Sonos vs. AirPlay vs. Our House

At Christmas, we flirted with a Sonos sound system in my household, but ultimately decided to return it. I know smart people who adore their Sonos systems, but when I’ve played with the hardware and software in the past I’ve never been more than mildly impressed. So when it came time to commit to installing another technical system in my household — the Sonos meant more plugs, more boxes, more management — I just couldn’t muster enough enthusiasm to outweigh the hefty price premium that Sonos charges.

Frankly, we’re an Apple household, so by my reckoning, we already get most of the benefit that Sonos offers from the AirPlay system that’s in the house already. We’re heavy users of our Apple TV for all kinds of video — iTunes movie rentals, Netflix, Hulu Plus, even ripped MP4s streamed from other computers in the house — and we rely on it heavily for audio, too. It’s hooked up to a pretty powerful Onkyo home theater system in the living room and out of the box it streams my entire music library from iTunes Match, which is what we listen to most often.

AirFoil Everywhere

But we have more than a few current and older Macs in the house, too, which is where things get more interesting. These Macs are all able to stream music to the Apple TV of course. But even better, they’re all able to stream iTunes music to each other — thanks to the wondrous AirFoil utility from Rogue Amoeba, which turns every Mac into an AirPlay speaker. This is basically like a cheaper and arguably more versatile Sonos-like solution; when every Mac can receive audio, and every Mac, iPhone and iPad can send audio, you have a pretty sophisticated multi-room sound system.

AirFoil also opens the door to streaming music from sources other than iTunes to AirPlay speakers in the house. Spotify and Rdio are at the top of that list, but I particularly like the ability to redirect audio from a Web browser to AirPlay speakers. There’s lots of interesting music on YouTube, for instance, as well as the occasional embedded SoundCloud track or other random bit of Web audio; having the ability to stream those throughout the house via AirPlay is an advantage I’m not even sure Sonos can match.

There are drawbacks, of course. While Apple has done a decent job of baking AirPlay into many of its products, it still requires a third party tool like AirFoil to make it truly powerful. And AirFoil, nice as it is, is desktop software, so I have to use iTeleport from my phone to make changes to an AirFoil setting if I want to avoid walking to a Mac that might be playing music upstairs. That’s hardly elegant, but it’s a small price to pay for such versatility.

(My biggest complaint: where any Mac can send audio to multiple speakers at once, the Apple TV can only send audio to one set of speakers at a time. This is probably a licensing issue so who knows if it will ever be changed, but if it were, it would turn the Apple TV into an even more powerful centerpiece to our home theater setup.)

Mulling over whether to keep the Sonos also reminded me that I had an old AirPort Express that could turn the Tivoli Model One radio in our kitchen into an AirPlay speaker. I just connected the two via an audio cable, turned the Tivoli to its auxiliary jack, and then I had the equivalent of a dedicated AirPlay speaker that would normally cost two or three hundred dollars.

This sort of ad hoc extensibility is the beauty of AirPlay; it’s a subsystem, an incremental functionality that is a bonus over the core functionality of the hardware. Aside from the old AirPort Express that I brought out of retirement, none of the devices that I’ve mentioned here are dedicated to AirPlay. They’re all being used for other purposes, either video playback or good old fashioned computing. In that way, the true value of AirPlay is in the software, whereas with Sonos, there is really no value unless you buy the hardware. Maybe it’s the geek just me, but I find real satisfaction in getting added functionality out of what I already own.



  1. can you make playlists with music from different sources (something from itunes then something from spotify etc)?

  2. Great writeup, very similar to my experience using the Sonos system.. it’s mostly the convenience of building a new, streamlined whole-home sound system, but many people in Apple’s ecosystem will already have the parts and pieces to create a DIY version.

    Also, minor issue, but the URLs to Airfoil and iTeleport are not functioning correctly. Probably just a formatting issue.

  3. We use Sonos in our office, but the firewall on the server creates a ton of problems when connecting to Pandora, Sirius XM and other services. Good call on your choice.

  4. My biggest issue with AirPlay has been reliability. Whether I’m streaming from my iTunes library to the Apple TV, or a video from PBS’s iPad app, or something via Safari on my iMac (like, the stream tends to cut out every 10 minutes or so, requiring me to start over.

    Do you find any AirPlay connectivity reliability issues as well? Perhaps it’s just poor settings on my modem?

  5. I recently got both a Sonos speaker for myself and a Bose Bluetooth speaker for my girlfriend, each for about $200. While the Sonos really does sound remarkably good, in many ways I prefer the convenience and flexibiity of the Bluetooth speaker. Sonos’ speaker is amazing, but their software leaves much to be desired. It’s just one more place I have to manage my music, and it’s required for using the Sonos speaker: there’s no aux in or anything. Also, the Sonos only plays music from my music library or music service, but not sound from other apps, like YouTube. It’s very limited.

    I’ll keep my Sonos speaker, because it really sounds terrific when I’m playing music, and maybe if I ever need to build a whole home system I’ll add to it. But I think for most people a more open solution like Bluetooth or Airplay is more appropriate.

    And my girlfriend loves her Bluetooth speaker.

  6. I have a 4 component Sonos system. I love it when it works but it took a while to get it working. Wireless dropouts were horrible and made it unusable. After MANY hours with sonos’s top level support the conclusion was that “it just wasn’t going to work”. This was pretty baffling to me since their main hook is Wireless HiFi and their own people couldn’t get it to work (they blame my environment).

    So I had to go an unsupported route: Turn off all wireless functionality and use Ethernet Over Power.

    Now it works perfectly. I’m still pissed that Wireless never worked and I wouldn’t recommend Sonos based on the issues I had unless you made certain your “environment” is right. But, like I said, when it works I love it. However, it’s absurd what I had to go through to get it to work (I won’t get into why I didn’t just return it).

