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Wireless multi-room audio systems

Sonos vs. the new challengers

By

Ralph Graves

Ralph Graves is one of Crutchfield's blog editors, and part of the company's social media team. He writes about home audio/video gear, specializing in Apple-related and wireless technologies. Ralph holds a master's degree in music composition, and his works have been released on various labels. He's served as product manager for an independent classical and world music label, produced several recordings, and worked extensively in public broadcasting. Since 1984 he's hosted a weekly classical music program on WTJU, and is also active as a blogger and podcaster.

More from Ralph Graves

What distinguishes a wireless multi-room system from a collection of stand-alone Bluetooth® or Apple Airplay® wireless speakers? Convenience. You can control all the speakers in the system from a single remote — usually a smartphone or tablet app. You can play the same music throughout the house or choose different music for different rooms.

Below is the rundown of the various multi-room systems available. Sonos created the first viable wireless multi-room audio system. Now several worthy challengers are getting into the game. Which system is right for you?

Important questions to ask yourself as you shop

  1. How many rooms (or zones) do you want music in?
  2. What sources of music do you want to listen to?
  3. How do you want to control it?

Sonos Family

Sonos family

Sonos Wireless HiFi

Sonos currently offers a wide variety of components for different applications throughout your home. There are three powered speakers, a sound bar, a subwoofer, a powered player that connects to stereo speakers, and a non-powered player that connects to your hi-fi or home theater system. 

Maximum number of rooms: 32

Music sources: Internet radio, virtually all online music services, stored music on portable devices and computers, including iTunes®

Supported music file formats: MP3, iTunes Plus, WMA, AAC, Ogg Vorbis, Audible (format 4), Apple Lossless, FLAC, WAV, AIFF.

Control: Sonos Controller App for Apple and Android portables, Logitech® Harmony® Ultimate Remote

Wireless technology: Wi-Fi®, SonosNet wireless mesh network

Additional info: Powered speakers can be paired for stereo operation. Create a wireless surround sound system using the sound bar, subwoofer, and a pair of Play:1 or Play:3 speakers.

Some Sonos components can be wall-mounted with Flexson mounts. Flexson also makes vinyl skins for Sonos components in a variety of colors.


Bluesound

Bluesound ecosystem

Designed with audiophiles in mind by the makers of NAD and PSB, this system can stream high-resolution music files.

Maximum number of rooms: 8 with wireless connection; 34 connected via Ethernet

Music sources: Internet radio, Rdio, Deezer, Slacker, Spotify, (Bluesound plans to include additional online music services), music stored on computers, USB flash drives. and portable devices (with Bluetooth® dongle, available separately). Vault player supports high-resolution downloads from HDtracks. Does not support Apple AirPlay.

Supported music file formats: FLAC, Apple® Lossless (ALAC) WAV, AIFF, AAC, WMA, MP3, OGG

Control: Bluesound control app for Apple® and Android™ smartphones and tablets. Bluesound Desktop Controller for Windows® and Mac® OS X computers (available as a free download from Bluesound).

Wireless technology: Wi-Fi

Additional info: Compatible with high resolution 96kHz/24-bit and 192kHz/24-bit audio files. Available in black or white.


Bose® SoundTouch™ Series II Wi-Fi® music system

Bose SoundTouch

The Bose® SoundTouch™ Series II Wi-Fi music system is super simple to set up and operate. There are six preset buttons on top of each unit for one touch access to your favorite Internet radio or Pandora® stations.

Maximum number of rooms: 6

Music sources: Internet radio, Pandora, Deezer, Spotify, iHeartRadio (Bose plans to include additional online music services), music stored on portable devices and in your computer’s iTunes® library. Supports Apple AirPlay.

Supported music file formats: MP3, WMA, AAC, Apple Lossless

Control: SoundTouch™ app for Apple and Android portables

Wireless technology: Wi-Fi with Apple® AirPlay®

Additional info: Three models available, including portable model with rechargeable battery.

Current Bose® LifeStyle® home theater systems come with an adapter to make them compatible with SoundTouch™ technology, so SoundTouch™ music systems can be integrated into them for an even larger multi-room audio system. Current Bose® CineMate® can be made compatible with an adapter (available separately).


