Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the lights on at MakeUseOf. Read more.
Do you remember when you had to use an auxiliary audio cable to connect your iPod or laptop to a Hi-Fi? Well, those days are long gone. Today, it’s all about wireless streaming; cables are rapidly going the same way as VHS tapes and MySpace.
There are lots of options on the market, but in this article we take a look at two of the most popular – Sonos and Chromecast Audio. A lot of people seem to think they are the same thing, but that belief couldn’t be further from the truth. While their core purpose might be the same, the differences between them are vast.
Here’s a brief summary of their advantages, disadvantages, and key differences, all designed to help you decide which is best for you:
Sonos is one of, if not the, leading brands in the wireless speaker category. It was founded back in 2002 in the pre-Spotify era and was originally conceived as a way to wirelessly send music from your music collection directly to your speakers.
With the proliferation of smartphones and music streaming services, the company’s remit expanded. You can now use the official Sonos app to stream music saved on almost any device, and it supports more than 40 music streaming services, including all of the big players.
Chromecast Audio is a much newer offering but has exploded in popularity. Piggy-backing off of the success of the Chromecast streaming stick, Chromecast Audio was launched in the fall of 2015. Its main selling point is that its audio dongle lets you turn any “dumb” speakers into wireless ones.
If you think Sonos and Chromecast Audio sound remarkably similar, allow me to enlighten you…
The Advantages of Sonos
Sonos has lots of great features that Chromecast Audio lacks:
The Chromecast Audio dongle connects directly to your home network and can thus be impacted by other Wi-Fi usage. It’s also problematic if you want to use your speakers a long way from your router.
See what I mean in the image below:
Sonos has created SonosNet. It means each component of your Sonos system (the speaker, Sonos Connect, Sonos Amp, etc.) acts as a bridge – thus becoming both a client and an access point. The result is that each component actively expands your network. To use it, you just need to have one component wired into your router.
Single App Streaming
Sonos comes with its own official app which acts as the gateway to the system. Services such as Spotify and Apple Music are controlled from within the Sonos app; you cannot stream from within those services’ own apps.
It might sound odd, but there is a clear reason for this: Sonos is designed to be “always on”. You never turn off the speakers themselves, instead you merely pause them. That means you can hit play on any speaker in your house and flood every room with music in a matter of seconds.
The Sonos app also allows you to make playlists across multiple sources. For example, you could play a Spotify song, followed by a song from your hard drive, followed by a track from SoundCloud.
Chromecast Audio works by streaming audio from within services’ individual apps – there is no unifying single official app. Some services/apps (such as Apple Music) don’t work with the system and, of course, you’ll need to turn on a separate speaker each time you want to listen.
A recent addition to the Sonos’ feature list is Trueplay.
This is a custom speaker tuner. Activate it on your iPod, iPhone, or iPad, and you can walk around the room while the Sonos speakers emit a series of tones. It will then analyze the acoustics of the space and make the necessary adjustments to the speakers’ settings.
At the moment, it’s only available on Apple products due to the diverse number of microphones in Android devices.
Your Existing Music Collection
If you’ve got a vast collection of your own music saved on your hard drive, don’t expect Google’s product to be able to access it. Yes, you can upload your music to Google Play, and yes, there are third-party tools that’ll let you hack your computer and send its audio to the dongle, but it’s not a streamlined, integrated feature.
Sonos will let your sync your library with its app and then enable you to access that library from any device/app on your network. No uploading is required.
The Advantages of Chromecast Audio
Despite all of Sonos’ awesome features, Chromecast Audio isn’t without its own benefits:
The biggest advantage Chromecast Audio has over Sonos is the cost of entry. Sonos’ basic speaker – the Play:1 – will set you back $199 (£169). The Playbar and Sub are $699 (£547/£599) each and the most powerful speaker, the Play:5, is $499 (£429). However, the quality on these speakers is out of this world.
Converting Old Speakers
As I mentioned at the very start, Chromecast Audio is fantastic at converting old “dumb” powered speakers into wireless ones. You just plug the dongle into the headphone jack on your Hi-Fi and you’re ready to go.
Sonos can do this by using the Connect or the Amp. The Connect lets you add powered speakers – such as an old Hi-Fi – and the Amp will add power to standalone, non-powered speakers. The cost, however, is prohibitive. Cynics would argue that Sonos is intentionally keeping the price high to encourage people to buy its own speakers and maintain audio quality.
That strategy might be slightly more forgivable if the Connect, Amp, Playbar, and Play:5 weren’t the only Sonos products that also have a Line-In port.
Sonos does not currently offer an outdoor speaker; it’s a glaring omission in its product line-up.
If you have any existing outdoor speakers that you want to make wireless, the $35 Chromecast Audio is comfortably the best option.
And The Winner is…
If it isn’t already clear, Sonos is infinitely better on paper – but it’s important to understand that they are two very different offerings.
Sonos is designed to be used as a premium product covering your whole house. It’s an integrated ecosystem that is unequaled in terms of quality, design, and function.
However, it’s important not to disregard Chromecast Audio. If you want to add some wireless functionality to an old Hi-Fi, it’s great – just don’t expect its audio quality or feature list to rival that of Sonos. Or even get anywhere close.
In conclusion, this is a classic example of you getting what you pay for.
Do you own either of the two systems? What pros and cons would you add to our list for either Sonos or Chromecast Audio? How often do you use your Sonos or Chromecast Audio? Please let us know your thoughts on these two audio wonders in the comments below.