Multi-Room Wireless Audio Systems
At the beginning of 2013, I wrote an article about all the latest home and portable entertainment announcements that were made during CES 2013, in Las Vegas. Searching for a thread that tied the whole show together, I suggested that “total connectivity” was the pervasive theme of the year’s show. The influence of smartphones, tablets, and mobile device apps was ubiquitous. Nearly every home entertainment product that was unveiled, or technology that was announced at CES 2013, was designed to work with mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad. This was definitely the year when the lines between portable and home entertainment were completely blurred. Most of these new home entertainment products were taking advantage of a portable entertainment device to provide access to multiple forms of multimedia, while also simplifying our lives with app-based control.
The past year in home and portable entertainment has been all about convenience and connectivity, and the multi-room wireless audio system was one area of the home entertainment market in which convenience and connectivity collided to yield a handful of innovative and refreshing products. Since these innovative audio systems were such a hit in 2013, I thought I’d briefly recap a few of the most unique multi-room wireless audio systems that were released this past year.
For those who don’t know or aren’t totally sure what this type of system entails, most multi-room wireless audio systems share a few basic requirements. Basically, a company has to offer a line of compatible wireless speakers that: A) Work and connect seamlessly with each other over a wireless network; and B) Support Wi-Fi (or sometimes Bluetooth) technology so that you can stream music wirelessly from a compatible audio source—like your iPhone—to the speaker. The individual speaker models that make up a brand’s multi-room wireless speaker system line are typically sold separately as well, which allows you to create the exact configuration you need for your own personalized, one-of-a-kind, multi-room audio solution.
A multi-room wireless audio system also needs to be employed in at least two different rooms, like your bedroom and living room. Of course, you can build a system that stretches throughout your entire home if you wish. The virtually limitless setup choices are a trademark of these versatile and flexible systems, while their wireless connectivity adds a level of convenience that’s missing from traditional wired home stereo and multi-channel systems. Software also plays a huge role in multi-room wireless audio systems. Most brands offer their own specific mobile application that allows you to control the entire system from your smartphone or tablet. These apps are usually available for both iOS and Android mobile devices as well.
Sonos is one of the pioneers of the multi-room audio system. They were one of the first companies to offer a line of compatible wireless speakers for the home—in fact, the company mandate is to redesign the home stereo for the digital age. Creating multi-room wireless audio solutions is in their DNA.
Over the past year, they’ve improved upon their original system by offering a more comprehensive line of wireless speaker solutions that are all compatible with one another. With so many speaker models to choose from, Sonos makes it easy to create a multi-room listening experience. Each unique system is designed from a variety of individual speaker units that work together seamlessly, but are also flexible enough to work independently from the rest of the system.
The lynchpin of the Sonos system is their user-friendly Controller App, which can be downloaded for free right onto your iOS or Android smartphone or tablet. The app guides you through the initial setup process that links your first Sonos speaker to your home Wi-Fi network. Once you’ve made that first connection to your wireless network, any additional Sonos speakers can be quickly added to other rooms and linked with each other via the SonosNet AES-encrypted peer-to-peer wireless mesh network, built into all Sonos speaker models. SonosNet uses MIMO technology to boost the signal. Plus, it works independently from your home network to reduce interference with other wireless signals in your home.
As far as hardware goes, Sonos offers a variety of wireless, app-controlled speaker options including the compact PLAY:1, the slightly larger PLAY:3 and the PLAY:5, which is the largest of the three PLAY speakers. All three work together and they can all be controlled by the Sonos Controller App as well.
Consider this possible setup as an example that should help you understand how easily and seamlessly all the Sonos speakers can be integrated into your home. If I bought two PLAY:1 speakers to create a balanced stereo speaker setup in my bedroom, one of the speakers would have to be hard-wired via Ethernet to my router (although there is a wireless accessory for the first speaker connection). After I make the initial wired connection to my home network with the first PLAY:1 speaker, the other one can be quickly linked wirelessly via SonosNet to the first PLAY:1. If I wanted to add a PLAY:3 speaker in the kitchen and two PLAY:5 speakers in the living room, all I have to do is use the intuitive, user-friendly Sonos Controller App to wirelessly link up all three new speakers to the already created SonosNet mesh network. You can link up to 32 speakers, total, using SonosNet.
Once you’ve completed your multi-room speaker setup, you can use the Controller App to stream music from virtually any Internet-based music source including Internet Radio, Pandora, Spotify, etc. You can also use the app to browse and stream your entire online digital music collection through your iTunes music library.
