Smart speakers might be the toast of the smart home right now, but previously it was the top wireless multi-room speakers that filled their role in many ways. Dominated by Sonos â but now opening up thanks to Alexa and Google Assistant â wireless systems unite the home by sharing music between rooms and devices, all controlled from your phone.
With the likes of AirPlay 2 and Sonos Connect breaking down barriers, there are now more options than ever for creating a vast wireless, multi-room party system so you can listen to music seamlessly as you wander between rooms. And the growth of smart speakers make that even easier.
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.
For the best of both worlds, itâs worthwhile checking out any smart functionality it has to offer, or any thatâs in the pipeline. Sonos has led here once again, with two dedicated Alexa speakers in its lineup - the Sonos One and Sonos Beam soundbar - and an Alexa Skill for its family of speakers, letting users control playback with voice.
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 wonât 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.
Sonos and multi-room have gone hand-in-hand for so long, itâs almost hard to remember which one came first. And with so much experience, itâs 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 itâs hard to think of anything that itâs really lacking. Thereâs a choice of four speakers â the Alexa-packing Sonos One, the Play:1, Play:3 and Play:5. These join the TV-focused Playbar, Playbase and the new Alexa-powered Beam, alongside the more traditional Sonos: Connect and Sonos: Connect Amp for more serious hi-fi setups.
Getting it set up is easy too â 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, itâs arguably more restrictive than other systems, but Sonos reckons itâs 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 youâll 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 â 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 â great for larger houses that struggle with signal blackspots.
Sonos is a software company at heart, so itâs 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. Itâs the most complete streaming offering of any system weâve 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.
And for iOS users, the arrival of AirPlay 2 has improved the Sonos multi-room experience immeasurably. Not only is it super easy to connect your speakers from your iPhone or iPad, it means you can pair them up with other AirPlay 2-supported speakers. At the time of writing that list only includes Sonos and the HomePod, but it'll keep growing in the coming months: Bang & Olufsen, Naim, Libratone and others are all in line for the upgrade.
AirPlay 2 works with the Sonos One, second-gen Play:5, Playbase and Beam, but if you have an older model in your setup, good news: you can piggyback off one of the compatible speakers, should you have one.
Read this: The best AirPlay 2 speakers
As for its sound, itâs one thatâs been honed over time, and sounds better than ever right now, with a bold yet insightful performance thatâs 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 speakerâs sound to its placement in your room.
The Sonos One and Beam have Alexa functionality built in, but 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 (âAlexa, play my rock playlist in the kitchenâ), whereas with the Sonos One itâs more direct.
Sonos, Amazon Music service and TuneIn Radio work with Alexa commands â just be aware that Sonos currently defaults to Amazon Music. Google Assistant support is due to arrive on the Sonos One and Beam in late 2018. 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
Denon is a hi-fi brand that has decades of experience in making things sound good â something that bodes well for its versatile HEOS audio system. For the simplest setup, you can choose from four speakers of various sizes â HEOS 1, 3, 5 and 7 â 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 thatâs not backwards in coming forwards. Itâs 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 youâre 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. Weâd stick with two of the same speaker to ensure the tonality and balance are the same though â arguably itâs the HEOS 1 and HEOS 3 that lend themselves best to this set-up.
Now in its second generation, HEOS has bolstered the whole familyâs spec sheet, adding both Bluetooth connectivity and high-res music support up to 24-bit/192kHz. Unfortunately, thereâs no aptX for the best-sounding Bluetooth, but itâs 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, itâs from the app that youâre going to get the best sound quality and the best experience. Itâs 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 routerâs WPS button or using ethernet. Once your speakers are on your home network, youâll 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 speakersâ inputs. Youâll 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 â 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
Apple has finally given us the ability to sync multiple Apple HomePod speakers, creating stereo pairs and setting up multi-room audio. Apple's smart speaker - or rather two or more of its smart speakers - makes for one of the easiest to use (if you're an iPhone user) and best sounding multi-room audio setups. AirPlay 2 only makes that experience better, allowing you to pair the HomePod with other speakers.
