So you want to listen to music throughout your whole house/apartment/condo/etc…
The good news: It’s never been easier.
The bad news: It’s never been more confusing.
It used to be simple: if you wanted to wire your whole house for audio, that’s exactly what you did — you wired your whole house for audio. Now, wires are entirely optional (if not still preferred, see below).
Here are some of your options, ranging from cheapest to not-so-cheapest:
1. Just wear earbuds. For ten bucks, you can get a pair of perfectly fine earbuds at your local drug store. Plug ’em into your favorite portable audio device and, boom, you’ve got music wherever you go. You can even take the music OUT of the house! The only downside? The inherent danger of walking around with a loose cable dangling from your neck. Get it snagged on a doorknob and you can snap your head off. Also, sharing music is tough if you don’t have a great singing voice.
2. Embrace Bluetooth. For less than $50, you can get a Belkin Bluetooth Receiver that plugs into any stereo and wham-o, you can wirelessly beam audio from your iOS/Android device to whatever sound system you already have. The downside? This isn’t a solution for sharing the same audio throughout multiple rooms (not a strongpoint for Bluetooth), so it doesn’t exactly qualify as a “whole home” experience. But if your smartphone is your main music listening device, this is a great way to get the music onto your stereo without spending (at least) twice as much to get a new stereo just because it has bluetooth built-in.
3. Embrace Airplay. Airplay is very different from Bluetooth. It’s Apple’s standard for wirelessly sharing audio (and video) across multiple devices. The chief benefit over Bluetooth? You CAN share the same audio source across multiple rooms at the same time. From any iOS device (or computer), you can send music to any room(s) with an Airplay compatible device. The set-up is super easy — you just need to make sure all the devices are on the same home network. That’s it. Great for parties. The downside? If you don’t already have a Mac or an iOS device, you’ll probably have to get one. Sidenote: An Apple TV is a great way to share music from your iOS device (or Mac) to your TV’s speakers.
4. Sonos! A few Sonos devices can create a wireless blanket of sound across your home using neither Bluetooth nor Airplay. What is Sonos? Click here for a better summation than I could ever provide. Sonos is now the go-to system for distributing audio throughout people’s home, from non-tech savvy folk who seek simplicity to high-end customers planning to shell out tens of thousands of dollars on their media rooms. How does it manage to fit both niches? Because it’s currently the only game in town for what it does. It’s also very flexible. You can go crazy and spend thousands of dollars for ultimate customization, or you can keep it simple and still do some cool stuff for $500 or less.
Every device that Sonos makes comes with the ability to talk to other Sonos devices. They also come with their own built-in software to access your favorite internet radio options (Pandora, Spotify, Amazon Cloud Player, etc.). That means set-up is minimal. You literally plug them in, turn them on, then use your tablet/computer/phone to tell it what you want to listen to. If you own two or more Sonos devices (up to 36, I believe), they’ll form their own invisible network you never have to deal with. If you already have a home with speakers wired into the walls, you can buy a Sonos Amp for each speaker set and let Sonos do all the heavy lifting, connecting all the rooms together. There’s no need for a receiver of any kind, unless you really want one (like if you want to share audio from a home theater). For most people, the combination of Pandora, various internet radio stations, and whatever music they have on their own devices is enough, and Sonos can handle all that on it’s own.
If you don’t have any speakers already wired throughout your home, that’s not a problem. Most of Sonos’s products are speaker systems with connectivity baked in. You can easily place one on a bookshelf or kitchen counter without drawing any undue attention. Their cheapest HiFi music player starts at $300, though, which is more expensive than comparable Airplay-compatible sound systems.
My overall recommendation? If you’re starting from scratch and have the money, wiring speakers is still the classiest thing to do. And it’s actually not that expensive these days. Just don’t let the installer try to upsell you on speakers. That’s the biggest cost. Speakers for a kitchen or a dining room don’t need to be terribly expensive because the rooms themselves aren’t built for sound. No point in splurging on high end speakers if you’ll never hear the difference due to acoustics. If you’re good at following directions, you might even be able to install speakers yourself. Pulling wire through an attic or crawlspace is easier than it sounds. When I first moved into my house, I hired custom installers, but after watching them I realized: “Hey, I can do that!” And then I did. Pulling wire through a crawlspace under my house might be dirty work, but it’s free! Anyways, once the speakers are installed, whatever closet (or cabinet) houses the ends of the cables is where the Sonos Amps will go. A typical set-up is one amp per speaker set per room. If you have the money and/or time, it’ll be well worth it.
If you don’t have that kind of money, you can always skimp. You can get a multi-zone receiver and use that to control the various sets of speakers wired throughout your home. For example, to control three separate zones with Sonos, you’d need $1500 in Amps. A 3-zone receiver should be available for less than a $1000. The receiver might not come with all the internet connectivity of the Sonos system (especially at that price point), but chances are you already have at least one device in your house that can access Pandora and/or your digital music collection. Just hook that computer/ipod/whatever up to the receiver and your ears will never know the difference. (The trade-offs are in the area of flexibility and convenience.) Or you can do what I did: Use fewer Amps. Instead of having one Amp to power the speakers in the front yard and another Amp to power the speakers in the backyard, I just have a single Amp marked “outside.”
If wiring speakers throughout your house sounds like a hassle or isn’t an option, then I’d recommend looking at what you already have, then building a sound system around those. For example, if you already have an iPhone, iPad, or Mac, then just get an Apple TV ($99) for any room where you have a TV and an Airplay compatible stereo for any room that doesn’t. And if you’re an Android/Windows user… then I’d still recommend going the Airplay route. For example, here’s a cool primer on three apps that’ll allow Android and Windows users to utilize Airplay.
Before you do anything, though, I’d just ask this… WHY do you want the ability to listen to music throughout your whole home at the same time? If you entertain a lot, then, sure, spend the money and make it happen. But, seriously, if this is just to listen to music while you do housework, then just buy a pair of good headphones. Or even earbuds.
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