I have been jealous of my friends sporting SONOS setups for a while now. My reasons for not jumping on the SONOS bandwagon are not limited to just the steep prices that the SONOS speakers come with. The reality is that I prefer to use my own music / sound playing apps and because I listen to podcasts for a considerable amount of time. In this blog post I will describe a cheaper and more flexible alternative for achieving the multi-room setup that SONOS is praised for, using AirPlay enabled speakers.
In this article, I’ll describe my actual home setup. I need at least three speakers: two for my lounge area and one for my office. I wish to be able to play music and podcasts (via my Overcast, my preferred Podcast app) to either speaker independently or to all speakers simultaneously.
The SONOS Ecosystem
Part of the SONOS promise is that you can easily and painlessly play the same music in multiple locations (rooms), using speakers that “play nice” and “just work” with each other. I believe that SONOS does deliver on this promise.
Scaling the SONOS setup is trivial, all that’s required is buying another speaker and adding it to the setup.
I have three main reasons to hold back from buying into the SONOS ecosystem:
- SONOS speakers are quite expensive (arguably they do have very good sound)
- They require the use of the SONOS app
- Integration limitations
Now that Apple Music is available for SONOS my third reason is all but gone, but I have to acknowledge that this may not be your case if you prefer streaming apps that are not available in the SONOS app.
The AirPlay Solution
My needs are quite specific, therefore some of these pros may not apply to everyone.
- AirPlay is available to any app (it’s a global iOS setting). It’s also easily accessible from the iOS Control Center
- Big choice of speakers (most are budget friendly)
- Old Airport Express units can turn any speaker with Line-In into an Airplay Speaker
- Very easy to use as external speakers for Apple TV
- Can stream the sound from any of my Macs (iTunes even has support for multiple speakers)
- Most speakers have Bluetooth too, thus making them really good travel companions (to locations where WiFi is not available)
Scaling the AirPlay setup is not too difficult, after adding another speaker to the setup, there’s an option AirFoil configuration step.
The initial setup is more complex than with SONOS. Usually it requires joining an adhoc WiFi network provided by the speaker, followed by entering the local WiFi settings which enable to speaker to join the local network and become a wireless speaker for any AirPlay device.
SONOS speakers can easily turn into a 5.1 setup when enough speakers are added to the setup. AirPlay speakers haven’t really solved this, yet.
One the the most affordable options is the iHome iW3 AirPlay Rechargeable Wireless which retails for $49.95!
The audio aficionados can splash out on a Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air Wireless AirPlay Speaker Dock. Amazon sells it for $420 at the moment.
I happen to have a Mac that is always on at home, so I decided to also purchase AirFoil. This has enabled me to group my speakers into “rooms”. The Mac version costs $29.
Most people will probably just use Bluetooth, and that’s ok. Not everyone needs the lossless audio that SONOS and AirPlay offer.
As I mentioned above, an old Airport Express can turn an existing speaker into an AirPlay enabled speaker. Check out Apple’s refurbished store for a deal on AirPort Express units or buy from Amazon for $29. You don’t need the current generation one.
There are apps out there that allow Android to tap into AirPlay. I am not familiar enough with them, and I suspect the new Chromecast Audio may actually be a more suitable solution. Chomecast Audio sells for $35.
I implemented the AirPlay solution for myself and I’m happy with it. I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you prefer an alternate setup.