Build a Whole-home Audio System

Many of us here at Macworld are music lovers. We listen to a lot of music in a lot of places around the house. Which means many of us are also big fans of Sonos' Digital Music System, which lets you easily get your music into multiple rooms using a combination of hardware, software, and remote controllers. Some of us are also longtime fans of Logitech's Squeezebox product line, which similarly gives lets you pipe digital music all over your house.

But every time we write about Sonos or Squeezebox, a number of readers (understandably) ask, "Can't you do the same thing with a bunch of AirPort Express units and speakers using AirTunes?" (AirTunes is technology that allows you to play audio from iTunes on a remote audio system connected to an AirPort Express.) After all, the Sonos and Squeezebox systems are relatively expensive, so some people wonder why you would opt for either over a system based on Apple gear.

With that question in mind, we set out to see if we could put together a whole-house audio system, based on AirPort Express units, that can compete with Sonos- or Squeezebox-based setup. We weren't looking for the least-expensive setup: Sticking an AirPort Express and a set of inexpensive powered speakers in each room would work, but it wouldn't give you anything near the same functionality and audio quality. What we wanted was an Apple-based, whole-home audio system that approaches the audio quality and features of the Sonos and Squeezebox systems.

Here's a rundown of our experiences, along with some quick, back-of-the-envelope estimates of how much each system would cost. Note that these estimates assume you don't have the equipment necessary for each component of the system; in reality, you may already have some--or even all--of the equipment you need.

Getting ready

Unless you've got Ethernet wired throughout your house, the first thing you'll need to do for all three systems is set up a wireless network. In the case of an AirPort Express-based system, that means a standard Wi-Fi network, but it must be one hosted by an Apple-branded base station; third-party wireless access points don't support AirTunes.

Although you can use an AirPort Express as your main base station, we recommend an AirPort Extreme for the flexibility to connect devices via Ethernet and the capability to store media on a connected hard drive. Just as important, using an AirPort Express as the main base unit limits you to just 10 wireless devices--a limit you're likely to quickly reach given that the count includes iPhones, iPod touches, computers and laptops with wireless connections, and other AirPort Express units.

Logitech's Squeezebox players all work with both Ethernet and Wi-Fi base stations of any brand. Once again, we'd recommend you use a base station with support for a large number of connected devices, since they add up. But if you go for the Squeezebox line of players, you can choose any brand of wireless router, including Apple's AirPort.

The Sonos system, on the other hand, creates its own, proprietary wireless network. Advantages of this approach include easier setup and less interference. The Sonos network is also a mesh network, which means that instead of the network being hosted by a central base station, any device can extend the network to any other device, giving the system better overall range and performance.

But the Sonos system still needs to connect to an existing network (with Internet access) somewhere. Which means at least one Sonos component must be within wired distance of either your router (whatever type of router it is) or an Ethernet port. If your router or network port is in a closet or a room where you won't be listening to music, the $99 ZoneBridge is a compact (4.3-inches square, 1.6 inches tall) box that connects to your wired network and acts as the first node in the Sonos wireless network. If you do plan to listen to music in the room with your network port, both the $349 ZonePlayer 90 (ZP90) and the $499 ZonePlayer 120 (ZP120), each described below, incorporate the ZoneBridge's functionality.

Cost if you don't have equipment: Apple: $179 (AirPort Extreme); Squeezebox: $30 and up (cost of a Wi-Fi router if you don't already own one); Sonos: $99 (ZoneBridge), $349 (ZP90), or $499 (ZP120) plus router.

Host your music

In order to set up a music system based on digital media, you need somewhere to host that media. The Sonos and Squeezebox systems are more flexible here: while both can access music stored in your iTunes Library, they can also use music stored on a network drive. For example, the Sonos can connect to music on a Time Capsule, a USB hard drive connected to an AirPort Extreme base station, or an Ethernet-equipped NAS drive connected to your network.

To go the Apple route, you need a computer running iTunes. (The computer also handles the actual playback; with the Sonos and Squeezebox systems, each ZonePlayer handles playback independently.) This can be an old Mac or PC you aren't using anymore, your current Mac, or a new Mac or PC you purchase specifically for this purpose. Each option has its drawbacks: Using an older Mac may require you to upgrade the hard drive to hold all your media, performance may be poor, and older computers use considerably more electricity that today's models. Using your current Mac means that you have to share iTunes with anyone else in the house who wants to listen to music. And a new Mac will cost you a good chunk of change.

The Squeezebox system gives you a couple options. Though it requires you to run Squeezebox Server software, you can run that server on either a computer or a compatible NAS. If you go the NAS route, Logitech officially supports only the Netgear ReadyNAS, though many other NAS devices are also compatible. For the computer-based approach, you can use any recent Mac, Windows, or Linux PC.

(Of course, even if you go the NAS route for the Sonos or Squeezebox system, you'll still need a computer with an optical drive if you want to rip CDs to add their contents to your digital music library.)

We used a 2009 Mac mini for the AirTunes system. The Mac mini is ideal for this type of situation, as it's tiny, has plenty of memory and horsepower for handling iTunes and related tasks, runs cool, and--perhaps best of all--uses much less energy than most computers, both when running and while asleep. It also supports Wake on Demand (see "Take control," below). The Squeezebox system also used a Mac mini.

Cost if you don't have equipment: Apple: $599 for Mac mini, or the price of a used Mac; Squeezebox: ~$250 for compatible NAS drive, or an inexpensive or used computer; Sonos: ~$100 and up for a NAS drive.

