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We’ve spent hundreds of hours over several years testing multiroom wireless speaker systems in every possible room—even outside—and Sonos remains the best option for most homes. It supports the widest variety of streaming services, offers excellent sound quality across its lineup at varying prices, and its apps offer unparalleled ease of use. The competition is catching up, but Sonos still offers the most complete and reliable package overall.
The best part about a multiroom wireless speaker system compared with a series of Bluetooth speakers is that it connects directly to the Internet instead of relying on your phone or computer—this means calls, texts, and other notifications won’t interrupt playback. And you can play different music in different rooms, or group them together, all while maintaining independent volume control on each unit. Sonos has made these setups for longer than anyone, and its experience shows at every level of its product. Sonos’s apps are among the most polished available and offer unified search across every service you subscribe to—including Apple Music. And Sonos supports its products for as long as you own them. This includes adding new features via firmware updates to maintain its lead in the face of stiffer competition, like Trueplay room-correction technology.
Sonos’s tight control of its ecosystem means you’re mostly limited to buying its speakers, but those speakers come at a variety of prices and all sound excellent. The $200 Play:1 is a great entry point. It costs less than most high-end Bluetooth speakers, yet measures as accurately as speakers costing several times as much. For better sound or bigger rooms, the higher-end Play:5 creates a large soundstage on its own, and a pair can hold their own with similarly priced midrange bookshelf speakers—without the need for a separate amplifier. There’s also a wireless Sub you can pair with any existing Sonos speaker to add some oomph. And you can even add Sonos to your TV using the company’s Playbar or a pedestal speaker called the Playbase (which we have yet to test at the time of publishing)—either will pair with a sub and two other Play units to form a 5.1 surround system. Or if you want it all at once, you can get a wireless full 5.1-channel wireless home theater system in one package.
Google’s Chromecast Audio platform doesn’t support as many streaming services and isn’t as polished overall, but it’s built into a wider variety of devices (including speakers, receivers, and soundbars from Pioneer, Onkyo, Sony, and Vizio) and you can affordably add it to any existing set of speakers using a $35 Chromecast Audio dongle. Unlike Sonos, there’s no Chromecast app to rule all your streaming services and no unified, cross-service search. Instead, to play an album from Spotify, you search and select the album in Spotify’s app, then “cast” it to your choice of speaker instead of pressing play. You can also use Google Assistant or Google Home to control it with your voice, but we experienced a lot of hiccups while testing this feature. Sonos’s superior streaming service support, cross-service search ability, and tighter quality control still make it the better buy for now. But if Google can improve the overall consistency of the user experience across the disparate devices and services that support it, we could see it close the gap sooner than later.
Why you should trust us
I’ve reviewed speakers and other audio/video equipment since 2008, listening to dozens of speakers in that time. I’ve tested multiroom wireless speaker systems—from retail versions to custom-installed ones—for more than five years now, to get a full understanding of how they work and the market. We tested more than a half dozen different multiroom wireless speaker system solutions in our house and talked to experts such as Ty Pendlebury of CNET and Darryl Wilkinson of Sound & Vision to see what works best.
Who should get this
Multiroom wireless speaker systems are for people who want to be able to play music throughout their home and easily control it from their phone, tablet, or computer. These systems let you play different tracks on each speaker, or group them together to play the same tracks. They support both local media libraries and streaming services, allowing you to access music from almost any source. They make it easy to expand your system by just adding another speaker or zone.
If you care only about music in a single room, or don’t care about multiple sources, other options will work for less money. Bluetooth and AirPlay speakers can easily stream audio from your phone or computer, but they don’t offer the multiple sources and zones option. They also require your phone or computer to be the streaming source. Multiroom wireless audio solutions access the music sources directly and won’t use your phone’s battery life.
If you have already invested in a different multiroom wireless speaker system and it has access to all the services you need, there really is no reason to upgrade. Some systems, like Squeezebox, are no longer being made, but as long as your chosen system still works for you, you should keep using it.
