Sonos vs. Apple AirTunes – Using iPhone remote apps

13 07 2009

I have been interested in creating a living room music-on-demand setup for our home for quite some time. One of my colleagues has been preaching to me that Sonos is the answer for a year or so now – but I’ve never really considered it because of it’s high cost of entry (~$999+). Recently, Sonos released a free iPhone/iPod touch remote control application. This allows a significantly less expensive entry cost, as now you only need to purchase a single Sonos ZonePlayer to get started… but I still felt that it was a be expensive (~$350)… especially when you compare it to using the AirTunes capability of the Apple AirPort express (~$99).

This past weekend he was kind enough to allow me to test out one of his Sonos ZonePlayers. The loan unit I had was a ZonePlayer ZP80, which is no longer being sold, but has been replaced with the ZP90 which now supports 802.11N. Neither the ZP80 nor ZP90 have internal amplifiers, so if you don’t have an amplifier you would need to consider the ZP120 (~$499).

So here are my brief thoughts and comments regarding the differences, pros and cons of the two solutions, and I’ll assume you already have the following (or workable equivalents):

  • Mac, or PC with Windows (I used Windows 7 RC1)
  • 802.11G/N wireless network
  • Amplifier with speakers.
  • iPhone (iPod touch will do the job too)

Apple AirTunes

What you’ll need:

Setup is rather simple, just need to ‘authorize’ the iPhone remote app to connect to our iTunes library.


  • Much less expensive. Only need to get an Apple AirPort express (~$99 for the 802.11N version)
  • Plays Apple DRM tracks.
  • iTunes DJ – this can be great for when friends come over.


  • Need to keep iTunes client open at all times. This can be a pain.
  • Does not “remember” what you were you were listening too between PC reboots/iTunes restarts. I found this more annoying that I thought I would.
  • No multi-room support. This doesn’t bother me much, my apartment is too small anyway.
  • Does not support many audio formats. My collection is all MP3, so… no biggie.
  • Does not provide access to some of the more popular audio streaming services, such as Rhapsody, Napster, SIRIUS, Pandora etc.


What you’ll need:


  • Better remote control app than the Apple one. A bunch of little features that make it better than the Apple one:
    >See the next track coming in the ‘Now Playing’ screen.
    >Great on-the-go queue (playlist) management.
    >When you choose a track you get the option of “Play now”, “Play next”, “Add to Queue”, “Replace current queue”.
  • No need to any client applications open, you just need the PC on to allow access to the Windows file share.
  • Remembers were you were. This I really liked… even though my PC had been off, once it is back on, the ZonePlayer will start were it left off (even mid-track)
  • Multi-room support, provided you have purchased additional ZonePlayers.
  • Better audio format support (Ogg Vorbis, FLAC, WMA, AAC, MP3, Apple Lossless, and Audible formats)
  • Access to Rhapsody, Napster, SIRIUS, Pandora,, and most terrestrial radio stations. I did not test this as most of these services are US centric – plus my broadband connection sucks for streaming content.


  • Expensive. $350 for the ZP90 (replacement for ZP80).
  • Does not support Apple DRM tracks.


I definitely enjoyed the experience of the Sonos solution more. There are many small, often unquantifiable, nuances that make it a more complete and enjoyable experience. The Apple AirTunes solution I described is workable, but not perfect.

If money was no object, then Sonos all the way, but unfortunately money is a big consideration. For now I’m going to hold onto these facts I’ve learnt – then see if I can convience myself to take the dive.




13 responses

14 07 2009

Nice read… if we all just had money 😉

4 08 2009

Pretty cool post. I just came by your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your posts.

Any way I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon!

16 11 2009

Let us know how you get on.

