If you want a music system that covers your whole house and will play all of your music, no matter where it’s stored, Sonos is your best option.
Last Updated: October 30, 2015
Sonos replaced the PLAY:5 speaker in its lineup with a new model, also called the PLAY:5. Compared to the previous model the new one has six drivers instead of five, replaces the hard buttons with touch-sensitive ones, and adds the ability to be placed on its sides in a vertical configuration. The price has also increased from $400 to $500. Having listened to both models over the past 10 days, the updated PLAY:5 sounds far better than the old model. When placed flat it does a better job at creating some stereo separation than the older PLAY:5 did. When placed vertically and paired with another PLAY:5 the sound dispersion completely changes and it behaves more like a standard stereo speaker. The PLAY:5 is easily the best speaker Sonos has made to date, as you would expect for the price. Little touches, from how the touch-sensitive controls change based on the speaker orientation to the design of the box, help make the complete Sonos PLAY:5 experience a very positive one. The new speaker will be available on November 20.
After more than 10 hours of research and more than 30 hours of listening and daily use, we can confidently say that it’s the easiest to use and best-sounding system of its type. Sonos is the most mature and sophisticated of all current streaming music systems with the most diverse array of speaker types, ranging from desktop to home theater listening.
What is a whole home audio system? Who should get one?
If you want different—or even the same—music to play in multiple rooms of your house from any source, using any of your gadgets or computers as a controller, the only real way to do that is with one of these systems.
If you only want a way to pipe music into a single room from your smartphone or tablet, you should look into an Airplay or Bluetooth speaker. It will be easier to set up, more portable and less expensive. If you only want music from your TV and a tablet or smartphone, our soundbar guide has a number of solutions to help fix that problem that also sell for less.
What makes a good whole home audio system?
The ideal system for playing music across your entire home should be easy to integrate and implement, flexible, reliable, scalable and easy to operate.
It all breaks down to one main goal: Providing access to all the music you want to listen to, anywhere you want to listen to it. That music can be on your computer, on a network storage device or in the cloud somewhere. No matter where it is, the better the access that is provided, the better the streaming system is. If there are major sources of music that can’t be accessed—a NAS, a phone, a certain online service—that is a problem, and a common one with systems that are limited to Airplay or Bluetooth. Because of this, users often find themselves tied to multiple devices for their music instead of being free to listen to it anywhere.
A good whole home audio system should be able to play music in any room, from any source, regardless of the distance. A great system will work in any situation you come up with. If the system works well in the basement but not on the upper floor, it isn’t a successful product. If it has specialized units that can also be used outside, or are portable with an integrated battery, then it’s better.
A whole house music system also has to be reliable. The Sonos systems use their own wireless mesh that is ultra reliable and not dependent on or competitive with your other wireless devices for bandwidth. Sonos still connects to your network, so you can control it with your Wi-Fi equipped smartphone, but it sends audio over a mesh network instead of your regular Wi-Fi network, which makes a huge difference in audio quality and reception. This allows for a higher-quality connection, free from interference from other Wi-Fi devices. If someone on your network is downloading large files or streaming Netflix, it won’t interfere with your music. And since each Sonos speaker becomes an extension of the network, Sonos has more range than what you would get out of a system that works off a single Wi-Fi router.
What about single speakers powered by Airplay or Bluetooth or on your home’s Wi-Fi? They’re not as reliable. Bluetooth speakers are semi-reliable because your music source is in the same room as the speaker, but they don’t work well as a whole house solution for that same reason: You have to keep the source close to the speaker. Airplay has better range than Bluetooth, typically, because it is powered by Wi-Fi. But if your home network is congested, your audio will drop.
It also needs to be flexible: If you want to start with a single room and add on more rooms later, you should be able to do that. If you want to integrate it into an existing stereo system, that should be possible as well. It is nice if it can tie into a TV, either with a specialized soundbar or with a soundbar-style setup. Having to maintain different systems for whole house audio and TV or movie audio causes redundancy, extra systems and wasted money. It also makes everything complex while we are trying to simplify.