How we picked and tested
Over the years we have looked at over 15 different whole-home audio systems and performed long-term, hands-on testing of nine of them. We’ve tested them in different houses and apartments, with both local music libraries and streaming music services. Over the years that we have tested different systems, what makes an ideal one has changed a bit. For a whole-home audio system we looked for:
- Support for the widest selection of online streaming music services. A speaker is no good—no matter how great it sounds—if it can’t play your music.
- A wide selection of products at a wide range of prices. Having a model that will work for each situation in your house, without being too expensive, allows you to integrate your whole home into the music system.
- Easy control of the speaker system from apps or voice control. An audio system that requires you to physically adjust the volume or skip tracks is not as useful as one that lets you do it while anywhere in the home.
- Ability to group speakers together to both stream the same music around the whole house, or combine two speakers into a stereo pair for a more dedicated listening system.
- Streaming from the source directly and not through your computer or phone. Otherwise the music won’t work if you take your phone out of range, and it is more prone to dropouts and other issues.
- Bluetooth or AirPlay as a fallback solution when a streaming service isn’t supported.
- Dual-band WiFi support helps for situations where there are too many devices on the 2.4 GHz spectrum and it causes too much interference, like in an apartment or condo building.
- Ability to add more speakers or zones on your own. There are lots of advanced custom-install solutions available, but every time you want to expand you’ll need to have your dealer come back out and set it up. Being able to pick up another speaker from Best Buy or Amazon and add it yourself when you want to expand is a much easier solution.
Some other features that can be offered but aren’t essential for a whole-home audio listening system are:
- Portability to take your music outside with you, or even on the road.
- A surround sound option, for making a 5.1-channel home theater system when you are watching a movie.
- HiRes audio support is a bonus, but not something most people are ever going to need or even necessarily take advantage of.
We researched all the models currently available, as well as attended CES and CEDIA shows, where we were able to demo them ourselves. I also talked to Ty Pendlebury of CNET and Darryl Wilkinson of Sound & Vision, who review multiroom wireless speaker systems. We then picked the models that we felt had the most promise, and for each system we brought in at least two zones’ worth of equipment for testing.
We put the speakers all around the house, from the basement to upstairs, to make sure range wasn’t an issue. We listened to local files and the main streaming services (Spotify, Pandora, Amazon, Apple Music) on all of the contenders. In the case of soundbars, we watched movies and TV as well.
The Sonos system is the best multiroom wireless speaker system because it supports the most services, and has a wide selection of great-sounding speakers, great search features, and a well-organized app that runs on almost all major platforms. Sonos keeps its platform up to date by adding more services all the time, introducing new features like Trueplay room-correction technology, and updating its models. The Sonos user experience is the best of any of the multiroom wireless speaker systems currently available.
Sonos offers speakers that start at the low end with the small Play:1 and extend to the Playbar and Playbase soundbars for use with a TV. You can use a single speaker, combine two into a stereo pair, or even build a 5.1-channel home theater system using the Playbar, two other speakers for surrounds, and the matching Sub. If you already have speakers that require an amp, you can use the Connect to add them into a Sonos system. The Connect also has a stereo input if you want to connect a turntable, reel-to-reel tape deck, or Bluetooth receiver. Passive speakers, like our favorite bookshelf speakers, can be added by using the Connect:Amp, but if you’re looking for a stereo solution you can get a pair of the impressive Play:1s for less; the most serious audiophiles among us might consider upgrading to a pair of Play:5s.
Having access to your favorite music is the most important feature of a multiroom wireless speaker system, and the Sonos system continues to lead the way. Currently, it offers support for 49 streaming services; many other systems offer a half dozen or fewer. The major ones, such as Spotify, Pandora, Amazon, Google Play, and even Apple Music, are there, as are social services like Bandcamp, Mixcloud, and SoundCloud. You’ll also find more niche services such as Tidal, Concert Vault, Murfie, and 7digital. Beyond these you can play back your local music library and subscribe to podcasts. No matter how or where you get your music, the odds are that Sonos will support it.
