Since Sonos new marketing blitz, I have seen a lot of questions related to how Sonos compares to Apple's Airplay. For those that aren't aware, Sonos and Airplay have many similarities, but there a major differences between the two.
Sonos and Airplay are used for wireless/wired streaming in many different devices. For example, Sonos makes individual speakers, a sub, and a device that is simply for connecting to a separate DAC/receiver. All of the Sonos devices are made by Sonos. Airplay is a small part of the Apple ecosystem. Apple makes the Apple TV and the Airport Express that both receive an Airplay signal. They also license the use of Airplay to many different companies from inexpensive devices by Phillips to high end products by McIntosh.
Below I am going to list several features of each of these wireless streaming services and how the other compares (NOTE: Be aware that I strongly suggest buying either product from a vendor with a good return policy in case you have problems that you can't resolve):
1. Airplay can be used for video, photos, and for mirroring a computer screen with the AppleTV.
Sonos only works for audio.
2. Sonos sets up a separate "mesh" wifi signal (in late 2014, Sonos added an update to allow you to also use your regular network) that works outside of your main wifi setup. This can be beneficial if your wifi is a problem.
The Airport Express can bridge or expand your wifi network. It connects directly to your current network.
3. Sonos requires a $49 Bridge that connects to your router to setup a wifi network. (Note: This is no longer required unless you are using their surround system or want to continue using their mesh network)
The Airplay devices connect directly to your current network via wifi or a direct connection via ethernet.
4. Sonos has wireless individual speakers. These speakers need to be plugged in and they start at $199.
Airplay is available in individual speakers, too. Since it is available in many different products, you can find speakers in the $75 range. Unlike Sonos, many have batteries and can be portable. When outside of wifi, some of them have Aux (the cheapest Sonos Speaker with Aux input costs $399) and USB inputs that make them more versatile for a portable setup. The speakers with USB inputs can charge and play audio from devices like the iPad and iPhone.
5. Sonos has the ability to add another speaker and use them for stereo.
I am not aware of any Airplay speakers that have this ability. You can buy Airplay systems like the Phillips DS9800W that comes with stereo speakers. However, I would highly suggest getting an Airplay capable receiver and wired bookshelf speakers if you want to use Airplay in a stereo environment. Unlike Sonos, most bookshelf speakers actually publish their specs.
6. Sonos makes a Connect that will attach to your current system via analog or digital. It costs, $349 + $49 for the Bridge (the bridge is no longer needed) if you connect it via Sonos wifi.
Apple makes the Airport Express that connects to your current system via digital or analog. It also works on wifi or by direct ethernet connection. It costs less than $100. I should mention that I can put an Airport Express in 4 systems for the same price as the Connect + Bridge.
7. Sonos makes a wireless 5.1 system. The sound bar is $699, the sub is $699, if you use Play1s for your surrounds, they are $199 each + the $49 for the Bridge.
I am not aware of anyone making wireless 5.1 systems for Airplay (although there are so many Airplay devices that I could be wrong). You should be able to put together a wired setup that is cheaper and sounds better for less money, though. Also, there are devices available by Outlaw and others that will make any speakers wireless. However, I have never used a wireless solution, so I am not sure how well they work.
8. Sonos has an app for Android and iOS. These apps are designed to work with different services that have a Sonos plug in.
Airplay audio works with nearly every audio app on iOS. For example, if you currently want to stream iTunes Radio, Tidal, Overcast, JazzRadio, Downcast, or audio from most any other iOS app (including sending audio from video apps) to an Airport Express, you can do so with Airplay. In other words, there are a lot more apps that work with Airplay using an iOS device. (Note: Google play was added to Sonos after I initially wrote this article, so I decided to update this article. It should be noted that Spotify is adding a Connect service and Apple bought Beats music, so it is possible that Sonos will no longer work with these services in the future. It probably depends on whether these companies feel that it is cutting into their business. Currently, Apple doesn't seem to care that much, but who knows what their plans are now that they have Beats?)
Android has several apps that appear to work with Airplay. I don't own an Android device, so I can't comment on these services, but the AirAudio app professes to send Airplay audio from any Android app. If it works as they say, it also has more versatility than Sonos.
