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Sonos 101: Spend wisely

Settle down, class. Let's begin.
April 30, 2021
Close-up image of the Sonos logo.

If you’ve been in the market for home speakers, you’ve probably seen one brand name come up over and over again: Sonos. It’s to the point where the Sonos brand is almost a name for the entire product category itself, like how the iPod was for MP3 players. But what is Sonos and why are their speakers so popular? We’ll get into all of that as well as a few of the pros and cons of getting a Sonos speaker.

Editor’s note: this article was updated on April 30, 2021, to update formatting and make information more timely.

What is Sonos?

Picture of the Sonos logo
Sonos speakers are on the shelves of electronic stores and even in Jay-Z songs, but what are they?

First and foremost, let’s answer a basic question. What is Sonos? Sonos is an audio company that’s been around since 2002 and they were one of the first companies to use the internet in your house to connect speakers together. While we call it an audio company Sonos really only specializes in home audio speakers, so don’t expect to buy a pair of headphones from them anytime soon. Whether you’re looking to build yourself a fancy new entertainment room or want a single smart speaker for your apartment, they have you covered.

What makes Sonos special?

The ecosystem

There are a few key elements of Sonos speakers that make them the go-to for home audio, one of which is the ecosystem. Sonos sells a number of speakers ranging from small speakers you can put in the bedroom to bases you can place under your TV, and they all work seamlessly together. While plenty of audio products are one-off, standalone products, that’s not the case with Sonos speakers. If you buy a pair of headphones, that’s the end of the transaction. The same is true with Bluetooth speakers. Buying one Sonos speaker just gets your foot in the door of their speaker ecosystem.

The combinations

The more speakers you get, the more options you have in terms of how you listen. You can mix and match them throughout the house and you get full control of everything via the Sonos app. Whether you want to play the same song across the house, this song in that room, or different songs in different rooms, the app lets you do that. Plus, combining certain speakers can get you a full 5.1 surround sound system.

Long-lasting support

Sonos products aren’t cheap, and the company wants you to continue building your ecosystem by buying more and more of their speakers. This isn’t possible if their products are outdated after a year or two. So Sonos makes it a point to make sure that their older speakers are kept up to date via software updates for way longer than you might expect. The Sonos Sub and Sonos Playbar which came out in 2012 and 2013, respectively, are still an integral part of their product line-up to this day. So if you bought one of these all those years ago, it’s most likely still doing just fine in your living room (or wherever you set it up).

How do you set up your Sonos speakers?

Picture of the Sonos app running on the phone.
Setting up a speaker is as easy as opening the app and following the on-screen instructions.

As we mentioned before, Sonos speakers connect to each other wirelessly via your home internet, but what exactly does that mean? During setup Sonos basically makes its own mesh network, which basically means the speakers are able to directly send information between each other without interference from any of the other electronics on your router. That said, if you happen to have a lot of things connected to your Wi-Fi then Sonos also sells the Boost which, as its name implies, acts as a Wi-Fi extender to give a little boost to the Sonos mesh network.

What are the benefits having a Sonos system?

We’ve already mentioned some of the better features that have helped make Sonos a go-to for home audio, but let’s get into the nitty-gritty now. What are some of the pros and cons of buying into this ecosystem versus just building a home audio setup yourself?

1. Sonos products are easy to set up

First, setting up a Sonos speaker is super easy. All you need is an internet connection, and of course an electrical outlet. If you don’t want to deal with a bunch of cables and connections then these are for you. The user experience is very streamlined—more than that of its primary competitor, Bose. As soon you plug in the device all you have to do is open up the Sonos app which is free on both iOS and on Android. From there, just follow the steps to connect the speaker to your home internet and to the rest of your Sonos speakers if you have any.

A picture of Trueplay from Sonos.
Using your iOS device, you can calibrate the speakers to the room with the app.

This is where things split depending on if you have an iOS device or an Android device because on iOS the setup can be taken even further with something called Trueplay. Trueplay calibrates the speakers to their location with a series of tones and beeps. The speakers can correct themselves to try and get the best sound in that particular area of your house. While it’s true that this is something that the Apple Homepod can do on the fly without any special beeps, you’ll still have to set aside a few minutes during setup to get the best sound out of your Sonos. The company does plan to eventually have it work automatically like the Homepod, but until then the Trueplay dance is a right of passage to anyone who really wants to get the most out of the speakers.

It’s easy to play music from almost any streaming service through your Sonos speaker, but Sonos offers direct integration with certain services, like Amazon Music and Qobuz. Qobuz is the first streaming service that offers 24-bit high-resolution audio through Sonos speakers. Bose offers integration with some HiFi services, such as Deezer, which offers 16-bit CD-quality audio, but so far Bose doesn’t offer integration with any Hi-Res services.