Earlier, I mentioned that the first Sonos speaker must be hard-wired via Ethernet to your home wireless router. If you want to connect that first speaker wirelessly, the optional Sonos BRIDGE is required. The BRIDGE allows you to connect your first Sonos speaker, wirelessly, to your wireless router. Sonos also offers the optional CONNECT device if you already have a home stereo system, but want to stream virtually limitless music over the Internet. The CONNECT acts as a bridge between your original home stereo system, AV receiver, or home theater speakers and the SonosNet mesh network. The company offers the optional CONNECT:AMP as well, which allows you to connect a pair of unpowered speakers to the SonosNet. This allows you to stream your digital music collection and Internet-based music sources through a pair of unpowered speakers. It even has a subwoofer pre-out for creating a 2.1-channel setup.
Another Sonos speaker option that can connect to your SonosNet multi-room audio system is the PLAYBAR. The PLAYBAR is a wireless soundbar that you can use with your flat-panel television, and can be placed under the TV, on a TV table or on the wall using the wall mount kit. With this speaker option, as well as the convenience afforded by the Controller App, you’ll be able to create the perfect Sonos multi-room audio system to suit your needs.
Bose is another manufacturer that has created an intriguing multi-room audio solution that’s as attractive as it is innovative. Their SoundTouch™ Wi-Fi music system features a completely novel design. The line includes three Wi-Fi-equipped speaker models that are available separately, but like the Sonos system, are designed to work together to create a multi-room audio solution for your entire home.
The smallest of the three SoundTouch speakers is the SoundTouch Portable. The line also includes the mid-sized SoundTouch 20 and the SoundTouch 30, which is the largest of the three Wi-Fi-enabled SoundTouch speaker options. All three models allow you to stream music via Wi-Fi from anywhere in your home. Since they all work together seamlessly, you can link them together wirelessly and build a multi-room audio system that can be easily and entirely controlled from your iOS or Android mobile device with the free Bose SoundTouch app.
The compact SoundTouch Portable Wi-Fi Music System is small enough to go with you from room to room while still producing clear, room-filling sound. Plus, it’s powered by a rechargeable Lithium-ion battery that lasts for up to 2.5 hours on a single charge. The other SoundTouch options include the mid-sized SoundTouch 20 and the SoundTouch 30, which is the largest of three Wi-Fi-enabled SoundTouch speaker options.
Like the portable model, the 20 and 30 both support six presets via the SoundTouch app and they’re AirPlay compatible as well. They also provide a wired Ethernet connection, if necessary, and an auxiliary audio input for connecting music devices that aren’t capable of streaming music over Wi-Fi. Devices like portable CD players, tape players, or even record players can all be connected using the auxiliary audio input.
The 20 and 30 models also feature a 1.6-inch OLED panel that shows the current station, preset, or song title of the track to which you’re listening when connected via Bluetooth or Airplay. One major difference between the SoundTouch Portable and the 20 and 30 is the power source. The 20 and 30 don’t have built-in rechargeable Lithium-ion batteries since they’re not meant to move with you from room to room. Instead, these larger SoundTouch models are equipped with AC adapters that support 100-240VAC universal power requirements for worldwide compatibility when paired with the proper plug adapter.
Whether you want to use a single SoundTouch speaker system in one room or you want to fill your entire home with SoundTouch speaker systems, Bose makes it easy to control and hook up as many speaker models as you need.
Cambridge Audio makes a variety of high-quality, wired speaker systems designed for home theater applications. They also offer the Minx Audio Air wireless speakers, which use both Bluetooth wireless technology and AirPlay Wi-Fi-based streaming. However, unlike the other systems discussed so far, you can’t stream to multiple Minx Audio Air speakers throughout your home simultaneously with Bluetooth, but you can stream to multiple units using the AirPlay Wi-Fi-based wireless connectivity. There are other advantages afforded by Bluetooth streaming, though.
Cambridge Audio makes the compact Minx Audio Air 100 speaker model and the larger Minx Audio Air 200 speaker. Choosing between two speaker options provides you with added flexibility when designing your speaker layout. This allows you to create the perfect speaker setup for each room in your system. Each Minx Audio Air speaker is built around a successful synergy that unites Hi-Fi sound quality and compact speaker design. Engineered from acoustically damped thermo polymer with a neutral aluminum enclosure, these speakers blend seamlessly with just about any room decor.
Since these speakers support both Bluetooth connectivity and AirPlay compatibility, you’ll be able to stream just about any Internet-based music source to the speaker. You’ll also be able to stream your iTunes library from an AirPlay-equipped PC or Mac computer, as well as from your iPhone, iPod, or iPad. The Minx Audio Air speakers work with the free, downloadable Minx Air App as well. This app provides access to a virtually endless supply of Internet streaming services including Pandora, Spotify, hundreds of Internet Radio stations, and more. Plus, the app supports up to ten presets, so you can lock in your favorite music sources and access them via the app on any of your iOS or Android mobile devices that have the app installed.
