Last week we talked about our favorite tools for HDMI success, and I got some really good feedback on it from readers. So this week, I wanted to talk about our favorite music streaming devices. I see the question asked a lot on Facebook and dealer forums, so thought I would throw my $0.02 in. There are two manufacturers I know really well (Autonomics and Sonos), one I know decently well (HEOS), plus a fourth for which I had to reach out to a friend who is a dealer (Control4). There are also plenty of others I’ve heard a lot about, but can not speak to personally, so I’ll just list a few of them at the end for you to check out or research on your own.
First of all, the two systems I know best are Autonomic and Sonos.
Autonomic is my go-to choice. It integrates flawlessly with Crestron and other control systems, with full search capability, and also has its own app for stand-alone installations (although we do not do any of those, so I can’t really speak to that aspect of the product line). They have systems from two streams into two rooms up to five streams into 16 rooms, and can scale larger than that. We typically just use the streamers, not the amps, as we use Crestron SWAMPs or 6x100s for our switching and amplification. Clients love the experience. Everything stays within Crestron, so we have complete control over how the GUI looks and acts, and the client never has to change apps or do anything other than what they are used to doing every day. Finally, Autonomic has a broad range of streaming services on-board, including full Spotify integration. We really do not like Spotify Connect, because it doesn’t work well in a multi-zone environment and we will not show it to clients.
Autonomic Pros: Complete integration; broad range of products; OvrC enabled; two-day shipping from SnapAV
Autonomic Limitations: No Apple Music; no wireless speakers for retrofit situations
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When either of the two above limitations are necessary, we move to the Sonos ecosystem. Right now, Sonos is the only player out there with direct Apple Music integration, so if we can not convince a client to switch away from Apple Music, we must use Sonos, as we do not like to use Airplay. We spend considerable time discussing the limitations of Sonos in a control system environment –– namely no direct control of the streaming services and only the ability to select from playlists and stations stations the clients has favorited, along with room grouping and volume control. For clients who are “station” people, Sonos works really well. For those who always want to tweak their playlists or make one on the fly, it means it is a real two-app solution because they will need to be in the Sonos app frequently, and we often then separate the music from the rest of the system to effectively give them a stand-alone Sonos solution for music, with minimal control from Crestron — just volume and room grouping from keypads. The other great thing about Sonos are the Play1 and SonosOne speakers. Very often we have retrofit situations, and getting new wiring to the powder room or kid’s bedroom is feasible. While we could theoretically go with an Autonomic MMS1e streamer and M120e amp and a pair of bookshelf speakers, that is a bulky solution as well as very expensive for a single zone (over $2500 before labor). Clients are much happier with a sleek SonosONE on the vanity in the powder room.
Sonos Pros: Brand-name recognition; many clients already own one before meeting us; highly flexible with stand-alone players: Connects, Amps, soundbars, and wireless subwoofers; great stand-alone system; works with pretty much any network infrastructure
Sonos Limitations: Limited integration into control systems
A third solution we know of and have used, but rarely turn to, is HEOS. We just get much of what we want from the above two players and do not have a great fit for HEOS in our lineup. I know many integrators who prefer to stick with one manufacturer, and, for them, HEOS is a great fit. It blends much of what is good about Autonomics with what is good about Sonos. HEOS has full control and functionality with a control system and is designed with the integrator in mind. For the client, there is a cost and space savings by having HEOS built into all Denon and Marantz AVRs — no external box is required for rooms served by the AVR. For the integrator, this also means that any input into the AVR is also an input into the whole-home audio system, easily distributing audio from the cable box, Roku player, Blu-ray, or any other device to all other HEOS zones.
Heos Pros: Full control system integration; highly flexible with stand-alone players: links, amps (single room and multi-zone), soundbars, and subwoofers; very good end-user app; built into all Denon and Marantz AVRs; works with pretty much any network infrastructure
Heos Limitations: Limited streaming partners; Spotify Connect only
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Here I had to rely on input from Mark Feinberg of Home Theater Advisors, as I am not a Control4 dealer and am not familiar with their product offerings. With the EA series of controllers launched several years ago, Control4 got into the streaming music business. The great thing is that just by having a Control4 controller in the home, the client has streaming music. Each controller is capable of 1-5 independent streams (EA1=1 stream, EA3=3 streams, and EA5=5 streams). Paired with Control4/Triad amplification and matrix switching, the client has a whole home audio system, often for a lower cost than a comparable Sonos system, with full integration. The client also has a modicum of control with the new Add Music driver, which lets end users add music services to their Control4 interface without having to reach out to a dealer. With Control4 regularly adding new music partners, this is a great feature for end users. In order to bring music to more rooms, Control4 also has the Triad One streaming amplifier. When paired with an EA controller, it adds streaming music and amplification to another zone. This is great for retrofit situations where it is not feasible or economically viable to run wire to another zone, like a bedroom or office. The Triad One also has an optical audio input for TV audio and two IR outputs from the control system, so, when paired with a passive speaker bar, it can be a great solution for a TV installation in a secondary room, without the need for another EA controller. The only thing missing from the lineup is a stand-alone speaker for very small rooms.
Control4 Pros: Integrates flawlessly with Control4 (obviously!); economic benefit to client — no separate streamer required; broad range of products; decent and growing streaming services partnerships
Control4 Limitations: Only works with Control4 and does not work stand-alone; no stand-alone wireless speaker; requires professional-grade network infrastructure
Other than the four companies I have listed, I have also heard solid things about BluSound and Yamaha MusicCast, but I do not have any hands on experience with either to give an informed opinion.