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Should I replace my hifi separates with a Sonos system?

  • 2 September 2016
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My system comprises an all British set of separates, including a pre-amp and mono blocs. It still sounds great after twenty years, but things change and technology marches on. Whereas I used to listen to CD's, I now stream my music via AirPlay. A Cambridge Audio DAC is the interface between the hifi and Apple TV. I'm considering selling the whole system and replacing it with Sonos kit, principally for music but also to integrate and upgrade my TV sound. My question is, should I expect the Sonos units to be truly comparable to the high end hifi I've known for years?
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Best answer by Kumar 2 September 2016, 15:10

My system comprises an all British set of separates, including a pre-amp and mono blocs. It still sounds great after twenty years, but things change and technology marches on.
Another angle on this: I don't know what make these separates are, but I know of one make - Quad - that is brilliant in supporting their kit for decades. Their UK service set up in particular, is excellent and can run a check on all electronics ever made by Quad and bring it back to As New, with even a limited guarantee. I have used this service from as far as India, and I know people from EU that also have nothing but praise for Quad service.

The reason I say this is that from a sound quality perspective, there has been a lot less audible progress than one might think. Depending on what and how good the passive speakers are, of course. Where Sonos has added features is in making a lot more music easier to access and to play. There may therefore be a case to keep this set up, and add just a Sonos front end in the form of a Connect. You could also add the cheaper Chromecast Audio, but having used both I think the easier to use Connect - even just the few control buttons that the Connect has - easily justifies the higher price when use over a few years is taken into account.

As I said, just another point of view to take into account.
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82 replies

@Paul123's advice is perfectly reasonable. But as he implies, it depends where you want to get to.

If you want all-singing all-dancing cinema surround sound, and don't mind speakers and wires everywhere, then get a AV receiver. If you just want better TV sound and a convenient way of playing music in one unit then a Playbar is a neat solution. The music sounds great but probably won't rival your separates. You should consider a traditional soundbar or soundbase as well.

You could keep your separates and DAC and use a Sonos Connect. But viewed in isolation a Chromecast is a cheaper option to "convert" your hifi.

If you want a purely Sonos music experience that gives a true audiophile experience then you need a pair of Sonos gen2 Play:5 speakers, possibly with a Sub. I have some pretty good hifi gear (Cyrus DAC/pre-amp with two Cyrus power amps and PMC floorstanders), but a pair of P:5s with a Sub is not far off it, at a quarter of the new cost. (Thankfully I didn't buy the trad hifi gear new!)

And how much of the Sonos multiroom experience do you want? Can you see yourself like me, with Sonos speakers just about everywhere? The easy multiroom control is a big plus for Sonos if you see yourself going down that route. (Actually, even if you can't see yourself doing that, once you start......)

These are just my opinions, of course.
Ha. I never spent more than £50 on cables because I couldn't detect any changes when auditioning them. I'm only too well aware of the great cable debate, but once magazines start making claims that USB cables sound different it's time to lie down in a dark room. It's hard enough to distinguish between a £200 Cambridge audio dac and a £3k one from chord! It's like hi res, the only HD tracks that were superior were the ones remastered in 24 bit!

You are going to get along just fine here! 😃
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If your thinking of tv, read all the posts on here about the playbar.
I would get a 7.1 av amp with dolby atmos inside, and google chromecasts to stream over superior wifi, just the same as sonos does.
If you want mutli-room with easy one make supplier, then sonos is what you want.

If you want a purely Sonos music experience that gives a true audiophile experience then you need a pair of Sonos... .

I agree; and I too have used traditional hifi separates for many years. In addition to the specific solution that follows the quoted bit, there are many others from the Sonos product line up that can deliver what is loosely called audiophile quality sound.

But adding TV to this assertion can get tricky, so if you want state of the art TV sound as well, you will want to look outside Sonos for a hybrid solution.

If you want a purely Sonos music experience that gives a true audiophile experience then you need a pair of Sonos gen2 Play:5 speakers, possibly with a Sub. I have some pretty good hifi gear (Cyrus DAC/pre-amp with two Cyrus power amps and PMC floorstanders, but a pair of P:5s with a Sub is not far off it, at a quarter of the new cost. (Thankfully I didn't buy the trad hifi gar new!)


