At the recent CEDIA Expo, wireless multiroom audio systems were a hot topic, with a number of big-name audio manufacturers introducing systems designed to compete against the current king of the hill: Sonos. The casual observer may wonder, why now? Sonos has been around for years. Why the sudden onslaught of high-profile competitors? The answer is DTS Play-Fi.
Play-Fi isn't exactly brand new, either. This WiFi-based audio streaming solution was developed by Phorus founder Dannie Lau, and the technology first appeared in the Phorus PS1 speaker back in 2012. Phorus was purchased in July 2012 by a little company you may have heard of called DTS, which made the decision to license Play-Fi to other companies. Those licenses are now rearing fruit, in the form of now-shipping Play-Fi systems from Wren, Polk Audio, and Definitive Technology, plus more to come from MartinLogan, Paradigm/Anthem, CORE Brands (SpeakerCraft, Niles, Proficient), and Fine Sounds (McIntosh, Wadia Digital, and Sonus Faber). Given the current surge, we figured now was a good time to get everyone up to speed on what Play-Fi is, how it works, and how it compares with other wireless options like Bluetooth, AirPlay, and Sonos.
A Play-Fi system has two core elements. First is the Play-Fi-enabled speaker or other playback device (including amplifiers, preamplifiers, and adapters to add existing audio gear to the Play-Fi ecosystem). Second is the Play-Fi app that allows you to access, stream, and control the music on your mobile device and/or computer. At first, Play-Fi was only available as an Android app, but now the free DTS Play-Fi app is available for Android, iOS, Kindle Fire, and Windows PCs, which gives it virtually ubiquitous compatibility. Licensees may choose to design their own Play-Fi app in lieu of the basic DTS version.
Play-Fi allows for lossless audio transmission over WiFi (802.11n), immediately distinguishing it from Bluetooth, which uses compression to reduce larger file sizes. Play-Fi can currently transmit signals up to 16-bit/48-kilohertz; DTS recently added the ability to play back 24-bit/192-kHz files via Android devices, but the signal is converted to 16/48 for transmission. While Bluetooth's range is limited to about 20 to 30 feet between source and player, Play-Fi's range will be as robust as your home network. The caveat is that you must have a home network in place to use Play-Fi; the devices can't set up their own network the way Sonos products do.
Speaking of Sonos, one key distinction between these two wireless multiroom audio systems is interoperability. Sonos is great, but it is a proprietary system that demands the exclusive use of Sonos products. (To get the full rundown on how a Sonos system operates, check out our review of the Play:3.) In contrast, all officially licensed Play-Fi products will work together. So, you can build a multiroom system using Play-Fi products from a variety of manufacturers, giving you more freedom of choice based on your budget and brand loyalties.
In several respects, Play-Fi is similar to AirPlay, which also allows for lossless transmission over WiFi (it maxes out at CD-quality 16/44.1). Your iPhone, iPad, or iTunes-running computer will communicate with any officially licensed AirPlay product, regardless of manufacturer. However, AirPlay only allows you to send audio to one device at a time, at least through iDevices. Only through iTunes on a computer can you designate multiple AirPlay-enabled devices for playback. Play-Fi, on the other hand, is designed and optimized for multiroom, multi-speaker usage. You can send content to up to eight Play-Fi speakers from either your mobile device or computer; speakers can be grouped for zone playback, and you can send different sources to each zone from the same mobile device; and finally, different users can listen to different content on different speakers within the system simultaneously. DTS promises zero lag to ensure perfect audio synchronization around the house. (And, by the way, Play-Fi supports the FLAC format.)
DLNA support is also built into Play-Fi. So, through the app, you can connect to DLNA servers and NAS drives on your network to access more content and stream it through your Play-Fi system. Of course, manufacturers can also choose to incorporate technologies like Bluetooth and AirPlay into their Play-Fi devices - allowing you to connect your mobile device to the system via Bluetooth, for instance, and then distribute the music to Play-Fi products around the house.
Finally, DTS is building partnerships with a number of streaming music services for licensees to access through Play-Fi products, including Pandora, vTuner, Songza, QQ Music (in China), KK Box (in Taiwan and Japan), and Deezer (available worldwide, but Sonos recently announced an exclusive deal with Deezer to stream to U.S. subscribers). DTS recently announced support for Sirius/XM streaming, so subscribers can stream all of their favorite satellite radio channels through their Play-Fi products. That list isn't as robust as what Sonos offers at this point, but it's growing daily.
On paper, Play-Fi certainly brings a lot to the table and seems poised to give Sonos some serious competition. A lot of big names in audio are tossing their support behind Play-Fi, and its strong multi-zone bent and interoperability could inspire a lot of custom installers to shift their loyalties. Of course, success will ultimately depend on the quality of the individual Play-Fi systems, and we certainly plan to get our hands on many of them in the months to come. So stay tuned.
• Bluetooth, AirPlay, DLNA: What's the Best Streaming Format Today? at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Which Wireless Audio Technology Is Right For You? at About.com.
• Streaming-audio app Play-Fi takes on Sonos and AirPlay at CNET.