Over the last couple of years, network audio specialist Sonos has increased the variety of methods available to stream audio to its range of wireless speakers.
Previously, those investing in Sonos equipment (that didn’t wish to plug their speaker directly into the router) would need a small network peripheral called the Sonos BRIDGE to stream audio to their speakers. The £39/$59 Sonos BRIDGE creates a dedicated wireless mesh network for your Sonos system. Each component in the mesh network (called SonosNet – a secure, AES-encrypted, peer-to-peer wireless network) serves as both a client and access point with the ability to send and receive data, therefore expanding the range of the network each time a new Sonos component is introduced to the network.
There’s a handy FAQ page about SonosNet over on the company’s website if you wish to dig deeper.
Last summer, Sonos announced a major update to its software which, for the first time, enabled Sonos speakers to work without a dedicated SonosNet mesh network in the home. Rather, the speakers would rely on your router and home Wi-Fi network to operate – saving consumers the additional entry price of the Sonos BRIDGE (although the company was bundling the BRIDGE free with Sonos speakers for some time). Existing BRIDGE owners were encouraged to stick with the peripheral however, which Sonos maintained would offer the best streaming experience – especially in homes with wireless dead spots.
But to confuse matters, the company then introduced the Sonos BOOST a few weeks later. A more expensive (£79/$109) replacement for the Sonos BRIDGE, the BOOST is billed as offering “unparalleled wireless reliability” for a Sonos network.
While little is known about the BOOST’s internals, from a networking standpoint, the BOOST offers similar functionality to the BRIDGE – in that it creates a dedicated SonosNet mesh network – but, according to the company, the BOOST also delivers improved performance (up to twice the wireless range than the BRIDGE). “Comparable wireless broadcast power to expensive enterprise-grade WiFi routers that are typically found in large offices and corporate campuses”, says Sonos. The BOOST boasts three internal antennas, more power, offers increased wireless range and is also wall-mountable, so there are a range of advantages over the BRIDGE.
The other advantage to using a SonosNet-powered network, using a BRIDGE, BOOST or speaker directly connected to your router is that your Sonos speakers can then service as a network bridge for other wired devices. Depending on where your speakers are placed, you could use the Ethernet socket on the rear of the speaker to hook up a Smart TV, networked Blu-Ray player, games console or even a NAS to your network. Because this network traffic is routed through SonosNet, it doesn’t have to fight with your regular Wi-Fi traffic.
So, while you can use your existing router and wireless network to hook up your Sonos speakers, the Sonos BRIDGE will provide a stronger, dedicated network for streaming. However, if you’re still suffering audio dropouts due to poor network coverage – of if you want to crank up that Sonos home theatre configuration – you’ll need the Sonos BRIDGE, BOOST or you’ll need to connect a Sonos speaker directly to your router with an Ethernet cable – using your router’s Wi-Fi alone with Sonos does not currently support 3.1 or 5.1 home theater setups.
Sounds simple! But not as simple as this handy table which provides a comparison:
That’s the theory, anyway – let’s put it to the test!
As regular readers will know, I’ve recently moved home, emigrating from the UK to Canada. Back in the UK, my home was wired with Ethernet CAT 5e cable throughout to ensure rock solid, high-speed data connections were available throughout the house. A streaming paradise and, of course, my Sonos kit was all hooked up via Ethernet to ensure the smoothest streams were available.
However, now we’re staying in a rental home for a short time and there’s a distinct lack of Ethernet connections knocking around! Hooking up my Sonos kit a few weeks ago was a frustrating experience. I’ve placed a Sonos PLAY 5: in the attic (which is doubling as a media room and We Got Served HQ right now), a PLAY: 3 in the master bedroom and a second PLAY: 3 downstairs in the family room. A Sonos BRIDGE is connected to the router (also positioned in the master bedroom) to provide that dedicated SonosNet mesh network.
Streaming MP3s in this configuration has worked out fine. But switch to lossless FLAC tracks, and the Sonos speakers in the attic and master bedroom start to splutter, leading to a notification in the Sonos app which convinced me my network needed investigation.
A quick online shop plus a couple of days delivery time and the Sonos BOOST arrived. Like all Sonos kit, the BOOST is beautifully presented in box – it’s smaller and thinner than the BRIDGE and shaped like a hockey puck.
I was intrigued to find out exactly the kind of improvement the Sonos BOOST would deliver over the BRIDGE, so it was time to get diagnostic! Casual Sonos users may not be aware that it’s possible to glean all sorts of technical information about your Sonos network. That includes performance snapshots of the SonosNet network streaming your tunes.