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Sonos – Affordable Whole House Audio System

by Chad Ludeman on November 29, 2008 · 11 comments

in Design,home automation

I am a bit of an audiophile, so when we started thinking about developing our own homes, integrated A/V equipment naturally popped into my head as something to offer in our homes. The problem is that when your company’s first project is focusing on affordable and green homes, higher-end options like whole-house audio tend to take a back seat. Nevertheless, we set out to see if we could integrate an affordable option for whole-house audio that would be affordable. Maybe it couldn’t be in the base options of our homes, but it could at least be a viable upgrade that wouldn’t break the bank.

When I started researching this post, the subject was going to be on the different options out there today for affordable whole-house audio. After some research and a bit of hands on testing, it became clear that there is one system that stands apart from the others in terms of features, ease of installation, ease of use and scalability. Dang, I sound like a recent marketing grad. I’ll try to do better.

Why Sonos Multi-Room Music System Stands Apart

Sonos multi-room system bundleThe system I am speaking of is the SONOS Multi-Room Music System. Lets get right down to why this system is better than the rest out there and then we’ll visit the technical details of Sonos vs. more traditional whole-house audio setups. The reason Sonos is better is that it can wirelessly play music anywhere in your house (or within a few hundred feet outside) from ALL of the following sources:

  • Your music collection on you computer whether it’s in your iTunes library, and MP3, WMA or any of 9 of the most popular digital files.
  • Any external source such as a CD player or a friend’s iPod.
  • Any internet radio station.
  • Any one of the following popular music services:, Napster, Pandora, Rhapsody or SIRIUS.

This is the key. They have pretty much left nothing out as far as available sources of audio that the kids like to listen to today. Personally, I listen to Pandora a whole bunch, my iTunes library is a close second and occasionally I’ll dust of my 5-disc CD changer and select 5-discs to put on shuffle for a few hours. My colleague, Nic, is a big fan of vinyl which I can admire and we would both enjoy a subscription to any one of the other music services listed above. Sonos has us covered on all fronts. We can even plug in our friends’ iPods when the stop over to share the latest musical sensation that is pleasing their ears or simply want to take over our party’s playlist when they’ve heard two songs in a row that they don’t like from our own playlist.

No other whole-house audio system that I have come across in my research can claim all of this. In fact, if we were to go with another whole house audio solution, I would still get the Sonos player to hook up to it in order to be able to select seamlessly from all of these different sources.

Sonos wireless controller image

So how does Sonos work? It’s pretty simple. You can choose from one of three devices that will connect to a wireless router and stream music to up to a couple dozen other Sonos players in your house. The Sonos ZonePlayer 90 will connect to an existing stereo system as well as a router to communicate with other Sonos players in the house. The Sonos ZonePlayer 120 is the same thing, but includes a built-in amplifier to power a set of speakers in a room without a stereo or dedicated speakers. Finally there is the Sonos ZoneBridge 100 that simply connects to your router to transmit music to other players, but does not have the capability of playing music itself. These players run from $500 for the powered version to $100 for the ZoneBridge alone.

Sonos zone player setup

All of these players can be controlled by any one of three ways. First, Sonos will sell you a wireless controller with charging cradle for about $400. The unit is quite lovely and very easy to use. If you’re not interested in shelling out the cash for the controller, you can simply use the free desktop software provided. And last but not least, Sonos just came out with a free iPhone App. I am getting to the point where if something doesn’t have an iPhone App, I’m not interested, so this is a big plus in my mind.

How do other whole-house audio options compare?

There are basically two types of whole-house audio systems out there today. Ones that are primarily wireless like the Sonos system and ones that are fully wired. The other wireless options are very similar to Sonos but do not stack up in my book because of the lack of options on the audio source end.

The wired options are very nice, but as you could guess, much more costly and labor intensive to install. They will hook up to a central amplifier and music source often and distribute music signals via CAT-5 cable to various controllers throughout the house that will adjust the music and volume being played to speakers hardwired in that room. Again, the limitation is with available sources of music. With a fully wired system, I would still prefer to have one Sonos player hooked up to the main amplifier in order to select from my desired music source.

Will Sonos work for the 100K House?