Definitive Technology Wireless Collection

Definitive Technology wireless multi-room audio product family

The Definitive Technology Wireless Collection features components with high-performance speakers for exceptional sound. The system uses Play-Fi® technology developed by DTS. Play-Fi transmits uncompressed audio, allowing more of the detail in the music to be preserved. The soundbar/subwoofer system features Dolby® and DTS® surround sound decoding.

Definitive Technology W components DLNA support for streaming music from compatible networked computers and NAS drives Definitive Technology also offers an adapter for your wired home audio system, and an amplified player for use with passive speakers.

Maximum number of rooms: 16

Music sources: Internet radio, stored music on portable devices and computers, Pandora, SiriusXM for Android, (SiriusXM for iOS is arriving shortly).

Supported music file formats: MP3, M4A, FLAC, and WAV files; the system can stream sampling rates up to 48-bit/16kHz. 96/24 files can also be played, but are down sampled to 48/16 resolution.

Control: Operation is controlled through the Definitive Technology/Play-Fi® Controller App; system setup is done through the Definitive Technology/Utility app. Both apps are free downloads for Apple and Android portables.

Wireless technology: DTS Play-Fi® lossless wireless


Denon HEOS

Denon Heos multi-room audio family

There are currently three wireless speakers available, plus an adapter that lets you add an existing Home Theater or Stereo system to the HEOS network. There's also a HEOS amplified player for your passive speakers, a great option for in-wall/in-ceiling or outdoor locations.

Maximum number of rooms: 32

Music sources: Internet radio, stored music on portable devices, computers, and USB memory sticks, Spotify, Pandora, Rhapsody, and TuneIn.

Supported music file formats: MP3, WMA, AAC, FLAC, WAV, Apple Lossless

Control: HEOS Controller App for Apple and Android portables

Wireless technology: Wi-Fi®

Additional info:  Each HEOS component has a USB port. You can play music from a USB thumb drive through it, and make selections using the HEOS app. You can also stream these songs to other HEOS devices for multi-room playback.

HEOS 3 speakers can be paired for stereo operation.


Harman Kardon Wireless HD Audio System

Harman Kardon Omni 10

Harman Kardon's wireless system uses both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for music transmission. Their Omni powered speakers allow you to add music to any room, while the compact Adapt lets you integrate your existing stereo into the system.

Maximum number of rooms: 6

Music sources: You can play audio from any app on your Bluetooth compatible smartphone or tablet. The Harman Kardon Controller app offers built-in support for Deezer (coming soon to the US) and MixRadio. More services will be added in 2015.

Supported music file formats: Any format a source device can play can be streamed via Bluetooth. From the app, you can play the following file types: MP3, M4A, WAV (from Apple and Android devices; AAC, FLAC, WMA, and OGG Vorbis (from Android devices only).

Control: Harman Kardon Controller app for Apple and Android smartphones and tablets

Wireless technology: Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

Additional info: Bluetooth streams can be sent to multiple speakers over your Wi-Fi network. The "Link" button allows you to pick up streams from other Omni speakers or to send music to all speakers in the system.


Polk Audio Omni

Polk Audio Omni multi-room audio

The Polk Audio Omni family of wireless speakers uses Play-Fi® technology developed by DTS. Play-Fi transmits uncompressed audio, allowing more of the detail in the music to be preserved. Omni components include DLNA support for streaming music from compatible networked computers and NAS drives.

There are currently powered wireless Omni stereo speakers, including the rechargeable weather-resistant S2 for outdoor listening. Connect your wired home audio system to the Play-Fi network with a P1 adapter. The A1 music player features a built-in amplifier — connect two speakers to make a wireless stereo system. The SB1 sound bar and subwoofer combination lets you addf TV sound to your Play-Fi® network.

Maximum number of rooms: 16

Music sources: Internet radio, stored music on portable devices and computers, Pandora, SiriusXM for Android, (SiriusXM for iOS is arriving shortly).

Supported music file formats: MP3, M4A, FLAC, and WAV files; the system can stream sampling rates up to 48-bit/16kHz. 96/24 files can also be played, but are down sampled to 48/16 resolution.

Control: Operation is controlled through the Play-Fi® Controller App; system setup is done through the Polk Omni Utility app. Both apps are free downloads for Apple and Android portables.