2. Sonos supports all smart assistants

Think of Sonos like Switzerland. Whether you’re talking about the streaming wars between the likes of Spotify and Apple Music, or the assistant wars between Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant, it doesn’t matter. Sonos works with them all. If you’re subscribed to some random music streaming service that we didn’t even mention in our list, don’t worry. Here’s a full list of everything they’re compatible with.

The Sonos One on a table.
Touch controls on top of the Sonos One let you control your music if voice isn’t supported.

The company is taking a similar stance when it comes to voice assistants. Rather than choosing sides, they’re just going to play nice with everyone. Something like the Sonos One already has compatibility with Amazon Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant.

3. Form and function

Sonos has different forms for different functions. If you want a soundbar for your TV, they have that. If you want a subwoofer to pair with your soundbar, they have that too. They have a dedicated speaker for every aspect of 5.1 surround sound, as well as a few others that you can spread out as needed. Not to mention that they’re designed to be discreet and out of the way, so they don’t become the focus of your living room. For example, the all-black Playbar from 2013 still won’t look out of place today when paired up with their newer offerings. Because they’re designed to be a piece of the whole, no one speaker outshines the rest.

What are the drawbacks of the Sonos system?

If you stopped reading now, you might leave with the impression that Sonos speakers are the best things since sliced bread. And while the pros do outweigh the cons for most people, there are still plenty of cons. In addition, over the past few years, Bose has become a direct competitor to Sonos’ home speakers, and other companies are on the rise as well, so it’s not like Sonos is your only option these days.

1. Without an internet connection, many of Sonos’ speakers are useless

Close-up of the back of the Sonos Playbase.
The connection options on the back of the Sonos Playbase.

This is a problem for all WiFi speakers, so it isn’t a problem that’s exclusive to Sonos speakers. Still, it’s worth noting that if you have a shoddy internet connection or if there’s an internet outage, your speakers are just pretty paperweights. Only a few products in the lineup currently have Bluetooth compatibility, but luckily, Sonos is expanding its product lineup. Currently Sonos offers the Sonos Move, which can operate over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. In addition, Sonos is just now starting to ship out the new Sonos Roam, which is a highly portable Bluetooth and WiFi speaker with an IP67 rating that still retains the functionality of one of their home speakers.

If you have any of the Sonos speakers besides the Roam or Move, there are some clever workarounds that let you bypass the lack of Bluetooth compatibility. However, these workarounds require you have a Sonos speaker with a 3.5mm input, a cheap Bluetooth dongle from Amazon, and a youthful lightheartedness that allows you to laugh at the absurdity of spendings hundreds of dollars on a lifehack.

2. Little Dolby Atmos support

While this isn’t really a big deal, it’s kind of a big deal. The Sonos Arc is the only speaker to support Dolby Atmos; some other Sonos speakers support Dolby Digital 5.1 for surround sound. Dolby Digital 5.1 is what you might picture when you think of surround system. It utilizes six different channels: two surround speakers, a left and right speaker in front, a center channel, and a subwoofer.

How to setup a Dolby Atmos soundbar: A diagram of a setup with the soundbar.
Make sure to place your soundbar below and in front of the T.V. If your configuration uses upward firing hardware elements, clear the sound’s path from the drivers to the ceiling.

Dolby Atmos works a little differently. It creates a 3D envelope of sound around your head providing for a fully immersive experience with true to life—yeah, enough of that marketing nonsense. Basically, Dolby Atmos allows for upward-firing speakers to bounce sound off your ceiling. To be fair as boring as that sounds, the spatial effect it has when watching movies is actually really cool and is something that other soundbars like the Sennheiser Ambeo support. Most people won’t mind and will be more than happy with a great 5.1 surround sound setup, but home audio nerds will definitely take notice.

3. Cost

Image of a man holding an iPhone in front of a Sonos One (Gen 1) Google Assistant speaker (Alexa-supported) in white on a wood background.
The Sonos One app is surprisingly good and lets you connect dozens of services

That brings us to the third point, which is that there are better sounding setups you can get if you’re willing to spend more time and money. That’s saying a lot because Sonos speakers aren’t exactly cheap to begin with. It’s the ease of use and compatibility between speakers that lures so many to Sonos products (oh, and of course that infamous Jay-Z line). If you don’t want to do too much research and just want to plug-and-play then Sonos is great for that, but you shouldn’t leave this article thinking they’re the best speakers ever made.

Not to mention that Sonos doesn’t like to rush things. The company takes its sweet time and while the product release schedule has definitely picked up the pace in the few years, you shouldn’t buy into Sonos expecting to be wowed every few months with a new speaker or accessory to add to your setup. The Sonos ecosystem isn’t for home audio nerds, it’s for everyone.

Read next: Best Bluetooth speakers