The wireless speaker market as we know it didn’t really exist until Sonos arrived with its modular system of small speakers which could be bought piecemeal and configured around the house as desired by the user. In a world of expensive, low quality speaker sets with unreliable connections, Sonos went from unknown to beloved brand overnight. Sonos has fended off competition from more recognized names including Bose, Samsung, and LG.
They face a very different competitor in Denon, who released its HEOS line of wireless speakers in 2014. Founded in 2002, Sonos has always described itself as “a software company.” Denon, by contrast, is one of the longest running and most respected names in audio, tracing its roots to gramophones in 1910. How does sound legend Denon’s HEOS system compare to the market-leading Sonos?
Taking a look at the product lines, HEOS and Sonos are remarkably similar in price and options, with Denon skipping the $199 entry-point occupied by the Sonos Play:1. The HEOS 3 and Play:3 both come in at $299 and the next model up, the HEOS 5 and Play:5, are both $399. What’s the difference in these rising price/model numbers to the end user? Simply put, the larger, more expensive modules can fill a larger, more open room with sound.
Upon closer inspection, the differences in physical design (and each company’s guiding philosophy) become apparent. The Sonos Play speakers are somewhat more elegant, with buttons that have multiple functions--double press Play/Pause to skip forward, long-press Volume Down to mute playback and single press Volume Up to restore the previous volume level. The HEOS speakers have an identical layout of single-function buttons.
Continuing the theme of streamlined tech, the Play speakers sport simple power cables while the HEOS units have bulkier wall-wart adapters (HEOS 3) or heavy power bricks (HEOS 5 & 7). Unfortunately, Sonos also plays the “streamlined” game of reserving more inputs/ports for its larger/more expensive models a la Apple. Denon offers the exact same ports on each model, no matter the price/size.
With both wireless speakers running neck and neck, it’s time for Sonos to reveal its trump card. Sonos has been in this market for years and is clearly the easiest to set up, with a (slightly) better app to control the system, and a generally more reliable wireless connection. Both HEOS and Sonos are configurable without a base station/range extender, requiring only your existing home WiFi router. Until recently, Sonos needed a $49 Bridge unit, but it’s now optional, like Denon’s $99 Extender.
Unsurprisingly, Denon swings the needle back in its favor when it comes to sound quality. Even with a slight hardware disadvantage (HEOS 3 and 5 have one less driver or amp than their Sonos equivalent), HEOS wireless speakers have a clearly perceived advantage to most ears. Both systems sound great and, since sound is so subjective, you should audition both with some of your favorite music if possible.
For most buyers of whole-home wireless speakers, convenience is king. If price or quality were paramount, they’d probably opt for more traditional systems. In this battle, there are no real losers, with both Sonos and HEOS offering flexible, great-sounding systems that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. True to form, the modern Sonos focuses on ease of use, while Denon, with its century of experience, leans toward sound quality. The winner ends up being the consumer, who can’t go wrong with either system.