by Andrew Heinzman on
If you find yourself constantly plugging and unplugging HDMI cables from your TV, then it may be time to buy an HDMI switch.
If you want to get music in every room in your home, there are a lot of ways to go about it, but the best value in terms of cost, setup, and ease of use is clear. Sonos is the king of the whole house market.
There are a surprising number of options on the market for this niche, considering that they’re expensive even on the low end. But most of them require some extensive setup and investment—we’re talking thousands of dollars and sometimes running wires through your home. So it’s no surprise that so many of those options are targeted specifically at luxury buyers, often with ongoing charges for support included. Unless you’re willing to spend four (or maybe even five) figures on a multi-room speaker system, possibly as part of a new house construction or renovation, it simply won’t be practical for most users.
Our primary recommendation, Sonos, isn’t cheap by any means. But by relying on the Wi-Fi system you already have and needing no extensive installation, it’s still both affordable and quite usable compared to the luxury options, and it’s flexible enough to use speakers you already own. Our budget picks, Google Home and Amazon Alexa, can accomplish most of the same Wi-Fi music functionality at a fraction of the cost. No matter which of our picks you go with, though, it will be far cheaper than a custom whole-house solution, way more easy to expand and rearrange, and—critically, for renters—if you move you can take the whole thing with you.
While it’s attracted plenty of competitors and imitators, Sonos’ centralized music playback system remains the best option for anyone looking for an all-in-one music solution for their home. Sonos uses a centralized Wi-Fi connection, instead of Bluetooth for each individual speaker, to allow for easy distribution and control. You can place a compatible Sonos speaker anywhere that has access to Wi-Fi and it will be able to play back music from the central system.
The latest iteration of Sonos hardware is all controlled via a single centralized smartphone app, available on iOS or Android. The app can take audio from any music player or local music on your phone’s storage, with specific integration for the most popular services like Spotify and Pandora. Music can be sent to a single speaker, all the speakers in one or more rooms, or every speaker in the house at once, and multiple authorized users can use the app at the same time.
The integrated hardware is where Sonos really shines. In addition to single speakers of varying price and quality, Sonos also offers TV soundbars, subwoofers, and adapters that can add conventional analog speakers and older audio equipment to your home’s audio network. A particularly neat trick is using the soundbar, the subwoofer, and two or more linked Wi-Fi speakers to create a single-room system that doubles as a 5.1-channel surround sound setup for your living room TV. The latest speakers in the line, the single Sonos One speaker and the Beam soundbar, include integrated microphones for voice commands powered by Amazon’s Alexa system. Integration with Google Assistant has been announced, but not yet implemented.
If you want to try out the Sonos system without investing a ton of money, I’d recommend getting the One speaker or the cheaper Play:1 speaker (sans microphone for Alexa) for every room you’d like to connect. For a modest upgrade, the Play:3 speaker offers stereo drivers. The Play:5 is a more premium option with 80 watts of power, enough for a medium-sized room on its own. Connected home users should opt for the Sonos One speaker for most smaller applications.
If you’re ready to invest quite a bit more into your system, the Playbase and Playbar (same basic speakers, different form factor) can integrate with your TV setup, as can the Alexa-enabled Beam and the Sub (subwoofer). But in all cases, it might be simpler or cheaper to use the Connect hardware to wire in your existing speakers to your Sonos system. The Connect uses standard RCA audio cables or an optical connection, while the more expensive Connect:Amp can use older equipment with its standard speaker wire connection and dedicated subwoofer line. You might as well, since the Sub costs a whopping $700 on its own.
Getting a few Sonos speakers together costs several hundred dollars even on the cheap end. If you’re hoping for something less expensive, just get some low-cost connected home gadgets and spread them around, using the speakers you already own or budget models from another supplier. Amazon’s Alexa system or Google’s Home and Chromecast combo are ideal for this purpose.
Both Alexa and Assistant support features similar to Sonos, allowing users to send audio from either a central phone app or a simple voice command to the entire home, or to a single speaker in any given room. Both even include the capability to group speakers in one or more rooms together. Note that, unlike Sonos, Alexa and Google Home can only play audio via supported services, and don’t integrate with surround sound TV setups.
To get started with the least amount of investment, choose either Alexa or Google Home, then select the most inexpensive connected speaker in each bunch. For Amazon’s system that’s the Echo Dot, the $40 gadget that includes a low-power speaker, microphone for voice commands, and a standard audio connection to larger speakers. Google’s setup is a little different: you can opt for either the Home Mini with a built-in microphone and speaker, or the Chromecast Audio with a dedicated audio-out connection but no speaker or mic of its own. Once they’re set up on your home Wi-Fi network, you can assign them to rooms or groups and play music through the Alexa or Google Home phone app, or use voice commands on your phone or connected speakers.
Upgrading to more robust sound is as simple as going for the bigger Echo or Home speaker units, or just adding more connections with the cheaper hardware. If you already have speakers you can connect, or you don’t need hi-fi sound, you should be get audio throughout a three bedroom home (plus a living room and kitchen) for around $200. Choosing between Alexa and Home is more dependent upon which one you’re comfortable with than the capabilities of each service—they’re fairly competitive with each other.
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