Reviews

Sonos vs. AirPlay: Why I Chose AirPlay for Whole House Audio

airplay sonos feature

Sonos is the “just works” streaming audio solution starting at $400 for two speakers. But with the right setup, AirPlay can be free. Let’s review the details.

airplay sonos feature

Recently, my wife authorized me to spend whatever amount I needed in order make whole home audio a reality in our new house. That is, the ability to play music from one device and have it play in sync from multiple speakers in multiple rooms of the house. After doing a fair amount of research, there were two leading contenders: Sonos and AirPlay.

Update: During WWDC 2017, Apple accounced two game changers in the world of multi-room audio: AirPlay 2 and the HomePod (Apple’s smart speaker answer to Amazon Echo and Google Home). The HomePod will go on sale in December 2017 $350. More details on AirPlay 2 are forthcoming. But hopefully, this means that the protocol will get a whole lot better on iOS. And maybe we’ll even see some affordable AirPlay 2 speakers that make multi-room audio with HomePod (with Siri and HomeKit) a reality.

The rest of this article focuses on the current AirPlay protocol, which, as you’ll see, works but needed an update. We’ll revisit this once AirPlay 2 hits the streets.

Sonos whole house audio and AirPlay whole home audio are two very different solutions to the same problem. Sonos is a proprietary, self-contained system that uses a combination of your WiFi network and its built-in networking capabilities to stream music from Pandora, Spotify, Amazon Music, or your audio library from your phone. AirPlay is an Apple-developed protocol that lets you stream audio to supported devices, such as the Apple TV, official Apple AirPlay speakers, and third-party devices that support AirPlay.

I’ll tell you upfront why I chose AirPlay: price.

sonos vs airplay review

I’ve heard some pretty glowing reviews of Sonos—Steve has had Sonos for years and absolutely swears by it. He loves it (and takes every opportunity to tell me about it.) Sonos is the “it just works” solution, and I’ve heard almost no complaints about it. But for me, getting started with Sonos would cost a minimum of $600 after outfitting three rooms with a $199 Sonos Play:1 (at a bare minimum). Getting started with AirPlay will cost me approximately $0.

Plus, there’s one more thing I’m nervous about – obsolescence.

Food Network star Alton Brown is always complaining about “unitasker” gadgets in the kitchen. Similarly, I worry about expensive, proprietary tech devices that only do one thing. Granted, Sonos does its one thing fantastically well. But what about in five years, when perhaps routers don’t support the band that your Sonos speaker uses, or when Apple releases a competitor and drops support for the Sonos app (hypotheticals, for now)? Unlike an old laptop that I can rip apart and repurpose its components, a Sonos speaker only works with Sonos, and without Sonos, you’ve got a sleek $199 paperweight.

sonos vs airplay costs

There are major drawbacks to AirPlay. To say it costs $0 for me doesn’t mean it’s going to cost $0 for you. There’s lots of required hardware—I’m just fortunate enough to own it already. And in terms of functionality, AirPlay works best with iTunes, and whatever’s in your iTunes library. It can work with Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody, Google Music, Amazon Music, etc. but it’s a bit more challenging.

That’s the short version. Want details? Read on.

What is Whole Home Audio?

sonos diagram

First, let’s define what I mean by whole house audio. Whole home audio means that you can play a song from a centralized controller—e.g. a phone or a computer—and it plays on multiple speakers. For my wife, she wants to be able to move about the whole house while cleaning or doing chores and hear her playlist or radio station without wearing headphones or lugging around a Bluetooth speaker. In most two-story homes, a Bluetooth speaker will quickly go out of range if you have your phone in your pocket and you walk into the next room.

Why not just get a couple of Amazon Echo Dots? This was actually the original idea that got me excited about whole house audio. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could say “Alexa, play ‘spring cleaning playlist’ in all rooms” and then all four of your Echo devices started playing the same song at once? Unfortunately, this functionality doesn’t exist yet.

There are existing low-tech solutions for this, such as a whole house FM transmitter. This turns an audio source into a miniature radio station, allowing you to broadcast to FM radios in your home. Audio quality with FM transmitters is spotty, and you still need to have a bunch of radio receivers in each room.