It needs to be simple to operate. If you have a family of four and each member has their own music library, their own listening preferences and their own playlists, you need to be able to work with all of that. There should be a seamless, integrated system that ties everyone together instead of a group of four separated walled gardens that don’t talk to each other. An ideal system can integrate all of these without forcing you to spend hours updating and collating your libraries together.
How we picked (and why we didn’t test the others)
When we last covered this category more than a year ago, the field was much sparser, with only Sonos offering viable whole house audio solutions. Since then, a number of competitors have emerged, including the Bose Soundtouch and the Samsung Shape M7. But they don’t offer much compared to Sonos. The Bose is easy to eliminate, as most of its features aren’t complete yet and won’t be until the end of 2014. The price is higher and the features lacking compared to Sonos as well. The Samsung lacks streaming support for many services, which is simply a dealbreaker. And neither of these competitors operates on a discreet mesh network, so they’re less reliable and have less range.
As for other offerings on the market—there aren’t many. They all have some sort of fatal flaw when compared to the Sonos. Perhaps they cost as much, but rely on Wi-Fi, making them exceptionally prone to drop-outs. Or they cost a whole lot more and only offer niche features, like high-resolution audio, that might appeal to some but not everyone. Or they could be designed around the custom installer, which is great if you’re already having one over but not if you want to get something from the company yourself. Past devices that did well, like the Squeezebox system, are now discontinued.
One of the only reviews available for the Bose SoundTouch system is from Dave Oliver of Wired UK. “The problem is that the options are still fairly limited,” he finds, and that “Spotify isn’t there yet, nor are most streaming services.” Additionally “there’s no Bluetooth for direct streaming from mobile devices” to listen to those streaming services. While they sound clear and detailed, the “soundstage is necessarily limited and localised… a compromise to help keep the box thin.”
If Bose’s offering improves, we’ll test it versus Sonos, too. Right now the Bose isn’t worth testing as half the features on it aren’t working yet and won’t be for months. It might be nice once those are enabled, but we don’t know.
Other systems all have negative overall reviews or can’t be installed without a professional, which put them out of the running. Custom install solutions can be wonderful, but they’re also more expensive and less flexible for most users than a Sonos system.
How I tested
My testing was largely focused on versatility and usability, since those are the main differentiating factors for whole house music systems. For two months, I used the Sonos in my home, a three-story house with at least one media system on every floor. The upper-floor bedroom has a TV and Blu-ray player, but no audio sources. The main floor has a TV with a 5.1 channel home theater sound setup that I use to listen to music in that room, but also in the adjoining kitchen or kids’ rooms. The basement has a dedicated home theater room with 5.1 channel sound as well as an adjoining office.
For two months, I used the Sonos in my home, a three-story house with at least one media system on every floor.
I wanted to know if the Sonos could conveniently play anything and everything I threw at it. All of my music is stored on a network-attached storage device in the basement; additionally, I stream a lot of music from TuneIn, Spotify and Amazon Cloud Player. I also set up libraries on a pair of computers to share and integrate into the system to simulate having multiple users in a single household. I have a wide variety of formats, from MP3 to Apple Lossless to WAV to high-resolution FLAC files.
I also know that I might find a complex system easy to operate while someone else might not. To find out how easy the Sonos really is, I took the whole system over to my Dad’s house for a week. He, his wife, my two teenage siblings and my brother and his daughter all live there, each with their own music libraries and tastes. I set up a Sonos PLAYBAR with SUB in a bedroom and two PLAY:1 speakers around the house and provided virtually no instructions to test how well the Sonos works when thrown into a normal household, not an AV reviewer’s home.
Why Sonos is the winner
Sonos is flexible, easy to use, integrates into your current system and works with a huge array of services and content providers. It has been around since 2004, and that time has let the company build up its product to be better than anyone else’s. It also sounds fantastic.
The $50 Sonos BRIDGE enables a separate wireless mesh network that your music streams over without interfering with your Wi-Fi network — and it’s one of the reasons we recommend Sonos. However, as of September, a Sonos firmware update makes it possible to stream music through the speakers via your local Wi-Fi network, no BRIDGE (or physical connection to a router) is necessary.
