Launched back in 2005, Sonos is the big name in the multi-room speaker game. With an array of speakers, smart home connectivity and a reputation for fantastic sound, Sonos has been pretty much unchallenged in the last decade or so when it comes to everyday folk's (i.e. non-audiophiles') streaming music systems.
The likes of Amazon's Echo range, as well as audio specialists such as Bose, JBL, Naim and Denon all now have dedicated Sonos alternatives, but it's the Santa Barbara company that still wins out for us, for a number of reasons.
Sonos is simple to set up; whether you want one speaker, a stereo-pair or in-sync speakers in various rooms, and the array of playback options is staggering – think local storage, streaming services, internet radio, TV audio and more. Cost-wise, there are better priced options but you're certainly getting what you pay for in terms of performance with Sonos.
It does lack somewhat on the smart home front, compared to its dedicated smart speaker rivals, but it is an area where it's continuously improving – not only with its own Alexa-packing speaker but by opening up to the other ecosystems too.
Read on to learn everything you need to know about Sonos.
Sonos: How does it work?
Sonos started life waaaay back in 2005, as a remote control (with a display) and an amplifying box – the ZP100 – that effectively made dumb speakers connected. The ZP100 had Ethernet and Wi-Fi connectivity and, using the controller, you could stream your locally stored digital music, as well as tapping into some internet radio services.
Nowadays, Sonos is effectively a collection of connected speakers (although the ZP100 does live on, more on that later) that team up with an app – mobile or desktop – to let you stream your music from a huge array of sources. You can have just one Sonos speaker in your setup but the fun starts when you begin to team them up.
Setting up and Trueplay
Whether you're setting up a solo Sonos speaker, or connecting up a bunch of them (you can have a maximum of 32, by the way), you'll start by creating a Sonos account. On a PC or mobile device, operating on your home's Wi-Fi – the same Wi-Fi that your Sonos system will use (to begin with, at least) – get the Sonos app and create an account. You're then walked through the process of adding speakers to the mix.
The best way to do this is using an iOS device so you can make use of Sonos' Trueplay tech – essentially a calibration tool that uses your iPhone or iPad's microphone to measure sound reflections off your room's walls to decipher room size, layout, furniture, speaker placement and any other acoustic factors that impact on sound quality.
It takes a few minutes of you waving your iOS device around the room and then the app adjusts the speaker's woofer and tweeter for the best sound. Sure, the HomePod can do all this without you walking around a room with a phone in your hand – but it does mean the best possible sound from each speaker.
Once you go through the process of adding all of your Sonos speakers, naming them and assigning rooms (and creating dedicated pairs of stereo-speakers, if you wish), you'll have a multi-room audio setup at your fingertips.
You can choose to play back different music sources in different rooms or you can group speakers so as they play back the same source, at the exact same time, perfectly in sync. Once you create groupings, your Sonos system will remember these until you ungroup them – it really is as simple as checking or unchecking a box in the app. You can have as many groups setup as you like, but one speaker can only be in one group at a time.
Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Boost setup and more
Sonos speakers are not Bluetooth speakers – they operate on the 2.4GHz Wi-Fi spectrum. That means a larger range, uncompressed audio and better control around your whole house. It also means that the speakers themselves are streaming the audio, rather than simply relaying what your phone sends over to them.
When you first set up a Sonos speaker, by default it just runs on your home Wi-Fi network – and the speakers need to have a good signal to your router to operate without lag or drops.
But you can improve things by creating a Boost setup (sometimes referred to as 'Sonosnet'). What this means is a separate 2.4GHz mesh network that operates away from your home Wi-Fi, while at the same time still using your router's connection to the web for its internet-based sources.
The easiest way to do this, if possible, is to connect one of your Sonos speakers – any one will do – to your router using Ethernet. This will make your Sonos speaker a hub for the Boost network. However, the best setup – albeit at an extra cost – is to add a Sonos Boost ($99) to the mix; a dedicated wireless booster that broadcasts 360 degree signals around your house.
What you can play on Sonos
When Sonos started life it was essentially a streamer for your locally stored digital music – think MP3s stored on a NAS drive or within your iTunes library. And while the system is still capable of that, it offers a whole lot more.
All of the major streaming services are on offer through Sonos speakers (you simply need to sync up your accounts in the app). The list includes: Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Deezer, Soundcloud, Google Play Music, Qobuz and Tidal.
In terms of radio playback, you can tap into the millions of digital stations from around the world through TuneIn or SiriusXM.
Finally, you can also use a Sonos device with a line-in option, or a Sonos TV speaker with digital optical audio, to stream pretty much anything you like around your house – whether that be sound from your ancient Hi-Fi's cassette deck, the audio from a TV broadcast or even your record player's vinyl… but more on that in a bit.
One piece of advice – if you are planning on streaming anything other than compressed digital music (i.e internet radio, stored MP3s, Spotify and the like), then you'll want a Boost setup to avoid choppy playback.
The Sonos app
The Sonos app, on desktop, iOS or Android is a strange beast. It used to be awful. It's now less awful but still not great. Sure, it does have everything in one place and the main ingredients – grouping speakers, searching for songs and so on – are all straightforward enough… it's just much more clunky than it should be.
Sonos is getting more open – you can choose Sonos speakers from within the Spotify app, for example – but we do wish everything was a bit more polished.
Another nice feature of the app is the ability to create playlists with a mix of songs that aren't dependent on their origins being in tandem. You can mix up songs from your NAS drive, Spotify, Apple Music… and throw them all in together.
The app is also the place where you'll add favourites (radio stations, playlists etc.), set timers, alarms and tweak your Sonos settings.