With all of these music services, being able to find what you want to listen to is also important. Sonos keeps all of its services inside a single app for your computer or smartphone; many other systems rely on individual apps for each service. Sonos’s unified service approach lets you search across every service you subscribe to in order to find your music. Searching for Random Access Memories shows my local FLAC copy and streaming versions available on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, and Tidal. It would show more if I subscribed to more services than these as well.
Many other multiroom wireless speaker systems lack the ability to search across multiple services, but Sonos nails it. If you subscribe to only a single service, this might not be an issue, but as streaming services attempt to compete by offering unique content (Taylor Swift on Apple Music and Kanye West on Tidal, for example), the likelihood of subscribing to more than one increases—similar to how many people have Netflix and Hulu (and HBO, and Amazon Prime, and…). A search for Adele’s album 25 shows me that I can listen to it through Amazon Music, as I bought it there on vinyl, but it isn’t available anywhere else. Having this powerful search feature makes it easy to find the music you want to listen to no matter what service it is on.
Because Sonos realizes that some people prefer the native streaming service apps, and this was a common complaint we would receive from readers, it is starting to make its speakers compatible with native apps. The Spotify app can send music directly to Sonos speaker, just like you would with a Spotify Connect speaker. Sonos has said that more services will offer this in the future but has not provided a timeline or specific services.
The Sonos app is well-designed and runs on iOS, Android, Windows, and macOS. From the app you can control all of the speakers or zones, group them in any combination, adjust the volume of each individual speaker (even if they’re grouped), find music, create playlists, mark your favorites, and more. The speakers themselves offer very few controls, only volume and a play/pause button in most cases. The app handles the rest. It also makes it very easy to set up and configure a system no matter how technically inclined you are.
The iOS and Android apps were redesigned recently to make them easier to use; the Windows and macOS models lag a little bit behind. However, they still do the job, and most competing systems offer no desktop or laptop apps at all.
Sonos also adds new services more often than other systems, despite already offering the largest selection. Apple Music was added in the fall of 2015, making Sonos the first to offer it. Tidal and Deezer were added shortly after they made their US debuts as well. We don’t know what the next major service is going to be, but when it launches Sonos will likely be the first to offer native support for it.
A free software update from Sonos in late 2015 added Trueplay to almost all of its speakers. Using the microphone of an iOS device, Trueplay offers free room correction for all your Sonos speakers for no extra cost. This is handy as most wireless multiroom speakers are placed where convenient, not where they sound best. A speaker tucked into the corner of a kitchen counter is likely to sound extra boomy in the bass because of the proximity to walls. Trueplay uses test tones to measure how the room influences the speaker, and then corrects for this. After using it, my Sonos speakers sound noticeably better than they did before, with less boomy bass and a clearer midrange. In December 2016, Sonos released a free firmware update that added Trueplay support for all of its speakers—even the previously excluded Playbar. The only other system that has this feature as of this writing is the Paradigm Play-Fi, which currently starts at $600 and needs to be calibrated with a Windows PC instead of an iPhone or iPad.
With the Sonos Playbar and Playbase you can set up a 5.1-channel system for movie watching. You can use a pair of Sonos speakers for rear channels, or use the Sonos Connect:Amp to power any surround speakers you already have, including in-wall or in-ceiling models. To work this way one of the Sonos products needs to be hardwired to the network or you need to have the optional Sonos Boost hub, as the 5.1 system works on its own wireless network. You also don’t get the benefit of lossless surround audio from Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio as you only have an optical input, but you can do real surround sound without extra wires.
