Sonos: What is it and what are the alternatives?

Sonos has really upped its game of late, with national advertising (in the UK) and a much-more public profile. There might be some therefore that wonder what it is exactly that Sonos provides, and why it's any different to an iPhone dock or Bluetooth speaker system.

Additionally, it seems to have lead the charge when it comes to wireless audio solutions, with several rival systems appearing on the market in the last year or so. What do they have to offer in comparison? And are they any cheaper?

We've decided to answer these questions and more in our handy little guide to Sonos and wireless audio streaming in general.

What is Sonos?

Sonos is an American company set up in 2002 to make and distribute multi-room wireless speaker systems. The products have changed in shape and size over the years, but the idea remains the same. One of the devices connects to your home Wi-Fi network in order to play music from a variety of local and cloud services, and subsequent devices are then connected together through a wireless mesh network.

This means individual Sonos components talk to each other on a proprietary peer-to-peer network. Only one of them needs to be linked with your home network, the rest talk to each other directly. You can listen to music individually on each speaker or link them all up to play the same music at the same time.

They can be controlled by PC and Mac desktop applications, or apps for iOS and Android. The older system also came with a dedicated touchscreen remote control, but that has effectively been discontinued as an iPod touch running the app turned out to be a cheaper option.

READ: Sonos Play:1 review

What are the products?

Sonos makes several speakers and solutions that work together to make one large system. Sonos Play:1 is the latest addition to the range. It is a single small speaker with two drivers for £169. The Sonos Play:3 costs £259 and has three drivers - hence the name - and is a slightly larger device. And the Sonos Play:5 features five drivers in total and deep base. It is the largest in the range and costs £349.

There is also the PlayBar, a soundbar that can sit under a TV and costs £599. And a separate wireless subwoofer, called Sub, is available if you want to create a home cinema solution, for example. That also costs £599.

Speaking of home cinema, some of the speakers can be linked together to create surround sound systems. For example, use the PlayBar as the front soundstage, with a Sub and two Play:1 speakers as the left and right rear channels.

A few other components are available too. The Bridge connects directly to your home network and essentially works as the wireless hub for the Sonos speakers. When you purchase the Play speakers from Sonos, you get a free one of these for a limited period, so it's worth checking.

There is also the Connect:Amp, which contains an amplifier so you can hook it up to existing stereo speakers, and the Connect, which you can plug into a separate AV or audio amplifier. These cost £399 and £279 respectively.

READ: Best place to put a Sonos speaker: Sonos head of design gives us tips and tricks of the trade

What can I listen to?

Sonos offers access to a number of music services that it has partnered with, including Spotify, Deezer, Napster, Last.fm, 7Digital, Amazon Cloud Player and Rdio, plus services like Pandora in the States. You need to have subscriptions with most if not all, and in many cases premium accounts. But there is plenty of choice, including other smaller name choices through dedicated channels in the Sonos app.

You can also access internet radio through TuneIn. And if you have music on a computer or network drive, you can stream from those more local sources too.

The Sonos app for Android and iOS has also been updated recently to allow the brand's speakers to play music stored on a smartphone or tablet, a bit like an Apple AirPlay or Bluetooth speaker.

Why's it different?

The main thing about Sonos, and we've been advocates of the system for a while on Pocket-lint, is that it removes some of the fuss normally connected with wireless audio streaming. You don't have to pair your phone with any of the speakers. All of them are controllable through the same application, no matter where in the house they are located, and because they don't connect to your home router via Wi-Fi (one of them or the Bridge connects over Ethernet) they don't overload your home network, even when all working at once.

It is also staggeringly easy to set up and seeing as it is the Sonos software that drives the system, new features are being introduced all the time that's compatible even with some of the oldest components.

READ: Sonos PlayBar review

What are the alternatives?

That's not to say it is without rival, though. In recent times, we have seen Bose unveil a competitor in its SoundTouch system. It too offers several different sizes of speaker, that all work on the same wireless network. However, in this case it does work through your home Wi-Fi, rather than use a proprietary system.

It too offers wireless internet radio and local music file streaming. Plus, it has native AirPlay support, which the Sonos set up does not. Bose also promises access to music streaming services, such as iHeartRadio and Deezer in the future.

Bose too has apps available for iOS and Android to control its SoundTouch speakers.

In price terms, the SoundTouch system ranges from £350 to £600 for the SoundTouch 30. One big difference to the Sonos devices is that the Bose speaker system comes with an OLED display and separate small remote for when you don't have your smartphone or tablet to hand.

In concept terms, Pure's Jongo wireless speaker system is a similar prospect to Sonos. It too has multiple components that you can add as you go. They are also designed to suit modern households and look sleek.

There are three different-sized traditional forward firing speakers in the range, the Jongo T2, T4 and T6, for £130, £200 and £300 respectively. While the Jongo S3 is more of a stand-alone portable speaker that plays music through 360-degrees. It costs £170. A Jongo A2 hi-fi adapter is also available for £100, which you can plug into an existing amplifier or stereo system.

READ: Pure Jongo multiroom speaker pictures and hands-on

Like the Bose system, the Jongo's connect together over the home network, rather than a proprietary wireless technology. They also, however, have Bluetooth connectivity, so you can pair your mobile device directly.

Music streaming is controlled through the Pure Connect application for Android and iOS. It too has access to internet radio, but unlike the Sonos system is also good with streaming podcasts. There is no Spotify or other third-party cloud music service support though. Pure has its own, which will cost you about the same as a similar account on any of the other services, so if you want to stream music from the cloud, you will have to sign up with that.

The Jongo speakers can stream from any network source and can be paired to form a stereo set.

Other options

As well as like for like rivals, there are other options to have wireless audio streaming in the home. There are a tonne of Bluetooth speakers available these days. Small speakers like the Beats Pill, which is available for around £170, or larger, more premium solutions, like the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air for around £500, work by you pairing your smartphone or tablet to them and streaming local files (or internet radio and cloud services through apps). But they don't all tie together to create a multi-room solution.

Where Sonos works best is that it is simple to use and set up. Like the Bose and Pure systems too, it is scalable and can be started off with just the one component. Then, as your budget allows, you can increase the amount of devices that are linked together throughout the house.

And with access to the biggest cloud music services on tap, you can turn your entire home into a giant virtual jukebox. Who wouldn't want that?