There are also custom solutions, like whole house wired audio offered by companies like Guardian. There’s a high upfront cost for this. Logistically, it’s feasible during construction or renovation but is usually beyond the reach of a DIYer.

Streaming whole home audio has the potential to deliver the best of both worlds: DIY simplicity and high-quality audio.

What is Sonos?

Sonos is a company that is wholly dedicated to wireless speakers and home entertainment systems. They make the hardware, and they make the software that runs it. As I said above, Sonos is the “it just works” solution.

The most basic setup is a single Sonos wireless speaker that connects to your home WiFi network. It works with the Sonos app for Android or iOS. Sonos also has an app for your Mac or Windows PC. Sonos has partnered with some music streaming services so you can play them over your Sonos speakers as well or, just play music on your Android, iOS or computer.

To add speakers to your setup, simply buy more Sonos speakers. For each Sonos speaker, you add to your system, you’ll be able to stream music to it simultaneously, or you can pick and choose which speakers you stream to. For example, you can group all the speakers upstairs together and play a single song and then play a different song in the garage or bedroom. They can work independently or as a group. You can also get stereo sound from a set of Sonos speakers.

The Sonos speakers you can buy are:

  • Play:1 – A small one speaker set for $199.
  • Play:3 – A mid-size stereo speaker for $299.
  • Play:5 – A six-speaker, three-woofer set with line-in and built-in touch controls for $499

Sonos also makes receivers and soundbars for use with your TV or home entertainment system (PLAYBAR, PLAYBASE, and SUB). These all work with the Play speakers as well.

If you want to stream Sonos to your existing standalone speakers, you can get the CONNECT receiver or the CONNECT:AMP amplified receiver. Note that you do NOT need a CONNECT receiver to use your PLAY speakers.

How Sonos Works

Sonos uses a combination of your home’s WiFi network and its own dedicated Sonos network to stream music in sync. It does not use Bluetooth. This is a good thing. Bluetooth requires syncing with a device and has a very short range. With Sonos, you set it up once, and you are good to go, as long as you are connected to the same WiFi network.

The range of Sonos speakers is excellent because each Sonos speaker works as a repeater. The speakers will get the actual audio content and streaming services from your wireless router via the internet. But to talk to each other, Sonos speakers will use an entirely separate wireless network created by the Sonos system itself. This is all done behind the scenes without you knowing it.

Some other nice things about Sonos: the Play speakers have built-in controls, so you don’t always have to use your phone; the Play:5 has a line-in for use with an audio source, and you can connect an Ethernet port to your Sonos speaker if you have spotty WiFi coverage.

sonos play review

sonos wireless audio review

What is AirPlay?

compare sonos and airplay

Sonos is a complete streaming audio system, replete with dedicated hardware, software, and its own wireless network.

AirPlay is very different.

AirPlay is simply a protocol for streaming audio and video. Apple developed AirPlay as a proprietary technology for streaming content to the Apple TV, but it also works on some third-party devices. You can also buy dedicated AirPlay speakers for streaming audio only.

Like Sonos, AirPlay uses WiFi. To get it to work, you need two things:

  • A device capable of playing to an AirPlay device, such as:
    • A Mac or PC running iTunes
    • An iOS device like an iPhone or iPad with an app that supports AirPlay (practically every app does)
    • A PC or mobile device capable of streaming to AirPlay, such as a Synology DiskStation or a Mac/PC/Linux machine running AirFoil
  • A device capable of receiving AirPlay streams, such as:
    • Apple TV
    • AirPlay speakers
    • A third-party device capable of receiving AirPlay content, such as a Kodi box, a Raspberry Pi running OSMC, or a Firestick running KODI/OSMC
    • A standalone speaker connected to the audio output on an AirPort Express

As you can see, AirPlay is a far more hodgepodge solution. You can easily spend as much as you would on a Sonos system if you got yourself a Mac Mini and a few AirPlay speakers. But you can also cobble together some of your existing devices and with a few tweaks, make them all work together.

The biggest drawback of AirPlay is that it’s a centralized system. You have one audio source playing to multiple receivers. With Sonos, it’s a distributed system—the speakers can all talk to each other, making it easy to stream practically any audio source to all your speakers. With AirPlay, it’s a little tougher, but I’ll show you how it’s done when I get into the details of my setup.