Professional reviews give Sonos virtually unanimous praise, though most people review only the individual speakers, and not the whole system. Engadget calls the recent Play:5 “a generational leap forward” and CNET says it is “the best-sounding Sonos speaker yet.” HiFi gives it a perfect five-star rating and says it is “a worthy flagship speaker for Sonos.” Ty Pendlebury of CNET, who has reviewed almost all available multiroom wireless speaker systems, feels that Sonos still offers the best selection of speakers and services available today.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Though Sonos is at the forefront of the multiroom wireless speaker system sector, some new competitors add features or products that Sonos could learn from. No Sonos device offers Bluetooth or AirPlay support. If a streaming service is missing, it is hard to get it onto your Sonos devices. A few models have analog inputs, including the Play:5 and Connect, but those have to be paired with a Bluetooth receiver or AirPort Express to add Bluetooth or AirPlay. It isn’t nearly as simple as having a unit with that built in, and it costs $450 to buy a Connect with an AirPort Express to get this functionality.
Sonos products are also stuck on the standard 2.4 GHz band unless you buy the company’s optional bridge that creates its own Wi-Fi network. If you live in a stand-alone home the choice to use 2.4 GHz is good, as it provides better range. If you live in an apartment or condo building, the large number of 2.4 GHz routers can make those signals less reliable than 5 GHz, and the added range isn’t important. Offering both frequency bands would be a better system today.
Sonos promised voice control with Alexa, and then other systems, in 2017. As I write this three months into the year we have not seen this appear yet, nor have we gotten any update on a timeline for it. Adding this control will be a big benefit for people with both devices in their homes, but only if implemented well.
The Connect is an item that Sonos needs to update. A current price of $350 for a device that has only audio outputs and a single analog input is very high, especially when a Play:1 speaker sells for $200. Priced close to $100, the Connect would be an easy way to start with Sonos on an existing audio system, but $350 makes it harder to do. All most people really want from the Sonos Connect is the same functionality of a $35 Chromecast Audio, but not at 10 times the price.
Similarly, we would like to see a cheaper way to get line-in—for hooking up a Bluetooth receiver, record player, or other device. Currently, your only options are the $350 Connect or the $500 Play:5.
The Sonos Playbar and Playbase have only a single optical input for a TV though some competing companies offer soundbars with HDMI inputs. Some TVs output only 2.0 signals over optical, wasting the Playbar and Playbase’s 5.1 capability. This would make the Playbar and Playbase slightly more complex to set up, but for many, the trade-off to get true surround sound audio on their system would be worth it.
A portable Sonos speaker would also be nice to see. Polk offers a portable speaker in its Play-Fi lineup that you can pick up to take outside with you, or to another room, and get up to six hours of battery life.
Many of Sonos’s strengths come from the fact that it is a closed system, but this is also a weakness. Hardware from any other company won’t work with it, and if Sonos were to go away, you’d be in trouble. We don’t expect Sonos to vanish anytime soon, but we consider the possibility a drawback with many of the other proprietary solutions we didn’t pick, because if their manufacturers give up on them you might be left with nothing.
Sonos currently has no support for HiRes audio and has said it doesn’t plan to in the future. Because most people do not have HiRes audio content this isn’t much of a concern, but Sonos could update its software to either ignore HiRes audio files or downsample them. Currently they show up in your local music library but refuse to play.
More affordable, with voice control
If you aren’t ready to invest a few hundred dollars into a Sonos system, the Google Chromecast Audio platform offers an affordable and compelling alternative. Like Sonos, Chromecast-equipped devices play music via Wi-Fi directly from the Internet (not your phone or computer) and can be grouped in zones that play in unison, or controlled separately. It works with many popular streaming services, like Spotify, TuneIn, Pandora, and all Google-related plans. But that’s where the similarities to Sonos end. It doesn’t have a universal app to control playback and there’s no way to search across all your services. And it doesn’t currently have support for iTunes libraries, Apple Music, or Amazon Music. But where Sonos is a controlled ecosystem and a platform unto itself, Chromecast behaves more like a feature you add into other products.
