If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Sonos must be feeling pretty flattered right about now. Either that or pretty pissed off. Ever since Denon decided to throw its hat into the wireless audio ring, it has been ripping pages from Sonos’s playbook with the kind of unapologetic swagger you’d expect from Donald Trump. Its first HEOS product line up included the HEOS 3, HEOS 5, and HEOS 7, which not only mirrored Sonos’s strategy of offering different sizes of speaker for different applications, it blatantly matched Sonos’s naming convention of using the number of speaker drivers to identify the products (Play:3, Play:5).
Sonos responded to this flattery with a lawsuit (which Denon then tried to quash) but just like Trump, Denon doubled down rather than back down. Its HEOS product line has ballooned over the last 24 months and now includes four stand-alone speakers, a soundbar/subwoofer combo, two wireless receivers (one that’s amplified and one that isn’t), a wireless range extender, and a rack-mountable four-zone amplifier and audio distribution unit. Two months ago, the company revamped almost every product to include Bluetooth and hi-res audio support under a designation it calls HS2 (look for this to know you’re buying the latest version).
During the same period, Sonos has taken a much more conservative approach to growth — possibly due to Denon’s competitive pressure — introducing only one new product (a refreshed Play:5 speaker) and one new feature: The very clever Trueplay system which tweaks EQ settings using your smartphone’s mic.
So does this mean that Sonos has ceded its pole position to Denon? No, not yet. But the race has gotten a lot closer.
It’s a whole new low
First, let’s take a look at the entry-level speaker line-up. When Denon entered the space, its HEOS 3 was the least expensive model and the only one that could be configured as a stereo pair. It was tempting to compare it to the Sonos Play:1, but neither the price point nor the tech specs were a match — the HEOS 3 was in fact a mirror of the Play:3. Now, there’s a HEOS 1, which is a suitable match for the Play:1 with a similar driver configuration and an identical price point ($199). Just like its stablemates, the HEOS 1 severely outclasses the Play:1 when it comes to features. With ethernet, USB, and 3.5mm line-in ports on the back, the HEOS 1 is much more than a wireless speaker. But what really sets it apart from the Play:1 is its built-in Bluetooth receiver and optional $99 Go Pack rechargeable battery, a combination which makes the HEOS 1 a portable, self-contained music solution, no Wi-Fi needed. It might just be the most versatile speaker on the planet. The only baffling design feature is the configuration of the top-mounted volume and mute buttons. Though they share the same placement as the Play:1, the volume-up button faces toward you and the volume-down faces away — creating a bit of cognitive dissonance versus the Play:1’s more intuitive arrangement.
But it really doesn’t matter how many features a speaker packs if it can’t deliver great sound. And while the HEOS 1 sounds decent enough for a pint-sized speaker, it never lets you forget that it’s a pint-sized speaker. The Play:1, on the other hand, sounds far better than its size suggests, emitting a well balanced mix of clear highs and deep (if not quite thumping) lows. The difference between the HEOS 1 and Play:1 is apparent even at low volume levels and with bass/treble sliders set to the midway point, but crank these adjustments to their limits and the contrast becomes stark. Starting a track playing on the HEOS 1 and then switching to the Play:1 is like going from 2D to 3D – there’s just way more depth.
My guess is that sonic performance was the price Denon had to pay to make the HEOS 1 battery-powered as an option. Whether that’s an acceptable trade-off is ultimately up to the listener, but it’s worth noting that there is already an amazing array of portable, battery-powered Bluetooth speakers if that’s what you want.
Winner: Draw – Sonos has the edge when it comes to overall sound, but Denon HEOS kills it for versatility.
The driver dilemma
When Denon introduced its HEOS line up, the HEOS 5 and Sonos Play:5 appeared to be roughly equivalent. They shared the same $399 price point and their names suggested a similar number of drivers/amps. This wasn’t quite the case however — the HEOS 5 has four active drivers and amps, plus one passive bass radiator, while the first generation Play:5 had five active drivers and amps. Unsurprisingly, the better spec’d Play:5 delivered moderately better sound than the HEOS 5.
That was then; the landscape has changed since 2014. The second generation of the Play:5, released earlier this year, introduced a new design, new driver and amp arrangements (six of each — making us wonder why they didn’t change the name too) and a new price: $499. This positions the Play:5 between the $399 HEOS 5 and the range-topping HEOS 7 at $599. This creates a conundrum for direct comparisons.
What we can tell you is that the new Play:5 is superb. The sound quality is much improved over the previous generation (which was already a great speaker) with a wider range of frequencies and fuller sound stage. Sonos has managed to improve both the high and low ends, without sacrificing definition through the mid-ranges. To my ears, the Play:5 exhibits its greatest strength with vocals — particularly female voices — which now possess a clarity that goes beyond what the first generation was capable of. That’s not to imply that bass isn’t represented — it is, at times thunderously so — but let’s just say that Sonos hasn’t obviated the need for its own SUB product for those who want to feel the bass in their bones.
