What is multi-room audio? You'll find out in our ultimate guide
Multi-room audio is one of the fastest-growing areas in speaker-related tech. It lets you control the audio for multiple rooms in your house with your phone.
This sort of thing has been around for years (and years), but these speakers have become far more common now that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are packed into so many more devices. They’re everywhere these days. It’s not just Sonos anymore.
Related: Sonos tips and tricks
How does it work?
Different multi-room systems work in different ways, but the majority use Wi-Fi. Some connect directly to your home internet, others create their own Wi-Fi infrastructure to let multiple speakers ‘talk’ to each other.
You don’t really need to pay too much attention to the back-room goings-on, though. For the most part, multi-room systems are controlled using an app on your phone.
It’s when you hit this level of multi-room control that systems start to get proprietary, rather than using ‘conventional’ wireless standards like Spotify Connect or Bluetooth. This is why most multi-rooms setups are, on some level, closed off. They give you access to things like Spotify, locally stored tracks and so on, but within a clearly-defined area. An app.
The exact sources you can stream from vary between systems, but you'll usually find the most popular music streaming services supported, as well as streaming of tracks on your devices, plus DLNA. This lets you stream tracks stored on your computer over your home Wi-Fi. Most of these speakers also have an aux input, letting you plug non-connected sources in too.
What do you need to consider when buying?
With lots of these different systems available and, generally, one not able to talk to another, you need to be careful about which multi-room brand you side with. It’s not as though you can pick and choose speakers from different ones and expect them to get along. That just doesn't work.
So, the big questions are: do you mind being locked into a third-party app or do you need other options too, what size speakers are you after and what services do you need support for?
The biggest, longest-standing name in multi-room audio is Sonos, and its system is very restrictive, for example. Others offer Bluetooth, letting you circumvent the app when you just want to stream from one phone to one speaker, and keep things simple.
Of course, you could also argue that adding multiple ways to interact with the speakers only complicates matters. It depends on your perspective.
One other element to consider is whether you want to hook up an older hi-fi too. Some multi-room systems offer adapters for your older gear, as well as full-on speaker boxes.
Related: Google Play Music tips and tricks
How much do you have to pay for multi-room?
In a moment we’ll take a quick look at some of the best multi-room options out there. But how low is the entry point?
These days it’s crazy-low. At the time of writing, you can get one of Pure’s 2013 Jongo A2 adapters for a ridiculously low £20. It is frankly mad, letting you hook up a couple of older hifi-systems to your home Wi-Fi for under £50.
Pro tip: if you’re on a tight budget, grab one of these while they’re still available. They offer Wi-Fi and Bluetooth streaming, getting you multi-room chops and good old 'standard' wireless streaming too.
Should you even buy a multi-room system?
Before you get the credit card out, you also need to consider whether you really need multi-room functionality, rather than plain old wireless. After all, then you open your options up to include things like the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin. And more expensive speakers like the Naim mu-so that might encourage you to spend more cash on a single-piece setup.
The USP of multi-room is that (in most systems) it lets you control multiple zones of speakers throughout your house, sending different content to different ones. If you’re simply going to be moving from room to room, you may well be just as happy with a single portable speaker to complement an older hifi system.
In other words, just make sure you've considered your options rather than just assuming muti-room is the best choice.
What are the main multi-room systems?
So which are the killer multi-room systems? We’re going to take a quick look at some of the most popular options out there, going from some of the cheaper ones to those at the more, well, premium end of the scale.
Philips Izzylink (2015)
Special skill: very simple, no app
Starts at £99
At the time of writing there’s only one speaker available in the Izzylink system, called the Izzy BM5. It’s a £99 speaker, making it one of the cheaper options out there. What sets the Philips style apart from everything else out there is how simple it tries to make things.
It’s not driven by an app. Instead, you just link up Izzy speakers by pressing a ‘group’ button on the top. Actually sending music to the speaker is just like using any Bluetooth speaker. You get the ease of Bluetooth with the multi-room skills of a full-on Wi-Fi setup. Pro tip: Izzylink does actually use Wi-FI to communicate between the speakers, but you don’t have to worry about that side of the tech.
Pure Jongo (2013-)
Special skills: Low prices
Starts at £20 (£109 for speakers)
Pure is one of our favourite radio-makers. But these days it makes loads of far techier audio stuff too. In 2013 it introduced Jongo, a family of wireless, multi-room speakers.
There’s a whole range on offer, from the ultra-cheap Jongo A2 hifi adapter and the portable, battery-operated Jongo S3X speaker to the much larger T6X and T4X. These are intended to replace your old speaker system. Even the biggest one only costs £200, which is cheaper than some companies’ cheapest multi-room boxes. Bargain hunter? Check Jongo out.
These speakers have Bluetooth too, so you're not locked into using an app.
Bose SoundTouch (2013-)
Special skills: Bluetooth and Wi-Fi
Starts at £179
Hot on the heels of Sonos is Bose, with its SoundTouch series. The speakers on offer roughly mirror Sonos’s offerings. There’s the small SoundTouch 10 (£179), the mid-size 20 and the large 30.
However, Bose’s latest top-end hifi and surround sound systems also support SoundTouch, so if you’re thinking of buying one of those it’s definitely something to consider. From what we’ve heard, the entry-level model doesn’t quite match up to the sound quality of arch rival the Sonos Play:1. It is a bit more flexible, though.
Special skills: funky designs, clean sound
Starts at £149
Even though Samsung is a king of many tech areas, its multi-room system doesn’t really have a clear identity. It doesn't even have a name that brings all the boxes together. The range used to be called 'Shape' but that branding seems to have evaporated.
However, we have absolutely loved some of the speakers in this family. At the lower levels the Samsung M3 and M5 offer great bang for your buck, while the higher-end R6 and R7 are among the most striking speakers you’ll find. And they sound great too. Typical of Samsung’s feature-heavy approach, these speakers support lossless FLAC steaming as well.
Special skills: great software, good sound quality
Starts at £179
Here’s the now you probably know already. Sonos was the first big name in multi-room audio, and it has done a great job of maintaining dominance.
How? The last two small-ish speakers it has released are bloomin’ great. First there was the Sonos Play:1, an excellent kitchen or bedroom speaker.
Then it upped the ante with the new Play:5, one of the best-sounding wireless speakers we’ve heard. Its units don’t have Bluetooth, though, so make sure you’re happy to operate within the Sonos ‘walled garden’. If you’re willing to spend big, though, you can even make a surround system out of Sonos, using a Playbar, SUB and a couple of Play:1s.
Special skills: Audiophile’s choice
Starts at £269
If pure sound quality if what you’re after, Bluesound is where you need to be looking. It has easily the best Hi-Res audio chops of the multi-room systems. While you can get Sonos-a-like speaker sets, the range extends into gear that looks like full-on hifi equipment. It’s serious stuff.
With the higher-end boxes you can stream the ‘holy grail’ for wireless, 192KHz, 24-bit streams. Where Bluesound is a little weaker is the software interface, which still needs a bit of work to reach Sonos grade.
Which is the multi-audio set-up for you? Let us know in the comments section below