Whole home audio with Sonos - Part 1

Right then, we’ve sorted our lighting, we’ve got a hub to control everything”, we know when to automate and when to leave well alone, and we’ve even got a network, let’s start adding devices!

The title for this one gives away the decision I made for my home audio setup so let’s briefly cover why I went with Sonos as opposed to other offerings, and why it may not be right for you.

Our excursion into whole house audio started quite a few years ago when I built a platform based on RaspberryPi computers and some free software because at the time I couldn’t justify the cost of the Sonos speakers.

We then looked at building a “proper” home cinema (plans that were quickly shelved when we found out the price!) based around a Marantz amplifier, and were told about HEOS. The idea was that if we were watching a film (or the rugby!) on the home cinema, we could send the audio to speakers in other rooms so we wouldn’t miss out if we went to the kitchen to get a drink etc.

We listened to a lot of speakers, always the same song, always something with lots of bass, but we found that the smaller HEOS speakers just didn’t carry the base enough at the time.

After that, I kept a few criteria in mind every time we talked about whole home audio:

  • The system has to be affordable - start off with one speaker and expand as needed
  • We need to be able to add at least 5.1 surround sound to the TV when we get to that point in our budget
  • The platform needs to be easy to control, and support Spotify (that’s our music provider of choice)
  • At some point, we may want speakers in the garden, so we need to know connecting outdoor speakers is possible
  • We need to be able to “send” the music to the speakers that we want to use, either in one room, multiple rooms, or the entire house

Whilst HEOS could have solved this issue, it was going to be quite expensive when it came to the 5.1 setup and the external speakers. At the time the various other offerings from Bose and others weren’t available and, having stayed at an AirBNB that had Sonos in the cottage, we’d discovered that the Sonos setup was incredibly easy to use.

There was still the issue of price (the cheapest Sonos:1 at the time was ~£167), however my wife used some money she received as a gift to purchase a couple of speakers and we’ve expanded from there ever since!

It’s worth mentioning at this point that the IKEA Symfonisk speakers cost far less than the Sonos:1’s (just £89 at the time of writing this!), and I’ve been led to believe that they are of equal sound quality - if you’re looking to dip your toes in the Sonos ecosystem, this is a good place to start and they are compatible with all the other speakers in the Sonos range.

Connecting Sonos to the network

There are loads of manuals and youtube videos out there on how to use the Sonos app and how to connect your various streaming platforms of choice to the system, so we’re going to look at the best way to get media flowing between your devices without interruption or interference from WiFi devices.

By default, each of your Sonos speakers will connect to your WiFi network and stream music directly over the WiFi. Add to this the constant chatter between the speakers to check which group they are in, their connection strengths to the next node, etc. and the network traffic being generated by these devices rapidly increases.

Sonos have a solution for this and it’s commonly referred to as “SonosNet”. To use SonosNet, you connect one of your speakers to your network with a network cable (you did run network cables throughout the house didn’t you?!) - the other speakers in your setup will reconfigure themselves to connect to this speaker via a dedicated WiFi Network, and all of that chatter on your own WiFi will simply disappear.

The recommendation from Sonos is that you only do this if you have poor WiFi coverage or if you want to extend your speaker network to rooms that don’t have WiFi, but the general consensus amongst the community is that you should do this anyway as it improves the connectivity between speakers and reduces the overhead on your own network.

If you can’t run a wire from your router to one of the speakers, Sonos have you covered there too. The Boost is £99 and acts as a bridge between your wired network and your Sonos speakers. The boost doesn’t have any audio outputs, it just creates the SonosNet for the other devices to connect to, but it’s a good option if you’re not ready to run a wired network or can’t run one for various reasons.

The great thing about this setup is that as you add more speakers to your house, they act as both a “node” and a “repeater” for the SonosNet setup increasing the signal strength throughout the building and enabling you to place speakers further and further away from the nearest network socket.

Surround sound

One of the more recent addition to the Sonos range is the Arc - a sound bar for your TV that can support Dolby Atmos. At £799 it’s not cheap, at there’s not a huge amount of Atmos content out there right now unless you still have a BluRay player. The reviews of it are solid, and you can add a sub and a pair of speakers for surround sound, but by that point you’re close to £2000 and that’s far too much for us!

Thankfully, Sonos do a cheaper sound bar called the “Beam”. This is £399, and doesn’t support Atmos, but you can still get 5.1 surround sound from it by adding a sub and a pair of other Sonos speakers to the setup, and that includes some of the IKEA Symfonisk bookshelves. We’ve found that the quality of the base is fantastic on the beam and is improved further just by adding the surround speakers, and a lot of the reviews say that the sub is so powerful that it can upset neighbours, so we’re pretty confident we don’t need it yet!

Selecting the beam and a pair of Symfonisk speakers brings the 5.0 setup to a total cost of £577 - over £200 cheaper than the arc on it’s own, and in line with a lot of other 5.x home cinema systems but with the additional feature of whole home audio.

Whilst we’ve gone for the slightly more expensive One:SL speakers as our surrounds, that’s only because we had a pair of them in the house already and didn’t want to buy any more speakers!

Connecting speakers outdoors

The really great thing about Sonos is that they are firmly targeting the “home entertainment” space rather than the “audiofile” space. I like to think of them as the “Samsung” of the home audio world - they’re not as flash as Apple, but they have far more features than a Huawei, and whilst you probably could do it cheaper it’s not worth the effort unless you want a lot of maintenance.

Sonos sell a dedicated Outdoor set, however as this basically consists of an AMP and a set of speakers, you can save money here by swapping the speakers for cheaper models (I’m hoping to test and review some outdoor speakers later in the year, so stay tuned for that one!).

The possibilities here are near endless. You could run the wires to some of the “hidden rock” speakers that are available, or mount some speakers on the back of the house - as long as you can run the wires back to the AMP then you’re set and you can stream audio from the beam connected to the TV through to the back garden, perfect for a BBQ when the cricket is on!

Next steps

I’ve run out of time (and column inches!) to cover everything I wanted to, so in part 2 of this series we’ll look at connecting the speakers to Hubitat so you can control them along with the rest of your home automation setup, and we’ll take the time to look at implementing some rules to enhance how we wake up and go to sleep each night accompanied by music.

As always, please leave comments and questions below, and I’ll be back with another post very soon!

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