Sonos vs. Heos: A Buyer’s Guide

If you’re reading this and you don’t know what Sonos or HEOS are, you may want to read my previous post or come back to this when you are faced with this choice (if ever). This post does not attempt to sell the virtues of wifi multi-room audio compared with other multi-room options. It’s also worth saying that there are other players in the wifi multi-room game these days – but that in South Africa these are the most likely two options.

I have spent the better part of a month to-ing and fro-ing between these two systems. In the end i have chosen to go with the Sonos setup and I’ll tell you why in a minute. But fairly briefly I am going to outline the relative strengths and weaknesses of these two systems.

Overview

They are very similar. That is the bottom line. In fact, if Sonos’ rantings are to be believed, Denon has effectively stolen a bunch of ideas and technologies from them and they are going to be suing their asses ASAP.

Both systems consist of the same components: three levels of self-contained speaker/amplifiers; a unit that links non-wifi amps into the ecosystem; a stand-alone amplifier; and a surround-sound set of components including soundbar and sub-woofer.

They also both offer smartphone and tablet-based software which controls the flow of audio from your device to one or more speakers.

Denon – and some audiophiles by extension – argue that their speakers produce superior sound. Sonos argues that they have better software and better integration with smart home systems.

The reality is that neither of these systems are what true audiophiles would select. They are great for background music or for contexts in which each vibration of each violin string is not required. Make no mistake: the sound is good. Both systems feature clear, crisp reproduction with good bass, even without a sub. But it is what it is: it has much more to do with clever distribution of sound within your home, from various sources, than it does with satisfying the SysOps on AVForums

In South Africa anyway they are sold at a similar price point, so even that isn’t much of a deciding factor.

So let’s look at a few features before wrapping up with my decision and reasons.

Aesthetics

Anything you put in your house is both functional and decorative. Aesthetics are a personal thing but this is one respect in which Sonos and HEOS are very different.

The Sonos overall has a more solid, modern look informed, one might say, by the look of PC speakers and i-Device docking stations. The HEOS, whilst distinctive, look more like modified hi-fi speakers. Both are available in black or white, and in the end will come down to your own tastes.

For me the white Sonos are the winners – they are clean, square and modern, and they fit with my tastes.

heos-vs-sonos-design-comparison

Heos left; Sonos right (the Sonos here is a mix of the white and black models)

Source: Venturebeat.com, where you can also read this excellent showdown review.

Sound

Let’s turn to something a little less superficial. How do they sound.

I have auditioned only the PLAY:1, HEOS 3, PLAY:3 and HEOS 5. The high-end models I have heard briefly in-store.

Both PLAY:1 and HEOS 3 are impressive little units. They both have two amps and two speakers and both push out impressive sound for their size and cost. In fact they are so good that I am going to be largely buying these, pairing them up in some rooms to create a stereo field (which both systems support).

PLAY:3 and HEOS 5 are a little more controversial. They’re both good, I’d say Denon has the edge on the larger unit as far as sound goes. But it would because it has a higher spec. But neither is quite as powerful or compelling as one would hope. They both feel like compromises on the larger unit which is why I am investing in a PLAY:5 instead of a PLAY:3, even though it’s more power than I need.

Again you won’t be disappointed with the 3/5, but they just feel a little compromised.

I have to stress that these are all really good speakers. You will be surprised by how full and detailed the sound is and in most circumstances they will be more than adequate. Considering all the other advantages any compromises on sound are, to me, worth it.

Networking

Here’s where the power of these systems really comes to the fore. You buy the units, connect them to your network (in both cases this took under 5 minutes), and place them around your house. Fire up the app and you’re playing music. The entire setup from unboxing to party-time is maybe 15 minutes – and that’s if you’re shuffling pretty slowly between rooms.

Of course wifi music relies on decent wifi. Fortunately in a home setting decent wifi is not an expensive proposition. Both systems also support wired networks but that, to me, defeats a lot of the object of not running a wired speaker system in the first place.

The advantage the Sonos currently has is that its speakers form a mesh network – extending the network coverage with each speaker. How reliable this is as a way to network your home I’m not sure as repeaters lose bandwidth as they go. But with powerline ethernet these days, as well as excellent quality wifi access points at low cost, this really isn’t going to be a problem unless you live in Great Pyramid.

Neither of these systems directly support Airplay. They require their own proprietary apps. The reason is obvious which is the ability to handle the multi-rooming. One does suspect that Apple will implement a multi-room Airplay at some point in the future making this kind of thing obsolete. Although I have to say the flakiness of Airplay is surpassed by how stable Sonos seems to be.

Apps

The early versions of the HEOS app were buggy and unreliable, and the internet is littered with complaints about them. From what I have seen a lot of this has been sorted out and they seem to work pretty well.

Sonos, however, have been doing this a long time and their app is particularly good. Switching between different rooms, grouping rooms together, controlling volume etc. is all painless and seamless. The HEOS does the same job, but has various UX bits and pieces that could improve.

Of interest is integration with third-party streaming services, the next big way we will all be listening to music in the future. Right now Sonos has a lot more options than HEOS – including TIDAL, the amazing new high-quality service from Jay Z. No doubt Denon will catch up – and already has a few items Sonos doesn’t have – but for now Sonos remains out in front.

Neither, it is worth saying loud and clear, can stream your music from iCloud. Both work with local music on the device, music in a dedicated library (imported into the ecosystem and residing on a server) or one of the supported streaming services. This isn’t the end of the world as you can download your required iCloud content onto your device. But it is annoying. Will it be resolved? That depends on whether Apple decides to try and take these guys on or play nice with them.

Sonos also has a desktop app – which is quite nice. It’s not the greatest app on the world – for example you have to import music from a file system into its library as it doesn’t integrate with iTunes – but it’s great for managing the multi-room and giving you control beyond the little screen.

Worth mentioning

One thing Denon has going for it which Sonos doesn’t is that it’s Connect unit – that links a non-wifi amp into the system – is built to integrate with Denon amps. That means you can end up controlling, at least to some extent, the Denon amp from your app. That will save a few clicks and fishing around for an extra remote control to change zones on the amp or manage volume level.

Bottom Line

If mutli-room wifi audio is what you’re after, either of these systems will do.

For me there are three good reasons to stick with Sonos:

  1. Heritage: these guys have been at this for years and are good at it. A lot of the bugs are still to be worked out in the Denon system and right now it’s just less hassle to go with the market leader. This will change, probably fast, but 1st generation products are always to be regarded with some skepticism
  2. Apps: the Sonos app is better, for now. More integration, slicker, and with a desktop version.
  3. Networking: having the mesh network is a nice option, even if its not the backbone of your wifi strategy. Denon is apparently releasing a firmware upgrade to offer this soon – but like many things with HEOS there is a lot on the list of promises.

For pure sound, Denon has some advantage. And the integration with their range of amps and AVR’s is nice. But when it comes to buying something you’re going to have for years, it seems wiser to go with an established leader whose products have rave reviews all over the place.

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