Listening to music in the 21st Century
March 28, 2017 3:47 AM   Subscribe

I'm tired of trying to maintain a steady 78 rpm on my hand-cranked phonograph. Please explain wireless speaker systems to me like I'm some kind of Luddite.

We need a better music system. I was impressed by a friend's Sonos system recently. They're at the top of our budget but not beyond it. One review on Amazon suggests that they won't work wirelessly without the bridge unit as well - which does push them over.

I'm pretty clueless.

The position of our router (which is pretty inflexible) means running an ethernet cable from it, while not completely out of the question, would be a massive pain.

So the question's in two parts, really:
1) What physical stuff do we actually need?
2) Any recommendations in the 'cheaper than Sonos' price range? Audio quality is an issue - I'd rather pay more for something that sounds good...

Looking for access to Spotify (probably) and, if possible, to play local files too.
posted by monkey closet to Technology (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Sonos systems are great, but as you have found out, sort of obscenely priced. Can you be more specific about what you want?

Do you want to wirelessly play music off your phone? Off a local computer? You could likely accomplish that with either just a Bluetooth dongle or Chromecast audio for an existing stereo.

Would you be OK uploading your music to "the internet" and streaming it from there? I accomplish wireless music in my house these days by having an Amazon Echo, while paying Amazon $25/yr to store my music on their servers. I have one regular Echo, plus an Echo Dot hooked up to my old school stereo. There is a similar route one could take with the Google Home speakers, if you like Google more than Amazon.
posted by Betelgeuse at 4:36 AM on March 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Sonos does not require the bridge. I have them in four rooms and they're great. I have a number of play:1s and one play:2 (or 3, whatever the second size is) and I don't think the second size is any better than just the first.

All the system needs is power and wifi. I have had no range issues, even on different floors on the other side of the house. My understanding is that the sonos system makes its own network for the units to talk with each other.

Money very well spent.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 4:37 AM on March 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

We have Sonos: playbar, connect, bridge, and a variety of speakers. We love it, I can't imagine doing it any other way now. You can run without a bridge, but what it does is create a separate wifi network exclusive to Sonos and that helps your music play uninterrupted. We had super crappy wifi where we lived when we bought it, so we got the bridge. I think they call it the "boost" now.

It's not inexpensive, but we started with the playbar, bridge, and 1 speaker and then added over the course of a couple years. We also got a $50 gift card with our first couple orders and that helped. We bought direct from Sonos online.
posted by donnagirl at 4:44 AM on March 28, 2017

Can you be more specific about what you want?

Spotify or similar (I have a current Spotify account and am happy with it, but have no deep-rooted loyalty to them), and playing my own music, whether stored locally or in some form of cloud solution.

I accomplish wireless music in my house these days by having an Amazon Echo

I've looked at the Echo and it seems to do what I'm after - my big concern is the audio quality (a few negative reviews on that). Anyone got any thoughts on that?
posted by monkey closet at 5:01 AM on March 28, 2017

If you want quality and great sound and no dropouts, then save time and just buy the Sonos stuff. I went the long way around to it, and really tried to make lesser solutions work, but was never happy. Sonos really does Just Work, and the hardware is stellar.

The speakers are a little spendy -- the Play:1 model, which is their smallest, is $199; I have 2 in my office running as a stereo pair -- but the real fuck-you price is on the part that you need if you want to run Sonos audio into a conventional stereo setup. That part ("Connect") is $350, which is extortionate, but it sure does work well.

When I got our stuff, you needed the $49 Bridge to connect the Sonos network to your own Wifi network; it may be you don't need that anymore -- but also at the time Amazon (?) was having a pretty frequent promotion wherein you got a Bridge for free with your first Sonos speaker, so it also didn't matter. (You only need one for a whole setup anyway, or did.)

Anyway. Sonos have been doing this for a decade now, and really get it. The software is stellar -- it's trivial to bring music in from your local library, or pretty much any streaming service, or your phone, and have them all be part of a single playlist. We keep an older tablet on the coffeetable for guests to use when we have parties, so they can add whatever they like to the playlist. There's really nothing like it.
posted by uberchet at 5:47 AM on March 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

(Logitech's Squeezebox used to do what Sonos does, but at half the price. Sadly, Logitech killed the product a few years ago. You may be able to find one used.)
posted by notyou at 5:50 AM on March 28, 2017

I use a Google Chromecast Audio, which was like $35. It's plugged into the AUX input on my stereo and I control it from my phone. It supports Spotify and (I would assume) Google Music (the free version of Google music will let you upload 50,000 tracks of your own music to the cloud).
posted by noloveforned at 6:00 AM on March 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'm the opposite of an audiophile, but I use an Echo Dot to stream Spotify and it sounds fine.

