It’s easier than ever to fill your home with music, thanks to simple, affordable wireless speakers that can combine to make feature-packed, voice-controlled multi-room music systems.
In a short space of time, multi-room audio has gone from an expensive fantasy to an affordable reality for pretty much everyone.
You no longer need to trail wires or install complex control systems to be able to send your favourite tunes all around your home, controlled by the touch of a button or even just the sound of your voice.
And there are more wireless speakers at your disposal than ever, from multi-room specialists such as Bluesound and Sonos, to hi-fi brands like Arcam and Audio Pro, and big-hitters including Amazon, Google and Samsung.
Whether you’re looking to get started or expand or upgrade an existing system, here’s what to consider to get the most out of multi-room.
What is multi-room audio?
20 years ago a home multi-room system would have meant a lot of wires, albeit no doubt nicely hidden, and a fair chunk of cash. High-end custom installers can still offer a top-notch no-stress system, but a more simple, wireless solution is now within the reach of all of us.
Whether you want to start a new music system or upgrade an existing hi-fi set-up, multi-room means adding one or more (more than one, really…) wireless speakers or wireless devices to your home. These then communicate with each other and can be controlled via an app on your phone, tablet or computer. And now even by your voice. You can then create different rooms of music and either play the same track in unison, or play different music in different rooms.
You can stream music from services such as Apple Music, Spotify and Tidal, play your own music from a network-attached storage device (NAS) or computer, or stream music straight from your phone.
Brands such as Sonos, Pure, Raumfeld and Yamaha were some of the first on the multi-room scene, but have since been joined by – well, everyone, with systems from brands as ubiquitous as Bose, LG, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony, and most recently, the emergence of tech kingpins Amazon, Apple and Google.
How do multi-room systems work?
There are two main ways multi-room systems work: by creating their own mesh network or by using your wi-fi.
Sonos, one of the early pioneers of more affordable, consumer-friendly multi-room systems, forms its own mesh network. This means having initially connected to your home internet, the speakers form their own internal network.
So you’re not using your home wi-fi when you’re streaming music and that tends to make the system more robust. LG and Tibo are two brands who also use a mesh network with their systems.
Other speakers and multi-room systems connect and communicate using your home wi-fi network. This means they are reliant on the strength and stability of your network and will have an impact on your network bandwidth.
What about AirPlay, Bluetooth and Chromecast?
Some multi-room systems aim to differentiate themselves by also supporting Apple AirPlay, Bluetooth or Chromecast built-in. There are two aspects to this support.
This basic support allows you to stream any audio directly from your device to your speaker. This allows you to send audio to your system from YouTube, web browsers, downloaded tracks, videos and more.
The more advanced support allows you to create a fully-functioning multi-room system using AirPlay, Bluetooth or Google Cast. This is the next step of development, coming in AirPlay 2 (and the HomePod) and recently made available with Chromecast built-in (and Google Home).
Wireless multi-room speakers were traditionally brand-specific – Bose, Denon, LG, Samsung, Sony and others wanted you to buy into their systems – but AirPlay 2 and Chomrecast allow you to be mix-and-match any compatible devices.
We also shouldn’t forget Spotify Connect, another feature integrated into some systems. This turns the Spotify app on your phone or tablet into a remote, controlling Spotify on your multi-room device.
The advantage of Spotify Connect over, say, Bluetooth, is that you’re accessing Spotify’s servers in the cloud rather than on your phone, so your phone is free to do all those other things a pocket computer can do.
Thanks to much-improved, largely seamless set-up processess, no matter how you connect the end result should still be roomfuls of sound.
What do you need to get started?
It’s worth remembering most multi-room speakers can now function as standalone wireless speakers, so you don’t have to buy more than one speaker to get started. It’s not really multi-room until you do, though, is it?
Multi-room systems now include speakers, soundbars, amplifiers and streamers. The amplifiers and streamers allow you to connect an existing hi-fi system to a multi-room system, using something like a Sonos Connect or Bluesound Node to add multi-room to your hi-fi.
Brands such as Denon and Yamaha also bring their AV electronics into play, giving their home cinema amplifiers multi-room smarts so they too can join in on the audio streaming action.
What about multi-room audio quality?
Naturally, we think audio quality should be top of your list of considerations. Not all systems support high-resolution audio, so if you have a library of music or want to future-proof yourself, you should look for one that supports hi-res.
Hi-res audio multi-room systems include Bluesound, Yamaha MusicCast, Denon HEOS, LG Music Flow, Lenco PlayLink, Harman Kardon Omni and Monster SoundStage. Google’s Chromecast Audio also supports hi-res audio. Most other multi-room systems, inculding Sonos, top out at CD-quality, lossless sound.
When it comes to the sound quality of the individual products, it’s simply a case of comparing on a case-by-case basis in the same way you would stereo speakers or streamers. As always, you can of course rely on our expert reviews.
What about voice control?
A new feature for 2017 has been the addition of voice assistants into the wireless speaker world. Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant are both now available on some multi-room speakers and systems, with a whole host of brands partnering with one or other of the voice systems.
The Sonos One speaker is the company’s first to work with Alexa, and follows the launch of a whole host of new smart speakers, many of which offer multi-room support as well voice control. Using Amazon’s Echo Dot it’s also possible to add Alexa and voice control to an increasing number of AV devices.
And Amazon isn’t just supplying the voice control – its own speakers now offer multi-room functionality. The new Echo and Echo Plus launched with the promise of full multi-room support, which also rolled out to first-generation Echo devices.
Which are the best multi-room systems?
You’ve scrolled straight down to this bit, haven’t you? This is at once both a simple and complex question.
The simple answer is: Bluesound and Sonos have been our two favourite multi-room systems for some time now. As this year’s What Hi-Fi? 2017 Awards once again testifies.
Want the best possible sound quality, including hi-res audio support? We suggest Bluesound. If you’ve got a slightly lower budget and/or aren’t so fussed about hi-res audio, Sonos is an excellent alternative.
But things are about to get interesting, with Amazon, Apple and Google all making their presence felt, voice control becoming an expected feature, and AirPlay 2 and Chromecast built-in about to widen your hardware choices. Watch this space.