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.
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.