Bose Versus Sonos in Wireless Music Face-Off: Rich Jaroslovsky

Can you put a price tag on mystique? When it comes to wirelessly accessing the music on your computer around your home, the answer is: $150.95.

That’s the approximate difference between the ZonePlayer S5 from Sonos Inc. and the SoundLink Wireless Music System from Bose Corp., known for its pricey Wave radios and CD players. Both Sonos and Bose give you rich sound from a single box, with no receiver, amplifier, stereo cables or iPod dock required. Both are easy to set up and use. While the Sonos costs $399, the Bose comes in at $549.95.

To be fair, price isn’t the only difference, and your choice may come down to what’s more important to you. If it’s expandability, Sonos is the way to go; if it’s portability and simplicity, the Bose may be worth the higher price.

The basic SoundLink system consists of the speaker and a small transmitter -- Bose calls it a key -- that plugs into a USB port of the computer where you store your music or access Internet radio. There’s no software to install: All you do is change a setting on your computer. Nor do you need a home Wi-Fi network; the transmitter and speaker create their own, independent connection.

The entire set-up process took me less than 20 minutes, and only that long because I placed the speaker upstairs from the computer, and had to run the steps a few times. Bose estimates the transmitter’s range at 60 feet: I did better than that, even with the floor in between.

Minimalist Approach

The SoundLink comes with a chunky power adapter, but it is really made for mobility. The unit has an internal, rechargeable lithium-ion battery that can last for three hours or more between charges; an extra one costs $89.95. And it weighs only 4-1/2 pounds, making it easy to move from room to room. The SoundLink comes with a minimalist remote control; if you’re an iTunes user with an Apple Inc. mobile device and a Wi-Fi network, you can use Apple’s free Remote app instead.

As an added benefit, the SoundLink has an auxiliary port allowing you to directly connect an mp3 or CD player. And while no all-in-one system can offer the kind of stereo separation you get in a multi-speaker set-up, the Bose provides remarkably good sound.

If the SoundLink has a weakness, it’s that you’re limited to one remote speaker per computer. Want music in the living room but the SoundLink is in the den? You’ll have to pick up the speaker and take it with you.

The Sonos, by contrast, is considerably less transportable -- it’s twice as heavy, and requires a power outlet -- but it allows you to build a system throughout your home for much less than a conventional hard-wired set-up.

Multiple Music Rooms

The ZonePlayer is also a little more complicated than the Bose. There’s software to install, and if the room you want music in doesn’t happen to be the one where your wireless router lives, you’ll also need a $99 device called a ZoneBridge that connects to the router and spreads the signal throughout your home.

On the other hand, you can have ZonePlayers in many rooms. Even better, each one can be playing something different -- John Mayer in the bedroom, the Beatles in the kitchen and Cee Lo Green in the basement. And if you’ve got the dough, you can even put two ZonePlayers in the same room and program one to act as the left stereo channel, and the other as the right.

To control all that, Sonos will sell you a dedicated controller for $349, but you’d be nuts to buy it. That’s because the company makes free, awesome apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch, and the iPad. It’s so good that if you don’t have an Apple mobile device, it’s worth your while -- to say nothing of more cost-effective -- to buy a $229 iPod Touch in order to run it. And of course, when you aren’t using it to control your ZonePlayer, you can use the device for many other things.

Using Your Speakers

Both companies offer options if you want to use audio equipment you already own. Sonos’s $349 ZonePlayer 90 connects to any existing amplified audio source, such as a home theater; the $499 ZonePlayer 120 provides its own amplification. And Bose sells $150 upgrade kits that allow some of its Wave music systems to access music on the computer as well.

Between the ZoneBridge, extra rooms and controller, the Sonos price tag can escalate rapidly. And as near as I can tell, no one will ever mistake a Bose product for a budget solution. But while true audiophiles may sniff in disdain, if what you’re after is lush sound from your digital music library where and when you want it, both Bose and Sonos deliver.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Rich Jaroslovsky in San Francisco at rjaroslovsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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