Build a whole-home audio system

The experience

For the purposes of real-world testing, the whole-home audio system Dan put together consisted of five rooms of audio. Two of them paired an AirPort Express or Apple TV with an existing stereo system, two paired an AirPort Express with a Zamp and speakers, and one paired an AirPort Express with a set of Audioengine A5 speakers. Dan used this Apple-based system for a little over a month to see how it compared to the Sonos system. Jason, on the other hand, tried out a Squeezebox-based system that covers three rooms of his house, one with a Squeezebox Boom, one with a Squeezebox Radio, and another with an older Squeezebox Classic player attached to a Sony amplifier and speakers.

If you use your multi-room audio system frequently, one of the best features of the Sonos system is the concept of Zones. You can send different audio to different rooms, as well as separately control the volume level in each room. In practice, this means you’ve essentially got a separate audio system in each room, all controlled from a single remote, but you still have the option to link all rooms to play the same music together. Even better, you can easily link particular rooms at any time; for example, you can play one playlist in the kitchen and family room, while another plays in the bedrooms, and still another plays outside on the patio. (Within groups, you can control each zone’s volume separately; once you get the right balance, you can then adjust the overall level with one slider.)

There’s no denying that Sonos excels when it comes to multi-room audio, but Squeezebox has also supported the concept for quite some time. Each Squeezebox player can play different music, or multiple players can be synchronized with one another to supply the same music throughout your house. Although Squeezebox’s approach isn’t as elegant as Sonos’s, it does the job, allowing party guests to move from room to room while hearing the same carefully constructed iTunes playlist. And if you’re using the iPeng iPhone app, the Squeezebox system’s multi-room control approaches that of the Sonos.

The AirPort Express setup, on the other hand, supports only a single audio signal, so while you can choose which rooms get audio at a given time, all rooms must listen to the same thing. And unlike the Sonos system, you have only a single, master volume level for all rooms: crank the volume and it increases the same amount in every room. This means that unless you have the same audio system in every room, your initial amplifier setup will include some manual gain staging—separately adjusting each room’s volume level, walking back and forth between rooms many times, to match.

Beyond multi-room support, the Sonos system and Squeezebox line also have a number of other advantages over the Apple-only system. They support more formats than iTunes (including WMA, FLAC, and Ogg Vorbis); let you browse and play Internet radio stations; and include sleep and wake functions. But for many people, perhaps the biggest advantage for the Sonos and Squeezebox systems is their built-in support for a slew of music services—Rhapsody, Napster, Sirius, Pandora, and Last.fm among them.

Setting zones for the Apple (left), Sonos (center), and Squeezebox (right) systems

Sonos has a couple unique advantages, too: the capability to stream a separate audio source (a CD player or TV) from one room to all the others; and the mesh network, which, because it creates its own wireless network, avoids potential connection issues from having a firewall running on your computer (a common source of problems with an AirPort Express-based system).

On the other hand, the Apple-based system isn’t without its own advantages. The most obvious is that many users, especially Mac users, already have at least some of the required equipment, making this approach considerably cheaper than purchasing a Sonos or Squeezebox system. Similarly, if you’re already an iTunes user, the AirTunes system will be instantly familiar; both Sonos and Squeezebox offer queue-based interfaces that can be a bit confusing to those weaned on iTunes. (Once you get used to them, however, you may be frustrated that iTunes doesn’t offer a similar feature.)

Since the Apple system is controlled directly from iTunes, it’s also superbly integrated with iTunes features (such as Genius) and iTunes playlists (including smart playlists). The Squeezebox system automatically loads your iTunes library and playlists, but it doesn’t currently support other features such as Genius and iTunes DJ. The Sonos system can import iTunes playlists, but the feature is a bit kludgy, and you need to re-import playlists each time you modify them in iTunes.

The AirTunes system also supports iTunes-DRM music; Sonos and Squeezebox gear can’t play it. And adding music to your system is a bit easier with the AirTunes system. You just rip CDs or drag audio files into iTunes; that music is immediately available for playback. If you’ve set up any Smart Playlists in iTunes that would include that new music, those playlists are similarly updated automatically. Adding music to the Squeezebox and Sonos system involves a bit of a delay: whenever you add music to iTunes or to a separate music directory on your hard drive or NAS, the Squeezebox and Sonos systems must re-index your music library in order to recognize that new music.

On a non-musical note (pun intended), a side benefit of a system based on AirPort Express units is that you can connect a USB printer to any Express to make it available to any computers on your local network.

Finally, it’s worth noting that there are workarounds for AirTunes that, while imperfect, approximate a few of the Sonos and Squeezebox system’s features. If you have software on your Mac that provides access to one of those online music services, you can use the Mac software Airfoil to stream that audio across your AirTunes system. (Although the Sonos and Squeezebox systems access a higher-quality Rhapsody stream than the browser version, and the Sonos Pandora subscription doesn’t have commercials.) While you can’t browse Internet radio stations from Apple’s Remote app on your iPhone or iPod touch, if you have particular Internet radio stations you listen to frequently, you can add them to a playlist; you can browse that playlist, and start playback of any Internet radio station, from the iPhone app.

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