The main advantage of Chromecast Audio is that it’s an open platform that can be built into any Wi-Fi–connected audio product. And adoption is accelerating quickly. As a result, there’s a chance you might already own a Chromecast Audio product in your home and don’t realize it. This year Chromecast is being built into several receivers from Pioneer, Onkyo, and Sony as well as soundbars from Vizio, Sony, Polk, and LG, wireless speakers from Vizio, B&O, Raumfeld, and Philips, and even high-end two channel integrated amps from NAD. Alternatively, you can add Chromecast to virtually any existing product by plugging in a cheap Chromecast Audio dongle, which has a single 3.5 mm headphone jack (that doubles as an optical output with an optional cable) and can even support 24/96 HiRes audio if you have compatible content. This flexibility is Chromecast’s main strength and it gives manufacturers a lot of room to experiment with different feature sets.
One particularly intriguing implementation of Chromecast Audio is Vizio’s Crave speakers. The Vizio Crave 360 and Crave Pro offer Chromecast support, but also include Bluetooth and USB connectivity for even greater flexibility. The Crave 360 includes a charging base and a carrying strap, letting you move it around the house on battery power while still offering the streaming features. If you move outside of your wireless network, it will still work as a Bluetooth speaker. Both of these can be grouped with a standard Chromecast Audio adapter or a Google Home speaker to create as many zones as you would want, and support all Chromecast sources.
Ironically, Google’s search features are lacking compared with Sonos’s. There’s no unified Chromecast app, so unlike Sonos, you can’t search simultaneously across multiple apps and services. The closest thing is the Google Home app, but this searches only for music videos and doesn’t display results from Spotify, TuneIn, or other services. Instead, Chromecast Audio relies on each individual service’s app for finding content and controlling playback. However, not every app and service supports Chromecast—again, Apple and Amazon’s offerings are notable absentees. This is less of an issue if you buy Chromecast-enabled speakers that also have Bluetooth or AirPlay, but the $35 Chromecast Audio adapter doesn’t offer a workaround.
Another downside to Chromecast’s open-platform approach is a lack of control over who supports what and an inability to enforce quality standards. You can rest assured that any Sonos speaker will sound great, but because anyone can make a Chromecast speaker, there will be many good ones, but also a lot of mediocre ones. And though a Chromecast speaker should be able to be grouped with other Chromecast devices, some still lack this ability because Google is still working on rolling out all these features to all devices. You also cannot currently form a stereo pair of speakers, but that also is supposed to roll out in a future update in 2017.
Currently, a big bonus of the Chromecast platform compared with Sonos is that you can control Chromecast by voice using a Google Home. (Sonos has teased Alexa support for over half a year now, but has yet to even release a public beta as of this writing.) It works, but not quite as easily as we’d like it to. The vocal commands required to play audio back on a certain device can feel less natural than we would like. Sometimes it will send your music to the wrong speaker because it didn’t fully understand the command. Saying “OK, Google, play Radiohead on Home Theater Speaker” will sometimes send it to the speaker named that, and sometimes to Google Home itself. Sometimes it just doesn’t understand the command at all and nothing plays. We expect Google to improve this as time goes by, but it’s far from perfect as it stands.
As a cheap way to get into wireless multiroom audio streaming that you can expand at any time, the Chromecast Audio is almost impossible to beat. And it will only get better as more companies continue to roll out Chromecast Audio-enabled offerings. If this rate of expansion continues, we can see it becoming the top pick if the flaws are corrected.
- Bose SoundTouch devices offer presets on the device, giving you fast access to your favorite Internet radio stations or playlists. Right now they support Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music along with a handful of other streaming services but don’t have Apple or Google.
- DTS Play-Fi is another open standard that is supported by a number of vendors, including Anthem, Paradigm, Polk, and Definitive Technology. Recent updates have given it support for features, including 5.1-channel surround sound using wireless speakers, and it has a wide selection of products. Unfortunately, it still offers support for only around a dozen music services and doesn’t support Apple Music or Google Play Music.
