Smart speakers might be the toast of the smart home now, but previously it was multi-room speakers that filled their role in many ways – uniting the home by sharing music between rooms and devices, all controlled from your phone.
For ages, demand was small and it was largely taken care of by a smart startup called Sonos. Fast-forward a few years, and the market has opened up to a much larger range of kit, which includes plenty more from Sonos as well as some excellent competition.
Despite the boom in smart speakers, if music rather than smart functionality is your main requirement from a speaker, a multi-room system with audio at its heart could still be the best place to start.
Things to look out for include the streaming services it supports, any inputs you might need or any extra connectivity like Bluetooth. Some even support high-res music if you consider yourself something of an audiophile. You might also like to check the size of the range on offer should you want to upgrade or bolster your collection further down the line.
Want voice control? The best smart speakers - tested
For the best of both worlds, it’s worthwhile checking out any smart functionality it has to offer, or any that’s in the pipeline. Sonos has led here once again, building an Alexa Skill for its family of speakers which allows for audio control of music, as well as adding a new dedicated Alexa speaker to its line-up – the Sonos One, which comes with the functionality built in.
Of course, while multi-room speakers try to catch up on smart speaker capability, you can be sure that smart speakers are doing exactly the same in reverse. Amazon's family of Echo speakers has the ability to group and control them across multiple rooms, as has the Google Home range. Arguably these won’t offer the same level of audio chops as the options below, but they are improving all the time, both offer Bluetooth out to better speakers and could be worth considering.
Read our buying guide to the best smart speakers for more details on those, or keep reading for our pick of the best multi-room speakers you can buy.
From $199, denon.co.uk
Denon is a hi-fi brand that has decades of experience in making things sound good – something that bodes well for its versatile HEOS audio system. For the simplest setup, you can choose from four speakers of various sizes – HEOS 1, 3, 5 and 7 – with an optional battery pack to make the smallest speaker wireless for garden listening. Other components include a soundbar, subwoofer, an AV receiver for your home cinema system, and a streaming module for making an existing hi-fi system wireless.
No matter which you choose, the whole family packs a sound that’s not backwards in coming forwards. It’s rich, punchy and detailed, and offers an engaging performance that works just as well for parties as it does for more casual listening.
The HEOS 7 is the speaker to go for if you’re looking for scale and volume though, with the HEOS 5 following closely behind. The HEOS 1 or 3 are great options for smaller rooms, with the ability to link any of them into a stereo pair for a more convincing stereo sound. We’d stick with two of the same speaker to ensure the tonality and balance are the same though – arguably it’s the HEOS 1 and HEOS 3 that lend themselves best to this set-up.
Now in its second generation, HEOS has bolstered the whole family’s spec sheet, adding both Bluetooth connectivity and high-res music support up to 24-bit/192kHz. Unfortunately, there’s no aptX for the best-sounding Bluetooth, but it’s more of a convenience feature that allows visitors to ping a song to your speaker from their phone, without the need for the HEOS app.
However, it’s from the app that you’re going to get the best sound quality and the best experience. It’s very easy to use, and walks you through the setup in minutes. At its simplest, it requires you to connect your device to the speaker using the included 3.5mm cable and follow the instructions. Otherwise, you can connect via your router’s WPS button or using ethernet. Once your speakers are on your home network, you’ll automatically be able to see any connected NAS (network attached storage) drives or iTunes libraries, plus any USB sticks or aux-in devices connected to one of your speakers’ inputs. You’ll even be able to play vinyl across multiple rooms if you have a hi-fi system with the HEOS Link streaming module attached.
The streaming services built into the app for the UK are pretty extensive, and include Spotify (using Spotify Connect), Tidal, Deezer, Napster, Amazon Music (free with Prime) and SoundCloud, plus TuneIn Radio. American users will get extras from the likes of Pandora, SiriusXM, iHeartRadio and Juke. One added smart home bonus is that HEOS can be controlled by Alexa – mostly simple commands such as turning your speakers on or off, adjusting volume, switching sources and some basic playback controls. The Alexa Skill is currently only available on the US Amazon app store but UK users will be glad to know it's coming to British shores in an early summer 2018 firmware update.
- Versatile with punchy sound
- Great streaming service support
- Simple voice controls
- No aptX for best-sounding Bluetooth
- Alexa controls are US only
From $148, sonos.com
Sonos and multi-room have gone hand-in-hand for so long, it’s almost hard to remember which one came first. And with so much experience, it’s not surprising that it has one of the most solid setups going. Its speakers and accessories line up might not be as broad as some, but it’s hard to think of anything that it’s really lacking. There’s a choice of four speakers – the Alexa-packing Sonos One, the Play:1, Play:3 and Play:5. These join the TV-focused Playbar and Playbase, alongside the more traditional Sonos: Connect and Sonos: Amp for more serious hi-fi setups.
