The Sonos wireless multi-room system helped revolutionise the way many of us listen to music at home. It made a whole home music system a convenient and affordable reality, delivering music to every room in your house – whether playing in unison, or separately in different zones.
Sonos may not have been the very first option – and it's certainly no longer the only one – but it was the class leader for a long time thanks to its winning combination of usability, functionality and sound quality. Sonos kickstarted the idea that your music system was no longer restricted to one room or by pesky cables.
You can now stream your music from a range of devices – phone, laptop, NAS drive – to multiple speakers around the home using your home wireless network. There are plenty of manufacturers offering this multi-room experience, such as the cheap-and-cheerful Audio Pro and hi-res-supporting Bluesound, but Sonos continues to be one of the leading (and certainly most popular) players with its long-established and well-developed multi-room family of products, from wireless speakers to soundbars, amplifiers to portable Bluetooth speakers.
Here, we'll guide you through everything you need to know about Sonos and help you set up your own Sonos multi-room system...
What is Sonos? How does Sonos work?
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. No wonder the likes of Amazon, Audio Pro, Bose, Denon, Google and LG have since got in on the act.
The Sonos wireless sound system originally worked by connecting one single speaker to your home network, then adding more Sonos units (up to a maximum of 32) into the mix, using a dedicated secure wireless mesh network known as Sonosnet. Now, should you prefer, you can simply connect any number of Sonos products to your home wireless system – there's no longer a need for one device to be connected to your router.
But that Sonosnet network was certainly integral to the way Sonos's multi-room speakers operated initially, sitting one step removed from your home network. That meant a stronger, more robust signal, that wasn't prone to dropouts when streaming music. The choice is now yours.
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 and wireless speakers to expand and enhance the listening experience at home, adding streaming services and voice control to its ever-growing roster of offerings. With the arrival of the new Sonos S2 platform in 2020, some serious upgrades have made the whole experience even better, too.
Sonos set-up: how to get started
A major part of Sonos's appeal and meteoric rise in popularity lies in its hugely simple set-up process.
The Sonos 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 Sonos 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.
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. A new feature called 'Room Groups', introduced in the Sonos S2 update, allows users to create lasting groups of particular zones that you often use in unison – the lounge and kitchen, perhaps – so that you don't have to manually group the rooms together every time.
Ultimately, Sonos is still the smoothest multi-room set-up going.
- Sonos S2 update: everything you need to know
The current roster of Sonos products kicks off with the Sonos One and Sonos One SL wireless speakers, which replace the discontinued Play:1. The only difference between the two is that the One SL doesn't have voice control, so is slightly cheaper. There's also the new Sonos Five smart speaker, which replaces the Play:5 and the the company's first fully portable wireless speaker, the 2019 Sonos Move.
In early 2021, Sonos launched a smaller, cheaper portable Bluetooth speaker – the Tolberone-shaped Sonos Roam. Not only is it significantly lighter than than the portly Sonos Move (0.5kg vs 3kg), it's smarter and offers 10 hours playback from a single charge.
Both the Playbar and Playbase have recently been replaced by the new Sonos Arc soundbar, which can be partnered with a new Gen 3 Sonos Sub. The Sonos Beam is the company's smaller, feature-packed soundbar.
Want something a little different (and cheaper)? Try the Sonos IKEA speakers-with-a-twist, the Symfonisk lamp or the Symfonisk bookshelf. The two companies are expected to reveal a second collaboration in mid-2021, said to feature an in-wall speaker that doubles as a piece of art.
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 to turn it into a streaming system. Similarly, the Connect:Amp combines streamer and amplifier – so you can simply add it to your existing pair of stereo speakers. While these are still available, the latest versions are the Sonos Port and Sonos Amp.
There are also ancillary products such as the Sonos Boost. 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. Oh and there are in-wall and in-ceiling speakers, too.
Sonos apps and services
The Sonos 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 as well as allowing you to play music from digital libraries (such as from a NAS device or a laptop), the app also offers the widest choice of streaming service compatibility. Sonos's aim is to be platform agnostic, and it's the most comprehensive list we've seen in any multi-room product.
Apple Music, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, Pandora, Soundcloud, Deezer, Qobuz, Tidal, TuneIn... the list of supported apps goes on. It's worth noting you will need premium subscriptions for some of these, though.
Deezer, Qobuz, Tidal and Amazon Music HD bring CD-quality, lossless streaming to Sonos. While the other music services offer files up to 320kbps, these four services offer unlimited streaming access to CD-quality FLAC files at 16bit/44.1kHz for a monthly subscription charge. The Sonos Arc soundbar supports Dolby Atmos audio courtesy of the new Sonos S2 platform and Sonos now supports 24bit high-resolution audio via streaming service Quboz.
One of Sonos's best features is that you can 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.
Finally, there's voice control. Continuing its agnostic approach, Sonos offers all three main voice assistants – Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri and Google Assistant – in its compatible, smart products (which is all of the wireless speakers and soundbars, minus the Sonos Five and One SL).
- Apple Music vs Spotify: which is better?
- Tidal vs Spotify: which is better?
- 24 Sonos tips, tricks and features
Where you place your Sonos speaker in the room will affect its sound. The Sonos 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.
- Everything you need to know about Sonos Trueplay
What is 'Works with Sonos'?
Another badge to look out for if you're buying into the Sonos ecosystem, is 'Works with Sonos'. The Works with Sonos badge certifies products that connect with the Sonos family seamlessly, so you know which smart products you can count on to connect to your system without fuss. That's the theory, at least.
