What Is the Sonos Home Music Streaming System?

Creating a Whole Home Music Streaming System With Sonos

SONOS CONNECT Wireless Receiver Component for Streaming Music
SONOS CONNECT Wireless Receiver Component for Streaming Music. Photo from Amazon

If you want to stream music and video to your living room home theater or bedroom TV, a network media player, media streamer or networked component will do the trick. On the other hand, if you want music to play throughout your home, Sonos has a host of products to give you the whole home audio experience. 

Introduction to Sonos

Sonos streams digital music from the music libraries on your computers connected to your home network.

What's more, it can also share music from a source connected to one of its units – a CD player, iPod, or anything with a headphone jack –  with all of the other Sonos devices in your home.  

With Sonos products, you can stream music to play on your stereo (AV receiver) on powered speakers placed in any room in the house, or on portable Sonos ZonePlayers equipped with speakers.

In the past, a whole-home music solution would require in-wall controllers, wall or ceiling speakers and lots of complicated control panels. Sonos systems are now relatively easy to install yourself, once you understand how Sonos works. Sonos has its own vernacular – jargon, terms and names of products. 

What Is a Sonos Zone?

Sonos allows you to create "zones" around your home for listening to music. A zone can be a single unit in a room, or it can be an area of your home, or it can be any combination of ZonePlayers in your home.

A "zone" is created when you choose one or more ZonePlayers to play the same music at the same time. 

If you have more than one ZonePlayer, you can group all of the players, or choose any combination of players to create a zone – all the ZonePlayers downstairs, or upstairs,  or the kitchen and outdoors, or the ZonePlayer in your den together with the ZonePlayer in your master bedroom.

Or, choose all of the ZonePlayers for a whole-home solution.

What Is a ZonePlayer?

A ZonePlayer is a Sonos device that streams music for you to hear. It may have built-in speakers and be easy to move from room to room. Another ZonePlayer has a built-in amplifier to which you need only connect speakers. Another model connects to your home stereo (AV receiver) and streams the music through the stereo and speakers. For each room or area, you want to play music, you need a ZonePlayer. Whatever model you choose, the Zone Player is where you hear the music from the Sonos system and can work with your current music setup or add to it.

How the ZonePlayers Stream Music

ZonePlayer receives the music it streams from your home network and/or the internet. This means that it must be connected to your home network router to access the music. If ZonePlayers simply connected to your wireless home network like any other network media player, this would be the end of the discussion. The Sonos system, however, works differently because the idea behind Sonos is that you can have a whole home system that works together rather than streaming solely to a single device. 

In order to create this whole home system, a Sonos device – a ZonePlayer or ZoneBridge – must be physically connected to your home network router to access the music.

That connected device then creates a separate Sonos network on which all of the Sonos ZonePlayers communicate. 

Choose a ZoneBridge or ZonePlayer As the Gateway to Stream Music

To create the Sonos wireless network, there must be a Sonos device physically connected to your home network router using an Ethernet cable. It can be either a ZonePlayer or a ZoneBridge. Whichever you choose, it becomes the gateway for all the other ZonePlayers to receive music.

The ZoneBridge does not play music; its sole purpose is to connect to your home network router and create the Sonos network. Why would you choose a ZoneBridge to create the network when you can use a ZonePlayer?

The ZoneBridge is less expensive than a ZonePlayer.  If you don't want to hear music in the area where your router is located – if it's in a hallway or room you don't use – you can choose to connect a ZoneBridge to the router, and place ZonePlayers in rooms where you want to listen to music. 

Conversely, if your router is in a room where you want music – a den, office, bedroom, living room – you can connect any ZonePlayer model to your router.  The ZonePlayer acts as the gateway and creates the Sonos network in the same way a ZoneBridge does. 

The Sonos Network - Each ZonePlayer Is a Signal Repeater

While any other network media player or media streamer will stream music using your home network, Sonos creates a separate network. The advantage of a separate network is that it won't interfere with or slow down internet access or other streaming media to network TVs, computers or other devices around your home. This is because the wireless signal to ZonePlayers is on a different channel than your home network's wifi. The Sonos network is set up up the channel automatically but can be changed if there is interference.

Each ZonePlayer in the Sonos network repeats the signal it receives from the router-connected gateway ZonePlayer or ZoneBridge. This is commonly referred to as an "access point" – a device that can receive a signal from a wireless router and amplify it to make it easier for other devices to connect to the router. In essence, ZonePlayers are access points for other ZonePlayers.

Sonos calls this a "mesh network".  

The benefit of this type of network is that each ZonePlayer needs to only be close enough to another ZonePlayer to receive a signal. In situations where a ZonePlayer is far from the router – large homes, a ZonePlayer placed in a garage or outdoors – it can stream music if there is another ZonePlayer nearby that can get the signal from the router-based ZoneBridge. In a large home, you could have the router-based ZoneBridge at one end of your home, a ZonePlayer close by in a bedroom, another in the den down the hall, then one in the kitchen near the ZonePlayer in the garage. Each ZonePlayer gets the signal from the closest ZonePlayer.

