Q: My wife and I are looking for a multi-room wireless sound system on a budget—for a smaller home—and we’re wondering what you would recommend.
We looked at the Sonos Play:5 but were disappointed that it doesn’t have Bluetooth or AirPlay. Our listening habits include streaming CBC radio through the iPhone app, and we would like to pipe this to different speakers around the house. Although we are Spotify subscribers, we also have a large iTunes music library to tap into. Also, playing podcasts from our iPhones is a must-have feature in a multi-room system.
The way you can control Sonos speakers sounds amazing, and we would love a system that can do this. We’d like one larger speaker for the living room and smaller speakers in the bedroom, kitchen, and basement.
The Play:5 seems like a good price point for the main speaker. Keeping the complete setup under $1500 would be great, and it’s better if we can buy it in parts to add to the system over time.
Is there something out there for us?
– Mark Prociw (AVS Forum guest)
A: There’s no reason you can’t have the functionality you seek with a Sonos system.
The key to getting what you want is to add an Airport Express to a Sonos system using the analog input of the Play:5 speaker. The Play:5 can share that input with other Sonos components. This will allow you to use AirPlay to stream from an iPhone to the speakers you choose.
With the budget you set, you can go with a Play:5 ($500) in the living room and Play:1s ($200 each) in the other rooms. For maximum reliability, you’ll want to make sure that your Wi-Fi network is robust. The best approach to achieving smooth streaming is to use a good router, but if you have reliability issues you can also consider adding a Sonos Boost ($100) wireless hub. Finally, you’ll need an Apple AirPort Express ($100) in order to add AirPlay capability to the system. The grand total for this package is $1200 without the Boost.
Aside from AirPlay, you can play iTunes content with the Sonos app using iTunes playlists. Also, Sonos can play files stored in a drive on your local area network. If you download podcasts (or other audio files) to a designated folder, you can play them using the Sonos app. What AirPlay does is add the convenience of streaming any audio directly from an iPhone.
While Sonos is the best known and most established brand when it comes to wireless multi-room speakers, numerous alternatives beckon. From Denon HEOS to Yamaha MusicCast to Riva to Bluesound, you’ll find plenty of proprietary multi-room wireless systems from which to choose. If the day comes when you want to expand, you’re going to be locked into the system you started with, or else you’ll be forced to run two incompatible systems.
The DTS Play-Fi Alternative
DTS Play-Fi is an open multi-room audio ecosystem that’s supported by multiple manufacturers. Based on what I’ve seen and heard, Play-Fi products from Klipsch, Paradigm, and Definitive Technology are good performers. Sonos may have the slicker app, but Play-Fi wins when it comes to speaker selection.
With Play-Fi you get to choose from a wide variety of designs. Perhaps you prefer the vintage wood grain and copper accents of Klipsch Heritage Wireless speakers. Maybe the angular Bauhaus minimalism of Definitive Technology designs is appealing. There’s even a McIntosh Play-Fi speaker, the RS100 ($1000) if you decide to bust your budget for the sake of cool factor.
Play-Fi speakers typically come equipped with Bluetooth, and select models are compatible with AirPlay as well. Since it’s an open platform, you can mix-and-match Play-Fi speakers from various manufacturers in a multi-room system. For example, you could go for the high-performance Paradigm PW 800 ($800) for the living room speaker, a Klipsch The One ($250) for the bedroom, a Definitive Technology W7 speaker ($250) for the kitchen and a Polk Omni S2 ($125) for the basement and still be on budget. There are lots of options if you go with Play-Fi.
Back to Sonos
Despite Play-Fi’s appeal, Sonos is an excellent choice for your system. The Play:1 is a great compact wireless speaker, and the Play:5 sounds exceptional—it’s one of the best $500 wireless networked speakers you can buy. Just to plant the bug in your mind, if you eventually add a second Play:5 to the living room, two of them make a formidable stereo pair. If set up properly, they offer an audiophile-quality listening experience—check out my review here.
Add a second Play:5 speaker to make a stereo pair and you get a credible Hi-Fi system.
Ultimately, Sonos aims for ease of use and reliability over packing in extra features like Bluetooth and hi-res audio support. Anecdotal comments from users lead me to conclude that Sonos offers the best overall user experience among networked multi-room systems. In comparison, Play-Fi suffers a bit due to comparatively kludgy software. The only catch is the need to connect an Airport Express to the Play:5 for AirPlay connectivity. Between the superior app experience and the quality of speaker you get for $500 with the Play:5, I recommend going with Sonos.
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