Wi-Fi Home Stereo Grudge Match:

Chromecast Audio Vs. Airplay Vs. Sonos

Post by Bill Ramsey

Our love of music is legendary—from Robben Ford to Amos Lee to Lake Street Dive to BØRNS.  We’ve even been known to listen to a little Tim McGraw, Wiz Khalifa, and Ziggy Marley from time to time.Unfortunately, we both have spent so much money buying gadgets that we cannot afford to wire our homes or offices for expensive whole-house audio systems like Russound, Niles or Nuvo.  Yes, we know, hard-wired systems are more reliable and provide the highest of audio quality.  But, we cannot afford to tear the walls out of our houses and completely rewire them for audio in every room.  Wireless audio systems are the perfect solutions for us.  Plus, as part of our gadget addiction, we can “play” with wireless audio using our smartphones.  For us, it’s the best of all possible audio worlds.

There are several wireless audio solutions on the market now, but we have narrowed our favorites down to three:  Sonos (the most expensive solution); AirPlay (an Apple-centric product); and Chromecast (Google’s solution).  All three systems have their pros and cons, so we put them to the test in a wireless audio grudge match.

SONOS.

Sonos has long been the leader in multi-room wireless speaker systems.  The Sonos system (like the Chromecast Audio and the AirPlay systems) connect to your home Wi-Fi system and the Internet.  You can play music from almost any available audio service, from iTunes, from Groove Music, from Amazon Music, and so on.  If you are creative, you can even use your turntable as an audio source for the Sonos system if you have a device called “Sonos CONNECT.”  You can play different music in different rooms or play the same music in all rooms together and still maintain independent, individualized volume controls in each room.  You control the music, the sources, and the volumes independently from an app on your smartphone, iPad or other tablet.  The Sonos solution is truly elegant.

But, there is a drawback.  It is expensive.  The Sonos CONNECT (the wireless receiver component) costs $350.00.  The Sonos CONNECT with a built-in amplifier costs $500.00.  If you use the CONNECT alone, you will have to buy an amplifier or use speakers with built-in amplifiers.  It just so happens that Sonos has its own line of amplified speakers.  There are three such speakers:  the PLAY:1 at $199.00, the PLAY:3 at $299.00, and the PLAY:5 at $499.00.  For larger rooms, you will need the PLAY:5.  By the way, those prices are for one speaker.  If you want stereo, you will have to buy two of each.  A subwoofer costs $699.00. Another option is the PLAYBAR which can be installed underneath an HD television, providing audio output for the TV as well as being controllable from the Sonos system.   Obviously, at these prices, putting speakers in every room of your house can become very expensive.  The Sonos system is rock solid, though, and you rarely will get skips or “hiccups” in your audio streams because of its proprietary networking software system.

Apple AirPlay.

AirPlay is a proprietary Apple software protocol.  The technology is supported on all Apple devices, from Apple computers to iPhones, and iPads to Apple TV.  In order to use the AirPlay system, you will need either an Apple TV or an AirPort Express device.  You will need one such device for each room.  You can buy either of these devices for approximately $100.00, or you may be able to buy refurbished ones for approximately $60.00.  There is also a limited number of AirPlay enabled speakers; however, those speakers cost the same as Sonos speakers or even more.  The best use of an AirPlay system is to use it with your existing stereo equipment.  You can connect the Apple TV device or the AirPort Express device to your stereo and stream music from any Apple device.

There are drawbacks, however.  The AirPlay system is only useable with Apple products unless you buy a third-party software “hack” that would allow you to use AirPlay with Windows or Android devices.  If you are using a Windows computer, however, you can download the Airtunes/AirPlay software and play music only from iTunes.  If you use AirPlay with an iPad or an iPhone, you can only stream music to one room at a time.  The multi-room capability is only available if you are using iTunes or a third-party hack, such as Airfoil from Rogue Amoeba (cost is approximately $30.00).  Thus, the AirPlay solution is certainly less expensive than the Sonos solution, but it is not nearly as versatile.  In addition, in certain homes or offices, you can experience “skips” while streaming music using AirPlay, but the system does support Lossless Audio.

Google Chromecast.

If you are like us, and you’ve spent all of your money on gadgets, you may want to look at the Chromecast Audio system.  The Chromecast Audio (not to be confused with Chromecast Video) is the cheapest solution by far.  The device costs $35.00.  You can connect one of these devices to your existing system or to powered speakers in each room and stream music from almost any iOS Android or Windows device.  You can group rooms together, or you can play music in each room separately, although not with as many options as are available on Sonos.

Google Chromecast offers high-resolution audio as well.  The drawback is that, unlike Sonos, it does not rely on a single app that simplifies the process.  Also, it is not as easy to choose speakers using Chromecast as it is using AirPlay.  Instead, Chromecast system is integrated into individual applications and browsers on your devices.  Some services (like iTunes) are still unavailable using the Chromecast Audio system.

The bottom line is that it is very inexpensive, but it is not a unified hardware and software solution.  On the other hand, Chromecast Audio is very simple to use and works very well with little or no “skipping” because the device itself connects directly to the Internet once you have chosen the source for it to use.  At $35.00 per room (plus the cost of a nice but inexpensive set of powered speakers or an existing stereo system), the Chromecast system is the system of choice for the poor and the cheapskates among us.

The Winner(s).

Now that the grudge match is over, we have to award the heavyweight championship to Sonos.  It is by far the best and most elegant of the systems—if you can afford it.  But, we will give the featherweight award to Chromecast.  AirPlay is really only a solution for those that are still addicted to, or restricted to, Apple products.

So, pick one of these systems and jam around your house to a little Electric Love by BØRNS.

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