SONOS Home Theater review!

Sonos has been making great iPhone- and iPad-controlled smart, connected speakers for years. Recently they've moved into the home theater space as well. Now, not only can you get all your audio anywhere in your house, but you can get up to 5.1 surround sound in your living room. Easily. But how does is work with iOS 7 and Apple TV, and more importantly, how well?

While I've been aware of Sonos for a long time, it wasn't until recently that I became really interested in it. That's mainly because Kevin Michaluk wouldn't shut up about it. Kevin loved that Sonos integrated with the services he already used, like Songza on the 'net and his iTunes library on his Mac. Not only that, he said Songza provided a better experience through Sonos than it did through its own web site or app. He also loved that his fiancee could easily use the Sonos app to control all the music in their house. Being able to scale from super geek to regular person and back was the killer feature for Kevin. But for me, someone who rarely listens to music, it wasn't that enticing. The home theater was.

Yes, Sonos is expensive. Actually, audio gear in general is expensive. You can spend millions of dollars on it if you have the funds and the will. Sonos is fairly priced for what it delivers, but it's not budget priced, and for a lot of people, that'll be a deal breaker. I'm going through a phase of buying less, but buying better. So, I'm looking at value rather than cost. I'm also willing to buy one element at a time, and space them out. That approach might not suit everyone, but it's currently suiting me.

If you already have a traditional speaker system you want to keep in place, there's a Sonos Connect and Sonos Connect:AMP that let you add the smarts in anyway. I wanted to go all in on the future, however, so I removed my existing system and started over with the Playbar. That's the centerpiece.

Sound bars have been slowly replacing traditional "home theaters in a box" for years now. Their convenience level has always been high enough, and they've gotten good enough now, that sticking them below a TV is simply more attractive for a mainstream customer than fiddling with a multiple component setup. Since both sound bar-based home theaters and Sonos systems are designed to be simple to set up and easy to expandable, it really is a match made in geek heaven.

The Playbar has 6 mid-woofers to cover the low frequencies and 3 tweeters to cover the high, all driven by 9 class-D amplifiers. The left and right tweeters are angled out to project sound as widely as possible.More importantly, it's a "smart" component. According to Sonos, the Playbar makes 24 million calculations per second, adding, subtracting, equalizing, and otherwise intelligently adjusting each element to keep the system in balance.

If you already have a Sonos Bridge in your home, or your network — like mine — is next to your TV, you can start with just the Playbar. Mount it on the wall if that's where your TV is, or place it on the stand if not. Plug it into your router over ethernet and your TV over optical audio, and you're good to go. (If your router is elsewhere, however, you will need a Sonos Bridge as well to get it on the network since at least one component has to be on a hardline to the internet.)

Now, that's two wires in what a lot of people say is a "wireless" setup, but neither of them are speaker wires. As someone with a large, open, octagonal living room, plugging one component into ethernet and the TV, and all the others into power alone, especially given all the additional benefits that come with powered, smart speakers, is a huge plus. I have power plugs everywhere. I have to run speaker cable. (Some wireless speakers from other vendors are re-chargeable but the idea of a low battery warning on my home theater gives me the wiggins.)

Plugging right into the TV also eliminates the need for a separate amp, though it has advantages and disadvantages. On the negative side, it means your TV needs to have enough HDMI ports to support all your video gear. Since I cut the cord years ago, I have no cable or satellite box to worry about, and since I'm not much of a gamer anymore, I have no consoles, new or old, to plug in. That just leaves my main video source, an Apple TV and my occasional source, a Blu-Ray player, and my TV can fit both just fine. (If I had more I might have to explore a separate HDMI switch.) Also, while the Sonos system supports Dolby Digital 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1, and PCM, it doesn't support 7.1, DTS, or other technologies an independent amp might.

However, the direct connection also removes a point of complexity from the chain. My previous Pioneer amp would continuously, maddeningly spit out HDCP (High Definition Copy Protection) errors that prevented me from watching the content I'd paid to watch. (Thanks Hollywood!) I've yet to have a single one of those with this new, simpler setup.

Once the Playbar is plugged in, your download the Sonos app to your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, and that's where the magic starts. The Sonos app will not only take you through setup step-by-step, but once you tell it what kind of TV you have, it'll even tell you how to disable the internal speakers so there's no conflict. What's more, if there are software updates available for the speaker — yes, updates for the speaker! — the app will download and install the for you.

By itself, the Playbar handles HiFi stereo and sounds good. When you start expanding the setup, however, it sounds great. That's where the new Play:1 and the older Play:3 speakers come in. Independently, they're excellent ways to bring music to any room in your house, paired together, and with the Playbar, and they become something more — surround sound.

