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Mass Market Streaming Media Players vs. Professional Whole Home Audio

So far, my company has maintained a strong preference for professional-grade whole-home audio, but with DIY product getting better and integration with control systems becoming cleaner and formally supported, I can see opportunities where I might use DIY solutions on a case-by-case basis.

Our sister company, Home Theater Advisors, installs a lot of Sonos. In fact, they became a Gold Dealer at the end of last year. The owner of the business, Mark Feinberg, is a big fan of Sonos, as it is an easy sell (often customers have heard of it or know someone who has it), it installs fairly easily and it has every streaming service a client could ask for. Pairing it with external speakers and an outboard amp improves margins and sound quality. He’s been extolling the values of Sonos for years.

This got me to thinking not just about Sonos, but about all of the consumer-grade streaming systems out there (Sonos, Denon Heos, Paradigm Premium Wireless — and really all of the Play-Fi products) and how they compare with traditional whole-home audio systems offering a music server and distributed audio. I’ve put together my thoughts about how the two different types of systems compare and where the strengths of each system lie. I am not going to get into audio quality here; this is really more about the features, benefits, and installation concerns.

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Here are the areas where the consumer-grade solutions tend to shine:

Ease of Configuration — These are meant to be installed and set up by an end user, so any of your field techs or installers can get the system up and running quickly

Modularity — Because most of these solutions are “one box = one room,” you don’t need to spec in more zones than a client needs. If they have seven rooms for music, then you don’t need to spec in a 12-zone distribution amp — just buy seven boxes

Expandability — Did the client need to trim back the budget so they didn’t install speakers in the master bathroom or even run wire? Now it’s a year later and they want music in there. Easy, just plug a Sonos Play1 or Heos1 or Play-Fi speaker into any power outlet and configure it, and they have music in that room.

Retrofit-friendly — There is no need to pull wire to a central location in a retrofit job. You can put each amplifier locally in a room and easily run wire to in-wall or bookshelf speakers, or even do an all-in-one like the Sonos Play5 or Heos7 or Paradigm PW800.

One Part Failing Doesn’t Bring Down the Whole System — If you have eight zones of audio and one player fails, then you still have seven zones of audio. With a professional whole-home system, if the music server or the amplifier goes down, then the entire audio system is down.

And here is where I think the professional-grade systems add value:

Fewer Network Ports Required — An Autonomic MMS-5 only needs one network port to provide five streams of audio, and then you’ll likely use one more port for your amplifier, whereas Sonos or Premium Wireless would need 12 Ethernet ports for a 12-zone system (assuming you are hardwiring everything to maximize reliability). This can really help the budget if additional zones of audio would have required larger or additional network switches. In the consumer space, the Heos Drive has four zones of audio in one unit.

Fewer Power Outlets Needed — This is the same principle as the network ports. You can cover 12 zones of audio with two power outlets (one MMS-5 and one audio amplifier), reducing the need for additional IP power conditioners.

Less Rack Space Required for Larger Systems — For a six-zone home, I can put in an MMS-5 and a Crestron 6×100 matrix amplifier. That is a total of 3u in a rack. You might be able to fit three streaming media devices in a rack shelf, but more often it is two. Therefore, you need between 4u and 6u for a six-zone system. Multiply that out for a larger home, and you can save significant rack space by going with a professional-grade system.

Plays Better in a Managed Network — Consumer-grade solutions tend to have more issues with more sophisticated networks. I know Mark faced challenges with Spanning Tree Protocol and Sonos, where zones just randomly dropped off the network. The two best solutions he has found (by working with his networking partners; Sonos doesn’t really help with professionally managed network issues like this) is to either hardwire all Sonos players and turn off Sonosnet in all devices (not supported by Sonos) or to put all Sonos players on Wi-Fi, with nothing hardwired. I’m not intending to pick on Sonos here, but I don’t have enough hands-on, large-system experience with Play-Fi and Heos to know if they have similar issues with STP or other networking protocols.

Integration-friendly — These systems are designed for integration with control systems to provide a seamless experience for the end user and make things simpler on the dealer. Consumer-grade solutions are also moving in this direction — Heos has drivers for many control systems, Sonos now has a native driver in Savant, and Control4 has had its own Sonos driver for years and Fusion Research has an integration friendly Play-Fi product.

Fewer Points of Failure as Only Two Devices are Providing Audio to the Entire Home
— As mentioned above, however, if one fails, there is no music anywhere.

So far, my company has maintained a strong preference for professional-grade whole-home audio, but with DIY product getting better and integration with control systems becoming cleaner and formally supported, I can see opportunities where I might use DIY solutions on a case-by-case basis. As John Sciacca and Heather Sidorowicz have said on this site, why fight the consumer when they ask for something specific, especially if we can integrate with it and support it, with the full support of manufacturers?

What do you see as benefits of each type of system?