The reason I don’t have to pay a single cent to get AirPlay whole house audio is because I already have a bunch of AirPlay devices. I have an Apple TV in my family room, my old Apple TV in my master bedroom, and then I have a Firestick that I sideloaded Kodi on. I also have a Raspberry Pi that I can install Kodi onto. So, that’s four devices I can AirPlay to.

The drawback, of course, is that all of these streaming devices are TVs, which use considerably more energy than audio speakers. You can get an audio-only solution with an AirPlay speaker, or by rigging up a Raspberry Pi with a digital-to-audio converter to an existing speaker set. I’ll cover that in a future post.

How AirPlay Works

To play audio to your AirPlay receiving devices, they need to be powered on and connected to your WiFi network. Then, you need to send audio to them from your centralized source. The simplest audio source would be your MacBook or PC running iTunes.

From iTunes, start playing a song then click the AirPlay icon. You can pick one or more devices to stream to. Click the + sign to add the source as an output.

itunes streaming whole house

You can also stream to a speaker connected to your Mac or a Bluetooth speaker.

Using AirPlay from Your iPhone or iPad to Stream to Multiple Speakers

You can’t AirPlay to multiple speakers from your iPhone. But what you can do is remotely control your iTunes library on your computer using your iPhone. To do this, use the Remote app.

Tap Settings > Add an iTunes Library.

itunes streaming vs sonos streaming

You’ll be prompted to open iTunes on your Mac or PC.

airplay multiple devices

On your computer, click the Remote button near the top left of the iTunes window to enter a code.

airplay multiple speakers

Remote button not showing up in iTunes? Try closing iTunes, then tap Settings > Add an iTunes Library, then launch iTunes again.

Once you’ve paired your Remote app to iTunes, you can browse your iTunes library from your phone.

whole house itunes airplay

Play a song then tap the AirPlay icon in the bottom-right.

itunes vs sonos

airfoil vs sonos

Tap Multiple in the top-left.

itunes whole house setup

Choose one or more AirPlay devices for playback.

airplay to whole home

Playing Spotify, Amazon Music, and Other Streaming Services over AirPlay

Unlike Sonos, you won’t find a dedicated AirPlay app that lets you play audio from sources other than iTunes to multiple AirPlay speakers. The workaround is to again, use your Mac as the audio source.

First, fire up whatever streaming music service you want to play and begin playing it on your computer. For best results, use the desktop version of the Amazon Music, Spotify, etc.

You can stream your macOS system audio to any single AirPlay device by clicking on the speaker icon in the menu bar.

Don’t see the speaker icon? Go to System Preferences > Sound and enable Show volume in menu bar.

So, what about multiple AirPlay devices?

Unfortunately, macOS doesn’t natively support streaming system audio to multiple AirPlay devices.

But you can use a third-party program called AirFoil ($29) to add that support. There are also versions of AirFoil for Linux and Windows. (Note: At the time of this article, AirFoil doesn’t work with tvOS 10.2 or later. As an interim solution, there is a free Apple TV app called Airfoil Satellite TV, but the developers are working on a long-term solution, too.Update: They fixed it! AirFoil currently works with tvOS 10.2 or later. Still, I recommend getting the AirFoil free trial for a test run first.)

sonos vs airplay

To control AirFoil from your phone, get the AirFoil Satellite app from the app store.

Using AirPlay without iTunes

If you hate iTunes (like I do), then you don’t have to use it. Some third-party music players support AirPlay, including playback to multiple AirPlay devices. For instance, my Synology DiskStation has a built-in audio player (called Audio Station) that can AirPlay to multiple speakers. sonos vs itunes

There’s also an iOS app that controls my DiskStation’s audio player called DS Audio. This lets me AirPlay to multiple devices from my phone, making it almost as handy as Sonos (almost).

This works well for me because I store all my music on my DiskStation. It gives me the option to play my audio directly from my DiskStation or to play it from iTunes. The benefit of the DiskStation is that it’s always on, unlike my PC.

