After years in the doldrums, hi-fi is once again claiming its place in the tech spotlight, driven largely by the phenomenon that is wireless multi-room audio.
These systems are big news: high-street retailer John Lewis says that 70 per cent of all its audio sales are now wireless. All multi-room systems tempt with the same broad mix of features. They stream from source devices like your smartphone, making cables a thing of the past. And they enable you to play your music through multiple speakers at the same time, or stream different tracks to different speakers.
But if you’re looking to join the multi-room party, there’s a catch: streaming hi-fi systems are not interchangeable. Buy one speaker on a whim and you’re committing to a complete ecosystem. So you need to choose wisely; not every multi-room system includes a natty portable for you to take into the bathroom or outside for that summer barbecue. And just how easy is it to integrate multi-room with an existing system or home-cinema set-up?
To help detangle the wireless-audio conundrum, we’ve selected three top multi-room systems from Sonos, Denon and Bluesound to put through their paces…
Test 01: Design
Getting the look that works best with your home space is crucial. And, while our three hopefuls offer similar functionality, they’re worlds apart when it comes to design.
The HEOS by Denon range (from £199, denon.co.uk) is a Marmite proposition, but its tapered tabletop speakers are on the right side of striking. The diminutive HEOS 1 is the newest addition. Cutely compact, it can be partnered with the HEOS Go Pack for six hours of battery-powered music – ideal for barbecues. The larger HEOS 5 features four digital amps and a host of custom-designed drivers. The flagship HEOS 7 offers an additional channel of wallop, plus a headphone amp.
Sonos’s PLAY range (from £169, sonos.com) is rather more classic. The dumpy PLAY:1, with its wraparound metallic grille, is surprisingly hefty, while the larger PLAY:3 is not unlike an aspirational PA speaker with its fanned, forward-facing drivers. The PLAY:5 is a ported tabletop design with a trio of forward-facing drivers.
Its on-body controls are discreet, while the power chord is perfectly recessed into the base, making the speaker easy to park.
The Bluesound system (from £599, bluesound.com) is a different beast altogether, in that you need a separate device, the Bluesound Node, to be able to stream. There are two iterations of this: the regular model and the Powernode, which has an integrated two-channel amp. The former would typically be used with the brand’s one tabletop speaker, the Pulse, while the latter not only streams but also connects, like any other amplifier, to conventional speakers.
Bluesound provides its own sub/sat speaker combo, dubbed the Duo, as a natural partner. This 2.1 set-up comprises a pair of diminutive, high-gloss satellite speakers and a matching piano-black subwoofer. The standalone Bluesound Pulse is the equivalent of the HEOS 7 in terms of size and status. It dwarfs the PLAY:5, yet still looks elegant. Soft-touch controls and coloured lights offer cryptic clues as to the status of the player. Significantly, the Bluesound system offers native support for high-resolution audio.
The iconic design of the Sonos system is a real crowd-pleaser. It’s compact and effortlessly classy.
Test 02: Setup
Happily, all three of the wireless systems on test are straightforward to install onto a home network. There’s no need to spend hours reading manuals – simply follow the basic instructions and you’ll have your system online and ready for streaming in next to no time.
A great wireless multi-room system needs an app that’s both intuitive and fun to use. Sonos sets the standard here with a wonderfully unfussy app. Adding additional speakers to your network is simply a question of connecting a new speaker to the network and assigning it a named location. Once the app has taken you through the obligatory registration and firmware-update process, you can assign your music sources. There’s a wealth of options, including Rhapsody, Pandora, Spotify, TuneIn and Tidal. To add a NAS to Sonos My Music, you’ll need to download the Sonos desktop controller to
your PC, then manually point the system at your networked share, which is a bit of a faff.
Bluesound is equally well-appointed and easy to install. Configurable music services include Spotify, Qobuz, Deezer and Tidal. The app itself is a little dour compared to the others, though it’s intuitive enough once you’ve played with it for a while.
To connect HEOS hardware to your home network, you’ll need to link it to your smartphone with a 3.5mm cable and follow the Add Device prompts. Naturally, HEOS will stream tunes from a raft of music services, including Spotify, SoundCloud, Deezer, Tidal, Qobuz and Mixcloud, in either multiple zones simultaneously or individual zones as required. It’s also DLNA-compliant, making it a snap to locate and find your network storage devices or PCs.
Denon makes it easy to group speakers and assign zones. A ‘pinch to group’ feature on the app enables multiple locations to be grouped together on the fly, should you want to rock the entire house. Impressively, up to 32 HEOS units can be run on a single system.
Winner: HEOS by Denon
Thanks to its ease of use and inventive app design, HEOS by Denon wins this category by a pinch.
Test 03: Sound
All three of our wireless systems trounce the audio available from standalone Bluetooth speakers, but there are still big differences between them. In a showdown between HEOS and Sonos, it’s Denon’s prodigy that edges it. While the PLAY:1 is a budget barnstormer, both articulate and ballsy, the step-up Sonos boxes lose on points to Team HEOS.
The HEOS 7 positively thunders for attention. It’s startling just how much bass it can produce. In a larger room, this is immense fun. But this prodigious bass is tempered by a rich mid-range, which makes it a great choice for a wide variety of musical genres. The HEOS 5 is more restrained but has a smooth delivery that nudges it ahead of the Sonos PLAY:3.
By way of comparison, the Sonos PLAY:1 is a stonking performer, only slightly limited by its physical size. The PLAY:5 is more gutsy but ultimately monophonic. Momoiro Clover Z’s Kiss collaboration rolls but never really rocks. Perhaps surprisingly, the range-topping PLAY:5 is occasionally brittle for such a chunky speaker. The Kiss version of Samurai Son is sharper than a noseful of wasabi.
Neither Sonos nor HEOS supports 24-bit high-res audio files, although a high-level subscription to Tidal (£19.99 per month) will get you CD-quality music streaming.
For absolute performance, Bluesound takes the trophy. The Bluesound Pulse was the standout solo player in our test. It sounds big and bold, yet smooth and refined, and it outperforms all the Sonos and HEOS players in terms of sheer musicality. Its quality is not totally attributable to the fact that it’ll play high-res sources, either (although that helps). Fed regular Spotify, it remains a notch above. Offering a stereo soundstage of appreciable width, you can forget you’re listening to a one-box audio system. The player has a lovely mid-range that does great justice to voices but handles drama well, too. Sugar Rush by AKB48 is a joyous anthem granted additional gravitas by this player’s weighty presentation.
Bluesound takes Sonos and HEOS to school, with high-res audio support and top sonic performance
Third place: Bluesound
T3 rates: The ability to go native with 24-bit high-res audio is a real benefit.
T3 slates: There’s only one great speaker (the Pulse).
T3 says: A great-sounding system, but it’s not cheap
Second place: Sonos
T3 rates: The epitome of tech cool, this is a fine wireless proposition.
T3 slates: The PLAY:3 and PLAY:5 lag behind their rivals.
T3 says: This system is easy to use, and the PLAY:1 has the sound quality to match.
And the overall winner is...
HEOS by Denon
T3 rates: The HEOS 7 is a top performer for its size, with a bass output that borders on irresponsible - ideal for larger rooms. The mid-range HEOS 5 works well everywhere else. Multi-room management via the app is great.
T3 slates: The need to hardwire the speakers during set-up seems a bit naff. 24-bit high-res audio support would’ve been nice.
T3 says: In terms of overall value for money, HEOS by Denon is our multi-room system of choice. Feature-rich and musical with local USB playback, backed by a solid app, it’s a star performer.
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