Wireless technology: DTS Play-Fi® lossless wireless


Samsung Shape™

Samsung Shape wireless multi-room audio

Samsung's versatile Shape speakers can be oriented either vertically for 2-channel pairing, or horizontally for single speaker use. A cool feature called NFC (Near Field Communication) is built-in. Just touch your NFC-compatible smartphone or tablet to pair it with the M7 and start streaming music right away. You can also sync an HW-H750 home theater sound bar with wireless sub or a HT-H6500WM home theater system to your Shape network.

Maximum number of rooms: 10

Music sources: Internet radio, TuneIn, Rhapsody, Pandora, iHeartRadio, Rdio, Amazon Cloud Player, stored music on portable devices

Supported music file formats: AAC, MP3, WMA

Control: Shape™ control app for Apple and Android smartphones and tablets

Wireless technology: Wi-Fi (for network), Bluetooth (for individual operation)

Additional info: Built-in Bluetooth® allows speakers to be used as stand-alone wireless audio systems for smartphones and tablets. Compatible with Samsung SmartTVs (2014 or later), Shape speakers can be used for music or for wireless home theater sound via a Bluetooth connection.


Wren V5PF

Wren wireless multi-room audio

The Wren V5PF wireless speaker uses Play-Fi® technology developed by DTS. Play-Fi transmits uncompressed audio, allowing more of the detail in the music to be preserved. The Wren smartphone control app also lets you incorporate other Play-Fi enabled systems, such as the Definitive Technology, Polk Audio Omni , and Phorus systems. It also includes DLNA support for streaming music from compatible networked computers and NAS drives.

The Wren V5PF currently comes in either a rosewood or bamboo wood veneer.

Maximum number of rooms: 16

Music sources: Internet radio, stored music on portable devices and computers, Pandora, SiriusXM for Android, (SiriusXM for iOS is arriving shortly), Deezer, Songza and more.

Supported music file formats: MP3, M4A, FLAC, and WAV files; the system can stream sampling rates up to 48-bit/16kHz. 96/24 files can also be played, but are down sampled to 48/16 resolution.

Control: Operation is controlled through the Wren Sound systems control app. The app is a free downloads for Android portables..

Wireless technology: DTS Play-Fi® lossless wireless

Note: Wren speakers are also available with built-in Apple® AirPlay®. These versions are not compatible with Play-Fi®. 

[Shop Crutchfield's slection of multi-room audio systems and components]

Last updated January 12, 2016
  • Donna Sullivan from New York

    Posted on 5/6/2015 3:22:50 PM

    Help! My Dad loves to listen to music, he is a very simple man. Currently he enjoys listening to the music stations from his cable TV that he can play through out the house via a wireless speaker (from Rocketfish). This recently broke & I would like to replace this for him. Not sure if I should just get another RocketFish RocketBoost or if there is something better - I have SONOS & love it - but working something from an app or the computer is not for him. I'm trying to surprise him so any suggestions on what I should be looking for would be appreciated.

  • Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    Posted on 5/7/2015 9:19:06 AM

    Donna, I sent your question to our sales team, and they'll be contacting you via email soon. They should be able to find the best wireless speaker or multi-room system for the job.

  • Don from Ny

    Posted on 6/17/2015 4:34:51 PM

    What about korus. They are great wireless speakers. Why weren't they reviewed?

  • Ralph Graves from Crutchfield

    Posted on 6/18/2015 9:22:12 AM

    Don: We agree. Korus V600 and V400 wireless speakers are great. When the article was originally written, Korus was just getting started. We'll be publishing an update shortly (many of the systems reviewed have expanded), and that will include Korus.

  • Jonathan Takiff from United States

    Posted on 7/16/2015 11:54:55 AM

    Hey Donna Sullivan. Your dad would be happiest with the Bose SoundTouch approach to powered speakers/internet radio receivers, offering six channel preset buttons on each device. Once the system's set up (via a phone/tablet/computer app), no additional controls are needed. Just tap a button on top of a Bose box and the station pops on - usually pretty fast (though BBC channels do take a few seconds to come on.) And for across the room control, the units come with a dedicated (RF) remote - also rare in the multi-room streaming audio species.

  • Alison Almquist from Albuquerque

    Posted on 8/22/2015 10:53:48 PM

    Wireless is awesome.