9. When using Sonos, most apps are streaming directly from the web despite being controlled by an iOS or Android device. This means you can leave the area with the device while Spotify (for example) is playing and it will continue to play.
When you Airplay from an iOS/Android device with a third party app like Spotify, you are streaming directly from the device, so if you leave the area, you lose the signal. Obviously, you can stream anything from a computer to iOS (directly with new Macs or indirectly using Airfoil from other computers), so, if you plan to leave and still want music to continue to play, you can do this directly from a computer. My preference is using a Mac Mini (see my Sonos vs Mini article) as a media server.
10. Sonos can send multiple streams to different Sonos devices from one app at the same time.
Airplay can't do this. You would need multiple devices to send multiple streams. While that is usually the case, I have a Synology NAS with Airplay built in that will send different streams from a music collection at the same time to separate Airplay devices. (Note: The WHAALE app has the ability to send multiple streams from iOS (soon to be an Android app, as well) with certain streaming sources. See my article on WHAALE here).
11. As I mentioned, there are many brands that have Airplay built in. I own a Denon receiver with Airplay. I can start Pandora, send an Airplay signal to my receiver, and the receiver will turn on and allow me to control the volume without a remote and without leaving the app.
Sonos is not built into receivers, so this is not possible. They do make a Sonos Connect:amp that will allow you to connect speakers, but it does't compete in a home theater with a receiver and real speakers. For one thing, there aren't any digital or video inputs.
12. As I mentioned, Airplay can be used for audio with almost any app. However, another major benefit by using it with an iOS device (Touch, iPhone, iPad) running iOS7 (or later) is the ability to control volume, skip or go back, and pause from the Control Center. This means you can be in Safari, Twitter, Facebook, etc.. and still control these features without leaving the app you are in. You can even control what is playing from the lock screen.
This is not possible with Sonos.
13. With newer Macs, you can send ANY audio to an Airplay device. There is also a $25 app called Airfoil (Mac & Windows) that will allow you to send audio from any program to any or all Airplay devices.
Sonos has an app for computers that allows you to use only the apps with Sonos plug-ins.
14. Airfoil also includes something called Airplay Speakers that will allow a computer to be setup as an Airplay receiver. This allows the computer to show up as an Airplay device and you can send audio to it. This is beneficial if you use a computer in your main audio setup. Airfoil Speakers is also available for Linux machines. Airplay Speakers can also be used on a computer to receive a signal from an iPhone and then send that signal to multiple airplay devices.
Sonos has nothing similar.
15. Audiovarna +, Pure Music, and other audio enhancing programs work with Airplay.
Sonos uses its own software.
16. The Sonos Connect is 2.91 x 5.35 x 5.51 inches (HWD).
The most current Airport Express is smaller in every dimension:
0.9 x 3.85 x 3.85 inches. The AppleTV is .9 x 3.9 x 3.9. This small size makes it easier to fit into tight spaces and desktop systems. Since Airplay is built into many devices, you may not even need to take up any extra space.
One thing that should be mentioned is that most people will be happy with adding an Apple TV to their home theater and using it for music, video and photos. However, it only sends out a 48khz signal, so most audiophiles will also want an Airport Express to play CD quality (16/44.1) bit perfect audio. The good news is that the price of both together is less than one Connect.
Upside to Sonos:
1. Complete Wireless Home Theater system
2. Possible "mesh" wifi network (no longer a requirement )
3. Ability to buy one speaker now and add a speaker later for stereo
4. Send different audio signals to different Sonos devices simultaneously
5. Direct streaming from the web with certain apps
Upside to Airplay:
1. Better integration with iOS
2. Works with a lot more apps
3. Built into many devices/receivers/speakers
4. Airport Express can expand your wifi network
5. A lot cheaper than Sonos
6. Better integration in computers (especially with Airfoil and Airfoil Speakers)
7. Portability of certain battery operated speakers
It should be mentioned that most of the upsides of Sonos can be eliminated within the price differential of the two systems and be more useful in the long run. For example, the wireless Sonos sub is $699 and only works with other Sonos speakers. For $674, you could buy an Outlaw LFM-1 Plus/OAW3 Wireless Audio Combo. This would be less expensive and work with any audio setup now and in the future, unlike the Sonos.
