The paradox of setup choice
Sonos is an easy to use, popular, and arguably the best wireless solution for listening to music throughout your home.
Choosing the best way to set up a new system is not so simple. Then again, anything to do with networking and then Wi-Fi on top of that, is never simple, is it?
Sonos has three possible ways to be configured. Each has their pros and cons. With obtuse lingo, especially for those of us that don’t live and breath wireless networking every day, it can be intimidating and confusing.
I have faced this paradox many times.
Setting up a new system you have to choice from several different options. The choice you make affects everything you do afterward. If you choose wrong, it can be a lot of work to back up and start over.
How do you choose between the three options Sonos offers?
Three Sonos installation options
There are three possible ways to setup a Sonos wireless music system:
Sonos Wired Mode
Sonos Wireless Client Mode
Sonos Wireless SonosNet Mode
These are my terms and choices based on reading documentation from Sonos, recommendations from Sonos, and advice from other Sonos experts.
Sonos itself only describes two choices, wired or wireless, as they blur wired and wireless SonosNet into a single choice.
I find it easier to understand if you categorize the setup options as three different choices. They often do blend together in most actual installations, but there really are three distinct technologies in use.
Sonos Wired Mode
This is straightforward. Connect your Sonos devices to your home network using wired Ethernet cables and RJ45 Ethernet jacks.
Most Sonos products have a built-in Ethernet connector that makes this very easy.
With a wired Ethernet connection, you will get maximum speed, efficiency, and throughput without any potential interference or signal problems.
To fully implement a wired-only configuration, be sure and use the Sonos app to select each Sonos device, in turn, and in the network settings disable the Wi-Fi option to make sure all wireless is completely turned off.
You’ll need to have Ethernet available in every location where you wish to place a speaker and you don’t get the benefits of wireless flexibility.
If you don’t or can’t turn off Wi-Fi in all your Sonos devices, then you will actually be running the most advanced configuration. See the special warning further down about “advanced networking with mixed mode configurations”.
Sonos Wireless Client Mode
This is the opposite of wired mode. Every Sonos device has built-in Wi-Fi hardware which is used in this mode.
Open the Sonos App and add each Sonos device to your home Wi-Fi network. You only need to type in your Wi-Fi network name (SSID) and network password to complete the setup.
Do not connect any of your Sonos products to wired Ethernet for a pure Sonos Wireless client Mode configuration.
The key thing with Sonos Wireless Client Mode is that each device is connecting to your existing Wi-Fi network as a regular network client.
Just like your smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop computers, and other smart home devices, the Sonos devices log in to your Wi-Fi network.
The advantage of Sonos Wireless Client Mode is that it is wireless and straightforward. It doesn’t require being a wireless expert or a deep understanding of networking design and configuration.
The disadvantage of Sonos Wireless Client Mode is that is it totally dependent on your existing Wi-Fi network for coverage and range.
If you have a standard combo Wi-Fi / router box provided by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) or broadband carrier, you many not have very good Wi-Fi coverage in your home.
It might reach your existing smartphone and laptop devices, but as you place Sonos speakers in appropriate new locations in your home, they may not be within good Wi-Fi range.
If you upgrade your home Wi-Fi gear to mesh networking or prosumer gear, it might not be fully compatible with Sonos.
Once you delve into more advanced Wi-Fi and networking equipment (usually a good thing that I strongly recommend), you also bite off management and troubleshooting duties that may be beyond your skill or desire to fiddle.
Sonos Wireless SonosNet Mode
When Sonos was first created, home Wi-Fi networks were small and not ubiquitous. Requiring existing Wi-Fi to use distributed music was problematic because range and distance of installed wireless networks were severely limited.
Residential solutions for multiple access points, network extenders, and mesh topology either didn’t exist or were unreliable.
Faced with the reality that in order to provide a reliable, modular, and wireless whole-house music system Sonos could not rely on existing Wi-Fi, they found a novel solution.
Without getting into all the technical nuts-and-bolts, Sonos created their own Wi-Fi wireless mesh system long before now popular solutions like Eero and others existed.
It’s ridiculously simple. Just plug exactly one Sonos speaker (or any other Sonos device) directly into wired Ethernet.
It uses it’s built-in Wi-Fi hardware to create it’s own completely separate Wi-Fi network they call SonosNet.
There is no configuration. You don’t enter a network name (SSID), password, or set any options. It’s completely self-configuring and automatic.
As you add additional wireless Sonos speakers, they automatically join the SonosNet private wireless network. (Ok, you do have to use the Sonos app and do a very quick setup – but it easy and the app guides you through it.)
The magic of SonosNet is that each Sonos device you add grows the network. Each device adds additional coverage and range to the network.
As your SonosNet grows, you gain more distance and the ability to reach the far corners and floors of your home that your existing Wi-Fi can’t handle.
There are more advantages to SonosNet than just distance and range. SonosNet isn’t Wi-Fi. At a technical level, it uses Wi-Fi technology but is slightly different.
The visible result is that SonosNet is invisible. You can’t see SonosNet in your home using typical network commands and tools.
You won’t see a network name (SSID). More than hiding it’s SSID, SonosNet doesn’t use a conventional Wi-Fi SSID. Wireless network packets can’t be seen or captured with network diagnostic or common hacker tools.
Although network security experts say this is just security-by-obscurity (which they frown upon), the end result is more like out-of-sight and out-of-mind.