Thanks John, that's really the advice I've been after. It addresses the two changes/limitations that prompt me to consider a change. One, I don't listen to stuff like I used to, sat facing the speakers and immersed in the experience. Two, having TV and music as separate entities is irritating me. A songs system seems to offer a reasonable trade off between the genuine audiophile experience and a more versatile AV/music platform. As 'furniture' too the Sonos stuff is far less intrusive and more adaptable in where it can be placed. RE multi-room, although it's an option it really doesn't feature as a key issue up front.
With music, I'm hoping to be impressed by Sonos, with TV I just want an improvement on the OE kit. Music is a hands down priority over TV any day for me!
You might check out Canton soundbases for the TV. They are neat and sound good. But there are plenty of good soundbars around as well.
Then Sonos for the music. You could get a couple of P:5s from the Sonos website and they come with a long return period. You could check them out in your own home before you commit to selling existing gear. I don't think you will return them.
In that case, Sonos can meet all your needs. You will be more than impressed by how much easier and neater - in terms of fewer boxes and associated cabling - the Sonos set up can be.

You do need to have a stable home WiFi environment though; Sonos needs that as a foundation. Multi room audio may well be the classic case of the unperceived need that Sonos meets in a way that is addictive; be warned:-).
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I moved house recently and didn't have room for my separates which used to be housed in my 'listening room'/office.

Although it pained me to get rid of the separates it was the right thing to do. I had boxed them up and were just sat there, so selling them released a bit of cash. In my living room I have 2 Play 1's (on Flexon stands) as well as a Sub. It's not quite up there with my separates system, but it is very good. My Connect and headphone amp (and headphones!) are in my new smaller office and I have a single Play 1 in the kitchen and a Play 3 in my bedroom.

I have a cheap Sony soundbar for use with my tv in lounge.

For a multi-room solution with a small footprint I've found it to be excellent. And I don't miss my separates.
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I only have 1 new Play:5 so I haven't tried an A:B comparison to my separates in my living room (Mid-tier receiver with B&W 600 series speakers). I would guess though a pair of the new Play:5's would give them a run for their money and free up a lot of wires and space.
My system comprises an all British set of separates, including a pre-amp and mono blocs. It still sounds great after twenty years, but things change and technology marches on.
Another angle on this: I don't know what make these separates are, but I know of one make - Quad - that is brilliant in supporting their kit for decades. Their UK service set up in particular, is excellent and can run a check on all electronics ever made by Quad and bring it back to As New, with even a limited guarantee. I have used this service from as far as India, and I know people from EU that also have nothing but praise for Quad service.

The reason I say this is that from a sound quality perspective, there has been a lot less audible progress than one might think. Depending on what and how good the passive speakers are, of course. Where Sonos has added features is in making a lot more music easier to access and to play. There may therefore be a case to keep this set up, and add just a Sonos front end in the form of a Connect. You could also add the cheaper Chromecast Audio, but having used both I think the easier to use Connect - even just the few control buttons that the Connect has - easily justifies the higher price when use over a few years is taken into account.

As I said, just another point of view to take into account.
. the monolithic old system robs me of space, dictates where I sit to enjoy it and doesn't hook up to my AV system. Multi-room isn't a priority at all for me (although I accept I might be persuaded if I get into the Sonos ethic) so Connect doesn't offer me anything much I don't have already.
Those are very similar to the reasons I ended up finally selling a SACD player+Quad amplification+Harbeth speaker set up even though the AV thing never had any appeal - my movies are in a dedicated room with a 2 channel amp and speaker pair that is very adequate for the task. But I found that I no longer wanted to be dictated to where to sit, and not listening to music for that reason did not seem to be the sensible thing to be doing! I dabbled around with Airplay before discovering Sonos in 2011 - I sold the last of my in storage legacy hifi kit in 2013/14 - and I am now listening to a lot more music, of much more variety, than ever before with no significant sound quality compromise. On the contrary: I haven't heard music sound as good as it does from a pair of play 1 units on my desktop that flank the computer, probably because the near field listening does't give room acoustics a chance to mess up things.
My learnings, apart from not having to do the tricky thing of mixing up AV and audio solutions:
1. Using a NAS for acquired music.
2. The value of subwoofer once I saw how well the Sonos Sub integrates with even the "cheap" play 1 units.
3. The contribution of "always on" to obtaining more music in the home.
4. The value of play units over even Sonos Connect/Connect Amp. The former are the logical conclusion of a move to Sonos, and one need not progress through the intermediate stages that the latter are. I have a couple of zones with Connect/Connect Amp, but if the electronics fail beyond repair at any time in the future, an appropriate play unit/s will replace it. Hopefully, someone will still want to buy the passive speakers at that time:-).
5. The usefulness of music delivery that is at a similar volume level across the space instead of too loud close to the speakers to be well heard away from them in anything bigger than a small space. Which is also a problem in a stereo set up that is limited by physics and psychoacoustics to yield the stereo image in a relatively very small part of the room. And that too from recordings where all that is needed to deliver this effect has been properly incorporated.