Note that AirTunes does in fact support multi-room synced music: I have clients in my lounge and kitchen and it works very well. You just have to buy another Airport express, plug it in and run a cable to the second amp. iTunes recognises it automatically and does the rest of the set up, including turning on the speaker selection options on the iPhone control app. Also the various queuing options you mention do workin Airtunes via the iPhone remote (thru iTunes DJ)

I take your point that lots of little advantages may make the Sonos a better package (and i have never used a Sonos so can’t comment) – but the AirTunes alternative has a zero marginal cost if you already own the computer, iTunes, Airport Express (for wi-fi), and an iPhone/iPod Touch. So is hard to imagine there are enough small improvements to justify the outlay (and hassle of maintaining yet another piece of equipment)…

17 11 2009

Thanks for your comment Oliver – you may be interested in the follow-up post I did at my new blog location

6 01 2010

Someone else noted that Remote has multi-room support. Another trick is to create an iTunes playlist with all your favorite internet radio stations. There are literally thousands to choose from within iTunes. Once you create that playlist, they are accessible and can be streamed through your Aiport Express connected stereo. But I agree that a big issue is lack of access to Pandora, Rhapsody, Slacker Radio, Last.FM, etc. I can’t see Apple approving an Airtunes App that would fully enable the iPhone and iPod Touch to stream content directly, because the logic of buying music on iTunes (or even using iTunes) disappears.

10 11 2010

…they did with iOS4 😉

13 02 2010

I have been using the airport express and itunes since christmas and its awesome. you can not complain being able to have multi-room synced music for £70. Also there is an app for you iphone so you can control the tracks on it from there now.
I use itunes heavily so the solution works fine for me. Get your playlists sorted.
I think you can have up to 10 of them. I am only using 1 right now, but may get another soon for another room.

30 06 2010
Steve Hoge

Another, though perhaps Mac-specific, approach to multi-room support – which I define as the ability to run different audio streams to different rooms simultaneously – starts by creating a user account for each stream you’d like to run. (User accounts can be pretty lightweight in the MacOS and are easy to create or destroy.)

Then log into each account, start up iTunes, select one or your Airtunes units as the remote speaker and leave it running. Switching to the next user (don’t log out) won’t interrupt iTune’s connection to that Airtunes unit.

Each running copy of iTunes is set up to access a common iTunes library (either by file sharing or iTunes Music Library sharing) and can independently select which AirTunes unit it is streaming to.

Now with the Remote app you can control what each instance of iTune is playing and which Airtunes it is sending to. The only drawback is having to log into different accounts with the Remote app if you go into different rooms.

27 08 2010
Scott casper

Great post. I’ve been mulling just this topic over for 2 years now, and my air tunes is arriving today. I just couldn’t justify the high cost of sonos, and like Oliver says, maintaining yet another piece of equipment. If only I could stream Sirius through AirTunes I would be so happy! You can’t beat the price, and until I buy another, it’s very easy to move to my different speaker /amp locations. Just as easy as moving an iPod to this places like I used to, only now I have a remote in my phone, and access to my entire library. And maybe apple will update remote to have “next song” and such conveniences also. Peace!

31 08 2010
Steve Hoge

You can stream Sirius from your Mac browser (or any other audio-producing application) using AirFoil, from Rogue Amoeba ( This extension can hijack any audio from your Mac, including System Sounds, and send it to an AirTunes unit.

19 10 2010

It works.
I’ll save and wait for buy the Sonos.

31 10 2010

The much better sound quality should have been mentioned. This is the main justification for the extra costs

26 03 2011

I can’t believe that nobody’s discussed multiple IE’s set up as a WDS here, this is exactly why Apple added WDS to Airtunes. And if you already have audio systems around, AE’s are the cheapest way to go. The sound quality will depend on your amplifier & speakers.

WDS is mentioned in db’s new website as pointed to above (17-11-2009), but not on this page. To learn more, just launch AirPort Utilty, Help, then enter WDS in the search box.

I’ve had music all over the house for years. I found a practical limit of 3 rooms, but that was before 802.11n, which I haven’t tested (3 is enough for me).



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