For many years now, one name has been synonymous with wireless multi-room audio. That name, of course, is Sonos. It’s hard to believe that it has been 13 years since the company debuted its wireless platform and introduced whole-house music to a broader audience.
For a surprisingly long time, Sonos didn’t have much serious competition. A small challenger would pop up here or there, but the biggest names in audio didn’t seem all that anxious to jump into the fray. The times are changing, however, as there has recently been an explosion of competing wireless audio platforms–so much so that you might be struggling to keep up.
With that in mind, we’ve put together this quick overview of some of the major multi-room wireless audio platforms. You’ll quickly notice that these systems use a similar product template, offering an array of tabletop speakers, soundbar/sub combinations, and various adapters designed to integrate your legacy devices into the wireless ecosystem. Some of the elements that distinguish one system from another are: is it an open or closed wireless system; how many products/zones can be added; the design of the control interface; what mobile devices can you use with the system; does the platform support hi-res audio playback; how many streaming services are supported; and, naturally, how good does the system sound?
As I mentioned, Sonos has long reigned in this category, and the company is still going strong. In a Sonos multi-room system, you can create up to 32 audio zones with any speaker or component combination desired. In the past, Sonos products could only communicate over the closed peer-to-peer SonosNet wireless network that required a bridge product connected via wired Ethernet to your local network. However, in late 2014, Sonos released a major system upgrade that removed the need for the bridge and now allows Sonos devices to communicate over your home’s own Wi-Fi network, as well as SonosNet. Sonos still sells the Bridge ($49) and recently introduced the more powerful Boost ($99) to improve signal reliability in more challenging Wi-Fi environments.
Via the Sonos iOS/Android app and PC/Mac software, you can access and stream your local music files up to CD-quality resolution, as well as a lot of Internet streaming music services–including Deezer Elite, Spotify, Pandora, Tidal, Rdio, Amazon Music, Google Play, SiriusXM, and many more.
Sonos’ product lineup currently includes three tabletop speakers: the Play:1 ($199), the Play:3 ($299, check out our review here), and the Play:5 ($399), as well as a subwoofer ($699) and the Playbar soundbar ($699, check out our review here). Finally, the Connect ($349) and Connect:Amp ($499) allow you to incorporate existing audio speakers and sources into your Sonos ecosystem.
Like Sonos, Denon offers its own proprietary wireless audio platform, called HEOS, which works over your existing Wi-Fi network to stream up to CD-quality resolution. HEOS supports up to 32 music players on the network at once.
Denon offers a HEOS control app for iOS and Android, but not a PC/Mac app to access music directly from your computer. The current list of streaming partners includes Spotify, Pandora, Rhapsody, and TuneIn. All of the HEOS speakers offer the same connections options, which includes an auxiliary input and a USB input. When you connect a USB drive that’s loaded with music to one HEOS speaker, the music can then be streamed around the network. DLNA support is also integrated to steam music from a DLNA-compliant server.
Denon’s product lineup currently includes four tabletop speakers–the HEOS 1 ($199.95), HEOS 3 ($299.99), HEOS 5 ($399.99), and HEOS 7 ($599.99)–as well as the HEOS Cinema soundbar/sub combo (shown here, $799), HEOS Drive whole-home multi-room audio distributor ($2,499), and HEOS Amp ($499) and HEOS Link ($349) to add legacy devices. The HEOS Extend ($99) improves the strength of your Wi-Fi network.
DTS’s Play-Fi platform works over your home’s Wi-Fi network to stream local music files; the service supports playback of files up to 24/192, but they are downsampled to CD-quality for streaming. In a Play-Fi multi-room setup, you can add up to 16 speakers. One source can be streamed to eight devices at once, or you can control and stream different sources to up to four zones from a single device. You can read our original write-up on Play-Fi here.
Play-Fi control apps are available for Android, iOS, Kindle Fire, and Windows PC devices, but not Mac computers–although some Play-Fi products do include AirPlay support. Play-Fi’s list of streaming music partners currently includes Deezer, Pandora, Spotify, SiriusXM, KKBOX, Rdio, Rhapsody, and Songza, as well as Internet radio. DLNA support is integrated into the Play-Fi platform, so you can access your DLNA media servers directly through the app.