Getting it set up is easy too – the app walks you through a few short steps to get the first speaker online, which is nothing more than a few swipes and button presses. Other speakers are even quicker, and you can have kitted your house out in under 10 minutes. Want to create a stereo pair? The app can walk you through that too.
With a more closed system than some competitors, it’s arguably more restrictive than other systems, but Sonos reckons it’s all for good reason. For example, Bluetooth is nowhere to be found and only music up to 16-bit/44kHz (CD quality) can be streamed via Sonos speakers. Only the Play:5 has an aux-in too, and there are no USB inputs on any of the speakers.
What you get in exchange is one of the most stable Wi-Fi performances you’ll see in setups like this, thanks to the way it builds its network. Using a ‘mesh’ system, it creates the equivalent of a master speaker nearest to the router, which then talks to the speaker in the next room, that in turn talks to the speaker upstairs – and so on. The idea is that your Sonos speaker only needs to be within good reach of another Sonos speaker, and not your router, to get online – great for larger houses that struggle with signal blackspots.
Sonos is a software company at its heart, so it’s not surprising that with all its extra time in the industry, it has managed to pal up with just about every streaming service going. All the big names you could want are present and correct in the list of 48 supported services, as well as apps for podcasts, radio, alternative music genres and audiobooks. It’s the most complete streaming offering of any system we’ve seen.
You can point the Sonos Controller app at any shared network drives too, for streaming from a NAS drive or iTunes library, for example.
As for its sound, it’s one that’s been honed over time, and sounds better than ever right now, with a bold yet insightful performance that’s as easy to listen to as it is engaging. Sonos is always tweaking it too, with regular firmware upgrades to deliver improvements and upgrades, plus its own Trueplay technology that tweaks your speaker’s sound to its placement in your room.
The Sonos One is the most recent addition and comes with Alexa functionality built into it, though the rest of the family work with a separate Alexa device in a similar way. There are a few differences; for instance you have to point Alexa in the direction of where you want your music playing (“Alexa, play my rock playlist in the kitchen”), whereas with the Sonos One it’s more direct.
Currently only Amazon’s homegrown Music service and TuneIn Radio work with Alexa commands, but Spotify integration has now arrived – just be aware that Sonos currently defaults to Amazon Music. Google Assistant support is on its way, to the Sonos One at least, in 2018 too. For now, try free smart home app Yonomi for a workaround.
- Most complete streaming offering
- Alexa integration (though limited)
- Mesh Wi-Fi system
- Restrictive in some ways
- Only music up to CD quality
- Not as broad a line-up as others
From $799, naimaudio.com
Naim’s wireless speaker line-up currently stands at just two strong, but you’re unlikely to find yourself wanting with the performance they are capable of. It’s not exactly the most affordable system – the Qb is the cheaper of the two speakers at $799, with the Mu-so weighing in at $1,299 – but cast an eye over the prices of Naim’s hi-fi gear, and you’ll get an idea of the level of expertise that’s been squeezed into them.
They certainly look the part too, with customisable grilles, large stylised volume dials and solid, premium builds. The cube-shaped Qb is a little easier to place in a house because of its smaller footprint, whereas the Mu-so will need a little more space. Its width means it suits larger surfaces like a traditional hi-fi rack or a TV cabinet.
Both sound superb – this is hi-fi level audio. The Mu-so pips the Qb for scale, dynamics and refinement, but at almost double the price you’d probably expect it to. Whichever you play your music through, you’re going to hear a natural, fluid and engaging sound that will pay back every penny of its purchase price in performance.
As well as sound quality, it’s their flexible connectivity that really helps them to stand out. They both have optical and 3.5mm physical connections, a USB port for charging and playing Apple kit, aptX Bluetooth and AirPlay connectivity, plus internet radio and universal plug and play to boot. The latter means it’ll sniff out any music stored on external drives on your network, whereas the optical connection opens both up to giving your TV sound a helping hand too.
Setup is super easy, particularly with an Apple device, as Airplay is used to seamlessly share your WiFi settings between your phone and the speakers. It’ll do that with every extra speaker you add to the system too, so building it up takes no time at all.
Every file format you can imagine is playable here, up to 24-bit/192Khz – and it’s with these files that they really shine. Streaming services are equally welcome though, with both Spotify Connect and Tidal accessible directly from the Naim control app (for iOS/Android). That’s limited compared to its competition, but Bluetooth at least offers playback via a direct connection.
The Naim app itself is slick, and is as lovely to look at as it is easy to use. The system is awaiting the addition of any official smart assistance from the likes of Alexa or Google Assistant, but can be controlled via voice with an Amazon Echo Dot plugged into its 3.5mm jack.
- Sounds superb
- Looks stylish
- Plays nice with Apple kit and Airplay
- Pricey hi-fi gear
- In-app streaming support is limited
- Mu-so requires rack or cabinet
From $160, bose.com
Bose only joined the multi-room market a few years ago, but it’s made fast moves ever since with its three-strong line-up. The SoundTouch 20 and 30 have already been tweaked and improved into their third generation, alongside the dinky SoundTouch 10 that completed the trio in late 2015.
