AirPlay's a very useful protocol, and it certainly extends the Sonos system's usefulness (and futureproofs it in the rapidly changing streaming marketplace). That said, AirPlay's limitations really do show off jut how mature Sonos' own system is: As yet, AirPlay can only output a single media stream, and its Wi-Fi broadcasting is nowhere near as stable as SonosNet. But it does give you a simple — and wireless — way to integrate mobile devices into your whole-house audio system; something that Sonos had lacked.
In some ways, the addition of AirPlay support makes Sonos' own Wireless Dock (which costs $119, roughly the price of an AirPort Express), obsolete — though the Wireless Dock has a few advantages: it lets you browse a docked iOS device's music library directly from the Sonos controller, it plays back directly over SonosNet rather than making the initial connection over your local Wi-Fi, and it gives you an all-digital connection between your mobile device's library and your Sonos system, avoiding the DA/AD conversion your signal must undergo to get from the AirPort Express' analog output to the S5's Line In.
For most users, the free iOS and Android apps will be direct replacements for Sonos' own CR200 hardware controller, and simply by existing they cut the cost of entry to Sonos' universe by the $349 price of that unit. Whether a smartphone app is more or less convenient than a dedicated unit is largely a matter of taste and listening habits, but even so, for the average consumer using a phone in place of a dedicated remote is probably a no-brainer.
While AirPlay may not be an essential addition to the Sonos experience, if you entertain frequently, and your guests would like to play back tracks from their iPhones on your system, or if the members of your household frequently download new music primarily to their mobile devices, you might find it a we. You of course lose none of the versatility or performance of the Sonos system by adding an AirPort Express to one of your ZonePlayers, so there's no real downside beyond spending the $99 for an extra device, which, if you're not happy with, you can always use to host a networked printer, or extend your Wi-Fi signal. It's definitely worth a try.
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