What is multi-room audio? You'll find out in our ultimate guide
Multi-room speakers let you play conductor from your phone, changing what plays across your house as long, as you’re connected to your home Wi-Fi. It used to be something only the rich could afford, but today you can get tooled-up for very little cash.
We’re going to look at the various options you have when buying a multi-room setup, but first let’s deal with how they work.
Related: Sonos tips and tricks
How does it work?
Most multi-room systems work using your home Wi-Fi. You’ll teach each speaker your router’s password using a setup wizard (or WPS), and then control playback using a phone app.
Easy. As with anything that involves a router, you may stumble into a few issues, but multi-room systems aren’t designed just for tech geniuses these days.
Each system has its own app, because there’s no standard protocol for controlling six or more different wireless speakers built into Android or iOS yet. Don’t just look at the speakers themselves. You also need to consider which multi-room setup has software you’ll be able to get on with.
As the tech develops, though, multi-room systems are becoming less closed-off. For years Sonos speakers would only work with the Sonos app, for example, but now you can fire Spotify tunes to a Sonos speaker right from the Spotify app.
A new, smarter kind of multi-room is starting to appear too. With an Amazon Echo you can control a bunch of speakers around your house, with a phone or with your voice. This isn’t a full multi-room solution yet, but you can bet something like this is where we’ll end up with multi-room. This is one of the best-reasons to choose a long-standing, frequently-updated system like Sonos.
Can I use my old hifi?
Most people interested in multi-room head right to buying new speakers rather than converting their existing hifi, but you can buy adapters for your older equipment too.
If you have a good amount of money to spend, the Bluesound Node 2 (£499) and Sonos Connect (£249) attack the problem in style.
The Bose SoundTouch Link adapter is more affordable at £129, and there are a few cheaper options too. At £20-25, the Pure Jongo A2, Neet adapter and Bayan StreamPort are worth considering. We found the Pure Jongo A2 and StreamPort fiddly to connect (we haven’t used the Neet), so prepare for possible headaches if you go for the cheap route.
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?
It’s much lower than it was a few years ago. We’ve already talked about a few £20-odd hifi adapters that will get you connected, and there are some low-cost fully integrated multi-room speakers too.
Of course buy one and you don’t have a multi-room system, just a wireless speaker. Before signing up for the cheapest option, consider whether you’ll actually want any of the other models. Different multi-room systems cannot talk to each other as they effectively speak different languages, even if they all use Wi-Fi.
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, which 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 rooms. 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.
Special skills: great software, great sound quality
Starts at £179
Here’s the option 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 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, or batteries. They're not portable. If you’re willing to spend big, though, you can even make a surround system out of Sonos, using a Sonos Playbar, SUB and a couple of Play:1s.
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 SoundTouch 30.
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, with Bluetooth as well as Wi-Fi.
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 one to consider.
Special skills: funky designs, clean sound
Starts at £149
Samsung packs multi-room abilities into many of its gadgets, including TVs and surround systems. However, there are several standalone speakers on offer too. The ones to check out first are the Samsung R1, R3, R5 and R7, seen in the image below.
These are mains-powered speakers with '360-degree' sound, intended to sound great wherever you put them. The Samsung R7 is also one of the most eye-catching multi-room speakers available, and sounds great, although the lower-end models don't beat Sonos's speakers on sound quality.
Special skills: Audiophile’s choice
Starts at £269
If pure sound quality if what you’re after, Bluesound is where you look. 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.
Special skills: Low price
Starts at £99
The budget buyer’s pick for multi-room, Jam Audio offers two multi-room speakers, the Rhythm (£99) and Symphony (£179).
Their software is bit quirky at times and sound quality doesn’t match that of Sonos’s gear. But the £99 Rhythm is the equivalent of the £180 Sonos Play:1 and the Symphony the £400 Play:5. They're much cheaper.
We’re happy to recommend these if you’re cash-strapped, but have to admit we’d go with a Sonos or more expensive alternative if the spare cash was available.
starts at £99.99
Philips’s crack at multi-room is the Izzy series, and it’s a little different to everything else out there. Its main connection is Bluetooth rather than Wi-Fi, and the Izzylink connection is designed to group five speakers rather than a whole army. Simplicity is the aim.
The series starts with the Izzy BM5, which we didn’t love at review. However, the Izzy BM6 and BM50 look a lot more promising.
Starts at £100
Most multi-room systems are designed to be used only by the manufacturer’s gear. But there is an alternative way, UnDok.
This is a multi-room platform that a handful of speaker-makers use. With any luck a (most likely) Google or Apple-made version of this is where multi-room will end up. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could connect a Sonos Play:5 and your kitchen Wi-Fi ‘radio’ using the same controller app?
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. However, they can be fiddly to setup.
Which is the multi-audio set-up for you? Let us know in the comments section below