Build a whole-home audio system

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The total cost

When starting this experiment, we had hoped to end up with a table comparing the costs of each system. But as you can see from our cost estimates throughout the article, there are so many factors that affect how much you’ll have to spend, even if you’re starting from scratch, that a nice, neat table wasn’t in the cards. Instead, here’s as simple a cost summary as we could put together:

If you’re starting from scratch, the initial cost of the AirTunes system is approximately $978: $179 for an AirPort Extreme, $599 for an entry-level Mac mini, and $200 for an iPod touch with the Wake on Oui app. The per-room cost is $99 (an AirPort Express) plus the cost of an amplifier and speakers.

Estimating the cost of a Sonos system is a bit more complicated. The initial cost is anywhere from $398 (a ZoneBridge, a NAS drive, and an iPod touch with Sonos app) to $948 (a ZonePlayer 120, a NAS drive, and the Sonos Controller 200), depending on your choice of controller and whether or not you plan to listen in the room that serves as the “base” of the system. The per-room cost is either $349 (a ZP90) plus the cost of an amplifier and speakers, or $499 (a ZP120) plus the cost of speakers. (Note that Sonos does offer discounted bundles; for example, if you purchase a ZP120, ZP90, and CR200 together, you save $200.)

For the Squeezebox, the initial cost is $250 for a NAS drive or $599 for a Mac mini, and then $200 to $400 per room, plus the cost of an amplifier and speakers for rooms not serviceable by a Squeezebox Boom or Squeezebox Radio. The Squeezebox's on-device controls reduce the need to buy a dedicated $199 iPod touch-based remote if you tend to listen in individual rooms, though for true, whole-house control, you'll still want one.

In the end, we suspect that for most people, even those starting from scratch, the Apple system is going to be the least expensive; how much less expensive can vary wildly depending on your setup and current equipment.

The verdict?

With all that information in mind—and there’s admittedly quite a bit of it to absorb—which route should you take to get your tunes everywhere?

For those who’ve already got a good amount of the necessary Apple hardware, especially an AirPort Extreme and several AirPort Express units, an AirTunes system is appealing thanks to the much lower cost of entry. (And, in fact, if you have enough of the required gear already, you can start by “test driving” the AirTunes system in just a couple rooms to see if you like it.)

If you’re starting from scratch, or mostly from scratch, however, it’s worth taking a step back to consider which system might be the better choice for you.

If you think you’ll spend most of your time listening in only one room at a time, or listening to the same music in all rooms, and if most of the music you’d want to listen to is already in iTunes, an AirPort Express-based whole-home system will likely suffice, and it will do much of what you need for a lower price.

On the other hand, if you want more flexibility, including the capability to listen to different audio in different rooms, and the option to take advantage of subscription and online services, either the Sonos system or Squeezebox line may be worth the extra money, especially when you consider their ease of use and other benefits.

In terms of choosing between Sonos and Squeezebox, it once again come downs to details. The Sonos system is more expensive overall, but it offers a more elegant experience, its mesh network makes it much more reliable in larger houses (especially those not already permeated by reliable Wi-Fi), and the ZP120 with integrated amplifier is perfect if you’ve already got a good set of stereo speakers. The new S5 also looks to be a great way to get big, high-quality audio into rooms that don’t need a full-blown stereo system.

Logitech’s Squeezebox line is less expensive and provides multi-room capabilities that are nearly as good as Sonos’s, but it relies on your house’s own Ethernet and Wi-Fi networks. If you’ve got a limited number of rooms that you really need to fill with expansive, high-quality sound (via a Squeezebox, amplifier, and external speakers), but several smaller rooms that could be served well by the integrated speakers in the Squeezebox Boom or Squeezebox Radio, Squeezebox may be a better deal.

Whatever approach you take, one thing’s for sure: once you’ve experienced being able to listen to your favorite music wherever you are in the house with a few taps on a screen, you’ll wonder how you ever got along without your whole-house system.

Updated 10/19/09 12pm: Clarified AirTunes compatibility with third-party routers. Updated 10/23/09 11:30am: Corrected Zamp warranty information.

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