This interconnectivity of the Sonos mesh network ensures that all ZonePlayers stream music in perfect sync. This is important when playing the same music on more than one ZonePlayer. 

Controlling the Sonos ZonePlayers

Other than volume buttons and a mute button, there are no control buttons on ZonePlayers. ZonePlayers are wholly controlled remotely. But the control options are plentiful.

Sonos can be controlled by a program on a computer, an app on iPad or iPod or iPhone, an app on Android phones and tablets, or by using the optional Sonos controller. The controllers let you pick the music playing and where you want to play it. Using the controllers, you can stream music from Rhapsody or Pandora onto a ZonePlayer in your living room, at the same time you are playing music from your computer on your bedroom ZonePlayer.

To set up the Sonos system, or to add ZonePlayers, simply pair the controller with a ZonePlayer or ZoneBridge by pressing the add button on the controller (or controller app), then pressing a combination of buttons on the Sonos device. Voilà! The Sonos network has been set up.

While you can instantly start playing music on any single ZonePlayer, the controller makes it easy to group any combination of ZonePlayers together to simultaneously play the same music on more than one ZonePlayer. Play music from Napster in the kitchen and your office upstairs while you play lullabies in the nursery.

Use the controllers to set up alarms and timers to play music on any of your ZonePlayers. The bedroom ZonePlayer can wake you to music in the morning, and the ZonePlayer in the kitchen can play internet radio every day when you get ready for work.

Any ZonePlayer can be controlled from anywhere in your house. If you carry aniPhone with you that has the Sonos controller app, you can play music on any of the ZonePlayers at any time. This means you can mess with your family by playing music wherever they are hanging out. Each iPhone or iPad can have the Sonos controller app, so each member of the household can control any ZonePlayer.

If you prefer a dedicated remote control, Sonos sells a color touchscreen remote control – the Controller 200. This rechargeable controller is about the size of an iPhone and has a menu system that may be easier to use for technologically-challenged members of your household.

Create Queues With Music From Your Music Library Combined With Online Streaming Music

Sonos can stream music from your iTunes libraries, from your Windows media player, or from NAS drives.

The Sonos system can also access a number of online music streaming and cloud services so you don't have to buy and download music that you like. These include Rhapsody and Napster for unlimited on-demand music; RdioSirius XM, and other internet radio stations; SlackerLast.fm and Pandora for radio stations based on songs or artists you like.

You can create a music queue by adding music, then save the queues as a playlist to play again later. What's particularly exciting with Sonos is that you can create music queues that combine your own libraries of songs with songs from online services. Create a party list with songs you own, add recent albums from Rhapsody, and play them all together for your guests.

Sonos Products and Possible Configurations

While you can use a player in just one room, as mentioned, the magic happens when you are creating a whole-home music experience by combining ZonePlayers and a ZoneBridge to suit the music systems you already have at home.

Sonos Products include:

  • ZonePlayer 120 – Amplified player (Compare Prices). This player connects to speakers directly and does not require connection to a stereo.
  • ZonePlayer 90 – Connects to stereo (Compare Prices). This player plays as a source on your stereo. The stereo receiver must be powered on to play through it.
  • ZonePlayer S5 (Compare Prices). These ZonePlayers have built-in speakers and are easy to carry around the house, so you can play music in whatever room you are in. They can also be paired up to create a stereo in a room.
  • ZoneBridge BR100 (Compare Prices). The ZoneBridge can connect to your router and creates the Sonos network for your ZonePlayers.
  • Controller 200 (Compare Prices). The controller has dedicated buttons and an easy-to-use menu system. Still, there iPhone and Android Sonos apps work just as well.

Here are some ideas of how you can configure your Sonos system.

  • Connect the ZonePlayer 90 to your AV receiver. Set up your Sonos this way if you want to stream music to your high-quality sound system. This set-up requires the AV receiver to be powered on to play from the Sonos system. In contrast, the S120  –  which connects to speakers – is always ready, so you can just choose music on your controller and hear it without having to physically go to the ZonePlayer and turn it on.
  • Connect a CD, DVD or Blu-ray player or another music player to a ZonePlayer using the headphone jack (line-in) and share the music with ZonePlayers in other rooms.
  • Connect a ZonePlayer to an Apple Airport Express and use AirPlay to stream music to the ZonePlayer from your iPhone, iPad, iPod or from iTunes on your computer. This lets you play music from iTunes playlists and Genius mixes.
  • Carry the ZonePlayer S5 around the house so you have music whenever you want it.

Final Words

Sonos' unique system makes it possible to set up multi-room music in the way that works best for you. While it is not the cheapest whole-home audio option, it is rich in features, and it can stream from a number of online music services. Plus, you can start with just one portable ZonePlayer and a ZoneBridge and add more rooms as your budget allows.

For an additional perspective on the Sonos system, check out the review posted at About.com Stereos.