If I were starting out with Sonos, I would purchase a pair of PLAY:1 speakers and get the BRIDGE. I could use them in a stereo pair or have music in two rooms. They are small enough to easily move around the house to determine where I want them, or if I need a larger speaker in a particular room. They’re compact enough to sit out of the way but still can fill a good-sized room with music.
Expanding beyond those two PLAY:1 speakers would be a harder choice. If I already have a dedicated stereo setup or home theater, the CONNECT might be where I look. I think it is a bit expensive for what it does, but it is still cheaper than replacing an existing system with something new. If I had no sound system for my TV, I’d probably look at the PLAYBAR. It sounds very good and does a wonderful job with music. My main reservation about it is the single Optical input when I’d like to see an HDMI input with ARC as well.
Beyond that, the system is versatile, and can be arranged (and rearranged) however you want to use it. There is a huge selection of Sonos products, from speakers to a soundbar to a subwoofer, and you can also integrate it with your existing stereo or use it with speakers you own. Your options include (prices in USD):
PLAY:1. A single speaker for $200 with a tweeter and midrange/woofer drivers.
PLAY:3. A $300 speaker with a tweeter and dual midrange/bass drivers for greater output.
PLAY:5. A $500 six-driver speaker with three tweeters and three midrange/woofers for larger spaces that can be oriented vertically or horizontally.
PLAYBAR. A $700, three-channel, nine-driver sound bar to be used with your TV as well as stream music.
SUB. A $700, dual-driver subwoofer to pair with other Sonos speakers when greater bass output is required.
CONNECT. A $350 device with line level outputs to connect to your existing Hi-Fi system.
CONNECT:AMP. A $500 device with a 55-watt per channel, stereo amplifier to directly connect to speakers.
BRIDGE. A $50 hub to create the Sonos mesh network if your speakers will not be placed next to your wireless router.
- BOOST. A $100 a supercharged BRIDGE with more antennas and a more powerful radio to extend the range of the Sonos system in larger systems and houses.
Competitors like Bose and Samsung only sell units that are integrated into speakers without line-output jacks. If you already have speakers, you’ll be buying another set of speakers with the Bose and Samsung units and cannot use your existing ones.
Beyond a larger selection of hardware, Sonos lets you access more music and content. Almost all streaming services you might use are supported, from Spotify to MOG to Amazon Cloud Player to far less common ones. And as of April, Google Play Music can stream directly to the speakers. It also supports a wide selection of audio formats, including MP3, WMA, AAC, OGG, FLAC, ALAC, AIFF and WAV. Other systems have a much smaller selection of content and supported formats to choose from, meaning you might have to switch services or manually convert the music on your hard drive before you can play it back.
With Sonos, it’s incredibly simple to get everything set up and working together. For this guide, Sonos sent over a set of packages including two PLAY:1 speakers, a PLAYBAR sound bar, a SUB, and BRIDGE. It took less than an hour to go from opening the packages to having all four separate speakers playing. All of this is due to iOS and Android apps that carefully walk you through everything on-screen. If you can install an app on your smartphone, you can set up a Sonos system for your whole house.
The sound quality of the Sonos products is superb. I reviewed and measured the PLAY:1 speaker, and it performed much better than you would expect from a $400 pair of speakers. Averaging 48 in-room measurements to get an accurate response, I saw bass extension down to 80 hertz. That’s an admirable number for a small bookshelf speaker, and the vocal clarity is very impressive. With a pair of PLAY:1 speakers the soundstage they present is wide and deep. The PLAYBAR sounds wonderful in a living room and combines with the optional SUB to produce a full-range, dynamic system that sounds bigger than it looks. Many people are fine with sacrificing a bit of quality for convenience, but the Sonos products do not force that choice.
A Sonos system works together flawlessly and is also easy to expand. The system I described earlier can easily provide audio to three rooms in a house using one TV room with the PLAYBAR, and two other rooms with the PLAY:1 speakers. The SUB can be added to any of those systems where you might want more bass.
Sonos has also launched Trueplay, which works on the PLAY:5 as well as most of the other Sonos speakers aside from the PLAYBAR. Trueplay uses your iOS microphone (not Android yet due to hardware issues) to measure the frequency response of the Sonos speaker in your room. It can then correct for room issues and make the speaker sound more like it should.
