April 19, 2011 at 1:25 pm

Sonos Adds AirPlay, Android App to Home Digital Music System

Sonos AirPlay home audio networking

Sonos has always been way ahead of the curve when it comes to playing digital audio in the home. Early on, I likened it to “iPod Home” — the home MP3 player that Apple was too busy to make.

However, Steve Jobs has, at long last, phoned home.

Apple’s AirPlay technology can now wirelessly play music apps on an iOS device over a home entertainment system. It’s clear that Apple is finally catching up with Sonos, which must try to remain relevant now that Apple is starting to focus on the “iPhone Home.”

Sonos has a few key advantages, even so. It makes unobtrusive speaker systems that it’s been honing for years. And unlike Apple AirPlay, which can only stream to a single AirPort Express or Apple TV, Sonos’ Mesh network can play downloaded or streaming music in multiple rooms. By installing Sonos ZonePlayers (attached to speakers) or Sonos S5 (standalone speakers) around the house, anyone with a little extra cash to burn can pretend they’re Bill Gates, with a fully-networked house that can play any song or a wide variety of music services in any room in the house.

Today, Sonos doubled down on those advantages while acknowledging that, for many music fans, Apple AirPlay is going to be a big part of how they listen in the home. The new version 3.4 of its software allows you to connect an Airport Express ($99) to one of your Sonos systems to enable AirPlay in the whole system (see screenshot above).

“The cool AirPlay feature for music is sending a song from an iOS device to a speaker or receiver,” said Sonos founder and CEO John MacFarlane in a statement. “Today Sonos improves the AirPlay experience with party mode so a music lover can send a song from his iPhone or iPad [or iPod Touch] to all the rooms in a home with perfect synchronization.”

In addition to multi-room playback, which Apple’s devices can’t manage on their own, Sonos lets you play different songs from your music library in different rooms and control it all using a free iPhone (and now Android — see below) app.

Of course, Apple’s advantage is that any music app developer can integrate AirPlay into their apps, allowing apps such as Pandora, 8tracks, and so on to send music directly to an Apple TV or Airport Express. In order for such apps to play through Sonos’ multi-room system (something Apple cannot manage, because the music would go out of sync without Mesh networking technology such as Sonos’s), on the other hand, Sonos traditionally had to add direct support for the app or service.

By integrating with Apple’s AirPlay rather than fighting it, Sonos can now sell its multi-room/multi-song solution to music fans as they discover the joys of Apple AirPlay on a variety of apps. It’s a bold play for this home networked audio pioneer to adopt Apple’s proprietary standard, but a smart one, because Apple is growing into quite a presence in the living room.

Sonos is quite busy today; the company also announced a free Android controller app for controlling playback on Sonos systems around your living space with an Android smartphone.