Sonos Isn’t the Only Solution

The Best Multi-Room Wireless Speakers of 2018 (So Far)


February 5, 2018 Tech By

When it comes to wireless multi-room speaker systems, Sonos has reigned king for some time. And while it still wears the crown, there are many parties sharpening their swords. A number of companies have mimicked Sonos to a tee — Bose SoundTouch, Yamaha MusicCast and Denon’s HEOS system are all examples. While excellent solutions, they’re limited (like Sonos) because their speakers only talk amongst themselves on a proprietary network. Basically, you don’t have as much flexibility to build the exact home speaker system you want.

Even more recently, smart speakers with virtual assistants have entered the fray. Amazon rolled out multi-room audio support for all its Echo smart speakers in late 2017, and Google followed suit with its new line of Google Home, Home Mini and Home Max smart speakers. The advantage of these new players is that you get both multi-room audio and seamless control over your smart home devices, all for an affordable price; however, you’re most likely sacrificing sound quality. And then there’s also Apple’s HomePod, which will support multi-room audio some time in the near future.

So which multi-room speaker systems are right for you? There’s actually a lot to consider. Are you looking for the best sound quality or multi-functionality, i.e. voice commands and smart home control? Do you have an iPhone or Android device? And if you want voice control, which music streaming service do you subscribe to? Whether it be Spotify, Apple Music or Tidal, different voice assistants support voice commands to different services.

This guide identifies the best multi-room speaker systems to invest in right now, with one eye on the future: Aside from Sonos, each of these wireless streaming technologies work on an open network, allowing multiple speakers from various brands to stream high-quality music to different rooms in your house.

Why not Bluetooth? Bluetooth speakers are ideal for streaming music to one speaker at a time. Also, since they don’t require a network connection, you can stream Bluetooth anywhere (see our list of best portable Bluetooth speakers). The problem with Bluetooth is that it’s a low-energy streaming technology that compresses audio files — you’re listening to much less than CD-quality audio. There’s Bluetooth aptX, which can transmit CD-quality audio (16-bit/44.1kHz), but it requires both speaker and streaming device (probably your smartphone) to be compatible. It also can’t stream to multiple rooms in your house.

Sonos


What Is It? Sonos has been the industry leader since it launched the PLAY:3 ($299) in 2011. Three things have made this ecosystem so popular: sound quality, simplicity and longevity. And in 2017, Sonos added something else: support for Amazon Alexa. You’re now able to control your Sonos speakers with an Amazon Echo (here’s how to set it up) or give Alexa voice commands directly through the Sonos One ($199). Note: The Sonos One is basically a Play:1 speaker with an Amazon Echo’s intelligence — it will play in a multiroom system with your other Sonos speakers. The Amazon Echo, if you link with your other Sonos speakers, will not play in multiroom system with those other speakers — it just tells them what to play.

The Good: Sonos speakers connect over a wi-fi network, meaning the streamed audio files aren’t compressed, like with Bluetooth — so you’re able to listen to CD-quality audio (and better if you have Tidal). You can stream music from all of the major streaming services, including Spotify and Apple Music (a rarity). And since software updates are as simple as updating an app on your phone, tablet or computer, the speakers are designed to last a lifetime. As for ease of use, the Sonos app walks you through the setup process and optimizes speaker output for your room. It’s straightforward and easy thanks to its built-in Trueplay Speaker Tuning Software. Adding additional Sonos speakers to your system is a breeze, too.

Watch Out For: The trouble with Sonos speakers is that they only work with each other. If you want to connect a non-Sonos speaker to your system, you have to use a Sonos Connect ($349) or Connect:AMP ($499), which is super expensive for a component that isn’t a speaker.

Key Specs

Music Quality: Up to 16-bit/44.1kHz audio
Music Files: AAC, MP3, MP4, FLAC, WAV (see all)
Streaming Services: Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music, Tidal, Google Play Music (see all)

Speakers to Get You Started
Sonos PLAY:1 $149
Sonos One (with Amazon Alexa) $199
Sonos PLAY:5 $499
Sonos PLAYBAR $699
Sonos SUB $695

DTS Play-Fi


What Is It? You probably know DTS from the movies; the logo appears in a ton of opening and closing credit sequences. The company has been developing immersive sound technologies for cinemas and films since the early ’90s. Play-Fi is DTS’s audio streaming technology and it’s arguably Sonos’s biggest competitor. The major difference between the two is that DTS isn’t actually a speaker manufacturer. Instead, it licenses out its Play-Fi technology to a whole host of speaker manufacturers, including McIntosh, Definitive Technology, Klipsch, Pioneer and Rotel. (You can see the full list of partners here.)

The Good: Just like with Sonos speakers, Play-Fi speakers connect over a local wi-fi network. You can play music through an app, or directly through Spotify, and you can separate various speakers into different rooms. Unlike Sonos however, because there are a wide variety of Play-Fi speaker manufacturers, you can mismatch different speakers and have them all easily play on the same multi-room sound system. Basically, you get more options and you’re not tied down to one speaker manufacturer. Play-Fi speakers are compatible with Spotify Connect and AirPlay. However, they won’t work with Apple Music.

