While portable media players and smartphones have enabled us to listen to our music when we’re out and about, the rapid rise of multi-room audio technology is granting us a similar level of freedom in our own homes.
Not so long ago, enjoying your favourite tunes meant being confined to the room your hi-fi equipment was installed in. Now, you can distribute your music to speakers in every room of your house, all of which can be controlled by a single remote source. What’s more, advances in wireless technology mean you can achieve such a set-up without having to drill holes or lay cable.
Multi-room audio offers several benefits. Imagine waking up in the morning, putting your favourite album or playlist on the music system in your bedroom, and then walking into your bathroom for a shower, while a speaker continues playing the same tunes. You might then go to the kitchen, where another speaker would be playing the same audio. Alternatively, you could have different tracks playing in individual rooms, which would be ideal for a house party where you want, say, a loud area and a chill-out zone.
Sure, you could do the latter with separate hi-fi systems, but the ease of control of multi-room – mainly the fact that you can stream digital music without queuing up CDs and the like – makes it an attractive proposition. Multi-room audio systems can be operated via a smartphone or tablet, enabling you to control playback from anywhere in the house. And because many of us store our music collection digitally, or use streaming services such as Spotify and Tidal, potentially millions of songs can be available throughout the home at the touch of a button.
Start me up
There are a few different ways to create your ideal multi-room set-up. By far the easiest is to buy an all-in-one system that can be expanded as and when you need to. The likes of Sonos’s PLAY range and Denon’s HEOS are excellent examples, enabling you to start with, say, a couple of speakers and then buy more when your budget allows, adding to your set-up. Both use proprietary wireless tech to connect to one another (meaning you can’t mix and match brands). For example, you may buy a Sonos PLAY:5 (£349) for your main listening system in your lounge, a PLAY:3 (£259) for the bedroom, and a couple of PLAY:1 speakers (£169 each) for dotting around the house. You can also set up PLAY speakers as stereo pairs. Everything is controlled via a smartphone app over your Wi-Fi network, and you can play either different music or the same tunes in different rooms. There’s very little set-up, and you can move the speakers around at will. You don’t need a central hub – the speakers work independently and pair together when you add new ones. All you need to do is configure them – in Sonos’s case, via the Sonos Controller app.
If you already have a hi-fi system in one room (probably your lounge) and want to hook it up so it can stream its content to Sonos speakers in your house, this can be done, albeit with wires. Pick up the Sonos CONNECT (£279), plug in your existing equipment using twin RCA cables (the red and white ones), and you’ll be able to stream audio from that source to any Sonos speaker. If you’re doing this to enable you to listen to your CD collection, another, more convenient, option is to rip all of your tunes to a NAS (Network Attached Storage) device. This is a hard drive that’s connected to your Wi-Fi network to deliver your tunes to your speakers (either one speaker at a time or multiple units). To rip your CDs, you can either use iTunes (before copying them over to your NAS drive), or use a dedicated CD ripper such as the ZoneRipper Mini (£879, www.zoneripper.co.uk). With the latter, you only have to insert the CD and it’ll rip it automatically – it also acts as a NAS, with two 500GB hard drives offering plenty of storage. Setting up a NAS to work with your Sonos system is simple – just go into the Sonos Desktop Controller app (Mac or PC) and point the system at your networked drive. You can also – on the PLAY:5 model – plug in any audio source with a 3.5mm jack (audio player, iPod, smartphone and so on).
Buying a complete Sonos system isn’t exactly cheap – if you want to fill your whole house with sound, you’re looking at over £1,000 brand-new; a little less if you’re just after, say, lounge, kitchen and bedroom.
But while this approach offers probably the most versatility, there are cheaper options.
Unwired for sound
Technologies such as Apple’s AirPlay and good old-fashioned Bluetooth also offer multi-room capabilities, albeit with compromises. For instance, using iOS you can only stream to a single AirPlay speaker at a time. You may say, “How is that multi-room?” Well, strictly speaking it’s not, but using your phone you can quickly switch between AirPlay speakers, so you can continue listening to the same tunes as you move around your house. If you opt for iTunes on a desktop or laptop, or even the excellent Porthole app, you’ll be able to pipe your iTunes library, or any audio using the Porthole app, to multiple AirPlay speakers. But, unlike the Sonos or Denon solutions, you won’t be able to play different tracks in different rooms.
A Bluetooth-based approach is even more limiting, as you can only stream from your smartphone or tablet to one Bluetooth speaker at a time, but you could dot Bluetooth speakers around your house and simply connect to each one when you’re in that particular room. It’s not a true multi-room set-up, but it is a way of getting tunes into your head without the inconvenience of cables and wires – and at a relatively low cost.
If your budget is bigger (read: huge), you can get some truly kick-ass audio equipment around your house. If no wires at all is your preference, you should check out the Naim mu-so. This all-in-one system has killer looks and sound to match. At £895 for each speaker, it’s going to get expensive, and you may not have the room for one of these in all of your rooms – they aren’t small. Also, you’ll need to fork out another £3,700 or so for a Naim SuperUniti or similar for true multi-room capability – because you’ll need a central streamer to be able to send different music to different mu-sos at once (you can control the set-up of this in Naim’s smartphone app). That said, you can stream to many mu-so systems at the same time using AirPlay in iTunes.