Design-wise, the Play:5 strikes out in a new direction for Sonos, one that increases the visual distinction between its product and those of competitors like Denon. With its rounded-obelisk shape and perfectly smooth contours, the new Play:5 takes minimalism to a new extreme for the company. Gone are the top-mounted and instantly recognizable volume/mute/pause buttons in favor of integrated touch-based versions, which introduce a new swiping gesture for skipping forward or backward on playlists.
But also gone is the secondary ethernet port and headphone jack from the back of the unit. The new design borrows from the Play:3’s ability to be oriented in either horizontal or vertical positions, automatically switching between stereo and mono when you change it. It’s also a beast: At 14 pounds, it weighs more than most bookshelf speakers and is four pounds heavier than the HEOS 7, which is itself a brute. There are no mounting options for the Play:5, so you’ll need a sturdy place to rest it.
Now that the Play:5 has been given super-powers compared to its first incarnation, does it manage to catch up with the HEOS 7? Almost. I was certainly rooting for it, but in the end, Denon’s top-of-the-line wireless speaker still delivers bigger, richer sound. It’s a judgement that defies logic in some ways: The new Play:5 actually has more active drivers than the HEOS 7 — six vs. five — each with its own discrete amplification source, but apparently their size and/or configuration (or the cabinet in which they’re mounted) aren’t quite able to offer the same performance as the HEOS 7. Is it a $100 difference? Yes, I think it is. If you want the best sound from just one wireless speaker, the HEOS 7 is the way to go.
Winner for best room-filling sound (with a single speaker): Denon HEOS
High hopes for high-res
I’ve always been on the fence when it comes to high-res. After spending time with a hi-res Walkman from Sony, I became convinced that you need very expensive headphones and a perfectly quiet environment to hear any appreciable difference over a high-bitrate MP3 or 16-bit lossless file like FLAC or Apple Lossless. Even then, the difference didn’t seem that significant. So even though Sonos has continued to resist adding 24-bit high-res support, I haven’t been overly critical of this decision. After all, if I could barely hear a difference using an intimate set-up like a Walkman and studio-quality cans offering perfect stereo separation, how much difference could there possibly be on individual powered speakers? As it turns out, quite a lot.
To test the difference, I used two albums: What Hits!? by Red Hot Chili Peppers and — just for a complete contrast — Rumours by Fleetwood Mac. I downloaded 24-bit/96 kHz FLAC versions of both and compared these tracks to the CD-ripped 16-bit AAC versions from my iTunes library.
To establish a benchmark, I played the 16-bit versions on both the Play:5 and the HEOS 7. Both speakers delivered punchy performance and, as I mentioned earlier, the HEOS 7 generally sounded better than the Play:5. The next step was to A-B test the 24-bit versions of the tracks against the 16-bit versions on the HEOS 7 (Sonos can’t read 24-bit audio files).
The results surprised me. When played at lower volume levels, and with EQ set to the midway point for bass and treble, the differences were subtle. To some ears — my teenage kids in particular — the 16-bit versions actually sounded better than the 24-bit versions. I could see why — the 16-bit versions favored highs especially and created a brighter, crisper sound. Your brain could easily be tricked into thinking it was hearing a better sound. But as you ramp up volume and EQ, all of the subtleties hidden in the 24-bit tracks reveal themselves. The louder it gets, the more you hear — it’s like stepping closer to the instruments instead of simply increasing amplification. At the same volume levels — about 75 percent of the HEOS 7’s range — the 16-bit versions became painful, with both vocals and high-frequency guitar notes acting as sharp audio needles on the ears.
The same effect could be heard on the HEOS 5 and HEOS 1 (we didn’t test the HEOS 3) though the difference was most pronounced on the HEOS 7. I now consider myself a hi-res convert, but with one big caveat: 24-bit music is for listening. By that I mean, if you’re simply playing some light jazz as a background to a dinner party, or maybe your favorite indie tracks on low volume while studying, you do not need hi-res. But if you want to do the full-on Maxell ad from the 80s — sitting in your Barcalounger while your music blows your hair back — 24-bit hi-res tracks are awesome. I’m glad that Denon supports it and strongly encourage Sonos to follow suit.
N.B.: Only the 2nd generation HS2 HEOS speakers support the full 24-bit/96 kHz hi-res format, but as long as you have one HS2 component in your system, it can stream a lower-res version to any legacy speakers you have, thus avoiding a problem where a hi-res track can only be played on one speaker.
