Sonos speakers offer some of the best features in the game, but they come with one drawback: it’s expensive to get the whole-home setup that people love so much. The cheapest speaker, the Sonos Play:1 comes in at $200, while the Play:3 runs $299, and the Play:5 goes for $499. And remember, to get that whole-home setup, you’ll have to buy at least two speakers. While the Sonos speakers definitely offer the added benefit of being easy to use, it’s hard to justify spending so much if you’re living on a budget. Thankfully, there are a couple of other ways to get a whole-home speaker setup at a fraction of the cost…
For both of these options, you’ll need Apple’s AirPort Express. If you want two speakers simultaneously playing the same music, you’ll need two AirPort Express units, if you want three speakers simultaneously playing the same music, you’ll need three, and so on and so forth. Apple’s AirPort Express is currently available for $70.99 certified refurbished on Amazon with a 90-day warranty, or for $99 directly from Apple.
The next thing you’ll need for both of these options are speakers. Many of you probably already have at least one Bluetooth speaker, and the good news is, as long as it has a 3.5mm headphone port on it, it’ll work. Bluetooth speakers range in price wildly depending on brand, size, and sound quality. It’s important to note that bigger does not equal better in many cases, nor does more expensive equal better. It’s also important to note that you can use any combination of speakers, so I’d recommend getting more powerful choices for the larger rooms in your home and smaller options for bedrooms, bathrooms, and whatnot.
We’ve extensively covered the best Bluetooth speakers in the past, but here are a few options:
- Bose SoundLink Mini – $199
- UE BOOM 2 – $179.99
- UE MINI BOOM – $39 certified refurbished (My small-room speaker of choice)
- UE ROLL – $69.99
- JBL Charge 2+ – $99 certified refurbished
It’s important to note that if you want to stay with UE, you can create a whole-home setup with its speakers and accompanying app, although you’ll be relying on Bluetooth, which has some range limitations.
Once you have your AirPort Express units and speakers, you’ll want to plug them in at various points in your home, ideally strategically spread out so that your entire home is covered by the sound. You can use the AirPort Express either as a router or to extend the network provided by you current router. Setup is done via the AirPort Utility app on iOS. Then, connect each speaker to the 3.5mm headphone jack (you’ll need a 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable) on the back of the AirPort Express.
Now, from you your iOS device or Mac, swipe up to access Control Center, then tap the AirPlay option. You should now see any AirPort Express device you set up. Tap one of them and you can start playing music through that speaker. What we’re trying to do, however, is play through all of the speakers at once. It’s not blatantly obvious, but there are actually two ways to do this…
The first, and arguably easiest option, centers around using the Remote app on iOS, iTunes, and Home Sharing, First, you’ll need to set up Home Sharing. There are two ways to do this. If you already have Home Sharing enabled from your Mac, you can open the Remote app on iOS and you should see your iTunes library. If not, tap the ‘Settings’ button in the upper right corner of the app, choose ‘Add an iTunes Library,’ open iTunes on your computer, and look for the Remote icon along the top. Then, enter the code shown on your iOS device and you’re golden.
Now, on your Mac, choose the AirPlay button in iTunes along the top. Next, choose the ‘Multiple’ tab, which allows you to choose to play the content through multiple AirPlay devices at once. Here, select all of the speakers through which you want your content to play. These can be computers, AirPort Expresses, or Apple TVs.
After you’ve chosen which speakers you’d like the music through play through, you can now use the Remote app on iOS to browse all of your iTunes content, including tracks saved from Apple Music. Tap one to play it, and it will instantly start to play through all of the selected speakers. You’re essentially telling your Mac to play music through all of the AirPlay speakers, and using the Remote app to control what plays on your Mac.
The one downside here is that your Mac has to be powered on for this to work, but personally I keep my Mac mini powered on at all times as it acts as a server for the most part so this isn’t an issue for me.
The second option to play and control music on multiple speakers through your iPhone or iPad relies on a third-party app, AirFoil. AirFoil essentially takes what Apple offers with AirPlay and beefs it up. While Apple has forced the developers to somewhat limit the functionality of the app, it’s still possible to accomplish our goal with a little workaround.
The first thing you’ll need to do is download AirFoil from the developers’ website. While a free trial is available, the full version costs $29. Once you download and open AirFoil on your Mac, you’ll see all of your AirPlay sources and a source option at the top. Choose ‘System Audio’ from the source list and enable any AirPlay devices through which you want the music to play. Then, on your iPhone, swipe up to access Control Center, then tap the AirPlay option. You should see a new source for your Mac. Select it.
After you’ve done that, go to your music app of choice and chose a song. It should now play through all of your enabled AirPlay sources. One benefit of this solution is that you can use services like Spotify and YouTube, as well as Apple Music.
Once you get AirFoil setup, everything works pretty seamlessly. What I like to do is, every time I’m done with my Mac mini for the day, I quickly open up AirFoil, change the settings to ‘System Audio’ and my AirPlay speakers, and I’m good to go for the rest of the day.
While Sonos may offer a more seamless experience, using either one of these methods to get a whole-home audio system is considerably cheaper and more customizable. One of the primary reasons to go with a setup like I’ve mentioned is that you can upgrade your speakers at will, without having to change the whole setup. Whereas, with Sonos, you’re stuck with the same speaker unless you want to shell out money to get an entirely new one from Sonos.
You also have to take into account that in addition to enabling Bluetooth speakers to act as AirPlay speakers, the AirPort Express will extend the range of WiFi in your home, which is a nice added bonus.
Using an AirPort Express + Bluetooth speaker setup as opposed to a Sonos set up gives you more customization options at a much lower price. While a pair of Sonos Play:1 speakers will run you $400, you can get 2 AirPort Express units and two Bluetooth speakers for under $300, with the option to change or upgrade the speakers down the line.