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The ultimate multi-room audio guide: Sonos vs the rivals

Andrew Williams

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Multi-room
Multi-room

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

Sonos Starter Set

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

Jongo

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.

Bluesound 5

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.

Bluesound 7

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.

Bluesound 11

Samsung multi-room

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.

Bluesound

Sonos

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.

Bluesound 9

Bluesound

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

MattMe

December 16, 2015, 1:19 pm

One of my favourite features of my multiroom setup (Synology NAS, DS Audio and Airplay Express) is that my phone works as a controller and all the traffic is sent directly from the NAS to the airplay devices. This has several benefits, such as no need to be within signal range of any of the devices, no battery drain on my phone, can still use my phone to do other things.
It's just a simple DLNA implementation, but I'm aware not all products work in this manner.

I'd be good to know if this feature is available on any of the above.

Tom Carter

December 16, 2015, 1:40 pm

Slightly surprised that LG Music Flow didn't get a mention since at time of writing the review of the LG HS8 soundbar is front and center on the review section!

Currently looking at LG music flow mostly because its the only set up that I am aware of that has a clever wireless 5.1 surround sound system option as well as all the usual multiroom support - Essentially if you have a soundbar then in the app you can assign two other speakers as the rear speakers for a 5.1 surround system (not everyone wants those rear speakers permanently there!), and the LG H4 is perfect for that as it is a speaker that can be plugged in most of the time, but has a built in battery so when you are ready to watch a movie you can collect and place the speakers for the rear - Very neat and clever

Steve

December 16, 2015, 7:23 pm

One of the features of Sonos - and perhaps other systems? - is that you can build a system without using their speakers

I have a couple of Zoneplayers - one connected to my Hifi in the living room and another to a pair of Philips DS9800W Fidelio in the kitchen

I did experiment with the Play 5 in the kitchen but ultimately found the sound a little lacking - it's a big room

The DAC seems pretty good too - comparison of FLAC vs the original CD left me unable to discern any differences

James Webster

December 16, 2015, 8:13 pm

What about Yamaha MusicCast?

LeeTronix

December 16, 2015, 8:18 pm

Not sure how Sonos is restrictive? You did not even care to expand on that comment? Anyhow it produces a very nice sound, but everyone will have their type of preference. How is Bluesound an Audiophiles choice? If you want ultra high end you do not use any of the above. For me out of the list here, the Sonos is my favourite, and that is based on sound, versatility of music management and ease of use among the core reasons.

Russel

December 17, 2015, 2:34 am

Bluesound is the "audiophile's choice" because they support playback of hi-res audio files, which Sonos do not. Whether hi-res is actually worthwhile on these speakers is, of course, open to debate.

Jason Almeida

December 17, 2015, 10:44 am

Personally I went for a Samsung setup because of Price/Speaker types/features. I got 2 M5s and a 4.1 sound bar (hw-j650) for 550 which is a bargain in comparison to Sonos.
The app could do with a little work (it still doesn't work with Google Play music so i have switched to spotify) but the combination of the above 3 needs made it the best selection.

Now they seem to have the budget M range and the more premium R range along with a host of soundbars that can be used so you're spoilt for choice

snaxo

December 17, 2015, 12:35 pm

The audiophile's choice is, surely, Naim's Mu-So system?

Prem Desai

December 17, 2015, 6:51 pm

For me, it's quite simple - it has to be Sonos.

It's an incredibly flexible system. Ridiculously easy to use.

Also, multi-room audio is all Sonos do - their existence depend on it.

Unlike companies like Philips, Samsung, etc who tend to pull out of the market if things don't do their way.

There might be cheaper options out there or they may do 1 or 2 things a little better, but Sonos is still the complete package.

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