If your wifi has tons of traffic, the Sonos mesh system might seem to make sense. However, in most homes the Home Plug (power line ethernet) solution should be better and cost less money. For example, for $59, you could add a TP_Link Gigabit adapter kit to get ethernet over your power lines (Typically, according to the linked FAQ, the line must be inside 5000 Square Feet). The upside is that you would be able to connect it to a $99 Airport Express to extend your wifi network, which would benefit all of your wireless products that you use in that area of your home. The new Home Plug solutions work with up to 64 units, but the FAQ recommends 16 as the max.
If you desire simultaneous streaming to different setups at the same time, for less than one Connect ($349), you could buy an iPod Touch for each setup for $224 and add an Airport Express ($95) device and still have money left over. Personally, I think the need for different music playing in different setups being controlled by one iOS or Android device would be a very rare need. It would be much more feasible that these separate setups would be for listening to music by different users. Having a separate controller for each system seems like a much more practical way to manage separate devices.
Also, direct streaming from the web is similar to directly streaming from an iOS device. If you are worried that your family will be listening to music in your living room from your iPhone via Airplay and you suddenly have to leave, which would cause the music to stop playing, the answer is to buy an iPod Touch that you leave at home. This could be used as the main streaming device and you could leave with your iPhone without the music stopping. As I mentioned, the cost of an iPod Touch is $224 (cheaper if you buy last year's model or a refurb) and the price of an Airport Express is $95 (can also find refurb or last generation versions for a lot less money. I paid less than $60 from Amazon for a last gen version). It is still cheaper than the Connect by itself or combined with a Bridge. Personally, I would spend a few extra bucks and get an iPad mini 2 (now $249 for a refurb) for this type of setup, if I didn't already own an iPad.
The advantages of the numerous companies making Airplay devices can't be added to Sonos because it is a closed system. The only hope is that more audio apps will be supported in Sonos in the future.
For audiophiles, I think the Airplay devices offer more flexibility and a much more inexpensive way to accomplish similar tasks. Neither of them currently offer hi rez streaming, so they are on par for sound quality (assuming you use the Connect with the same DAC/receiver). When you start adding individual speakers, the Airplay speakers can offer more flexibility because they are in a lot more devices. If you want a speaker with a lot smaller footprint and battery powered portability, you can get a Phillips Fidelio SoundRing. If you want Airplay, but you also want hi rez streaming, you can buy a Pioneer A4 which has Airplay and DLNA built in. If you want a receiver, but don't want a device hooked to it, you can buy components from Pioneer, Onkyo, Sony, Marantz, Denon, Yamaha, McIntosh, etc, because they have models with Airplay built in.
While most articles on this subject prefer Sonos, I really think it is no contest and an easy win for Airplay when it comes to most features, cost, and flexibility.
NOTE: If you are a Sonos user and I missed something, please let me know. I am mainly working off of the information on Sonos' webpage, so it is possible that I missed a feature.
NOTE: Please make sure you also check out my newer 2010 Mac Mini vs Sonos Connect article.
(edit - 3/22-14) I have had some comments and observations about this article. I will paraphrase some of the points below:
1. "Airport Express is more difficult to setup" - While I have never owned an Sonos device, I have setup 3 Airport Express (Update: I bought a 4th for less than $60) devices and they took less that ten minutes for the entire process...including launching Airport Utility on a computer (I only had Windows PCs when I got my first Airport Express and the process is even easier now) and setting it up to expand the network. Since the Airport Express uses your regular wifi network, if your network has issues, there is a possibility that it could take longer to setup.