Others will have more to say on these lines, but I think this may be more useful than making recommendations for specific Sonos kit other than the advice to buy the kit on a returnable basis till you are sure you know what part of the range works best for you.
And some more learnings along the way:
1. Speaker placement remains important to obtain the best results - the heard sound is a result of the speaker+room interaction which is very dependent on this. While play units are easy to place anywhere, getting their full potential requires similar care that is taken over "hifi" speakers. However since for the most part play units are smaller in size than the latter, this is much more easily done.
2. All the talk about hi definition music, and even about lossless ripped CDs is smoke and mirrors. It is all down to the mastering quality where audible differences are concerned. I obtain perfectly good results from well mastered/produced music that has been bought on iTunes - in 256 kbps lossy format - as an example.
3. The brain is great servant but a lousy master. If let loose to actively look for defects in the music being heard, that is all it will do.
4. Finally, the best audio quality tweak I have found till now is having the lights down low, and a glass or two of wine. Or any other spirit that floats your boat.
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I'm in the same position! I've made the leap of faith though, and started dismantling and selling my extremely capable but expensive and massively compromised separates system. The amp is already sold, the monster ATC floorstanders lounging on ebay. In my case, a major standing wave problem that amount of room tweaking and adding a monster JB Audio sub could fix, so on a large suspended 2nd floor room I could feel sub 50Hz but couldn't hear it sat in my listening position. Like you, I have spent less and less time "critical listening", and find myself using Spotify more and more, and if I'm honest most of the time couldn't easily distinguish between high quality lossy Spotify and lossless FLAC streaming bit perfect. If the sonos system is similar to my old NAD and B&W 602 sound then I'll be more than happy, especially as I can move the speakers virtually anywhere in the house if I feel like a bit of that critical listening thing!
Stever750,

Although you can set up a fine audiophile level system with a Connect and your choice of amp/speakers (though self-proclaimed snake oil believing "audiophiles" will disagree), Sonos is the perfect system for recovering audiophiles. It gives you access to more music than ever before at the tip of your fingers (or very soon, the sound of your voice) and it eliminates all the room dominating speakers, the $4000 wires, the $10,000 separates, the cocobolo wood feet, the speaker lead risers, and other blah-blah-blah of audiophilia, and leaves you with nothing but the music. A theme you will see in here when the occasional "audiophile" wanders in to tweak us about the latest hires codec or "jitter free" CD transport is "Audiophiles listen to gear, we listen to music".

Welcome to the fold.
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Ha. I never spent more than £50 on cables because I couldn't detect any changes when auditioning them. I'm only too well aware of the great cable debate, but once magazines start making claims that USB cables sound different it's time to lie down in a dark room. It's hard enough to distinguish between a £200 Cambridge audio dac and a £3k one from chord! It's like hi res, the only HD tracks that were superior were the ones remastered in 24 bit!
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Let me give you my story.

I have been using Sonos for 5 years now. But like you, I had big 2 channel stereo setups. Sonos was the connect. But I was getting sick of seeing these speakers in the room, having to lay out the room based around the need for best placement of the speakers.

The sound from them was great. But I didn't want to play the game anymore. Seriously, X distance from rear wall, X distance from side walls (but those two can't be the same amount!) X distance from each other and that also has to be the X from you! Oh and then don't have your listening chair against the back wall!

F*#$ that S@*%. I'm done.

BUT - I still wanted great sound. I looked at the play 5 2nd gen. It sounded good in the store and also looked great. This was the first time I was looking for aesthetics as well as great sound. So I bought the white Play 5 2nd gen.

After a few hours listening (following Trueplay setup) I put my 2 channel system online for sale. That's how good the Play 5 2nd gen is. In some areas it was better than my setup. I know it's only one speaker but the array design does spread the sound nicely in the room.

I don't think I will do the stereo pair because I realised after I started going to see live classical music that was unamplified that stereo is not real. You don't hear a live unamplified orchestra (or whatever) split down the middle with defined left and right channels LOL it's just a wall of sound with a forward placement. The play 5 on its own in array mode doesn't put out monaural sound so it's still big open and wide.

I am one happy camper. I'm not doing the big setup anymore. I've since bought 2 play 1s, one for the kitchen and one for the bedroom. Music all over the house is a wonderful price to pay for ditching the separates in one room.

As a slight bonus - the power consumption of the play 5 is so low it's really quite amazing. With mine at 3/4 volume (about 85db) it draws an avg of 15 watts. My old Rotel stereo amp drew 45 watts just on with no music playing.

At the end of the day it's about the music. I spent so much money and time trying to prefect the 2 channel setup that I forgot to listen to the music. Audiophiles end up listening to the speakers, not the music. Now it's all about the music for me. 🙂
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A week in... OK I have decided that unless I need (I don't) a single speaker in say my bathroom, then I am done with play 1 purchases. The 5 continues to massively impress. Midrange is exceptional, bass nice and taught and a good thump. I'm guessing this is the benefit of an active system, I'm beginning to understand what some of the fuss is about. However, I heard a devialet phantom during the week, and it's on another planet if you're an audiophool. Seriously though, it's mighty impressive but relatively the same value delta over a passive system. Can it really be down to just that..?