Ignoring security threats and hackers, the majority of network problems in most consumer homes is accidental. Fiddling by the homeowner with settings they don’t fully understand, a too-inquisitive teenager, or a helpful “friend” that doesn’t really know as much as they think they do.
SonosNet is self-contained, self-managed, and out of their reach!
It’s not a panacea
SonosNet may not be right for everyone. For best results, there are a few things to be aware of that might require more advanced settings or network expertise.
SonosNet only runs on 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi. It does not use the newer, higher speed 5 GHz Wi-Fi radios.
Usually, this is actually a good thing. 2.4 GHz signals are stronger, penetrate walls more easily, and reach over longer distance.
If you have a very large home network, and lot of Sonos Speakers, and you like streaming a lot of simultaneous lossless/high quality music streams at the same time, you might prefer the higher speed and dedicated bandwidth of wired Ethernet.
SonosNet allocates a Wi-Fi channel for itself. This helps minimize interference from your regular home Wi-Fi. It is best to manually assign your existing regular Wi-Fi network to different channels so they do not overlap with SonosNet.
Doing that will require knowing how your own Wi-Fi equipment works. Some consumer Wi-Fi systems, especially those provided or rented to you by your ISP, do not allow manual configuration of Wi-Fi channels.
Advanced networking with mixed mode configurations
If you want the benefits of connecting your Sonos devices using wired Ethernet for maximum performance and reliability, but can’t completely disable Wi-Fi in your Sonos devices, then keep reading.
Although this “mixed mode” setup might be considered a fourth option, I prefer to think of it as an advanced variation of the wired Ethernet choice.
Sonos is cleverly engineered to prevent network loops – misconfiguration where the same data packets get sent over and over again around the network causing network instability, congestion, and often the complete meltdown (aka failure) of your network.
If you connect more than one Sonos device to wired Ethernet and leave the built-in Sonos wireless Wi-Fi enabled, Sonos can no longer guarantee you won’t have network loops.
So you have to rely on the loop prevention mechanisms built into some, but not all, network equipment.
Smart Ethernet switches use spanning tree protocol (STP) or rapid spanning tree protocol (RSTP) to detect and stop network loops.
Since every network is wired differently, the user (that’s you), has to configure the STP or RSTP priority settings inside all the Ethernet switches for proper operation.
Basic consumer Ethernet switches, especially the ones built into that combo Wi-Fi router from your Internet Service Provider (ISP) or that you bought online or at a big box retail store, have only dumb Ethernet switches.
That’s a mixed blessing – there is no configuration needed or available. But ignorance is bliss doesn’t play well with Sonos in a mixed setup as Sonos expects the underlying network to handle things.
STP and RSTP considerations
STP is a software scheme used in networking equipment to detect repeated loops in the physical configuration. With Sonos, you are combining (or bridging) two networks: The Sonos wireless network with your existing wired network.
For modern network equipment used in business and commercial installations, the newer RSTP protocol has replaced STP. It is supposed to be better but also backward compatible with the older STP.
However, Sonos equipment requires STP. They don’t work with RSTP even though it is all supposed to be seamless and backward compatible.
So if you have Sonos gear, you must reconfigure all your gear to use STP instead of RSTP. This little “gotcha” trips up even the pro’s that may not be aware of this nuance. It can take many hours to track this down in a malfunctioning network.
If STP is configured improperly, not just your Sonos gear, but all your devices connected to your home network, wired and wireless, may not work properly.
This extra complexity is created when you have more than one Sonos device connected to wired Ethernet.
Remember, you only need exactly one Sonos device connected to wired Ethernet to enable Sonos to bridge all your speakers to your network. For many homes, this is sufficient and more than enough.
The rule of thumb used by many professional installers, is to connect exactly one Sonos device to wired Ethernet or be prepared for a world of hurt.
If you must connect more than one speaker to wired Ethernet, be absolutely sure you have no alternative and then deep dive into the more advanced configuration requirements and network design to insure this is done properly.
Wired Sonos soundbar considerations – for all modes
If you have any Sonos soundbar products in a surround sound home theater setup, you’ll need to leave Wi-Fi enabled for those devices.
A direct 5 GHz Wi-Fi link is established between the Sonos soundbar and Sonos speakers used as rear surround sound speakers and/or a subwoofer. That link won’t work if you disable the Wi-Fi settings.
You can still hardwire the soundbar, so technically this is a hybrid installation of wired and wireless, but home theater mode will not work if Wi-Fi is disabled even if everything else is wired.
As this time, soundbar products include Sonos Playbar, Sonos Playbase, Sonos Beam, Sonos ARC, and Sonos Ray.
One more thing (or two)…
The Sonos Move and Sonos Roam are battery powered/rechargeable wireless speakers.
They don’t have to be plugged into AC power in order to be used so can be placed in locations that are not near a power outlet.
Unlike everything else, they only work in Sonos Wireless Client Mode. They connect to your existing Wi-Fi network using the network name (SSID) and password.
They are not capable of using SonosNet or being hardwired to Ethernet.
So in the context of everything already mentioned, you have no decision to make. Regardless of how you have set up the rest of your Sonos system, you always connect the Sonos Move or Sonos Roam to your existing Wi-Fi network in Sonos Wireless Client Mode.
Which configuration do I recommend?
It depends 😃. Without knowing your specific network equipment, home layout, and Sonos products you own or plan to buy, it would not be fair for me to give specific advice.
My general advice is to review all three configuration options and then determine which is the best for you. Or ask for help!