Testing it with the new PLAY:5 and other Sonos speakers around the house, it does a very good job with speakers that are poorly positioned. With a PLAY:5 stuck in the corner of my kitchen it corrected the bass hump caused by the position and created overall better clarity. Since Trueplay is free, as long as you have an iOS device, it helps to set the Sonos system apart from others. Paradigm showed PlayFi speakers at CEDIA that use their Anthem Room Correction technology but those models start at $600 for a single speaker.
Trueplay is still in beta testing now, but will be available to everyone soon, likely around when the PLAY:5 ships on November 20.
Ready to form Voltron (AKA Sonos is surround sound capable)
The BRIDGE lived on top of the receiver.
Or you can combine these all into one system and make it a true 5.1 channel surround sound system. The flexibility of Sonos lets you rearrange the speakers into any configuration you want. Every other solution on the market right now is focused on one or two speaker solutions and leaving the home theater alone. Sonos has expanded to handle a home theater as well as music.
With their PLAYBAR and SUB you can form a true 5.1 system. Doing this is easy enough that you could make it a 5.1 system for movie night and then take it apart later. All you need is a couple of outlets and 5-10 minutes in the app. The individual models—the PLAY:1, 3, and 5—can be used on their own or in stereo pairs. The PLAYBAR can be used as a three-channel sound bar, with a SUB or with two of the PLAY models for a full surround sound setup. None of the other brands on the market have the same product selection as Sonos, meaning there’s no way to combine them into a full surround sound setup.
As mentioned earlier, Sonos’ special wireless mesh network makes a noticeable difference in audio quality and reception. In the months I’ve spent with Sonos, I never once had a hiccup in the connection. I can’t say that about my other media streamers, which only use Wi-Fi.
I’ve also tried my set-up without the BRIDGE, using the updated Sonos software that takes advantage of my home Wi-Fi network. It’s worked fine, but I’m also using our new best router pick, and all of our Sonos speakers are no further than 15 feet away.Sonos also says that it’s best to to keep a BRIDGE that’s already in place, or get one if you plan on creating complex, multi-room sound systems at home.
Depending on the complexity of your set-up (and traffic on your Wi-Fi network), Sonos has another option too: the $100 BOOST. The BOOST acts as a supercharged BRIDGE with more antennas and a more powerful radio to extend the range of the Sonos system in larger systems and houses. But if you have Sonos and using Wi-Fi works for you, then you have no reason to add a BRIDGE or BOOST. If you want to run a multichannel system with a subwoofer (like the PLAYBAR with the SUB) then you need one of these as that setup is not supported over Wi-Fi only. If you have a highly congested Wi-Fi network, a 5GHz-only network, or are having range issues, then you should consider a BRIDGE or BOOST.
The most common complaint in the past with Sonos has been the high cost of entry, but that barrier has been reduced. Sonos no longer produces the $300 dedicated remote, replacing it with the app for your iOS or Android phone. The PLAY:1 speaker can be hooked directly to your network and be ready to go for just $200. (By comparison, the Bose SoundTouch system starts at $400 for the cheapest unit and uses Wi-Fi, making it vulnerable to drop-outs. The only Samsung speaker is the $400 M7, and if you want more than one, you need the $50 Hub.)
Who else likes the Sonos?
Sonos has been around much longer than any of its competitors, meaning there are more reviews to sift through. Glancing through reviews for any of their products, you’ll find wide support for the line and brand.
Wirecutter founder Brian Lam has talked about how setting up a whole house Sonos system let him listen to 10 times as much music as he did before.
There is near-universal praise for the recent PLAY:1 speakers. Matthew Moskovciak of CNet says the PLAY:1 “finally brings the company’s wireless audio magic to the masses”. Andrew Williams of Trusted Reviews also says, “This is probably Sonos’s most impressive product to date.” Wirecutter contributor Brent Butterworth gives it a perfect five-star rating on About.com and raved about the measured performance, finding it “measures extremely flat, comparable to what I might usually measure from a very good $3,000/pair tower speaker.”
Sonos isn’t perfect
As good as Sonos is, there are a few things that it can improve upon. For one, it could really use Bluetooth and Airplay support. Let’s not mince words—that’s a flaw in an otherwise perfect hardware and strong software system.