In other news, I ventured into the what hi fi forums after about a year away, and the vitriol and intellectual arrogance was so depressing. Don't bother unless you have a wicked sense of humour....
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A live trumpet player is pretty loud and a big dynamic range. The only way you can replicate it is to play the recording in the same venue. Trying to recreate the ambience of the original venue in your living room is nigh impossible, since your room has its own peculiar signature. That, I think is why hi fi "fails". That's why it's a bit more than just frequency response, time delay and phasing are probably just as important.
Would said trumpet player - or better still, with a back up of guitar and drums - playing live in a largish living room, be completely replicable by any audio system out there, played in the same room? I have my doubts. And if so replicable, is there any objective way of demonstrating this or the gaps where it falls short? Time delay and phasing ought to also be measurable by instruments if they aren't to be just more of audiophile jargon.
Interesting question. I would think that if the trumpet was recorded with a close mic in an acoustically-inert environment (so no room effects were recorded), and then played back through a single speaker in any room, and compared to the trumpet played from the same location as the speaker, that someone in the next room would not be able to tell the difference. That's a fairly artificial setup, and would be harder to do for multiple instruments. Also, some instruments are not point sources like a trumpet (e.g. piano).

Most recorded music has some sort of reverb recorded or applied afterwards. When this is played back in a normal reverberent room, the results cannot be the same. We hear a mixture of the two reverb fields (recorded and playback room).

The other interesting thought experiment is to record instruments including their reverberation environment and play back in an inert room (i.e. anechoic chamber). Would we be fooled into thinking we're in the original recording environment? I don't think so because there would be no reflected sound off the walls like there would be in the original environment.

Fortunately our brains are pretty good at compensating (self-deception?) and we can enjoy music despite it actually sounding artificial.

Cheers, Peter.
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So, a month or so in. The big ATCs went last week, and I admit it was depressing. Years of researching and listening, wallet driven optimism and item mistaken gone in the back of a random passat estate. Just me and the 5s left. I've already dismissed the 1s as anything more than a hi fi kitchen speaker, as a replacement for a top flight separates not a chance. The 5s though are in a different league, and I'm really impressed. You can't beat a tightly screwed down box with multie small long throw drivers for fast response, I guess adding the active amplification is the final bit of the jigsaw because these things rock. OK, at gig levels they're not as clean as my old system, but they are much better than any passive system at the price. The guy that bought my speakers brought his NAD C370 and 540 CD player, which I know well as I had them a few years ago, and the play 5 was a better compromise. Slightly unfair as the NAD is not an amp to drive big ATC speakers, but that's the point. I'm a convert to active speakers.
You dont need the sub for music.

I may be wrong, but I thought that Kumar espoused the use of 2 x Play1 + a sub...

These are the same Play 1s that you have evaluated - "I've already dismissed the 1s as anything more than a hi fi kitchen speaker, as a replacement for a top flight separates not a chance". Yet Kumar refers to them as "highest sound quality".

I learnt many years ago that we're all different, and have very different quality standards when listening to music. I used to have a Quad + Kef setup. Nothing exotic, but not too bad for the time. I was astonished when a friend admitted that they couldn't hear any difference whatsoever between this setup and their own combined mini system (IIRC cost about £100) other than my system went louder. To me, it was chalk and cheese - their system sounded horrible...

IMHO, it's almost impossible to have a meaningful discussion about perceived sound quality in an on-line discussion....
but that doesn't mean that everyone else will.

Of course everyone won't, never said otherwise anywhere, did I? But and on the other hand, many have found it to be so, not just I. And I have still to hear any one dismiss a well placed and true play optimised play 1 pair + Sub set up as something that doesn't have a chance. Till now. Comments I have heard seem to be about a single unit casually placed somewhere and then dismissed - and in that case, rightly so.
But you miss the point - and that is don't trash a 1 pair + Sub set up without trying it out with an open mind, in a room that isn't too big for it, with True play tuning done. Which kind of mind anyone even asking the question in the thread title would presumably have, and the Sonos returns policy makes it easy to do so, for such people. And beyond that is the 5 pair + Sub. Though I am sure you will find people that will dismiss that using the exact same words that you have quoted. Probably because it can be bought on Amazon and Best Buy.

But adding TV to this assertion can get tricky, so if you want state of the art TV sound as well, you will want to look outside Sonos for a hybrid solution.


Thanks Kumar, With music, I'm hoping to be impressed by Sonos, with TV I just want an improvement on the OE kit. Music is a hands down priority over TV any day for me!
Thanks! Experiences like your encourage me to make the break with conventional separates.