Chromecasts are kind of annoying because they need a direct connection to your phone (so you have to pair, control with your phone etc) while the Echo Dot has its own Spotify client.
posted by katrielalex at 6:02 AM on March 28, 2017

Nthing Sonos. It just works. Nothing comes close to the polish and ease.
posted by gregr at 6:28 AM on March 28, 2017

I've been happy with the audio quality of my Amazon Echos (both the regular one and the Dot). No audio drop outs, literally; I cannot recall any noticible audio quality degradations in the 15 months we've had it. The quality of the normal Echo's speaker is surprisingly good; we have it in our fairly large living room and have been happy. Obviously the Dot is tied to the quality of the stereo system, but we're even more happy with that audio quality.

Sonos is great. I have no doubt that the audio quality is better than the Echos/Homes. Their proprietary wireless connection appears to be rock solid reliable. I just couldn't justify the cost to myself. The Echos are likely to not satisfy true audiophiles. For example, the Dot connects to the stereo via a 1/8" headphone plug. However, I would wager that, for 90%+ of the consumer market, they would be equally happy with both systems.
posted by Betelgeuse at 6:42 AM on March 28, 2017

After reading some things here, I suppose that one thing that the Echos do not do well is local music. I don't believe that there is any way to stream music to your Echo from a local computer. We have been happy to upload (and pay a yearly $25) to store our music on Amazon's servers, but that's something you have to be OK with.

Also, the voice control is the only sane way to interface with the Echo. There is an Echo phone app, but it is shockingly bad. The voice interface generally works great, but can be frustrating if you have different versions of songs (For example, since we got the Hamilton Mix Tape, I cannot get Echo to play individual songs off the Hamilton Cast Recording; I just have to play the album and skip ahead).
posted by Betelgeuse at 6:50 AM on March 28, 2017

If I were starting with nothing but digital music, I'd go with the Sonos. Dead simple and bullet-proof. I've had mine for several years -- coupled with a SiriusXM account -- and it just works.

If I had an existing stereo system and physical media, the Google Chromecast Audio answer from noloveforned looks like the way to go. (And just $35!)
posted by MrJM at 7:06 AM on March 28, 2017

I have a few Echos and a fairly large Sonos system. The Sonos sounds way better than the Echo, and I also find the UI to be much nicer and more convenient. My experience is that the Echo's voice control is nice in some situations, but annoying in others, and on balance I prefer using the Sonos app to control my music. I use Spotify, Apple Music, SiriusXM and a local library with my Sonos and it all works great.

BTW, don't even consider doing music on an Echo Dot. It's awful, awful, awful. I sincerely don't know how anyone (even a non-audiophile) can consider it to sound good. If you're going to go with the Amazon system, at least get a full Echo...
posted by primethyme at 7:21 AM on March 28, 2017

Sorry, I should clarify my last statement. If you're going to connect the Echo Dot into a stereo, that's fine. But don't buy it with the intention of using its built-in speaker for music.
posted by primethyme at 7:22 AM on March 28, 2017

The Echo is surprisingly good audio for what it is, but it is not Sonos or quality home speaker quality. And it's mono, so you're not getting a nice stereo image.

If you want to use your existing speakers, the Chromecast Audio will give you better sound than adding a Bluetooth adapter to it, but they are buggy and kind of a pain. I fairly frequently have Google apps refuse to stream to it with obtuse errors that don't help, have to resync to it, or lose control of it and have to reboot it or waste time getting it to respond to different things. You can also use a regular Chromecast if you have a spare HDMI input on your receiver.
posted by Candleman at 7:28 AM on March 28, 2017

My old amplifier/receiver thing doesn't have an HDMI input, so I bought a first-generation Chromecast and something like this HDMI-to-analog-audio adapter. Before finding that adapter I tried a cheaper one that I think was designed mainly to get video to projectors and had low quality, noisy audio output.

I subscribe to google play music, and also ripped and uploaded my CD collection to google. I use a combination of that and YouTube.