Because DTS licenses Play-Fi technology, you’re not limited to a single manufacturer’s products; rather, you can choose from a variety of products from Polk, Definitive Technology, Wren, and Phorus. Companies like MartinLogan, Paradigm, Anthem, McIntosh, and Wadia Digital have also announced plans to introduce Play-Fi products. You can even mix and match Play-Fi products from different companies. We have reviewed the Polk Omni S2 tabletop speaker ($179.95) and the Definitive W9 (shown here, $699) and W7 ($399) tabletop speakers. Both of these companies also offer soundbar/subwoofer combos, as well as preamp and amp devices to add legacy components.
Bluesound may not have the instant name recognition of Sonos, Denon, or DTS, but we’re giving this Canadian company a nod for being one of the first to offer a multi-room wireless platform that supports hi-res audio streaming. Bluesound is owned by Lenbrook, which also owns PSB and NAD, and the three companies share a lot of design and production resources.
Recently Bluesound announced its Gen 2 wireless audio platform, which is reportedly a complete overhaul of the system. The Bluesound basics are similar to the other systems described above: Bluesound products work over your existing Wi-Fi network, and Bluetooth 4.0 is also supported. In a multi-room system, you can connect up to 34 players, with eight players per group or zone. As I said, streaming of 24/192 FLAC files is supported.
The Bluesound Controller app is available for iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, and Windows/Mac computers. Streaming partners include Spotify, Tidal, HDTracks, TuneIn, Rdio, Deezer, iHeartRadio, Rhapsody, and a few others.
The new Gen 2 lineup includes six products: the NODE 2 preamp/streaming music player ($499), the POWERNODE 2 preamp/amp/streaming music player ($799), the VAULT 2 streaming music player with 2TB of storage and a CD ripper ($1,199), the PULSE 2 tabletop speaker ($699), the PULSE MINI tabletop speaker ($499), and the PULSE FLEX portable speaker ($299).
Okay, you could argue that we are cheating a bit by putting Google Cast in this roundup, since Google’s casting technology does not directly include a multi-room element. However, the technology does provide the music-streaming backbone for a new crop of multi-room-friendly audio systems from Sony and LG (with more manufacturers expected), so we figured it would be helpful to explain its role.
Google Cast technology allows you to wirelessly transmit audio and/or video signals from any Cast-compatible app (or via the Chrome web browser on your computer) to any Cast-enabled device. It all started with the Chromecast, but the technology is now spreading to Android TV devices and various audio-centric products. Google Cast works over your home Wi-Fi network, and it doesn’t require one master app that dictates your control experience. Cast technology is integrated into music apps like Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, Google Play, Rdio, and Songza, with more being added regularly. So, you can just use the music app that you already know and love instead of having to access that service through a different app. Another perk is that Google Cast streams the audio signal from the cloud, not your phone–allowing you to navigate away from the music app to take a phone call, for instance, without interrupting playback.
Sony is using Google Cast, in tandem with Bluetooth, in its new SRS-X77 ($299.99), SRS-X88 ($399.99), and SRS-X99 (shown here, $499.99) tabletop speakers, which can be linked for multi-room playback through Sony’s SongPal Link feature. Likewise, LG’s new multi-room-friendly Music Flow products are built around Google Cast, and the line includes a variety of tabletop speakers, soundbars, and HT systems. Denon has announced that it is adding Google Cast support to the HEOS product line.
Other Systems of Note
We could keep going, as there are a number of additional platforms to discuss. In the interest of brevity, though, we’ll highlight a few more and link you to the manufacturers’ websites for more details:
• Yamaha MusicCast: Yamaha only recently announced its new platform, which (like Bluesound) supports hi-res audio playback and will be incorporated into Yamaha’s comprehensive product catalog. Read Brent Butterworth’s wrap-up of the Yamaha press event here.
• Harman Kardon’s Omni line of multi-room wireless audio products currently includes two small tabletop speakers (priced at $150 and $250) and the Adapt device to incorporate non-wireless products. The system works over Wi-Fi and supports 24/96 streaming, as well as Bluetooth.
• Mass Fidelity: Mass Fidelity’s Core system allows you to connect up to eight Core tabletop speakers ($600 each) over a closed 5GHz network. The Core also supports Bluetooth, and the Relay Bluetooth DAC allows you to integrate other devices into the Core system.
• Samsung uses the “Shape” moniker to describe its lineup of multi-room-friendly tabletop speakers, adapters, and hubs, which work off your own home Wi-Fi network and include Bluetooth support.
• Check out our Bookshelf and Small Speakers category page for reviews of other wireless-friendly speakers.
• No Love for Next-Gen AV Technologies? at homeTheaterReview.com.
• CES Delivers Higher-Quality Audio at Lower Prices at HomeTheaterReview.com.