*(important disclaimer below)
Some have said that Sonos is plug and play, but their support page shows that a lot of people have issues with the Sonos, too. There is a post on Amazon with someone that has had Sonos for 4 years and it continually had to be reset and after several calls to Sonos the issue still hasn't been resolved. As a result, I can't really say with certainly that Sonos has an advantage in this area.*(important disclaimer below)
2. "Airport Express requires a double jump, so I have read that drop outs can be frequent" - It isn't a requirement, but for an app like Pandora, you usually send it to your iOS or Android device and then back to the Airplay receiving device. However, I have seen very few drop outs in my setup. I actually use Airplay quite a bit for Lynda.com videos. Airplay can handle sending video from my network to my iPhone and back to my AppleTV without a problem, so it explains why (in my setup) audio is handled without any issues. Also, you can wire your Airport Express if you do have an issue. I have a couple articles (article 1, article 2) on using ethernet power line adapters. They work great and you can avoid ever using wifi for audio if you have a computer running an app like Rdio, Spotify, or iTunes. Also, Spotify will add Spotify Connect to the desktop and become another wired only option (currently, you can use the "Remoteless app" for controlling Spotify on a desktop with an iPhone).
* Note: I have since updated to the "TP-LINK Archer C5 AC1200 Dual Band Wireless AC Gigabit Router, 2.4GHz 300Mbps+5Ghz 867Mbps, 2 USB Ports, IPv6, Guest Network" which essentially doubled my speed across the network via the 5GHz band. Luckily, the new Airport Express will support these bands. The Sonos Connect is maxed out at 2.4Ghz so essentially, the double jump would result in the same speed range as a Sonos Connect).
*(important disclaimer below)
Sonos plays directly from the web, so you only need to worry about audio traveling one path. The only possible benefit is that you don't need a computer in the mix. However, I find that using a 2010 mini (see my offers many more options for my overall needs (runs Plex, XBMC, iTunes, Security Cameras, etc..) and only uses 10 watts of idle power. The Airport Express uses 2 watts of idle power. A Sonos Playbar, just for comparison purposes, is 13 watts and bridge is 4 watts of idle power.
*(important disclaimer below)
* I should mention that I can't say how either device will work in your home, so I have stayed away from this topic in my original article. You can find a lot of people that have had issues and success with both systems, so without real numbers, I can't say which is better. My suggestion is that you buy these devices from vendors that have a good return policy in case you have issues.
While I am on the subject of issues, I also want to mention that the Airport Express can have issues with dropouts between songs that clip off the beginning of songs with certain DACs. I have used Airport Express units with 5 different DACs and I have never had an issue, so I am not sure how common the issue is. As with the above, I would buy (at least the first one) from a reliable source that has a good return policy. With anything tech, it is best to have some time with the product to determine if it will work with your environment.
3. The AppleTV has a feature that will allow you to send the audio to any other Airplay receiver. This is convenient if you have a headphone setup with an Airport Express near the area you watch AppleTV. I have an Airport Express headphone setup next to my bed, so I can lay in bed and watch AppleTV without disturbing anyone.
Sonos doesn't have a similar feature.
4. Some have pointed out that it is convenient to have all of the apps built into one remote app like you have with Sonos. This makes it easy to setup playlists and go in between several different services without needing to open several apps to do the same thing.
While this may be a benefit to some, you lose features from many different apps by going with the Sonos only app. I am a subscriber to MOG (unfortunately, they go out of business in less than a month, but I am using this as an example) and their most unique feature compared to other music streaming services is the radio slider built into their app. It allows you to start with the slider all the way to the left for shuffling music by one artist. As you push the slider to the right, you add more similar artists. You lose this feature by using a Sonos. From what I have read, you also lose functionality for other apps like Spotify. When it comes down to it, I would rather use the app designed by the music service since it is built to make the most of their service rather than using a "catch all" app designed by Sonos.
The other benefit of using the app designed by the actual music steaming company is that you probably use that app when you are away from home via your cellphone. I can listen to MOG in my car via bluetooth audio and walk in the house and flip up the Airplay controller and switch the audio to an Airplay device without leaving the app. It works the other way around, too. When I am listening to audio in the morning on Airplay devices, I can leave the house and switch to bluetooth audio in my car without missing a beat. Not possible with Sonos.
I will let people decide for themselves which approach they prefer, but I much prefer using apps that aren't crippled in exchange for integration between apps in a Sonos remote setup.