The Play:1 is less expensive and less powerful, the Play:3 more expensive but better able to fill a larger room. Both work brilliantly. The Play:1 has a custom-designed 3.5-inch woofer and tweeter, each with a dedicated amplifier. The Play:3 has a bass radiator, two mid-range drivers, and a tweeter, and again, dedicated amplifiers for each. Since my living room is large, I went with the Play:3.

To bring the surround speakers into the system, you simply fire up the Sonos app again, detect the additional components, give a rough estimate of their distance as close or far from the primary listening location, and you're immediately good to go.

If you want to take things a step further and go full-on 5.1 surround, you can add a Sonos Sub as well. The Sub has two force-cancelling speakers and two class-D amplifiers, and that's more than enough to send Kaiju/Jaeger-sized tremors across your floor and up your spine. Again, just plug it in, launch the Sonos app, and it gets added to the setup.

Once your fully setup, everything is controllable via your iPhone, iPod touch, and/or iPad. You can do all sorts of useful things, like toggle Night Sound Mode which lets you keep watching while your neighbors keep sleeping, and Speech Enhancement, which lets you hear what the actors are saying even often the often onerously loud soundtracks.

You can also increase or decrease the power of the surround speakers, the sub, introduce an audio delay if necessary, and, of course, manage any music services you might be using with it.

Unfortunately, Sonos doesn't support AirPlay. I have an Apple TV as part of my home theater setup, so it's not a problem for me. If you don't, however, you need to get an AirPort Express and hook it into one of the speakers, which is silly. Sonos needs to get the AirPlay deal done and now.

Also, while the Sonos apps have been updated for compatibility with iOS 7, cosmetically they're still very much iOS 5/6 apps. Since it's been 7 months since the beta, and 4 months since the release, that's stupefying. Design isn't about eye candy, it's about usability. Hopefully that update comes soon.

Overall, I'm extremely happy with the Sonos home theater. From iTunes movies and TV to Netflix to network TV apps beamed over Wi-Fi, everything works well and sounds great. I can't say it sounds better than my previous, wired, Pioneer 7.1 surround system, but it sounds good enough, and is so much more powerful, that the end result is absolutely better.

Now I know what Kevin couldn't shut up about, because I can't shut up about it either. Sonos is amazing. It's simply the best way to get smart sound not only into your home, but into your home theater.

Highly recommended.

Have something to say about this story? Share your comments below! Need help with something else? Submit your question!

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, Vector, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

SONOS Home Theater review!

22 Comments

Hehehe... Finally!!!

Seriously though, Sonos does rock. So reliable, so easy to setup and use. I just love it. Thanks to Sonos I listened to more music in 2013 than a I probably did in the last 15 years.

I'm still mulling over Sonos or Airplay. Sonos is the sensible choice but Airplay offers a lot as well

Sent from the iMore App

I've been intrigued by this type of Sonos setup. Does your TV pass 5.1 from HDMI inputs to optical? From what I've been reading it seems that TVs that do that are rare. Wondering if it's a big deal if it doesn't.

Very much depends on manufacturer. I believe all Sony and Samsung TVs have been able to do this for at least a couple years now. I have the full 5.1 Sonos setup, as well. My only complaint is the lack of DTS support for Blurays. Of course, the TV doesn't pass DTS, so would require an extra switch anyway to get the DTS signal to the Playbar. I guess my beef is more with the BluRay creators. Wish we had the option of a Dolby Digital 5.1 track in English. Always forced into DTS-HD or Dolby TrueHD. All streaming content and DirecTV content is DD5.1 though.

Sonos has a similar halo effect to Apple. Started with a Playbar after being disappointed by the sound from several others. Once my wife and I discovered the app and the music control, we added a sub, two Play:1 surrounds, and a Play:5 for the bedroom. It also pushed us to subscribe to Spotify Premium. We listen to music on the system more than we watch TV, now. Love the Sonos system.

Sonos looks like a convenient and expandable system.
Does it require me to use their app when I want to play audio over the system?
I can't just play audio from within the Music / YouTube / Skyradio app to play stuff on Sonos?

And I'd love to have wireless speakers in my office.
How's Sonos Mac compatibility? Did you get a chance to test that? It looks like there's a Mac app too.

You have to use the Sonos app to play stuff.
The alternative would be AirPlay, but for that you need an Apple Airport Express and a Play:5 or Connect.

Mac compatibility is good, the Mac app works great.

Thanks for that info Shukuyen!
As long as the use of the Sonos app is required and Airplay is not supported by the Sonos hardware itself, I don't think it's a solution I'd be very happy with.