Lutron, Onkyo, IKEA and iPort are just some of the brands using the branding and certification. You can see a fuller list on the Works with Sonos page.
Sonos missing features and things to consider
Of course, while Sonos bills 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 Audiolab 6000N Play, for instance, to get fantastic audio performance. And the more streamers (and speakers) you buy, the more rooms of music you can have.
You may also then get wider high-resolution audio support (an area where Bluesound and Denon have been quick to capitalise). Sure, the Sonos S2 app lets users play 24-bit files from a local drive, but at the time of writing users can only stream hi-res tracks from the Quboz music service. That's fine if Quboz membership appeals to you, but not ideal if you're already wedded to one of the other high-res audio streaming services.
Sonos Recycle Mode and software updates
Another issue to consider is future compatibility, with Sonos recently getting into hot water over its Recycle Mode, which was accused of 'bricking' perfectly good speakers which had become too old to receive the latest firmware updates.
The latest announcement saw Sonos row back from that and end Recycle Mode, encouraging customers to perform a simple factory reset on their older gear before trading it in, choosing to give it to someone, recycling it at a nearby facility or sending it to Sonos and letting the firm handle it.
The good news is that the Sonos Trade Up programme still exists, and customers who own eligible older 'legacy' products can get the same discount, but they are no longer required to needlessly render usable speakers inoperable.
The following older products are not compatible with the S2 software platform and will not receive future firmware updates:
All Zone Players (ZP80, ZP90, ZP100, ZP120)
Connect:Amp (sold between 2006 and 2015)
Play:5 (Gen 1)
Realistically, this is an issue affecting all smart products, from speakers to TVs. If anything, the fact Sonos has supported older products for far longer than many other companies, and many people still love their older Sonos devices, has inadvertently served to make Sonos' future support issue a much bigger deal than it is for other companies.
As we said in our opinion piece, the Sonos backlash simply reveals the cold hard truth of smart tech – it has a shelf life, especially if you want the latest features and updates.
- Listen up: Sonos talks Dolby Atmos, DTS and sound quality
- Sonos Arc long-term review: the highs and lows
Which Sonos speaker is best for you?
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 set on investing in a Sonos speaker or soundbar, congratulations, we'd say you've made a great choice. The next step is to choose what Sonos products your system consists of. So, which Sonos speaker is best for you? We've tested every Sonos speaker and soundbar to help you make your choice.
- Spend it wisely: Which Sonos speaker should you buy?
Best Sonos alternatives
"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 a different flavour of sound or a different set of features to challenge Sonos's dominance.
- Best Sonos alternatives: multi-room music systems
The first of these is one of the newer entrants into the multi-room market: Audio Pro. We're big fans of the Swedish company's individual wireless speakers (which have picked up plenty of What Hi-Fi? Awards), so we aren't too surprised a multi-room system made from these superb speakers (Audio Pro Addon C5, Addon C3 and Addon C10) sounds great. What surprises us more is how its musicality is unrivalled by anything at a similar price – or even quite a lot more.
Such is the appeal of Audio Pro's expressive, nuanced and precise performance, we prefer it – in pure sound quality terms – over Sonos and Bluesound systems. Audio Pro's simple app can be a little buggy (and isn't anywhere near as fully-featured as Sonos's) but, for sound quality at an affordable price, this multi-room system is currently unbeatable.
Read the full review: Audio Pro multi-room system
The first genuine threat to Sonos was Bluesound, whose key hook of support for high-resolution audio made it our preferred multi-room system for years (as multiple Awards trophies will attest). Its wide range of products (which includes wireless speakers, a streamer, amplifier and soundbar) and subtly detailed and punchy sound made this pricey system worth investing in. But that was before Audio Pro came into the picture with its better value wireless speakers.
Bluesound remains a solid-sounding system despite losing its fifth star, though, with an improved BluOS app that now supports Alexa voice control and makes daily use a breeze (even if it's still can't match Sonos's intuitiveness). If you have deep pockets and a library full of hi-res music, it's worth a punt.
Read the full review: Bluesound Generation 2i
Here’s a question: if the Sonos One and Sonos Beam incorporate Alexa and Google Assistant voice control, is there really any reason to buy the Amazon Echo or Google Nest speakers?
There is: both Amazon and Google's ranges of voice-assisted speaker products offer a wealth of smart home features that aren't available when they're incorporated in third-party speakers like Sonos. And while previously we'd say these smart speakers are more suited to those who prioritise the fun smart perks over outright sound quality, that tide is now turning.
Amazon's latest generation of Echo speakers – particularly the Echo Plus (2nd Gen) and Amazon Echo (4th Gen) – are all good speakers in their own right. The entire Echo family (including older generations) also all multi-room speakers, with Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music and TuneIn radio supported for multi-room streaming.
Google's new Nest Audio and Nest Mini (rebranded successors to the Google Home and Home Mini) similarly connect to any number of its voice-controlled wireless speakers for a multi-room set-up, and its compatibility with Chromecast streaming (and therefore other products with Chromecast built-in, such as smart TVs) should set it apart from Amazon's offerings, too.
We're not wild about any of these products' audio performances, however: they're acceptable for background listening, rather than being your main music system.
But most pertinently, they both offer cheaper alternatives to Sonos. You can get an Amazon Echo or Google Nest Audio for under £100/$100, making them solid alternatives if you're on a budget.