If you don't leave the Chromecast on all the time, then it's not instant-on; it takes a while (maybe a minute? Ihaven't timed it) to boot.

It's not terribly reliable: there are occasional mysterious "unable to play this track" errors which sometimes clear up on their own after waiting and retrying, but sometimes seem to require an app restart or Chromecast reboot to fix.

If you have multiple users (say you and your housemate both want to cast from your phones), then you interrupt each other, there's no way to add music to a shared queue.

I was originally using two wireless access points to cover the whole house, and found the Chromecast didn't always work. I eventually found out that whatever protocol Android uses to discover Chromecasts wasn't being passed between the two access points, and location of the phone and other random factors meant phone and Chromecast weren't always associating to the same access point. I never figured out exactly what was happening, instead I just figured out how to position one access point so it covered the whole house.

I later tried a Chromecast audio instead. it eliminates the need for the HDMI adapter, which is nice. I found it wouldn't play YouTube, last I tried, so I went back to my old Chromecast. (I think it does work with "YouTube music" and their subscription service, so I suspect it's just some weird licensing issue.)

So, anyway, all those warnings aside, it's a fairly cheap, easy solution that does work if you can live with a little flakiness.

Audio quality seems fine to me though I wouldn't really know what to listen for.
posted by bfields at 7:57 AM on March 28, 2017

Sonos is great and works, the bridge was for early versions. I remember plugging in one speaker to my router to change networks once, so if your router is totally inaccessible that might be an issue, but this was a temporary setup thing - once setup, the speakers can be unplugged, moved and when plugged back in they connect automatically.

This also means that you may be able to use fewer if there are less used areas you're thinking about - moving a speaker is as easy as unplugging it and plugging it in (and waiting 20 seconds for it to connect), so I have moved a speaker onto the balcony or by the tub on occasion, without needing a dedicated speaker in those locations.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 8:20 AM on March 28, 2017

There is a Wirecutter review of audio systems which recommends Sonos and explains why.

I moved into a house which had Sonos components last year - and have become a firm convert. One of the great things about it is the longevity of support: everything continues to be upgraded with new releases of the software even after having been here for several years - and all the upgrading for all devices, is done in one simple operation. It is trivially easy to add new components, the whole thing can be controlled by anybody who has a smartphone or PC app, and we have never ever had any kind of drop out issues (or the need to hard wire anything). Finally I can connect to locally stored files, files held on anything that plays iTunes, radio stations from around the world or pretty much any audio streaming service.

The only thing that is a bit of a pain to connect to the system - at least wirelessly - is a computer. There is no native bluetooth support so, if I want to play a Youtube video through the system, for example, then I have to connect a Bluetooth receiver to the input of a Connect amp.
posted by rongorongo at 8:23 AM on March 28, 2017

N-thing Sonos. We have a Play:1 in our living room, and it's connected wirelessly to a router upstairs in our bedroom. Initially, I thought it would be frustrating to have to play music through the Sonos app, but it's really no big deal. iTunes is for entertaining myself, and the Sonos app is for entertaining everybody.
posted by emelenjr at 10:00 AM on March 28, 2017

Just wanted to an offer a reality check that in the world of actual stereo equipment Sonos systems are not obscenely priced. Not even close. An old roommate had them; he had no interest in a receiver and speakers in a conventional sense. They're easy to place and sound surprisingly good. I usually listen to music on a $2500 pair of Martin Logans, and while I wouldn't switch, I don't completely scoff at the Sonos stuff.
posted by tremspeed at 3:12 PM on March 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yeah, that's a good point. Sonos were, at least initially, positioned for the audiophile market, not the casual/broader market they're into now, and their fit & finish AND pricing reflect that.

$400 for a really great experience in my office (2 x Play:1 set up in a stereo pair) seems like a good deal to me because the stereo/home theater setup in my living room represents a considerably larger investment.

I grouse about the cost of the Connect device ($349) that's required to play Sonos music THROUGH that stereo because it seems to do so little, and at this point is one of the more expensive elements of the whole stack (i.e. since pretty much everything else is declining in price, or at least price-per-unit-of-sonic-joy). But the Connect is only interesting to people like me or tremspeed who have serious stereos in play already, so they figure we'll pay it (and we do).
posted by uberchet at 6:42 AM on March 29, 2017

Thanks all! Play:5 arrived yesterday; so far, really pleased.
posted by monkey closet at 1:23 AM on March 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

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