Apple iTunes+AirPlay (née AirTunes) vs. Sonos for whole home audio

A couple of weeks ago, after setting up Sonos for a family member, I had lots of fresh thoughts on Apple’s iTunes + Airport Express whole home audio solution (which I run at my house) vs. Sonos’ system for whole home audio, so I jotted them down as a series of tweets. Here they are in a single blog post:

1. Sonos just works. Apple’s Airport Express + AirTunes requires some setup.

2. Sonos supports Rhapsody, Pandora & other music services. Airport Express only supports playing back music that’s in your iTunes library.

3. Sonos is more expensive — about $300-400 per room. You can get an Airport Express on eBay (that’s where I bought the three that I’m running in my house) for $60-70.

4. Sonos’ software seems more instant on. With Apple Airport Express, you use the “Remote” iPhone app, which can be laggy & behave weirdly.

5. Sonos lets you control the volume of each zone independently. With Apple Airport Express, there’s one volume level across all zones. (UPDATE: this has now been fixed in iTunes 10 and Airplay. See my post on what’s new in Airplay.)

6. Sonos’ search function is terrible, forcing you to first pick search by title / artist / etc. Apple Remote search is a simple one box, the way it should be.

7. Sonos has dedicated touchscreen device (it’s handy and gets used). No such option With Apple Airport Express, iPhone “Remote” app is it.

8. Sonos let’s you play multiple tracks, each in it’s own zone. Airport Express doesn’t. It’s one song in the zones you select.

9. Sonos seems to be more robust in dealing with wifi problems. The music with my Apple Airport Express system will glitch sometimes (see AirTunes Airport audio stream drops or cuts out). Of all of Sonos’ strengths / Apple’s weaknesses, this is probably the most significant. There’s nothing worse than having some nice music playing while you have friends over and then having it just completely cut out in the middle. I’m hoping with Apple’s renewed interest in whole home audio (see what’s new with Airplay in iTunes 10), they’re going to quickly fix this.

10. Sonos has the S5 all-in-one wifi digital music interface + amp + speakers box. It’s awesome. No such option with Apple Airport Express. (UPDATE: with Apple’s new AirPlay being opened to 3rd parties, this is no longer an advantage for Sonos… You’ll see lots of standalone speakers (and more) that are as simple as the S5. Like this iHome Airplay speaker that’s been announced.)

So while it might look like the list above says, “Sonos is the only way to go!”, that’s not true. Apple’s solution totally works, it just has some limitations. And some of those limitations have been eliminated with Apple’s Airplay upgrade in iTunes 10.

Here’s where Apple’s Airport Express + iTunes is compelling, at least for me. To wire up my four “zones” in my house, the total cost was:

4 Airport Expresses = 4 x $70 = $280

4 amps (I use this one) = 4 x $55 = $220

4 sets of speakers = 4 x $100 (roughly) = $400

The same same setup with Sonos would have been at least $1100 more! (Sonos 90, which is equivalent to the Airport Express, is $350, ie $280 more than Airport Express. $280 x 4 = $1120 more)

7 thoughts on “Apple iTunes+AirPlay (née AirTunes) vs. Sonos for whole home audio

  1. KrazyRussian

    Dear Sir:

    Thanks for a nice write-up. I am currently set-up with the iTunes + AppleTv (the old ones) solution. I am considering what to put into the new apartment I am renovating, so needless to say this review is very useful.

    Have you looked at the iPad version of the Remote app that just came out? I have never used the sonos remote but I somehow feel it has just been made obsolete. Sonos, I hear, realized it and made a sonos remote app for iPad.

    From what I have learned about the sonos solution, point number 8 remains the only competitive advantage over the apple solution. Wifi reliability isn’t an issue for me, isn’t an issue as I always hard-wire whenever it’s practical. Wouldn’t you agree?

    I guess the rather cumbersome way to overcome this limitation would be to have two or more apple pcs or the old appletvs running as music sources – the iPad remote app allows you to select the apple computer you want to control.

    I am not sure, however, that the multi-source multi-zone audio capability offered by sonos and the expensive smart home people like crestron etc is really asked for by real people in small to mid-sized installations. How often do we really need different music in different zones playing at the same time?

    PS I also have a technical question: can one connect all their sonos units by Ethernet? I kinda recall there being Ethernet ports on some sonos devices, I, but I fear it may be for versatility reasons, so that any sonos device could be hooked up to your home router for Internet access acting as the sonos wifi access point.

    1. rakesh Post author

      Glad you found the post useful!

      I havent used the iPad app so I can’t really say how good it is. Sonos just launched an iPad app too though.

      On the multizone thing, it just depends on how you use it. If you have older children and have this setup in their rooms then it’s easy to imagine it being used all the time. But with Airplay, it’s something Apple might just end up addressing in a software update. I think it wouldn’t be that hard for them to do.

      Yes Sonos units can definitely be used wired instead of wirelessly, all the units I’ve seen including their all in one S5 unit have an Ethernet port on them.

      I think you’ll see the apple solution get a lot more interesting as the market is flooded with AirPlay products. I think it’ll be an accessory market on par with iPad iPhone cases.

  2. MrFusion

    Thanks for the write-up.

    Point 8 is a real problem for anyone with more than one person in the household — multi-zone audio *needs* to be able to select what to play in which zone.

    This would be the true killer app for Airplay!

  3. Janis

    Nice comparison! I`m looking for wireless solution in my apartment also. Just want to mention that there is one more Sonos advantage over Apple solution – Sonos can play music from NAS (Network attached storage). So you don`t need to turn on computer and iTunes, run it all day and getting irritated by computer fan… Reason number 8 and this reason is why I was strongly considering Sonos solution, but then I went to the store to listen S5 zone player, and to be honest, I was not impressed by sound quality of such expensive mini system. So now I`m confused a little bit – I think I will wait for apple full AirPlay presentation and also investigate Logitech squeezebox solution.

  4. Andrew

    I do like you review and comparison of the two technologies. I do understand that everyone has different needs and wants for multi-room sound systems. I thoroughly researched Apple’s iTunes + Airport Express, Logitech Squeezebox and Sonos. The selling point for me on the Sonos system is the multi-source capabilities. I can choose to use my iTunes Library, Pandora, Rhapsody, and a huge selection of online local and national radio stations. It makes it very easy for me to switch types of music based on what I want to hear or what my guests are into. iTunes Airplay + Express, just can match this functionality. Sonos is expensive, but it just works.

  5. Niels

    Airplay streams all kind of music. With my iPhone or iPad i can stream internet radio, you tube etc to an Airport Express. And it is possible for me to stream my favorite music to one Airport Express and enjoy my favourites while my girlfriend in another room stream different music from here own iPad or iPhone. But if I wish to stream the same source to several Airport Express’ that’s possible too.

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