Conclusion

After all that, did I just convince you to pay the extra for Sonos instead? Admittedly, there are pros and cons of using AirPlay:

AirPlay Pros:

  • Little to zero hardware investment—you can often use your existing AppleTVs or other AirPlay-capable devices.
  • Easy integration into your existing A/V setup.

AirPlay Cons:

  • Requires a Mac or another device as a centralized audio source
  • Requires Remote app for controlling iTunes music.
  • No native support for Amazon Music, Google Play, Spotify, etc.
  • Requires VNC for playing non-iTunes audio to multiple devices.

In light of that, Sonos might be worth the money for you. Sonos is tried and true, well-supported, and wildly popular. But to me, it’s frustrating knowing that I have to spend hundreds, maybe even over a thousand dollars for something as simple as having the same song play in more than one room in my house. After jumping through all the hoops with AirPlay, though, it’s clear what you are getting by paying that premium: simplicity and higher sound quality.

Ask me again in six months if I’m still scraping by with AirPlay. It works for me for the time being, and for now, I’m just stingy enough to put up with it.

Is whole house audio worth a $600+ investment to you? Tell us about it in the comments.


26 Comments

26 Comments

  1. Tom  

    I’ve had a Sonos system for 9 years now, with some of the original components still working well. I’ve added new components along the way. Nothing but compliments, and they keep it working as wireless technologies improve. Don’t know what you’re worried about.

    • Thnx for the comment Tom. That’s what I keep telling Jack. 🙂

      Yes, it’s a little pricey however, you get what you pay for and from a quality of product and service (and ease of use…. it just WORKS), it’s one of my absolute favorites. Just LOVE my Sonos system. Been a happy customer for at least 12 years.

      • Pim  

        I love my Sonos. Missed it lots when I was on holiday for a while.

  2. Didn’t like this article from the first sentence. No wife in the world has ever said go ahead and put speakers all around the house. Sonos are usually built up slowly over a period of time for each room. Although still expensive, doesn’t hurt as bad. The simplicity and tremendous sound outweigh most things and they are addictive believe me. As for the wife thing. I put an extra one in the kitchen and the world’s greatest detective didn’t notice.

  3. Mark  

    Same here I use Sonos and my experience of it to date has been faultless. Easy to setup, with incredible sound quality which you don’t get elsewhere. I agree it’s not for everybody as the price point does make it unaffordable for many, but if you can build it up over time its well worth the extra investment.

  4. Todd  

    I’ve had a SONOS system since the beginning. It works flawlessly – the software just gets better and better – and the future looks even brighter. Every friend I have ever shown SONOS to buys the system within a month. Can we talk about the sound quality? Ridiculously good. I challenge Jack to live with SONOS for a month – just start with a PLAY 1 for $199 (if he’s concerned about pricing – SONOS has a 45 day return policy) – the software is free….then write a followup article to this article.

  5. Jason  

    I keep seeing this type of post over and over, comparing Bluetooth speakers and similar setups to Sonos. Those, and this piece as well, are comparing apples to oranges. Maybe even comparing apples to potatoes. While this scenario comes closer to the Sonos experience than a series of Bluetooth speakers, it’s still nothing like the functionality of a Sonos system. Bite the bullet and spend the money for the real thing. The length of the article alone speaks to how this is not the same turnkey solution

  6. Randy  

    I agree with the other comments here. SONOS is great. A friend of mine bought me my first Play:1 and apologized to my wife for the potential of me getting hooked on the awesomeness of the SONOS system. I now have three units and they are great. The flexibility and ease of use is great. I normally do not have them “grouped” together since they are in different rooms so each room can listen to whatever they want.

    Another benefit that you did not highlight from the SONOS is this: I borrowed my friends vacation house recently and he has the SONOS systems installed. I walked in to the house, fired up the app, joined the SONOS network and started listening in about 20 seconds. Not sure I would be able to even get your Airplay system to work at all based on description of how it is configured.

    Last comment: I don’t really think your $0 comparison is fair. If someone is reading this article to get a real Airplay vs SONOS comparison and they are starting from scratch then $0 is not the cost. I realize you were able to make it work with your equipment, but if someone were to try and set up an airplay system, the actual costs would be handy to make a good decision.

    Thanks,

  7. Brandon  

    I’m sorry but the only thing I got from this article is that you were looking for the cheapest, yet still semi-functional solution.

