with its well-developed system.
Here, we'll guide you through everything about Sonos and the way it works, and help you set up your own multi-room system.
What is Sonos? How does it work?
Based in California, Sonos was founded in 2002 with one simple aim: to transform your home sound system for the digital age. Its products and software are designed to fill every room of your home with music, and the flexibility and functionality of its products has made the company a household name.
The Sonos wireless sound system works by connecting one single speaker to your home network, then adding more Sonos units (up to a maximum of 32, dotted around the house) into the mix using a dedicated secure wireless mesh network known as Sonosnet.
That network is integral to the way Sonos's multi-room speakers operate, as it sits separate from your home network. That means it's a stronger, more robust signal and isn't prone to dropouts when streaming music.
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.
Sonos: Getting started
A major part of Sonos's appeal and meteoric rise in popularity lies with its hugely simple set-up process.
The Sonos Controller app (available on Android and iOS) will walk you through the set up, but it requires little more than pressing the speaker's sync button, which links them to your network and other Sonos speakers, finding the connected speaker on the app and entering details such as your wi-fi password.
It's really that simple. And the slick, easy-to-use Controller app makes everyday use even easier.
In the app, you can assign each speaker to a room of your house, programme it so the volume can be controlled via your TV's standard remote, and add your favourite streaming services. The app recognises which speaker you're using, and in which room you're using it.
Adding other speakers is a breeze: just tap in the app to add a new speaker, press the sync button on the back and it's all done. It's still the smoothest multi-room set-up going.
Along with the main six Sonos products (Play:1, Play:3 and Play:5 wireless speakers, and the Playbar, Playbase and Sub for use with a TV), there are ancillary products such as the Sonos Boost (£100). Connecting this box directly to your router will expand and strengthen the wi-fi for Sonos products. It broadcasts 360 signals through walls and ceilings - ideal if you're setting up a multi-room system in challenging wireless environments.
You don't have to part with your beloved hi-fi system for Sonos to work, either. If you have a traditional stereo amplifier and speakers set up, add a Sonos Connect (£350) to turn it into a streaming system. Similarly, the Connect:Amp (£500) combines streamer and amplifier - so you can simply add it to your existing pair of stereo speakers.
Sonos apps and services
The Sonos Controller app is a large part of the system's charm. As well as walking you through the set-up, it's where you can control all aspects of your Sonos products and access your entire music library.
Sonos's mission statement is to offer 'all the music on Earth', so along with playing music from digital libraries (such as from a NAS device or a laptop), you'll find the widest choice of streaming service compatibility on the app. It's the most comprehensive list we've seen in a wireless speaker or soundbar.
Apple Music, Amazon Prime Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, Deezer, Pandora, Soundcloud, TuneIn - the list of apps goes on. It's worth noting that you will need premium subscriptions for some of these.
Additionally, Qobuz and Tidal bring CD-quality, lossless streaming to Sonos. While the other music services offer files up to 320kbps, Qobuz and Tidal offer unlimited streaming access to CD-quality FLAC files at 16-bit/44.1kHz for a monthly subscription charge.
You can also build playlists directly within the Sonos app, and from multiple sources as well. So if you want to add tracks from Spotify and Tidal onto a playlist of tracks from your NAS library, you can.
Where you place your Sonos speaker in the room will affect the sound. Sonos's Trueplay feature within the Connect app (available on iOS only) aims to counter this, using the microphone on an iPhone or iPad to measure the response of the speaker in your room and tweak its sound to suit.
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.
Trueplay's calibration is particularly useful if your Sonos speaker is placed in a less-than-ideal location, such as tucked into a corner.
Of course, if you don't like the changes, you can always set it back to default.
More after the break
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. You can stream music from your NAS device and other digital libraries to the Pioneer N-50A or the Cambridge CXN, for instance, to get fantastic audio, and the more streamers (and speakers) you buy the more rooms of music you can have.
You could even add on the excellent Arcam rPlay to inject streaming powers to your old hi-fi system.
But you don't get the multi-room functionality, nor the simple, brilliant interface of the Sonos app with those options. And a separates system is notably more expensive.
You would, however, get high-resolution audio support – something still not offered by Sonos. Want to play downloaded 24-bit/192kHz files? You're out of luck, as Sonos tops out at CD-quality music. It's an area where rivals such as Bluesound has been quick to capitalise on.
Our only other major niggle against Sonos is the lack of Bluetooth support. We'd like at least one alternative (and offline) streaming option if your home network goes down.
If you're really desperate, you can add an AirPort Express to the Sonos Play:5's 3.5mm line input to get AirPlay. Or, you can simply hard-wire your music device to the Play:5 to play music.
