Historically, I’ve not done music much. It’s all been about TV shows and films. Still is really, but I’m getting more into playing music in the house. Not sure why this is. It’s possibly because I’m in the house on my own. It could be because it’s nice to have some music blaring out while undertaking the Distant Worlds Expedition.
I’ve even, finally, actually subscribed to Spotify.
The natural outcome of all this is I started to realise I have a very fragmented and random set-up, if you can even call it that, for playing music. I can only play music in the ‘office’, via the PC multimedia speakers, and in the main room of the house as there is a sound bar and sub woofer.
That’s it. No ‘system’. No amplifiers. No speakers half the height of a man.
It Began With Cooking, Ironing and Spotify Connect
It began with the cooking and the ironing. It was the ironing first. I get it out of the way relatively quickly on Sunday morning. I watched the news at first and then transitioned to using Spotify Connect and bluetooth to play music through the sound bar. Great.
Then I got the slow cooker and I wanted music on while preparing stuff. I can use the living room sound bar but the problem is if I’m doing something that means I have to close the kitchen door it ruins that so I decided I wanted a speaker in the kitchen.
That is then a slippery slope, as the next step is wanting the music synchronised and playing multi-room throughout the house. That must be possible and not a big problem you think? Well, that depends.
The Multi-room Lark
It turns out playing multi-room audio is a bit of a minefield. You’ll get all sorts of advice, such as wiring the house up. There are solutions that say they do it but in a fragmented, limited or highly ‘walled garden’ sort of way. Then you get the ‘just buy Sonos’ crowd.
As an example, you can get Phillips speakers that support Spotify Connect and will play the audio to any other such speaker around the house. Fantastic. That is until you realise Spotify Connect is all the speaker supports so if you ever ditch Spotify your speakers are totally useless. You might as well throw them out. They don’t even have wired connections of any sort or general bluetooth.
If you ask people what you need to do obviously the names Sonos and Bose start getting thrown around, both because they have multi-room solutions, to different extents, and because they fall nicely into that if I want something buy the big, prestigious brand answer.
Sonos is the primary brand in this area.
The ‘Cool’ Walled Garden That Is Sonos
Sonos sounds really cool. That is until you scratch the surface. I’m sure it’s still cool after that, if what you find under the surface is still palatable. If you want multi-room audio Sonos is probably the plug and play answer. I could quite easily see how I could invest in speakers, press a few buttons, spin up the Sonos app and be sending music through the house all synchronised into zones and whatever else.
It would work. I even bought a Play:1 off Amazon to start my network in the kitchen. The trouble is I then started to feel restricted by it.
What would I do when I extended it? I could get another Play:1 for the main bedroom, possible two so have one either side of the bed. That’s another £300+. The irony is that’s not that bad, consider the front room? The sound bar and sub woofer I have in that room is useless to me so I’d need to buy more speakers, costing at least another £300+. I can get a device to add my systems in that room to Sonos? Quite true, but it’s £300+ as well so it saves me nothing. Finally you have the computer room, which is more speakers.
Then consider the app. Everything played into the Sonos network has to be played through the Sonos app. All those streaming services you can use you never actually use their app you used the Sonos app. This means you’re always behind on some of the functions those direct apps may implement and at the whim of Sonos to allow you to access them easily. You can’t even use your speakers at all without the Sonos app. No going bluetooth or connecting to them directly with your tablet to watch a film. They are the speaker equivalent of a gated community with security.
In short you’ve played a fortune to do one thing: play music through the Sonos application, under the rules of Sonos and the limits of Sonos. It sounds like Apple but worse and I don’t engage with that crap either.
As a result, I never even opened the Play:1 speaker and said Sayonara to Sonus before I even took my first steps.
Multi-Room On The Cheap
Say goodbye to multi-room then? Not at all, I now have multi-room, synchronised audio throughout the four main rooms of the house. I can choose to send audio to one of the rooms or any combination. I’ve done this for the price of two Play:1 Sonos speakers.
The secret to doing this is Chromecast Audio. You can connect these £30 devices to your wireless network on one side and whatever audio device you want on the other using a 3.5mm Jack or an optical connection. This means they’ll connect to any amplifier or set of active speakers you may already be using.
This has allowed me to re-use my computer speakers in the main bedroom, though I had to buy a new set for the PC and also to use my sound bar and sub woofer in the living room. I’ve then purchased two sets of Logitech Speakers and a new sound bar with an aesthetic that fits the profile of the kitchen. I never though of a sound bar as a solution for the kitchen, but it works, it’s all very low profile and it allows me to have a sub woofer that doens’t have to be near the bar.
It also means my devices can be used for other purposes. This allows me to plug my tablet into the speakers by the bed so I can watch Netflix, the Sonos speakers would be totally useless to me in this regard.
The Chromecast App
Like most of Google’s apps, it has a basic aesthetic. This can be both good and bad. It’s good in this case as the app just acts as a wapper, rather than a replacement. Sonos replaces the apps it supports which causes a lag in supported functions. The Chromecast app allows you to use your app of choice, say Spotify, completely natively but with the ability to select the output device as any of the devices or device groups set-up in the Chromecast app.
I’ve got all the devices individually and then groups for the lower floor, upper floor and a home group for all of them allowing me to play across the house in numerous ways. It’s simple, efficient and cost effective.
The Set-up Good Enough for Me
I realise I’ve not replaced Sonos exactly. Sonos does some things I’m aware of and others I’m not. As an example, I’m sure the Sonos software compared with all the Sonos speakers means the music is more synchronised, in the sense that it’s not just temporaly synchronised, but distributing similar settings in treble base and volume. I have to set these things individually.
You’ll need to do your due diligence on whether the Chromecast option works for your. As an example, I’m primarily focused on streaming services, I don’t have a large music collection myself. This means I don’t know what the limits are on the device when it comes to files physically on a local disk. You also need to control the system via your mobile phone, but this may be common across most alternative systems.
What I have done though is solve the same problem to a level that is satisfactory for me.
I suspect this is a case for a lot of people. It’s always the case when people buy into these sort of things. When people buy a camera they often buy too much camera. I fully believe when people look into this they buy too much sound system as well, going for Sonos and then only committing halfway. When speaking to people about this I uncounted a good handful of people who have a Sonos in the kitchen and the bedroom but are still disconnected anyway in computer rooms, main rooms, etc, where they have existing hardware. This means they’re not fully synchronised anyway for more than it cost me!
So, think before you just jump into the Sonos walled garden.