    AirPlay is clunky at best compared to Sonos. The two systems in my personal opinion aren’t even comparable. A more comparable system would honestly be a distributed audio system from Control4 or Savant or other automation companies. Which are actually even pricier than Sonos.

    I’ve installed tons of different audio systems for clients and to be honest my suggestion would be to wait until you can afford some Sonos and try it out. The end user experience is well worth the price.
    If you are more interested in controlling your entire house obviously go for an automation solution like Savant. As far as just pure audio though Sonos is amazing.

  8. Okay, okay, I am noticing a common theme in the comments here. (Really? No AirPlay fans in the house?) I think it behooves me to give Sonos a whirl. I’ll update y’all after I’ve used it awhile!

  9. Anthony  

    I was finally fed up with my Airplay setup (which I consider much more proprietary than Sonus) and decided to switch to a Sonus system about 6 months ago. It was the best decision I ever made. Also using Spotify app and the Sonus App, I can still use my old airplay speakers (Libratone and AudioPro). To me, there is no comparison between Sonus vs Airplay

  10. Jason  

    It’s not that people aren’t fans of airplay, it’s that we believe the argument is erroneous even in comparing the two. And I’m sorry Jack, but that statement about maybe you need to try Sonos illustrates that the entire article is flawed. If you’ve never tried Sonos but you believe you’ve replicated its functionality using a hodgepodge of airplay connections then it’s hard to take your post seriously

    • Hey Jason – To be clear, I’m not really making an argument in the post, I’m just documenting my own personal decision-making process. Maybe there was a small part of me that was hoping people like you would tell me I’m dead wrong so I can convince myself to make the investment.

      You’re right about one thing, though: if we’re comparing apples to potatoes, potatoes are way better. How did you know I like potatoes so much?

      😉

  11. FGains  

    \”There’s also an iOS app that controls my DiskStation’s audio player called DS Audio. This lets me AirPlay to multiple devices from my phone, making it almost as handy as Sonos (almost).”

    No. No, you’re trippin it’s not even in the same universe. There are other alternatives like Chromecast Audio which also don’t work as well but they are at least designed to compete in the space. Airplay is not and the author is rigging and repurposing technology to fit an application it wasn’t designed for. That ALWAYS delivers a subpar experience and technical issues that can really drag down your mood, which is the opposite desired effect.

    If you are in the market for a house music system, a good place to start would be comparing house music systems.

  12. Ryan  

    SONOS is great ,but there is more brands coming with both features ,such as allplay,playfi technology .
    Check our a brand called iEAST, it works like SONOS way,even easier and can do airplay.
    Sound Quality is better than SONOS in my view.

  13. Marcel  

    One key feature I like to add to the Airplay solution is flexibility. I use Airplay to drive a super high-end stereo in my living room with a level of quality that Sonos will never reach. That same stereo also includes other sources like a turntable – not possible with Sonos either, as far as I know.
    But I also use Airplay to drive a couple of in-ceiling speakers that I installed in my bathroom – Sonos does not offer anything like that either.
    The main stereo is hardwired to my Mac, for the other sets I use second-hand Airport Expresses that cost close to nothing.
    I think Sonos did an excellent job and it’s more user-friendly and easier to use, but with Airplay, you have so much more freedom of choice.

  14. chasm22  

    So your saying that if I wake up tomorrow and want to set up a sound system for my entire house, airplay is the choice?

    Or perhaps you think that I already have a ‘super high-end’ stereo hardwired to a Mac and some bathroom speakers, etc.

    You and the author seem to think that a comparison between two items doesn’t have to be a fair comparison.

    He and you wish to take into account the thousands of dollars in equipment you already own and say, “See, this is the reason I chose airplay.”

    To which many of us reply,” Gee that wasn’t a comparison. That was a description of your sound system “.

    A comparison would be to take a home that doesn’t have any sound system and then add whatever it takes to get a whole house sound system.

    At that point you would list the cost and capabilities of each component that you add.

    That would allow us to make A FAIR COMPARISON.

    In the author’s case he would list the price paid for each Apple product he had already purchased. In your case we would like to know the cost of the super high-end stereo and the rest of the items. The bit about second hand stuff wouldn’t really apply since if we all were to go the same route there wouldn’t be a surplus.