"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. From Beethoven to Beyonce, there's real depth to the music.
The clarity of detail is second to none, and there's agility and excitement to suit every genre of music. It's a pricey system, but worth it.
Setting the system up is simple (although the app can't match Sonos's intuitiveness), and there's a good selection of speakers (Pulse 2, Pulse Mini and portable Flex) to join the Node 2 streamer, Powernode 2 amplifier and Pulse Soundbar.
Bluesound is a worthy rival to Sonos, and is a no-brainer if you have deep pockets and a library full of hi-res music.
Each product includes caveats about pure sonic ability. But wedded by the app, it creates a noteworthy multi-room system.
The SoundTouch app enables you to stream music from a multitude of sources - laptop, tablet, smartphone, NAS device - over wi-fi, and access internet radio and Spotify Connect.
Sonos is slicker to use and delivers better sound quality, but Bose does give you Bluetooth and a 3.5mm input.
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 omnidirectional 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.
The speakers sound decent - plenty of space, delicate detail and dynamics - but an easy-going nature and reluctance to deliver outright attack stop them from really grabbing us.
As a more complete multi-room system, Sonos wins this fight hands down.
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The emergence of new voice assistant-enabled wireless speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home can’t be ignored.
LG is reportedly adopting Google Home’s AI into their own multi-room products, while Sonos and Bose are already planning to integrate Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant into their systems.
Amazon’s offerings can work as a multi-room family for those who don’t want a comprehensive system such as Sonos. Owning an Amazon Echo or a Dot needn’t be an alternative, but a way of augmenting a multi-room experience. You can't pair Echo speakers to work in stereo, or play them concurrently in multiple rooms.
However the app will interact with the closest speaker, meaning a multi-room set-up in the sense you don't need to move the speakers around the house as you go. The Amazon sound is fairly ‘safe’, but the Echo can reach decent volumes without coarseness.
We’re less impressed with Google Home’s sonic abilities - the thin, bright edge and woolly bass are disappointing - but it's acceptable for background listening.
However, Google Home connects any number of its voice-controlled wireless speakers for a flexible, if slightly more conservative, multi-room set-up. Features such as its compatibility with Chromecast should set Google's offering apart from Amazon.
Sonos: Products and Reviews
As an entire ecosystem, Sonos is hard to fault - if you don't mind sacrificing hi-res audio, of course. Sensibly priced, beginner-friendly and with an appealing expand-as-you-go ethos, it's a multi-room solution to be reckoned with.
Now that you're armed with all the information, fancy creating your own wireless home sound system?
If you're investing in a Sonos speaker (or soundbar), 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 is the entry-level gateway to the world of Sonos. The compact wireless speaker may not be portable, but it's about the size of a bag of sugar and can fit into any space.
Ease of use is a huge draw, but it's backed by good sound quality and an affordable price. It's perfect for getting started on your Sonos journey or adding bits - such as rear surround speakers - to an existing set-up.
MORE: Sonos Play:1 review
Tested at £260 / compare latest prices
The Play:3 has all the features of its smaller sibling, but it adds an extra driver, a bass radiator and comes in a bigger, chunkier box. The result is a more powerful and surprisingly musical sound that's nicely dispersed around the room.
You can also link two Play:3s together to make a stereo pair.
MORE: Sonos Play:3 review
Tested at £430 / compare latest prices
The revamped Play:5 is packed with upgrades and improvements, making it the best Sonos speaker yet. It's an enclosed chassis that adds a new driver instead of a port. All the drivers have been redesigned, and you can position the speaker both horizontally and vertically. There are also touch-sensitive controls.
It's pricey, but the bigger, bolder and more articulate performance is worth it.
Tested at £600 / compare latest prices
Sonos in a soundbar. It combines the streaming features of Sonos while improving your TV's sound. It only has a digital optical connection (no HDMI) and there's no DTS support, but it's a decent addition to your TV system.
Add two Play:1s or Play:3s and you've got yourself a 5.1 system, too.
MORE: Sonos Playbar review
Tested at £700 / compare latest prices
Sonos's latest product is designed as a strong, flat base you can perch your TV upon. Sporting the same features as the Playbar, the Playbase offers a different design for those who want to boost TV sound performance.
The sound isn't flawless, but it's simple and stylish.
Tested at £600 / compare latest prices
If you feel as though you're missing out on really deep basslines from the Playbar (or Playbase), simply add the matching wireless Sub for extra oomph.
It's not as punchy as we'd like and it's rather pricey, but the Sub does add more power, scale and weight to the low end for movies and music alike.
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