  • Greg

    Posted on 9/19/2015 3:36:01 PM

    Despite all these systems I'm not sure there are any that offer a complete set of features that I want. All seem deficient in some way. I've looked at: 1) Sonos is the obvious wifi audio choice but for some inexpliable reason, they don't offer bluetooth. Not being able to stream directly from devices is ridiculous. 2) Samsung was my next choice but doesn't seem to offer outgoing bluetooth connectivity, meaning while you can stream from PC, you can't use headphones to listen to servies streaded through the speakers. 3) The Yamaha MusicCast system seems to offer both these functions, but doesn't seem to offer a PC controller application (just mobile) like Sonos does. And as it's a new platform it doesn't seem to support as many online services yet. Additionally there aren't any reviews available yet on their entry level speakers. I'll just have to wait and see I guess. If Sonos would just offer bluetooth and a model with a battery they'd be perfect. It's mind boggling they don't support device streaming after all this time.

  • Constantine L.

    Posted on 10/8/2015 4:37:56 PM

    What about Apple's Airplay? I use a marantz receiver for each room, in-wall or in-ceiling speakres from definitive technologies. the source can be anything but usually tidal (the only lossless streaming service i know) through a computer. you can also use itunes. each receiver appears as a separate airplay device (best if you use ethernet but works just fine using wi-fi, the marantz receivers are wi-fi capable). each room will cost over 3k but the result is far superior in audio quality and flexibility than any of the above solutions... Sonos (which i tried for a bit) sounds like an AM station compared the the above... You can use a different equalizer setting for each speaker, different volume level for each speaker, Dolby Atmos if you want to, etc, etc. Your apple remote app can control itunes and the marantz app can control each individual room/receiver for advanced settings. You can also built an airplay multi-room system with just a small number of apple TVs (one per room) and legacy receivers/powered speakers, etc. quick, cheap and it works quite well... At some point Apple will make airplay support video broadcasting to multiple zones (currently only one) and then all of the above will be obsolete because you'll want your video broadcast in sync to every room too, from your iphone, ipad, computer, cable box, satelite, apple tv, etc. etc.

  • jonathan from winter park

    Posted on 10/12/2015 7:21:48 PM

    So I think the Definitive technology W9 has the best sound of the bunch but playfi DTS makes it virtually unusable..... Question 1..... Between bluesound pule 2 and denon heos 7 which do you guys think is best Question 2...... Do you think the devialet phantom are worth all the extra money, havent heard on that is well broken in but while the bass was incredible top end and mid range clarity didn't seem that great?

  • Raja from Monroe

    Posted on 11/2/2015 11:22:23 AM

    I have a new construction and in every room, I have kept extra electrical outlet closer to the ceiling (seeing if there are any speakers that would need power)... are there any wifi based speaker system that can be used for Audio transmission. Also, if there is a way that any of these can also be used as intercom (like Harmon Cardon). Lastly, if there is a way that I can also transmit the live input from a Mic to broadcast in every room?

  • Adam k

    Posted on 11/14/2015 1:12:35 PM

    What I would like included in a review such as this is some cross-comparison of the quality of the audio, and of course relative price.

  • Andy Thorpe from Richmond

    Posted on 1/3/2016 9:32:33 AM

    Sonos is likely still the gold standard I would imagine for a simple, clean, wireless audio system. The interface is just incredibly easy to use. However, I switched over to an AirPlay based system a while back (Sonos is just too expensive to scale up past a couple of zones). One can get four Apple TVs for the price of one Sonos player (and obviously they do more than hook up wirelessly to your PC/phone.) Also, there are many receivers and speakers that are AirPlay compatible. Alternatively one can connect an appletv/airport express to an amp and high end speakers for cheaper than a single zone combo with Sonos. The problem with AirPlay is easily playing music in multiple zones simultaneously. If one could sync between "zones" using AirPlay on a mobile device it would be perfect. You can currently only select multiple zones simultaneously when using a Mac Laptop.

  • putkowski from flatrock

    Posted on 1/8/2016 11:53:48 AM

    It's a real shame that SlimDevices' (Logitech) ecosystem has fallen off the map. I will continue to use it because it supports real stereos (rather than limited fidelity alternatives..)