One main advantage to the system’s Bluetooth connectivity is that you can connect to audio sources like your Bluetooth-enabled smartphone or tablet—even if you’re away from your home Wi-Fi network. This makes the Minx speakers semi-portable, but you’ll still need a wall outlet to power the speakers. The Minx Audio Air speakers also feature high-quality Class-D digital amplifiers, adjustable bass control, support for apt-X technology, patented BMR (Balanced Mode Radiator) speaker drivers, and built-in DSP (Digital Signal Processing). Each Minx Audio Air speaker includes a remote control as well. So, depending on how you stream audio, the Minx Audio Air speakers can provide a semi-portable, multi-room audio solution that can take advantage of either Bluetooth or AirPlay wireless connectivity. Use Bluetooth to stream music to an individual speaker in any room or use AirPlay to stream to multiple Minx Audio Air speakers simultaneously.
A true old-school titan of the home entertainment industry, Pioneer has been able to adapt to the changing times. By integrating years of sound research and development with today’s wireless streaming technologies, they have remained relevant—avoiding the doom facing some of the more stagnant home entertainment brands.
Pioneer’s XW-SMA1-K speaker features AirPlay Wi-Fi-based wireless audio streaming. You can stream music from your PC or Mac computer’s iTunes music library. AirPlay also supports Internet-based music streaming from any iOS mobile device. For Android owners, this speaker supports HTC Connect, which lets you wirelessly stream Internet-based audio sources from compatible HTC smartphones to this speaker. The speaker is DLNA-Certified as well, which allows you to stream music from other DLNA-compliant devices in your home wireless network.
Both the A1 and A3 speakers feature compact designs. The A1 is the most basic model, while the A3 offers all the same features of the A1 as well as a handful of upgrades. Not only is the A3 portable, thanks to its compact size and built-in rechargeable battery; it’s also water resistant, so you can use it in the kitchen, bathroom, or even outside at the beach. The larger A4 speaker model supports premium sound quality, thanks to its integrated subwoofer and larger drivers. The A4 is designed to fill large rooms (like a living room or basement) with clear, full-range audio that also has rich low-end response.
All three Wi-Fi-equipped Pioneer speakers also feature Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) security and home-network syncing for easy connectivity to your wireless home network. Each of the Pioneer speakers also features an auxiliary audio input for connecting non-wireless audio sources like an old MP3 player, portable CD player, etc. Each speaker includes a useful remote as well, which supports quicker, more convenient control of speaker settings and input sources. If you choose to build a system with the Pioneer speakers, you’ll be limited to AirPlay-based streaming. However, AirPlay-based Wi-Fi still affords simultaneous streaming to multiple Pioneer speaker units placed throughout your home. Plus, the three Pioneer speaker options are more budget friendly than other options in this article.
Sony has a long history of innovation and audio excellence. So far, Sony has released the compact SA-NS400 Wi-Fi HomeShare Network Speaker, which supports Wi-Fi connectivity for streaming music from Internet sources including Pandora, Slacker Radio, Sony's Music Unlimited, Internet Radio stations, and more. You can also use the speaker to stream music files stored on your computer.
Although this speaker is compact, it features 360-degree sound output, created from four outward-facing tweeters that can fill a typical living room or bedroom with clear, rich sound. And thanks to Sony’s PartyStream technology, you can add and sync additional Sony SA-NS400 Wi-Fi HomeShare network speakers throughout your home. This will allow you to stream music from a single Web-based audio source to multiple speakers simultaneously. You can also stream audio from your digital music library to your multi-room wireless Sony speaker setup. Each room’s speaker configuration can be controlled independently as well. Plus, the PartyStream technology also supports simultaneous streaming from compatible network-enabled Sony Blu-ray home theater and AV-receiver speaker systems. There’s even a free, downloadable app available for iOS devices that allows you to use your iPhone or iPad as a wireless remote to control your entire Sony multi-room audio system. Use the app to adjust volume by room or use it to adjust all room levels at the same time. The app will also let you browse and select music to play from a wide range of Internet audio sources or from your own digital music collection.
Whether you choose to design a premium Bose or Sonos multi-room audio system, or you choose to piece together a Sony network speaker multi-room configuration, any of the above brands will provide some level of multi-room audio streaming from a range of Internet-based audio sources or from your personal music library. How much you want to integrate one of these systems into your home is entirely up to you. It’s this synergy of wireless connectivity and flexible speaker setup that makes a multi-room wireless audio solution so appealing. Good luck building yours.