Build a whole-home audio system

Host your music

In order to set up a music system based on digital media, you need somewhere to host that media. The Sonos and Squeezebox systems are more flexible here: while both can access music stored in your iTunes Library, they can also use music stored on a network drive. For example, the Sonos can connect to music on a Time Capsule, a USB hard drive connected to an AirPort Extreme base station, or an Ethernet-equipped NAS drive connected to your network.

To go the Apple route, you need a computer running iTunes. (The computer also handles the actual playback; with the Sonos and Squeezebox systems, each ZonePlayer or Squeezebox handles playback independently.) This can be an old Mac or PC you aren’t using anymore, your current Mac, or a new Mac or PC you purchase specifically for this purpose. Each option has its drawbacks: Using an older Mac may require you to upgrade the hard drive to hold all your media, performance may be poor, and older computers use considerably more electricity than today’s models. Using your current Mac means that you have to share iTunes with anyone else in the house who wants to listen to music. And a new Mac will cost you a good chunk of change.

Apple's Mac mini makes a great media server.

The Squeezebox system gives you a couple options. Though it requires you to run Squeezebox Server software, you can run that server on either a computer or a compatible NAS. If you go the NAS route, Logitech officially supports only the Netgear ReadyNAS, though many other NAS devices are also compatible. For the computer-based approach, you can use any recent Mac, Windows, or Linux PC.

(Of course, even if you go the NAS route for the Sonos or Squeezebox system, you’ll still need a computer with an optical drive if you want to rip CDs to add their contents to your digital music library.)

We used a 2009 Mac mini for the AirTunes system. The Mac mini is ideal for this type of situation, as it’s tiny, has plenty of memory and horsepower for handling iTunes and related tasks, runs cool, and—perhaps best of all—uses much less energy than most computers, both when running and while asleep. It also supports Wake on Demand (see “Take control,” below). The Squeezebox system also used a Mac mini.

Cost if you don’t have equipment: Apple: $599 for Mac mini, or the price of a used Mac; Squeezebox: ~$250 for compatible NAS drive, or an inexpensive or used computer; Sonos: ~$100 and up for a NAS drive.

Choose your rooms

The next step is getting your music into your rooms. All three systems let you send audio to your choice of locations, using hardware in each room to receive the wireless transmission and convert it to a signal you can feed to a stereo or a set of speakers. With the Apple system, that hardware is a $99 AirPort Express unit. Once the Express is set up (see the next section), any audio you send from iTunes to that Express is pumped out the Express’ analog/optical-digital audio-output minijack.

It’s worth noting that if you’ve already got an Apple TV in a room, you can use the Apple TV for AirTunes instead of an AirPort Express. The Apple TV shows up in iTunes as a destination for audio, just as an AirPort Express would.

Logitech's Squeezebox Touch

The heritage of the Squeezebox product line is in devices that can be placed in a standard stereo rack. As a result, most Squeezebox products have some sort of display on their front and offer support for an infrared remote control. The $300 Squeezebox Touch, the “standard” model, is a compact box that, like the AirPort Express, connects to an amplifier or powered speakers. But the Squeezebox offers left/right RCA jacks for analog audio, as well as both coaxial and optical jacks for a digital signal. It’s also got a bright, 4.3-inch color touchscreen display on the front that shows album art, track information, and even the time and weather; you can also use the touchscreen to control playback without a remote.

Alternatively, Logitech offers a slew of other options: the $150 Receiver, a bare-bones unit that inexplicably requires the $300 Controller, covered later, to set up; the $400 Duet, a bundle featuring both the Receiver and Controller; as well as two models that include speakers (covered later in “Amp it up”).

With the Sonos system, each listening room needs a ZonePlayer. The $349 ZonePlayer 90 (ZP90) is a compact box, approximately 5.5 inches square by 2.9 inches tall. Like the Squeezebox, the ZP90 can connect to stereo or powered speakers via analog or digital jacks. The ZP90 doesn’t have any sort of display, but it does provide hardware buttons on the front for adjusting and muting the volume.

The $499 ZonePlayer 120 (ZP120) is essentially a ZonePlayer 90 with a built-in 55-Watt-per-channel, Class-D amplifier. Designed for rooms that don’t have an existing stereo system, the ZP120 gives you everything you need except the speakers; speaker terminals on the back of the unit let you connect, using standard speaker cables, whatever speakers you decide on. The ZP120 also provides a subwoofer output for connecting a powered subwoofer.

The Sonos ZP90 (left), ZP120 (center), and CR200 (right)

Both ZonePlayers have a couple additional tricks up their virtual sleeves: First, each also sports left/right RCA inputs; connect any audio source—a CD player, an iPod, a TV—to these inputs and you can send that device’s audio to the other ZonePlayers, making it easy to listen, for example, to the audio track from a televised sports event anywhere in the house. (You can even choose how that audio is encoded for transmission.) Second, each ZonePlayer provides a two-port Ethernet switch for connecting wired devices—TiVo, game console, computer, NAS drive—to your network.

(Logitech and Sonos also sell all-in-one units that combine a Squeezebox or ZonePlayer, respectively, with an amplifier and speakers; more on that in “Amp it up.”)

Cost if you don’t have equipment: Apple: $99 (Express) or $229 (Apple TV) for each room; Squeezebox: $300 for each room; Sonos: $349 (ZP90) or $499 (ZP120) for each room.

Subscribe to the MacWeek Newsletter