The bottom line is that I’m not sure. Adding even the $500 – $1,000 it would take to setup the Sonos system would not make sense on our budget most likely. The great thing is that it could be a very easy upgrade option to offer those interested. We could supply a ZoneBridge for only $100 that could communicate to any number of ZonePlayers that the homeowner desired to install themselves.

I would argue that we could take this to the next level and bridge the gap between the wired and wireless systems for a nominal upfront cost. How would we do this? Simple. Speaker wire is cheap and easy to install. For about $100 in in material cost and one hour of our electrician’s time, we could have the entire house wired for speakers. Make a nice diagram of where all of these wires are being terminated and leave a spool a couple feet long wrapped at each termination. That’s it. Cover it all up with drywall and make sure to pass the diagram off to the homeowner.

Should the homeowner decide to upgrade the whole-house audio system on their own, the hard part is done for them. Simply drill holes in the ceiling wherever you want to install integrated speakers as shown on the diagram. Hook the other end of the speaker wire either to your own amplifier that is hooked to a Sonos player or to a powered Sonos player. This gives the homeowner the choice of what level and cost of speakers they want to install and how many Sonos players they would like to use. They could spend as little as $500 or as much as a few grand depending on how important this is to them. The beauty is that is costs us almost nothing up front to give them quite a bit of flexibility in setting their own system up in the future.

Sonos saw me tweet about their system a few weeks ago and has offered us a free trial system for a few weeks. I think we will take them up on this and I’ll keep you guys in the loop as far as our plans with the audio system for the houses are concerned.

Sonos whole-house audio system setup image

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 paul schuster November 29, 2008 at 2:49 pm

what I did, got a mac mini w/ lacie 1TB drive for music server. have airport express connected to various stereos around the house and use my iphone/itouch to control. from my iphone I can select music, adjust volume, turn speakers on/off. no wires and minimal investment. also, I already carry the iphone so…

2 Mark Hershberg December 1, 2008 at 4:50 pm

Don’t overlook the Logitech Squeezebox Duet. It will do everything you listed for the Sonos except for the CD inputs. It is also less expensive (about $400 for the controller and a receiver, then $150 for add’l receivers), and it is open source so there are many grassroots plugins available. (My fav is the ability to stream baseball games from There is also an iPhone interface for control, and you could even stream content from the server to your iPhone…

3 chad December 1, 2008 at 5:10 pm

Paul – This is a good setup. I use the same at home using my iMac and home stereo. The problem I have is that I can’t access the internet music options and it would not be as clean of an install throughout a house with multiple zones. Perfect base setup for only $99 though.

4 chad December 1, 2008 at 5:16 pm

Mark – Excellent find. Never seen this before. It looks to me that you can choose from a couple of receivers (one is uber high-end which I like) and a couple of boombox type stand-alone units. This would potentially be simpler and cheaper to install throughout the house.

It also seems like you could have one boombox unit that is mobile so whether you were in the bedroom, kitchen, bath or back yard, you could use the same boombox. Lack of a CD hookup doesn’t bother me too much.

I’m gonna look into this further. Much thanks for the comment!

5 Mark Hershberg December 2, 2008 at 12:56 pm

No prob. I have had my squeezebox since May and I love it. I have a squeezebox duet that is driving two amplifiers–one for my living room (using optical digital out) and one for my patio (using analog outputs). You can also control a computer running a software emulator with the Squeezebox remote. I am currently keeping my eyes out for a bargain on a first generation model to hook up to an old amp/speakers in my outdoor storage shed/work room.

I have to say that the squeezebox is one of the most satisfying consumer electronics purchases I have ever made. (Even better than my iPod…). The system works great out of the box, but there is nearly endless satisfaction from tweaking the system to make it even better.

I just read your site for the first time today. As the owner of a 900sf home, I appreciate the modest scope of the project! I’m looking forward to reading more.

6 chad December 2, 2008 at 12:59 pm

I wonder about the issue with not playing songs downloaded from iTunes that have the copy protection on them? Anyone had experience with this?

7 Home Stereo System December 21, 2008 at 8:01 am

Sonos Multi-Room Music System, this setup is really great. We have little older system at our home, may be we can replace it.

Thanks for posting

8 Gerardo February 11, 2013 at 1:14 pm

Sonos is affordable and definitely worth your money, but the transition after this is definiteley the Mcintosh McAire its so full of sound and once losing the tolerance for sonos this is the best fit afterwards.

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