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.
My wife recently authorized me to spend whatever amount I needed to make whole-home audio a reality in our new house. 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.
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.
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.
There are major drawbacks to AirPlay. To say it costs $0 for me doesn’t mean it will 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?
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. My wife wants 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 play music on your Android, iOS, or computer.
To add speakers to your setup, 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, 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
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 concise 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.
What is 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 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 device capable of receiving AirPlay streams, such as:
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.
I don’t have to pay a single cent to get AirPlay whole-house audio 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 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.
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.
You’ll be prompted to open iTunes on your Mac or PC.
On your computer, click the Remote button near the top left of the iTunes window to enter a code.
Is the remote button not showing up in iTunes? Try closing iTunes, then tap Settings > Add an iTunes Library, then relaunch iTunes.
Once you’ve paired your Remote app to iTunes, you can browse your iTunes library from your phone.
Play a song, then tap the AirPlay icon in the bottom right.
Tap Multiple in the top-left.
Choose one or more AirPlay devices for playback.
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 use your Mac as the audio source again.
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 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 the 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.)
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.
There’s also an iOS app that controls my DiskStation’s audio player called DS Audio. This lets me AirPlay 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 play it from iTunes. The benefit of the DiskStation is that it’s always on, unlike my PC.
After all that, did I convince you to pay the extra for Sonos instead? Admittedly, there are pros and cons of using AirPlay:
- 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.
- Requires a Mac or another device as a centralized audio source
- Requires a 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.