The range sits alongside the company’s popular SoundLink line up, but works over Wi-Fi as well as Bluetooth to deliver a strong multi-room audio performance. All three also have 3.5mm aux inputs for hardwiring devices, and six preset buttons that you can fill with playlists or radio stations within the app.
The SoundTouch app has been much improved over the years, and it’s at its cleanest and easiest to use now. Built-in music services include Spotify, Amazon, Deezer and TuneIn Radio. You can use Bluetooth (non-aptX) to stream from other favourites, like Tidal or Apple Music, but it’s worth remembering that this won’t work over multi-room.
The Bose app also helps you to set up shared NAS and computer music libraries on the same network, with support up to 16-bit/48kHz files. That’ll cover better-than-CD-quality tracks but won’t allow 24-bit high-res material.
The app walks you through the setup process quickly, requiring just a few button presses on the speaker when prompted to get it connected to your device. It’s the same process for every extra speaker you want to add, and you can then select which speaker you’re controlling, as well as group them together, from the app’s swipe up menu.
The family sound is a solid and full-bodied one. Bass is weighty – particularly in the huge SoundTouch 30 – and there is volume to spare on all of them. It doesn’t mean they aren’t great with detail and insight though, because they are, but they’re arguably best suited to people with richer-than-neutral tastes.
The OLED screens on the SoundTouch 20 and 30 are a nice addition for knowing which input is selected and details of what’s playing – you’ll need to rely on the colour LEDs on the SoundTouch 10.
Bose's Soundtouch Control Alexa Skill, which gives you playback controls via voice, is now available but early users have been complaining that it's a work in progress so be prepared to be patient. The 3.5mm aux input on all the SoundTouch speakers allows an Echo Dot to be connected too which might be more reliable for the time being.
Apple Watch users can also download the SoundTouch control app for simple playback controls from their wrist, but it’s a little limited for now. It only gives you control over a single speaker, with no option for switching between them on the watch. If you want to control another one on your network, you’ll need to use your phone to switch speakers first.
- Solid sound, weighty bass
- OLED screens
- Clean and easy to use app
- Alexa controls - work in progress
- Not all services work
- Apple Watch controls limited
From $299.99, bluesound.com
If you take a look at Bluesound’s extensive range of products, it might be difficult to believe the company is only some three years old. Don’t think of this as a start-up-got-lucky though, it’s a company with years of audio background behind it, started by the people responsible for British hi-fi brand NAD.
The range has something for every setup, including a choice of three wireless speakers – the small Pulse Flex (with optional battery pack), mid-sized Pulse Mini and largest Pulse 2. These join the Pulse Soundbar, Pulse sub, plus a range of hi-fi accessories, including the Vault 2 NAS drive and Node 2 streamer, for a complete audio ecosystem.
Being built on such strong audio heritage, it’s little surprise that sound quality has been made top consideration here, and the whole family sounds sublime. It’s a detailed, refined and expressive sound, with an outstanding musicality across the board that we’re not used to hearing from wireless speakers.
Such quality doesn’t come cheap though. The Pulse Flex starts things off at $299.99, rising to $499 for the Pulse Mini and $699.99 for the Pulse 2. Our pick of the three would be the Pulse Mini – not only is it the middle priced, it’s the best balanced of the trio, and will do a grand job for all but the biggest rooms.
Setup involves each speaker creating its own Wi-Fi network, which you connect to via your phone’s settings and then enter your Wi-Fi details through the app. It’s straightforward enough, and it didn’t take long to get our little multi-room system up and running.
The number of services Bluesound has built up in a short amount of time is impressive, though not completely comprehensive. It supports Spotify, Tidal, Napster, Deezer and Qobuz. It’s the first multi-room system to support Tidal Masters using MQA too – a hi-res file format that delivers better-than-CD quality music for the first time from a streaming service.
Music from connected NAS drives can be streamed up to 24-bit/192kHz, with aptX Bluetooth available for streaming from unsupported music services, like Apple Music (though remember, this can only be to a single speaker). There’s a combination optical/3.5mm jack on all three of the wireless speakers, as well as a USB port for connecting music thumb drives, and any sound from these can be streamed across your network – not just the speaker it’s connected to.
At the time of writing, Bluesound has said it is working on voice assistant support, but there are details and no confirmed date for delivery as yet. As with other 3.5mm-packing speakers, the option is there for connecting an Echo Dot to scratch the itch in the meantime.
It has, however, finished work on the Bluesound Apple Watch app, so you are able to control playback and volume across all your players, as well as see the play queue for what’s coming up next. Much more in depth than the Bose offering.
- Sounds sublime
- Hi-res Tidal streaming
- Full Apple Watch controls
- Mid-range to expensive system
- Limited streaming support
- No voice support - yet