Sonos lets you stream audio stored on your phone through your system using their software instead of Bluetooth or Airplay. It doesn’t substitute for the other benefit of those services: Being able to play anything off your phone, no matter what app it’s streamed from. Sonos’ wide support for streaming services also means you can play those back inside of the Sonos app instead of needing to stream them directly from your device. But if a new service comes out, you’ll need Sonos to add support for it since you can’t stream it from your phone. In our subjective experience, Sonos usually tends to add support for new services in a timely manner.
You can add Bluetooth or Airplay to Sonos, but in a roundabout way that is fairly expensive. Sonos provides a convenient guide to doing so. You’ll need to purchase a $95 Airport Express Base Station to act as your Airplay target. You’ll also need either aPLAY:5, CONNECT, or CONNECT:AMP in your Sonos system, all of which are at least $350.
Once you connect the Airport Express to the Sonos device, you can set up the Sonos to automatically turn on one zone, or many, when you connect a device using Airplay.Setting up Bluetooth is similar, but the Logitech Adapter is cheaper than the Airport Express. Sonos really needs a $100 BRIDGE unit with a Line In feature to help eliminate this issue.
Some older components are overpriced: The CONNECT and CONNECT:AMP should be half the price, or less. The CONNECT sells for $350 and simply provides a signal for your existing stereo. Compared to the $200 PLAY:1 speaker, that seems high. And at $499, the CONNECT:AMP alone, without speakers, fares poorly compared to a pair of PLAY:1s or PLAY:3s, or even the PLAYBAR.
Sonos also lacks a portable battery-powered speaker, so there’s no way to unplug one and take it outside for music unless you have access to a power line. Bose offers one in their SoundTouch line, but Sonos has nothing.While easy to set up and mostly easy to use, the Sonos app’s interface could also use an overhaul. The mobile app can be confusing at first because it doesn’t seem to flow in the same way other music apps do. (The desktop app seems less annoying to me, though Wirecutter editor Jacqui Cheng thinks it could use some usability work as well.) Once I figured it out, it’s simple, but some of the controls work differently than the modern smartphone apps people are familiar with. Both could benefit from updated versions to remove the learning curve.
It also lacks the ability to play files with higher-than-CD resolution—which, to be honest, is more of a niche feature. People that require this can get a whole house music system from Bluesound (although, unless you want this specific feature, it’s really too pricy—see below). If Sonos adds support for these, even sampled down to regular CD quality, it would improve upon their already-excellent file format support.
Long-term test notes
The Sonos system still continues to perform well after a few months of continual use. Occasionally Spotify tracks will skip, but this also happens to me on receivers with Spotify Connect. There was a week where sometimes a zone player would not show up in the software, but after I finished configuring my new router correctly that went away. After months of daily use it continues to hold up well with no issues aside from those.
What about a Bluetooth/Airplay speaker?
A Sonos system can possibly replace a Bluetooth/Airplay system, but it can also complement it. You can connect the Sonos system to a Bluetooth or Airplay speaker that has a line-in, but you probably wouldn’t want to. As mentioned earlier, that would require using the Sonos CONNECT, and at $350 for the CONNECT you should just buy a Sonos PLAY:3 speaker instead to complement the Airplay or Bluetooth speaker.
The most important thing is determining if Sonos supports what you listen to and how and where you listen. Are all your streaming services and local files supported, or do you have another media format or source on your phone? If you listen to something on your phone that Sonos doesn’t support, then a Bluetooth or Airplay speaker might be better.
If you also do all of your listening in a single room and thus only need one speaker, or need your music system to be portable, you should probably look at a Bluetooth or Airplay speaker. Sonos doesn’t have a truly portable solution, as everything needs a wall outlet. You also need at least one component or the BRIDGE to connect to your home network, probably at the wireless router, for it to work. If you don’t have access to a network for some reason, then you can’t make Sonos work for you.
Wrapping It Up
Sonos has the enviable combination of the best performance, best product lineup and best service ecosystem. Other products might offer a feature the Sonos lacks, like Bluetooth or high-resolution music support, but don’t have the complete package that Sonos does.
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Blog review courtesy of The Wirecutter