- Denon’s own HEOS system offers a number of different speakers in a variety of sizes, and has it built into all its new receivers as well. At this point no other companies—aside from Marantz, which is part of Denon’s parent company—have adopted HEOS, and Denon’s parent company just acquired Polk and Definitive Technology, which use Play-Fi. Denon previously announced that it would add Chromecast support for HEOS, but changed its mind. Add to that a lack of Apple Music and Google Play support and it’s easy to pass on for now.
- Yamaha MusicCast is also currently only in Yamaha products and comes in a number of products, including sound bars, speakers, and receivers. It supports Spotify and Pandora but no Amazon, no Google Play, and no Apple Music. It supports AirPlay and Bluetooth on all its devices, but not enough services directly.
- BlueSound is meant for higher-end users and has the features to back it up. These include HiRes audio and MQA support, as well as a CD-ripping vault. But most people don’t need or won’t use these features, and the hardware costs almost 50 percent more than the comparable hardware from other companies because of it.
- The Oppo Sonica is the first entry into a line of whole-home audio products from the company best known for its Blu-ray players and headphones. The Sonica offers very good sound quality and supports both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz wireless bands, but supports only Tidal, Spotify, and local music playback currently. Bluetooth and AirPlay support helps, but it really needs a wider selection of streaming services before it can be a real competitor.
- The Libratone Zipp positions itself as a multiroom option, but aside from Spotify Connect it streams all the content from your phone and not from an online service.
- Logitech added multiroom support to the UE Boom speakers, but they still stream the music from your phone over Bluetooth and communicate over Bluetooth, so the range is lacking.
- The Naim MuSo system looks and sounds great, and lets you control it all from a single app, but the company’s cheapest model is still much more than most people want to pay. It might be a fantastic-sounding speaker, but it starts at a price that is too high for most people.
- WiSA is an alliance that is licensing its technology to different speaker manufacturers. It operates in a different wireless band than conventional 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz Wi-Fi, making it less prone to interference. It is mostly aimed toward home theater, where it can support lossless 24/96 audio with 7.1 channels, but is starting to add multiple zones for multiroom wireless speaker systems. Unfortunately, it’s not a complete system approach, but more akin to Zone2 on a receiver and not a true competitor here.
What to look forward to
Sonos announced that its speakers would be Alexa-controllable by 2017, allowing you to use voice commands to play, pause, and skip music, as well as to control volume and more via your Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, Tap, or Fire TV. Because Alexa already works so well with other smart-home stuff, we’re optimistic that Sonos integration will be fairly seamless, and we’re eager to try it out. However, the public beta that was supposed to begin in “early 2017” has yet to materialize nearly halfway through this calendar year.
Klipsch announced the Stream line of wireless multiroom audio products, with speakers and prices that are similar to Sonos’s. We’re surprised to see the Stream family using DTS Play-Fi, though—a standard we currently dismiss for its poor service and software support—when its previous speakers, like the Reference Premiere Wireless Home Theater speakers, use WiSA.
JLab Audio has introduced the Party Series Wireless Multiroom Bluetooth Speakers, which allows you to connect as many as eight Party Series speakers across your home. Instead of connecting over Wi-Fi, JLab’s Party Series uses its own network (with a 5.8 GHz frequency) to stay connected. The Block Party and the House Party, the two speakers in the collection, will retail for $150 and $100 respectively. They are available for preorder now.
In March 2017, Denon introduced its first receivers to have HEOS support, the AVR-S730H and AVR-S930H, as well as a new AV receiver and multiroom system, the HEOS AVR. It also expanded its HEOS line of whole-home audio products to include a new HEOS wireless soundbar, the HEOS Bar, and a separate subwoofer. We’ll update this guide with our thoughts on Denon once we’ve looked at the latest additions to the HEOS ecosystem.
(Photos by Chris Heinonen.)
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