Gone are the days when your music or hi-fi system was restricted to one room and 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 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 broadband 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 offering this multi-room experience, but US company Sonos continues to lead the way with its long-established and 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 at one remove 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 and voice control to its ever-growing roster of offerings.
Sonos: Getting started
A major part of Sonos's appeal and meteoric rise in popularity lies in 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 (to link 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), the new Sonos One smart speaker with Alexa voice control has joined the family.
There are also ancillary products such as the Sonos Boost (£100). Connecting this box directly to your router expands and strengthens the wi-fi for Sonos products. It broadcasts 360-degree 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-amp-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.
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 both 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 its 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 a little more cash spent on 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 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.
You would, however, get high-resolution audio support – something still not offered by Sonos. Want to play downloaded 24bit/192kHz files? You're out of luck, as Sonos tops out at CD-quality music. It's an area where rivals such as Bluesound have been quick to capitalise.
Our only other major niggle about Sonos is the lack of Bluetooth support. We'd like at least one alternative (and offline) streaming option - what 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 must 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 system's musical, punchy sound. From Beethoven to Beyoncé, 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 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 wed them with the app and you can create 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, as well as 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 introduced the R series of multi-room speakers to take the fight to Sonos.
The Samsung R6 and R7 have dome-shaped cabinets to help deliver 360-degree omnidirectional sound. The system supports 24bit/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 worthwhile 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.
Here’s a question: if the new Sonos One smart speaker incorporates Alexa voice control (and will get Google Assistant in 2018), is there really any reason to buy the pioneering Amazon Echo or Google Home speakers?
Well, Amazon’s offerings – the outgoing Echo, Dot, the new Echo (2017) and Echo Plus – can work as an option for those who don’t want a comprehensive system such as Sonos (and who care more about voice control than outright sound quality).
The first generation Echo speakers didn't support multi-room, but that will soon change thanks to an update rolling out this year. Amazon Music and TuneIn radio are the only apps that support multi-room streaming at first, though.
The Amazon sound is fairly ‘safe’, but Amazon has promised the new Echo (2017) will improve on the original’s performance.
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. Let’s hope the new premium option, codenamed Google Home Max, will offer better sound quality.
On the other hand, Google Home (and the new Home Mini) 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 streaming should set Google's offering apart from Amazon.
More pertinently, they’re both cheaper alternatives to Sonos. The new Amazon Echo (2017) and Echo Plus are £90 and £140 respectively, while the £130 Google Home is joined by the £50 Home Mini – much more affordable than Sonos’s £200 smart speaker.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tested at £200
"A Play:1 with Amazon Alexa built-in" is the most succinct way we can describe Sonos's much vaunted new smart speaker, Sonos One. It sounds great, too - solid, sophisticated, spacious and organised - and Alexa's integration makes it a dream to use. We're still waiting to use Alexa across all the streaming services Sonos offers (especially Spotify, which should activate before Christmas), but with Google Assistant and AirPlay 2 support coming next year, the One is currently the most well-specified and best-sounding smart speaker around.
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