5. "My Sonos allows me to use a USB hard drive attached to my router without needing a computer/NAS and it will catalog those songs into its system" - There are a lot limitations to the routers that this works with, so you may also need to add the price of a new supported router to the price of the Sonos system if you want to go this route.
Airplay works with most apps in the iOS ecosystem. While I use a NAS and/or a mac mini in my setups, I did a five minute search and found a $5.99 app called FileBrowser that works on iPhones/iPads (there are probably other apps that are similar, but this is the first one I ran across). It will actually find any drive hanging off your network. I have my music in folders arranged by artist/albums/songs and it is connected to an older Airport Extreme router. It will allow you to open the folder with the songs and play the music and it works with Airplay. It won't catalog the songs, so it is still limited in comparison to Sonos and an approved router, but it works fine if your goal is to play music. I also want to mention that this app also works with supported video formats, so you can Airplay video to an AppleTV without using a computer. I was surprised that it also works with DD5.1 soundtracks.
Rather than using the FileBrowser (although I recommend this app and plan to review it in the future), I would suggest loading your music up to Google Play (free for 20,000 songs), iTunes Match ($25 a year with a 25,000 song limit), or Amazon's service (that I have not tried). The downside to these services is that they don't use lossless Codecs. However, the Codecs are fine for most people if the popularity of the lossy Codecs used by iTunes, Amazon, Spotify and Pandora are any indication of what is acceptable to most people.
The upside is that by allowing these services to scan your library, you will get a cloud backup of your library in the formats that these services use (the last time I checked Google was using 320kbps mp3s and Apple was using 256k AAC files). This will be an upgrade for some and a downgrade for those using lossless. However, I think for the typical person the upside of having a cloud backup that is available anywhere via their cell phone outweighs the possible downside of using a 256k file. I personally prefer listening to my own music at home in lossless, because I know nothing is missing, but I don't usually buy lossy music, so I know I am outlier.
The other upside is that iTunes Match is integrated right into the AppleTV's GUI and Siri on the iPhone/iPad (which means you can just tell Siri what you want it to play without even looking at a screen). If someone is using AppleTV, I would recommend iTunes Match. For those using Chromecast, I would suggest using Google Play. I have my music on both services because I tried Google's music service and loaded my files up to their service at the time. While I didn't subscribe to Google Play, my music is still available in their app.
Since Sonos doesn't work with either of these services (Note: They finally added Google Play after I wrote this article... nearly a year after it was available on everything else), I would call that a downside. I would suspect that Google Play is integrated nicely into Android phones, but people will need to research that for themselves since I don't own any Android devices.
Another option is a hard drive that connects to your system via ethernet. The Seagate Central that currently starts at $129 for a 2 terabyte drive. It has an Android and iOS app that gives you remote access and the ability to stream audio via Airplay in lossless formats. It also does the cataloging of your music. I prefer a Synology NAS (that start at $149 for a one slot diskless platform) and their fantastic DS Audio app, but it can cost more. However, I would prefer any of these to buying and setting up a new router.
6. "I am ignorant of Airplay and I refuse to buy Apple products, but Sonos makes the best product on the market" - Ummmm... Then buy a Sonos! It doesn't hurt my feelings. I don't work for Apple. These are just my observations after researching both products. Sonos spends a lot of money on marketing their solution and Apple spends next to nothing on Airplay. As a result, a typical consumer may have no idea that there is another, much cheaper, device that does very similar things (some better, some worse). This article was to help those people understand the differences. It isn't to convert Apple haters that want to stay ignorant about Airplay.
7. It has been brought to my attention that this article seems to be biased toward Airplay. Well, Airplay simply does more (video/photos), is compatible with more devices (Denon, Sony, McIntosh, Phillips, etc..) and apps (currently Downcast, iTunes Match, iTunes Music, YouTube, etc..), and usually costs less.
It is hard not to sound biased. Even Sonos knows this or they wouldn't have a web page promoting the benefits of Airplay ( of course, you have to read the small print to realize that you need an Airport Express to make it work):