  7. Michael H.: No, it’s not possible to make playlists from mixed sources. But then I have no time to make playlists at all anyways.

    Kevin: Thanks for pointing out the badly formed URLs. I think I’ve fixed them now.

    Kris: I used to have problems with AirPlay cutting out in the last place where we lived. That was a loft with lots of concrete walls, so it was understandable. We’re in a brownstone now, and we don’t have those kinds of problems — except when the microwave runs! I don’t know what your wifi setup is like, but if it’s not from the past two or three years you may want to consider upgrading. I think newer hardware does a much better job with AirPlay.

    Mike B. and Jeff: I had heard that Sonos can be difficult to setup and maintain. That’s really a dealbreaker for me. AirPlay is not perfect by any means but in some sense it’s free, at least in that there is no incremental cost.

    But Sonos comes with a not insignificant premium; I just can’t see the logic in paying upwards of $1K for a basic system without the guarantee that it’s going to perform markedly better than something I get for free.

  8. The benefits that make me happy to have paied for a Sonos setup are:

    * no Mac has to be on at all. It can take any shared folder of random mp3/aac music and index that. The NAS is the only thing that has to be powered on. Same nas that also feeds the ATV which is handy.

    * both me and my wife can remote control the Sonos from our iOS devices at he same time. Google Docs for music? 😉 The Sonos apps do suck but I survive.

    Spotify integration is also really slick.

    I mention these things because I think AirPlay or Sonos will benefit you differently depending on how you play music. As an example. You seem happy streaming both from and to Macs. I just love powering them down and going all iOS in the evening.

  9. playlists save time!

    i think you’re probably right – for the setup you had and requrements you have there’s just no reason to get sonos. i really like my sonos setup though. and i won the $1k, so it didn’t seem like real money.

  10. I have a JBL SoundFly for the bathroom, Bose SoundDock with airport express in home office, 2 AppleTVs, and just picked up 3 ExtremeMac TangoAirs ($30 each at Frys last month, in-store only. I had a friend buy 4 and told him to keep one for himself and send the other three to me in the easy coast). I’m looking forward to this kickstarter to for my Bose:

    AirFoil is a nice addition to this setup.

  11. Like a few others here, I’m also a big fan of Sonos. I have to admit: when I went looking for a whole-house audio system, I didn’t even consider AirPlay… A few things stood out for me:

    – Setup with Sonos was incredibly easy! I have a fairly complex home network, including several wired-to-WiFi bridges. Sonos worked from the moment I plugged in the first component. Apple’s Bonjour-based services, on the other hand, have been a CONSTANT source of problems. It was only recently that I found a combination of hardware and configuration that allowed AirPlay to work across all devices in the network and even then it’s not completely reliable. This is the primary reason that Airplay was a non-starter for me.

    – Getting Sonos to play the music files stored on my NAS was also a piece of cake. Getting my AppleTV to play those same files wasn’t as easy. Since I don’t use iTunes Match I have to make sure that my Mac is on, that it has the necessary NAS drives mounted, and that iTunes is running so the AppleTV can grab music via Home Sharing. Given how much I dislike iTunes, this roundabout access to music files continues to rankle.

    – I like the fact that the Sonos app puts all of my music “under one roof”. I love that my Sonos Favorites list can have music from a variety of sources: Tune-In radio stations, Songza, Pandora, Slacker, etc. I have many individual music apps installed, each with their own completely different user-interface, but I appreciate the convenience of the Sonos app… even if it could do with an iOS 7 revamp. It’s also convenient that the Sonos app is available for iPhone, iPad, Android phones, and Android tablets: virtually anybody who comes to the house can see what’s playing or control playback in their particular room.

  12. Thanks for the writeup – very interesting. I went through this same decision making process this Christmas, and ended up going with the Sonos. I was given a Play 1 and bought a Connect for my existing stereo. I like the system so much, I will probably add additional components.

    Some thoughts:

    – I previously mainly used AirPlay to my Apple TV, which is great, except that the device that is doing the streaming has its audio tied up. It’s awesome that you can just set up your queue and quit the app, or take a phone call and the music will continue on Sonos.

    – I previously set up a system for a friend and had major issues, similar to ones described earlier in this thread. However, my setup was seamless and easy. No issues whatsoever, and I did everything from my iPhone. It’s a little annoying to have a separate component with the Bridge, but I do think it makes sense to have a different mesh network. I had serious issues with dropouts using AirPlay, especially if other things were happening on the network.

    – There is no Rdio support on Apple TV, which is a shame. This alone might have kept me on AirPlay, but the ability to mix and match Rdio and networked iTunes content on Sonos is huge.

    – The hardware buttons on the Sonos components are great, and allow you to quickly play, pause, and change volume without fumbling to find the app.

    – The UI on the Sonos app leaves a bit to be desired, but it is functional. It’s great that either my wife or I can take command of the queue or volume at any time, from any of our devices (Mac, iPad, or iPhone). I’m expecting an iOS 7 optimization soon, and they also are apparently are working on an AirPlay like feature “Send to Sonos” that will have an API that app developers can use to stream content directly from a connected device.

    – That last feature is going to be important, because the one place Sonos really falls down is with Podcasts. I don’t use Stitcher, so I’m kind of out of luck. I would really prefer to stream from Instacast, or another podcasting client.

    So all in all, I’m pretty sold on the system. If nothing else, I love how compact it is, and that I can have my music synchronized in multiple rooms, or have separate tracks in different rooms. That for me is worth the premium.

    Thanks again for the post.

  13. Dunno if you’ve seen this but if you option click on your speaker icon on the mac, it allows you to choose wireless speakers a la airfoil. Nice little addition.

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