I started with a Play:3 and Bridge, extended that with a Play:5 for the next room and now got another Play:3 to combine it with the first one into a stereo pair. If you start with getting Sonos components you will want to get more.

That said I was a little disappointed by the sound of the Play:5. I had a Logitech Squeezebox Boom before and that sounded a lot better to me, even though it cost way less. What makes Sonos great is the whole system how you can couple the speakers together and how audio plays seamlessly over different rooms.

That brings some problems with it, the most annoying Rene already mentioned in the review: The lack of proper AirPlay support. I would need to get an AirPort Express and a Connect in order to get AirPlay support, that are some hundred Euros. But waiting for Sonos to provide an AirPlay extension for the Bridge (which I would gladly buy for 50-80€) will be in vain ... from what I read on the Sonos forums they are no fans of AirPlay. The thing is I would really like to use the native Spotify app or the podcast client on my iPhone where all my subscriptions are downloaded.

Hey Rene-

Like you I cut the cable and just have apple tv and a bluray player. I've got a 5.1 surround sound system with a fairly new av receiver, but try as I might, dialogue is still just really tough to hear despite tweeking the settings. Can you tell any difference in the Sonos vs. your old surround in that regard? Thanks!

It's funny, I agree with everything Rene says in his review but I believe you're missing some of the key problems with Sonos.

First let me say a few things:
1. It's brilliant, great quality stuff
2. It's so easy to setup, anyone can do it
3. Support is fantastic

I agree with the comments about Airplay. How lacking Airplay and being unable to use non-Sonos apps to play music is inconvenient. You must understand that the quality of Sonos makes you forget that. It's so easy to setup multiple zones, play music everyone at once, or in different places at different times. They even have hardware mute buttons, so if you go into a room to take a phone call, you can easily shut the music (great for when you work at home). Airplay as a streaming protocol never quite worked for me. Even with an AppleTV, I still can't "just stream videos". And, if I tried to play music through an Airplay device, more of then than not I'd have to reboot both phone and speaker to connect, and even then the connection would almost always drop. Horrible, horrible experience.

Unfortunately, Sonos software - which you hint at the tip of the iceberg with a lack of update for iOS 7 - is horrific. It's not just about lack of iOS 7 support.

You can't search for music in your library. You have to know which album/artist/song you want and then drill into it (think DOS menu system).

You can't just look at music available. I have two laptops each with a music library. If my wife tries to play something on my laptop when I'm not home it doesn't play. Of course not, right? But why show my wife what she can't play? And, if there are duplicates in our libraries, why play double when they're both available?

And, at least on the Mac, if you download a new album, you have to manually refresh the music library so the album is found. Or, wait until the overnight refresh happens.

And, the display of music on the phone as it's playing uses the screen horribly - it's not intuitive to find out how long a song is, or see the full name if it's long. Though, there's plenty of empty space. (This is more than an iOS 7 issue - in my mind it speaks to their experience/care in developing their software.)

Adjusting the volume from your phone has to be done while the app is open. And, sometimes you can't use the volume buttons (this is a bug, but can't isolate it - sometimes you can use the buttons). When it works, using the volume buttons doesn't pop up the thoughtful multi-room volume panel the way adjusting on the screen does (it should).

Not all audio plays properly through my AppleTV to my Playbar. iRadio on the AppleTV won't play, neither did the movie I watched. But, when I airplay over videos from my phone to my AppleTV (sometimes - I think it only plays if I mirror my display via Airplay, but not stream via Airplay - or the opposite) that audio comes through fine.

I could go on. The products and setup are awesome, but software usability is lacking.

I've had other problems, but I can't be sure if they're just me or more systemic - I will say, that support is great both via email and telephone. And, friends who have the system tell me they've not had the same experiences as I have.

Let me leave on a VERY positive note though. One awesome and incredible benefit over Airplay is that an incoming call or trying to take a video doesn't stop the music playing. I have a baby, and I love taking videos of him. With Airplay, every time I opened the video camera, my Airplay music stopped. Horrible.

By the way, I would absolutely buy more Sonos speakers (right now I have the playbar and a play 5 speaker and bridge). What's holding me up is finding shelves to put the surround speakers on before I buy them.

I totally don't regret the purchase, nor will you.

PS I wish Sonos would buy Tivo and add video streaming to their boxes so I could get my Tivo box away from my TV and put it in the closet. If you want to regret a purchase, go buy a Tivo.

Great review. Confirm you can stream your itunes library from your macbook using the app on your iphone and you can also can control the music directly on your laptop. Secondly, can the playbar connect to my laptop (wifi or bluetooth) and play audio from videos I am streaming on netflix/downloaded from my laptop without my laptop being connected to my tv?