Watch Out For: DTS Play-Fi speakers can play ultra-high-resolution audio files (24-bit/192kHz), which Sonos can’t. However, these files need to be listened to in “critical listening mode” and can only be played on one Play-Fi speaker at a time. When not in critical listening mode, these files are down-sampled to CD quality (16-bit/48kHz). Also, there are only a few DTS Play-Fi-enabled speakers that “work with Alexa” — none have the virtual assistant built directly in the speaker

Key Specs

Music Quality: Up to 24-bit/192kHz audio
Music Files: MP3, MP4, FLAC, WAV, AIFF (see all)
Streaming Services: Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Tidal (see all)

Speakers to Get You Started
Polk Audio Omni S2 $180
Definitive Technology W7 Wireless Speaker $399
McIntosh RS100 $1,000

Google Chromecast


What Is It? Chromecast is Google’s wireless streaming technology for multi-room audio. It’s grown rapidly in popularity with the introduction of the Google Home, Home Max and Home Mini. All speakers with Chromecast built-in can be integrated into a multiroom system and can be controlled by Google Assistant.

The Good: There is a growing number of speakers, soundbars and televisions with Chromecast built-in by the likes of Bang & Olufsen, Pioneer, Sony and Vizio. Using the Chromecast app, you can group numerous Chromecast speakers together. You can use Google’s Chromecast Audio streaming puck ($35) to plug into any powered speaker you already own, via its 3.5mm auxiliary jack (or via optical or RCA, though you’ll need separate adapters), and enable that speaker to join a Chromecast multi-room sound system. You can also add a Google Home speaker into a group to control the group with Google’s voice assistant, Google Assistant; and unlike an Amazon Echo and Amazon’s Multi-Room Music technology, the Google Home will actually play with the existing Chromecast group and its third-party speakers.

Watch Out For: It’s important to note that Google Cast and Chromecast speakers are different and can’t be grouped together in a multi-room system. Speakers with built-in Chromecast or connected with a Chromecast Audio streaming puck can be controlled via Google Home or by your phone’s Google Assistant right now.

Key Specs

Music Quality: Up to 24-bit/96kHz audio
Music Files: MP3, MP4, FLAC, WAV, AAC
Streaming Services: Spotify, Google Play Music, Pandora

Speakers to Get You Started

Google Home Mini $49
Riva Arena $249
B&O PLAY Beoplay M3 $299
Google Home Max $399

Chromecast Audio Streaming Puck $35

Amazon Multi-Room Music


What Is It? Amazon updated the firmware on its Echo speakers so that they now support multi-room audio playback. This means you can play music on all your Echo, Echo Plus, Echo Dot and Echo Show devices. You can designate each speaker as its own separate room, or sync them together in a one-room setup. It’s important to note that Amazon has also licensed out Alexa support to other third-party speakers, like the Sonos One, but those can’t be connected to the same multi-room audio system as your other Echo speakers. Also, in order to use Alexa voice commands, you’ll need to be an Amazon Prime Music, Amazon Music Unlimited or Spotify subscriber.

The Good: All speakers that work with Amazon’s Multi-Room Music have Alexa built into them, meaning you can change the music with your voice from anywhere; as opposed to the Sonos One, which is the only speaker in a Sonos multi-room system that will respond to voice controls (unless there’s another Sonos One). The cost of entry is very low — you can get two Echo Dots for less than $100. And setting up a multi-room system is pretty easy — here’s how.

Watch Out For: Sound quality. Even though the second-generation Amazon Echo sounds marginally better than the original, it’s still not great. The Echo Show and the Echo Dot aren’t any better. Amazon’s original intention for the Echo devices wasn’t to support multi-room audio, but simply to get its voice assistant into your home. Even the higher-end Echo Plus can’t compete with the audio quality of something like a Sonos. Also, you’re not going to get much bass on any of these speakers.

Key Specs

Music Quality: N/A
Music Files: N/A
Streaming Services: Spotify, Amazon Prime Music, Amazon Music Unlimited

Speakers to Get You Started
Amazon Echo Dot $50
Amazon Echo (2nd Gen) $100
Amazon Echo Plus $150
Amazon Echo Show $230

AirPlay 2


What Is It? AirPlay 2 is the outlier of the bunch because it doesn’t actually exist yet. Apple is expected to roll out the AirPlay 2 update sometime in early 2018, which will effectively update all AirPlay speakers to be able to support multi-room playback. Some of the various wi-fi speakers this will impact are by Bose, Naim, Bang & Olufsen and Beats. It’ll essentially be a Sonos-like system that you can control with your iPhone, Mac or HomePod.

The Good: If you’re an exclusive Apple user, meaning you own an iPhone, Mac and Apple TV, and you are a subscriber to Apple Music (or just have a vast iTunes library), you’ll be able to easily stream music to all AirPlay-enabled speakers.

Watch Out For: AirPlay does not currently support multi-room audio. Apple will launch AirPlay 2 as a firmware update for the HomePod and all other AirPlay-enabled speakers, which will allow them to connect in a multi-room system — this update is expected sometime in early 2018. You need an iOS or MacOS device, or a PC that runs iTunes, to stream music over AirPlay.

Music Quality: Up to 16-bit/44.1kHz audio
Music Files: AAC, MP3
Streaming Services: Apple Music

Speakers to Get You Ready (all AirPlay-enabled)
Apple HomePod $349
Harman Kardon Aura Plus $200
Naim Mu-So Qb $899
Devialet Phantom $1,690
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