Winner: Denon HEOS (Sonos does not support 24-bit audio)
Bluetooth without the blues
With the addition of Bluetooth to the HS2 line of HEOS speakers, Denon has effectively made Wi-Fi optional for music listening if the tracks you want are on your phone. Pairing couldn’t be easier — a long press on the dedicated Bluetooth button sends the speaker into pairing mode (as indicated by a flashing green status light) and you can then select it from the list of available Bluetooth devices on your phone. Once paired, you can use the HEOS app itself for music selection, or any other audio source on your phone. This is the only way to expand the limited number of streaming music services available within the HEOS app itself.
We’ve got to hand it to Denon – it didn’t just make the HEOS line Bluetooth capable, it also made the speakers Bluetooth-shareable: Once you’ve paired with a HEOS speaker, your paired device becomes a selectable source for the rest of the HEOS speakers in your network, much like a line-in source works. It’s a clever use of the technology and from what we can see, it works seamlessly.
Winner: Denon HEOS (Sonos does not support Bluetooth)
It’s still about the software
One thing that has always set Sonos apart is its software. From its super-simple setup procedure to its powerful universal search, it’s clear the user experience for controlling a set of speakers is just as important to the company as the sound the speakers produce. With the exception of Trueplay, and a minor update that now shows album art and playback controls on the lock screen of iOS devices, little has changed for Sonos in the last two years. That’s not bad — though I’m sure more improvements are possible, it’s already an excellent system.
Denon, on the other hand, has also done little to improve its software, which is a shame because it really needs to. Set-up of new speakers is still a cumbersome task involving the included 3.5mm audio cable, button presses, status light monitoring and the inputting of WiFi passwords. If the rumors are true that Apple and other phone makers will soon be dropping support for built-in headphone jacks, Denon will have to find a new way of doing all this. Meanwhile, Sonos still kills it in the simplicity department with a simultaneous two-button press on a speaker — it’s all you need to get going.
The HEOS app is equally cumbersome when it comes to getting to your music. If you have music stored on your PC/Mac and also on a NAS or other attached storage, HEOS treats these as separate sources, meaning you need to know where that track you want is stored before you can call it up and play it. You can search your NAS, or you can search your PC, but not both at once. Sonos considers all of your network music one big volume, and lets you access your music collection any way you like – whether it’s searching or browsing. If your music collection is on a single physical drive, this may not matter much, but for those whose collections span several volumes, it’s a big drawback.
Similarly, if you subscribe to more than one of the small number of streaming services that HEOS supports (Spotify, Tidal, SiriusXM, Napster, Pandora, and Amazon Music) you’ll need to decide which one you want to search and listen to, as opposed to Sonos which lets you search all of your music subscriptions from one place. It’s also worth noting that if you don’t subscribe to any music services, HEOS doesn’t offer a way to remove them from the music home screen, or even re-order the tiles to put them at the bottom. Sonos won’t show you a music service unless you’ve added it and your choices are stellar – over 35 services, which include Apple Music and Google Play Music in addition to the ones offered by HEOS.
These are the big drawbacks to the HEOS app, but there are many smaller ones too. Like the fact that you can save a playlist as a HEOS Favorite, but there is no such option for individual tracks. Or the one-way trip that the app takes you on when selecting music to play: When you navigate, tap by tap, to find the particular song, station or playlist you want, but then decide you’d rather look elsewhere, you can tap the Music tab button twice to return to the Music home screen, but this is a destructive move – there’s no going back to your previous list. With Sonos, you always have the option to jump straight to universal search or the master list of services with just one tap – and these are both dismissible if you decide it wasn’t what you wanted.
If you’ve never used either system, these critcisms may sound like nit-picking — they aren’t. The whole point of a wireless music system is added convenience (otherwise we’d all be spinning vinyl and screaming at people to stop walking by the turntable and making it skip) so software usability is key to the experience. Denon has a lot of work to do on its software if it wants its customers to get as much joy from using HEOS as they do listening to it.
And the winner is…
For years, Sonos had the home wireless Hi-Fi market to itself. Now, with players like Denon aggressively courting the same customer base, it has to prove that it’s still the system to beat. For the most part, and largely thanks to its unmatched software and usability, it still is. But that lead is narrowing every day.
In some ways, Denon’s HEOS speakers were already superior to Sonos when they launched, from a hardware features point of view, and its new line of HS2 models up that ante further with the inclusion of Bluetooth and 24-bit hi-res music support, both of which increase the value proposition versus Sonos. Their HEOS 1 is now a highly versatile option, and could well become the entry point for a lot of younger buyers who don’t need a whole-home system yet, but want a product that matches their more mobile lifestyle.
If it was hard to pick a clear winner two years ago, it’s even harder today. That said, Sonos is still my recommended system. With its unparalleled mix of simplicity, music choice, usability, and sound quality, it remains the top choice. But there are now risks. If Denon solves its software deficiencies and if Sonos fails to bring the small but growing hi-res audience into its fold, that lead could erode quickly.