It’s a kind of Majik
If you’re wanting a multi-room set-up with the reliability and quality of wired speakers, the Linn Majik DSM music streamer is worth a look. Simply hook it up to speakers (and sometimes an amp), and you can stream tunes from either your computer, an attached hard drive or your smartphone. Add another streamer in another room – or a compatible box – along with speakers, and you can link them together to create a multi-room system. The Majik DSM is serious equipment for those serious about audio, and a system comprising a few DSM boxes and huge floor-standing speakers is going to run into five figures. It’s a true beard-strokingly audiophile set-up that’s certainly not for the faint-hearted or moth-walleted.
OK, let’s move away from the hardware for a moment and look at what you’ll be playing on your multi-room system. Many have Spotify built in for straightforward streaming – just access it from the system’s companion app. And Tidal – the CD-quality (16 bit/44kHz) streaming service owned by Jay-Z and his celeb mates – is now on Sonos PLAY systems, meaning you can get better-quality tunes pumped around your house.
Most of these internet services have subscription fees: for example, the ad-less Premium version of Spotify will set you back £10 per month, while Tidal costs £10 per month for lossy sound, and £20 for the high-quality Hi-Fi version. Spotify can also be used on your phone – which you could plug into a PLAY:5’s 3.5mm jack – but, while this option is free, you can only use it in Shuffle Play mode (ie you can’t just pick a track and play it). There’s also a host of internet radio services built into multi-room systems, and these are usually free (TuneIn Radio being one of the most popular). Put it this way, there’s no shortage of online content when you buy any wireless multi-room system.
Strike up the bandwidth
If you’re streaming audio over your Wi-Fi network, your router will need to be up to the task – streaming can put a lot of pressure on your network. Unfortunately, many of the free modem routers you get when you sign up for broadband won’t cut it. Investing in a new router from the likes of Netgear or Belkin that comes with external antennae and the latest wireless technology – 802.11ac – will give you faster network speeds as well as a far larger range. Routers that have QoS (Quality of Service) features are worth considering, because this enables the router to give priority to music and video when streaming. And if your wireless network won’t reach all your rooms, invest in a Wi-Fi repeater, which will boost your network in weak areas (although each Sonos speaker acts as a repeater). Similarly, a powerline adapter kit will bring Wi-Fi to previous black spots in your house.
With good-quality Wi-Fi throughout your house, you can now install the multi-room audio in the rooms you want, tweaking the placement and volume as you see fit. Most wireless speakers have easy set-up procedures via apps that enable you to quickly add them to your network without the inconvenience of having to type in passwords. Setting up a multi-room audio system is that simple.
Top wireless speaker systems
All-in-one speakers you can link together for multi-room listening
Harman Kardon Omni 10
It’s wireless, elegant and offers great sound quality. Additional speakers can be added with ease and an iOS and Android app enables you to set up the speakers as separate zones so you can have different music in different rooms, or synchronise music playback throughout your house with ‘Party Mode’. Get the Omni 20 model if you have particularly large rooms. £160, harmankardon.com
Bose SoundTouch 20
Incredibly simple to set up. You can change the settings either with the free SoundTouch app, or via touch controls on the speaker. The SoundTouch 20 can stream music from a local source via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, or connect to online services such as Pandora. Adding additional SoundTouch speakers is easy and, as you’d expect, sound quality is excellent. £340, bose.co.uk
LG Music flow h3
The LG Music Flow H3 is a wireless speaker that can connect directly to mobile devices via Bluetooth, or to your Wi-Fi network for multi-room audio. Playback
is controlled via your PC, smartphone or tablet, along with the LG Music Flow Player app – and each H3 speaker (or its big brother, the H5) can play different music or the same tunes throughout your home. £149, lg.com/uk
The best… streaming boxes
Take your music into the digital age with a network streamer
If you already own an epic sound system, the idea of having to upgrade your set-up to future-proof it is a bit of a nightmare. Thank heavens, then, for Bluesound and its Node box. This box of tricks adds wireless streaming abilities to your hi-fi, giving you services like Spotify or Tidal, as well as access to files on your network of devices. It even supports hi-res audio. £399, bluesound.com
Cambridge Audio CXN
Streaming boxes are the ultimate tool for music freedom, and Cambridge Audio’s CXN is a shining example of this multi-faceted ideal. It boasts every ability imaginable, including AirPlay, aptX Bluetooth, and network access to a NAS box or your computer’s drive. It’ll play hi-res audio files, and even upscale lower-res tunes for maximum clarity. £895, cambridgeaudio.com
Linn Majik DSM
Super-high-end audio fans, rejoice: the Linn Majik DSM makes everything - audio-wise - better. Its built-in DAC augments sound for existing lounge gadgets, and it also upgrades the entire music-listening experience, thanks to streaming support, with access to services like Tidal and network-attached devices. Naturally, at this level, you also get hi-res playback. £2,965, linn.co.uk
What about high-res audio?
24 bit/192kHz, or high-res audio to its friends, is a major consideration nowadays when buying audio equipment. Unfortunately, neither Sonos nor Denon supports 24/192 files, so if your hard drive is chock-full with 24-bit music, you’d best look elsewhere. Sony’s SRS-X99 multi-room wireless speaker (£599) is high-res audio compatible, but you’ll struggle to find a cheaper set-up that will deliver your music ‘as the artist intended’.
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