When Apple announced a new streaming technology for the iPhone and iPad called AirPlay, many wondered how that would affect Sonos, a company that has a system that lets you stream music from the Internet and control it via your iPhone and iPad.
Six months on from Apple’s September 2010 announcement, Sonos has given us the answer. Rather than fight the technology and try to prove its differences, it’s embraced it, adding AirPlay support to the system via a software update and some Apple hardware.
Having a Sonos S5 ZonePlayer speaker and three other ZonePlayers in our home setup already, plus all the necessary components, we’ve updated our software, and plugged in the relevant hardware in order to see if it's worth the bother.
A quick recap of what you’ve already got
It’s probably worth a quick recap of what Sonos already does and what the new system promises.
If you haven’t yet experienced Sonos, it is a network-savvy music system that works by connecting a number of boxes (up to 42 in total) made up of amps, speakers and such like to a home network. It then hooks up to the Internet or a network PC, and lets you stream music from services like Last.fm, Spotify and Napster, from your own collection on a hard drive, or numerous internet radio stations.
You can control which zone the music is played, in how many rooms, what the volume is, as well as group zones together for parties - playing the same song in different rooms. It’s all very clever.
What you need to make AirPlay work on Sonos
You'll need a couple of bits to get started, some of which you'll already have:
1. You’ll need a Sonos system, obviously.
2. You’ll need Apple’s AirPort Express.
3. A network cable.
4. A 3.5mm stereo cable.
5. And about 15 minutes.
How to set up AirPlay on Sonos
First off, you’ll need to update your system. It’s already connected to the Internet so find your controller or a PC or Mac with the software on it and press update. Chances are, if you are using Sonos you’ll have already been prompted to update the system.
The whole update process takes about 10 minutes (depending on your network connection) and it’s incredible straightforward. In fact, all you have to do is say "yes" to the update and it does the rest.
Once your system has reset itself, you're ready for phrase two.
If you’ve got a Sonos ZonePlayer S5, you need to go and find the box (most likely in your loft) and in it you’ll find a standard network cable and a white 3.5mm stereo cable – grab them.
The next step is to set-up the Apple AirPort Express base station. Plug it in and then add it to your network. This is likely to be the trickiest part to the whole setup because, in our general experience, whenever you have to dabble in networks, nothing ever goes to plan and an hour later you come out swearing your head off.
According to Sonos you can negate the need to enable Wi-Fi and to get the most of the system you should call it Sonos.
Once you’ve got your AirPort Express on the network and everything is tickey-boo, all that’s left to do is to plug the network cable and 3.5mm cable into your AirPort Express and your Sonos player.
Getting more out of your Sonos AirPlay setup
Turns out, and even we missed this first time around, that you can get more out of your Sonos AirPlay setup if you dive into the settings menu. Buried away so it's hard to find. Load up the Sonos Controller app or software on your computer and opt for ZonePlayer Settings.
Select the name of the ZonePlayer the AirPort is connected with and update the following Line-in settings to make sure that it says AirPlay Device from the drop down menu.
This menu will also let you select the Zone that AirPlay apps should automatically be played in and the autoplay volume too. You should also make sure "Include Grouped Zones" is ticked so you can play the music in any of the zones.
Setup complete, here’s how to use AirPlay on Sonos
Now, simply... enjoy it.
Does AirPlay on Sonos work?
In practice, any App that has AirPlay support works, be it Spotify, a dedicated music album app (EMI makes a few) and, even, the Sky news app - effectively giving you Sky News radio.
We tried all the apps that we that have AirPlay support and all worked well.
A panicked initial worry about a delay on the audio and interruptions were soon quelled when we realised we were experiencing network issues during our first test, something that on second, third and fourth attempts thereafter didn't rear its ugly head again.
We aren’t sure whether it’s us, but AirPlay for Sonos really does feel like it’s a box ticker rather than something we would use all the time.
Yes, we can see the benefit of being able to offer your mates the chance to stream their music to your music system without the need to plug anything in. And, granted, the Spotify experience on the iPhone through the dedicated app is actually better than the Sonos-housed version, as you get recommendations and suggestions rather than just a search box. Initial concerns of it being a faff have not been corrected, but make sure you follow the above directions to get the most out of the system. Merely hooking it up an AirPort Express to your Sonos will work, but won't give you the full benefit. Something we didn't realise until Sonos pointed it out to us. It needs to be better communicated.
If you’ve got an AirPort Express kicking around, can pick one up cheap on eBay, or have £83 burning a hole in your pocket then you’ll be pleased with your new-found support for a system that you probably won’t use that much. At least you'll be able to say that, like Denon owners, you're "AirPlay ready."
Ultimately, though, unless you've got lots of music apps that you want to share with a bigger speaker system, this is more a case of adding an extra logo to the box than you actually needing to enjoy AirPlay at this time.
Still if you can, why not?