Choose your rooms

The next step is getting your music into your rooms. All three systems let you send audio to your choice of locations, using hardware in each room to receive the wireless transmission and convert it to a signal you can feed to a stereo or a set of speakers. With the Apple system, that hardware is a $99 AirPort Express unit. Once the Express is set up (see the next section), any audio you send from iTunes to that Express is pumped out the Express' analog/optical-digital audio-output minijack.

It's worth noting that if you've already got an Apple TV in a room, you can use the Apple TV for AirTunes instead of an AirPort Express. The Apple TV shows up in iTunes as a destination for audio, just as an AirPort Express would.

The heritage of the Squeezebox product line is in devices that can be placed in a standard stereo rack. As a result, most Squeezebox products have some sort of display on their front and offer support for an infrared remote control. The $300 Squeezebox Touch, the "standard" model, is a compact box that, like the AirPort Express, connects to an amplifier or powered speakers. But the Squeezebox offers left/right RCA jacks for analog audio, as well as both coaxial and optical jacks for a digital signal. It's also got a bright, 4.3-inch color touchscreen display on the front that shows album art, track information, and even the time and weather; you can also use the touchscreen to control playback without a remote.

Alternatively, Logitech offers a slew of other options: the $150 Receiver, a bare-bones unit that inexplicably requires the $300 Controller, covered later, to set up; the $400 Duet, a bundle featuring both the Receiver and Controller; as well as two models that include speakers (covered later in "Amp it up").

With the Sonos system, each listening room needs a ZonePlayer. The $349 ZonePlayer 90 (ZP90) is a compact box, approximately 5.5 inches square by 2.9 inches tall. Like the Squeezebox, the ZP90 can connect to stereo or powered speakers via analog or digital jacks. The ZP90 doesn't have any sort of display, but it does provides hardware buttons on the front for adjusting and muting the volume.

The $499 ZonePlayer 120 (ZP120) is essentially a ZonePlayer 90 with a built-in 55-Watt-per-channel, Class-D amplifier. Designed for rooms that don't have an existing stereo system, the ZP120 gives you everything you need except the speakers; speaker terminals on the back of the unit let you connect, using standard speaker cables, whatever speakers you decide on. The ZP120 also provides a subwoofer output for connecting a powered subwoofer.

Both ZonePlayers have a couple additional tricks up their virtual sleeves: First, each also sports left/right RCA inputs; connect any audio source--a CD player, an iPod, a TV--to these inputs and you can send that device's audio to the other ZonePlayers, making it easy to listen, for example, to the audio track from a televised sports event anywhere in the house. (You can even choose how that audio is encoded for transmission.) Second, each ZonePlayer provides a two-port Ethernet switch for connecting wired devices--TiVo, game console, computer, NAS drive--to your network.

(Logitech and Sonos also sell all-in-one units that combine a Squeezebox or ZonePlayer, respectively, with an amplifier and speakers; more on that in "Amp it up.")

Cost if you don't have equipment: Apple: $99 (Express) or $229 (Apple TV) for each room; Squeezebox: $300 for each room; Sonos: $349 (ZP90) or $499 (ZP120) for each room.

Set up your "zones"

While each system requires a bit of initial setup on your computer, the procedures for adding new rooms to your system differ notably. With the AirPort Express-based system, you need to configure each remote AirPort Express unit--using a computer running AirPort Utility--to join your network and act as a remote music device for iTunes. While the software walks you through the steps to set up the device, you have to make a series of decisions that require a certain level of comfort with technology.

To set up a Squeezebox Touch, you plug it in and, using the touchscreen, select either Ethernet or wireless. For wireless, you then select your Wi-Fi network and enter the password. The Squeezebox Server software automatically detects the new Squeezebox and adds it to its menus.

Setting up a remote ZonePlayer is as simple as choosing the Add A Zone command (on your remote or in the Sonos Controller app on your computer) and then pressing a button on the new ZonePlayer; the new zone is automatically added and configured.

Take control

All three systems, Apple, Logitech, and Sonos, provide computer software for controlling playback, choosing which rooms get music, and setting up playlists--iTunes, the Web-based Squeezebox Server, and the Sonos Controller, respectively. But while this software is convenient when you're sitting at your Mac, it's not nearly so when you're in another part of the house and want to enjoy some tunes. So all three companies provide solutions for remote control.

For the Apple system, that solution is Apple's free Remote app for the iPhone or iPod touch. Once you've completed the one-time pairing procedure between the app (on your i-device) and iTunes (on your Mac), launching the app causes it to automatically connect to iTunes--a process that generally takes five to ten seconds. The app gives you an impressive amount of control over playback: You can browse playlists, artists, albums, genres, podcasts, and more; you can search for particular items; you can use the Genius feature; you can even create and edit playlists, all from your iPhone or iPod touch.

For the Logitech system, you'll similarly get the best multi-room control using your iPhone or iPod touch. However, strangely, Logitech doesn't supply an official app to do the trick. Instead, there are two third-party remote apps, the best of which is Penguin Loves Music's $10 iPeng. iPeng looks similar to Apple's Remote app, but with support for the additional features of the Squeezebox.

Logitech also offers a dedicated hardware remote, the $300 Squeezebox Controller, that includes a small, color screen and a faux Click Wheel controller. However, we aren't fans of this remote--you'd be far better off buying a $200 iPod touch and one of the Squeezebox-remote apps. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, the Squeezebox Controller is currently the only way to set up the $150 Receiver.

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