Sonos speakers: What to buy and where to buy them…
There are currently four different Sonos speakers available, all of which have Ethernet and Wi-Fi connectivity as standard.
The baby of the bunch, the Sonos Play:1 is ideal for bedrooms, kitchens and the like working solo – or works brilliantly in a bigger room as part of a pair of stereo speakers.
Weighing less than 1.85kg, and measuring a mere 16cm tall, the Play:1 packs plenty of audio bang for its buck with two Class-D digital amplifiers, a tweeter for clear high-frequency response and a mid-woofer for mid-range vocal frequencies.
The stereo mid-ranger, the Play:3 has three Class-D amplifiers and three custom-built drivers for an impressive sound stage and there's also a bass radiator for those low notes.
Like the Play:1, it comes in black or white and you can also pair two Play:3s together as left and right speakers in a stereo setup.
Sonos' first dedicated speaker, the ZonePlayer S5, lives on as the flagship Play:5, which features six Class-D digital amplifiers, six dedicated speaker drivers, three tweeters and three mid-woofers.
The Play:5 has a line-in on the back for your analogue system and also offers up a pair of Ethernet ports so can act as a handy switch or extender for your wired devices. Like the Play:3 it can sit in either portrait or landscape.
The Sonos One is effectively the Play:1 with an added ingredient… Amazon's Alexa is on board to act as your digital assistant.
Now, you can control your non-Alexa Sonos speakers through your Echo devices (we'll get to the details on that in a bit) but the One is your only dedicated Sonos smart speaker – i.e. you can use it to control your lights, locks and the like – as well as asking for Alexa's help with various digital tasks. Google Assistant voice controls and AirPlay 2 are both coming in 2018.
For your TV
As well as the music-focused speakers listed above, Sonos also has a couple of options for your TV's soundtrack.
Both the Playbar and the Playbase connect up to your TV through a digital optical cable (no HDMI-connectivity, unfortunately) and, as well as playing back your TV's audio in stereo or Dolby Digital, they can also play music from the same sources as a regular Sonos speaker, as well as forming part of a multi-room speaker setup.
The older of the two, the Playbar can be wall mounted, or sit below the TV on a unit. It's easy enough to set your TV remote to control the volume and the sound stage created from a solitary speaker for movies and TV shows is awesome.
Technically, the Playbase ups the Playbar with an extra digital amplifier – ten as opposed to nine, but Sonos has tuned them to sound as similar to each other as possible, so your choice comes down to practicality really.
That's your lot when it comes to audio output, but there are some additional accessories to make your Sonos system harder, better, faster, stronger.
The Connect:Amp is, essentially, an updated version of the original Sonos Zoneplayer, which you can use to add your old speakers to a Sonos setup.
The amplifier inside the Connect:Amp is a 110-watt stereo one, capable of putting out 55 watts per channel at at 8 Ohms.
You guessed it, it's like the Connect:Amp, but without the amplifier bit. You can run into it a system that already features an amplifier, such as your old CD player. It's also useful when adding a record player to a Sonos system.
Think of a Sonos Connect as a Sonos speaker that doesn't make any sound – just add it to a group of speakers and whatever you are playing from the line-in, that's what will be relayed on your speakers (just choose 'Line-in' as the source in the Sonos app).
Sonos' subwoofer isn't just for a TV surround setup, although that's obviously where it excels. It is also great for adding bass to your music, and again, you can just throw it into a group as per a regular speaker.
Sonos 5.1 surround sound system
As well as being able to pair up your Sonos speakers for stereo sound, and the multi-room synced music, you can also create a dedicated 5.1 TV surround system from within the Sonos app.
For this you'll need two key ingredients to get started – the Sonos Sub and one of the two Sonos TV speakers; either the Playbase or the Playbar. That's a 3.1 system right there and Sonos actually sells 3.1 bundles with these setups for [currency usd="1,398" gbp="1,398"].
To get to 5.1 you obviously need to add a couple of rear speakers and you can do this with either a pair of Play:1s or Ones at [currency usd="1,696" gbp="1,696"] or [currency usd="1,747" gbp="1,796"] respectively. Technically, you could throw some Play:3s or Play:5s at the back, but that would be some level of overkill.
Looking for a Sonos 7.1 system? You're out of luck, there's no official way of doing this at present.
Sonos in the smart home – Alexa and more
As we said in the intro, Sonos is getting better on the smart home front – its Works with Sonos program has partners like Wink, Lutron, Logitech and Yonomi on board, making things like automation recipes possible.
Alexa is also friendly with Sonos – obviously she lives on the Sonos One but also via the Sonos Skill, so any Echo can control your existing Sonos speakers. In essence, that means you can add voice control for as little as $30 using an Echo Dot, and totally transform your setup.
Check out our guide to Sonos and Alexa to find out exactly what you can and can't do – but remember, you'll need a Sonos One with Alexa on board to actually control things in your smart home.
Google Assistant integration is also incoming, we're promised (there is a Yonomi-powered workaround for now), and we're also told that Sonos will be AirPlay 2 compliant when Apple finally gets that one out in the world.
We've spoken about adding a Connect or Connect:AMP to the mix in order to bring your non-connected audio equipment into your Sonos groups, and one of the most common requests is for people to stream their vinyl record collections over their Sonos speakers.
The good news is that it's not only possible but also easy to set up. You can either use a Connect or Connect:AMP as stated – using the line-in port – or just go straight into a Play:5's line-in port.
Simply group up speakers to whatever Sonos device your record player is connected to, click play on the Line-in source and you're away.
Not official in any way, but you can get your Apple HomePod included in your Sonos setup.
All you need is an existing Sonos TV speaker, a Mac, an Apple TV and a shiny new HomePod. Not much to ask, eh? Click the link above to find out exactly how to do it.