    At this point I’m hoping you see why it’s unfair to include thousands of dollars in equipment you’ve already purchased in any comparison.

  15. Marcel  

    I’m not saying that Airplay is always the best choice and I was not trying to make a fair comparison; Sonos and Airplay are completely different. I don’t know what your budget is and frankly, I don’t care. This article is about a personal system choice and I’m saying that you have a lot more options if you choose Airplay.

    If you are looking for a decent sounding. well-designed system for streaming audio, Sonos is an excellent choice.
    If you want to add streaming audio to your existing stereo and add multiple rooms, Airplay is a very cost-effective choice.

    If you want the best sound quality, don’t go for Sonos.
    If you want a system with multiple sources like a turntable, CD player and what not, don’t go for Sonos.
    If you are looking for the most cost-effective solution, it’s probably not Sonos. I would recommend to buy a good legacy stereo and simply add Airplay. (I just bought a beautiful 1970s vintage Braun all-in-one stereo with integrated turntable for just $125. Fair comparison? Hell no!)

    Finally, there are more alternatives than just Sonos and Airplay but that is beyond the scope of this article.

  16. Jason  

    Marcel, there are various Sonos components other than the standalone speakers. There’s one that plugs into an input in an existing sound system and another that has an amp built in with speaker outputs for existing speakers. I use both of those in different applications

  17. Nukecity  

    So, the key question that settles the debate – is your wife happy with the setup?

  18. Marcel  

    Haha, very good question. I don’t have a wife, so it is indeed a very unfair comparison!

  19. John Elliott  

    Apple’s announcement of AirPlay 2 at the June 5th WWDC completely destroys any idea that Sonos is a necessary product anymore. I have the iOS 11 beta and can confirm it is wonderful to behold.

    I firmly believe Sonos will never have an IPO now and they will slowly die off. When people realize they can have Sonos functionality for free on their iPhone devices in every native app using AirPlay 2 (Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play Music, Tidal…etc), it won’t be long till they scratch their heads wondering why they purchased five of these $300 speakers.

  20. Jason  

    Really John? I’ve never seen or heard any Sonos owner express anything but absolute satisfaction with the product, so the expectation of regret you suggest is unlikely I think. Also, this panacea of airplay2 would only apply to people already ensconced in the Apple universe, so it wouldn’t help 50+% of people. Sounds like propaganda from the Apple fanboys

  21. Todd  

    I’m quite certain John that Airplay 2 will coexist with SONOS quite nicely for the foreseeable future….but I highly doubt SONOS will be dying off anytime soon – and they have never had any interest in an IPO.

    SONOS has had many competitors over the years try to do what they do extremely well ( read any consumer hands-on review ) – and the competitors have failed miserably over and over again.

    I trust you do not own or have even tried any of the speakers or components? They not only function seamlessly – they sound amazing.

    By the way, too – not everyone is heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem. I certainly don’t consider an IPhone to be a “necessary product” – the Android system via Samsung can hold it’s own nicely…

  22. John Elliott  

    I don’t want to hijack this author’s thread and turn it into an argument of Apple vs Android. My work phone is a Pixel and I use it for almost everything.

    My point is that personally I have never seen the worth in spending so much money for the merely simple task of multi-room audio. My parents have the Sonos bridge hooked up to their home audio and I will admit, the app is not hard to use, but I’d much rather be able to use native apps in my own home, instead of being forced to group my services together in another one.

    Personally, I have invested a fair amount of money in studio quality audio, and pride myself in my home system. My main point (which mirrors the author of this article I believe) is that I am glad I won’t have to purchase multiple Sonos bridge devices to use my speakers in my home! It’s just nice to see Apple add some native functionality with Airplay 2 to stop sonos from capitalizing on such a monopoly

  23. djmann  

    I don’t know much about Sonos. I stream any audio source from my pc laptop to multiple airport expresses throughout the house using Airfoil. Airfoil is the bomb. Each airport express is connected via optical audio cable to a receiver w/speakers. I stream uncompressed flac files, mp3s, spotify, google play music, any web browser, etc. It’s super easy sounds great everything is in sync.

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