Setting up a stereo pair is easy - and it is proper stereo, not just an exact match of sound from each â the Apple A8 chips sync and split the left and right stereo channels between the two devices. With multi-room, there's nothing to set up â you'll just see the HomePods showing up in the AirPlay speaker list on your iOS device or Mac.
You can ask Siri to play music from a certain speaker by saying something along the lines of, "Hey Siri â play The Backstreet Boys in the kitchen," or "Hey Siri, play some hip-hop in the office and the lounge". You can even get complex with Siri, setting up different songs in different rooms â at different volume levels, by saying something like, "Hey Siri, play The Happy Mondays in the living room at 75% and my classical playlist in the kitchen at 40%,". You can group speakers and control playback using the AirPlay button on Apple Music or Control Center too.
Sound quality is great, with 360-degree sound, evenly splitting the music in every direction. Apple has absolutely gone to town with the audio tech with the HomePod, packing in seven beam-forming tweeters and a four-inch, upwards-facing, high-excursion woofer. But it is, for now at least, just a solitary model on offer... albeit with two different colours available.
To make the most of a HomePod, you have to go all-in with Apple â it's almost as if the HomePod wants you to forget that there are streaming services other than Apple Music, and that radio stations that aren't Beats 1, exist. You can play Spotify, Deezer and the likes on your HomePod - it does everything any other regular AirPlay speaker can - but that does mean getting out your smartphone and tablet to get things going. There's no "Hey Siri, play Oasis radio from Spotify" or "Hey Siri, wake me up at 8.30 with KEXP" on offer here.
Using Apple Music - or diving into local media in your iTunes library - you are treated to an array of musical delights in real-time using Siri â advanced track controls, song and artist info, alternative versions of tracks, playlist curations and so on â but, using a third-party service over AirPlay, it's hit or miss whether Siri can handle anything more taxing than, "Hey Siri, turn the volume up".
Finally, back to AirPlay 2, this allows you to use the HomePod with other companies' speakers. Right now that only includes Sonos, but there's more to come. Even better, once the music is playing on AirPlay 2, you can use Alexa on a Sonos speaker to control basic playback - skip track, pause etc - on all connected speakers, HomePod included.
- Fantastic audio quality
- Super slick design
- Apple Music integration is great
- Only one model on sale
- Quite pricey for multiple rooms
- 3rd party streaming isn't as simple
Naimâs wireless speaker line-up currently stands at just two strong, but youâre unlikely to find yourself wanting with the performance they are capable of. Itâs not exactly the most affordable system â the Qb is the cheaper of the two speakers at $799, with the Mu-so weighing in at $1,299 â but cast an eye over the prices of Naimâs hi-fi gear, and youâll get an idea of the level of expertise thatâs 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 â this is hi-fi level audio. The Mu-so pips the Qb for scale, dynamics and refinement, but at almost double the price youâd probably expect it to. Whichever you play your music through, youâre 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, itâs 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 itâll 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. Itâll 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 â and itâs 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). Thatâs 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. It's also getting AirPlay 2 support soon.
- 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
Bose only joined the multi-room market a few years ago, but itâs 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 companyâs 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 itâs 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 itâs worth remembering that this wonât 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. Thatâll cover better-than-CD-quality tracks but wonât 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. Itâs the same process for every extra speaker you want to add, and you can then select which speaker youâre controlling, as well as group them together, from the appâs swipe up menu.
The family sound is a solid and full-bodied one. Bass is weighty â particularly in the huge SoundTouch 30 â and there is volume to spare on all of them. It doesnât mean they arenât great with detail and insight though, because they are, but theyâre 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 whatâs playing â youâll 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 itâs 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, youâll 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
If you take a look at Bluesoundâs extensive range of products, it might be difficult to believe the company is only some three years old. Donât think of this as a start-up-got-lucky though, itâs 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 â 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, itâs little surprise that sound quality has been made top consideration here, and the whole family sounds sublime. Itâs a detailed, refined and expressive sound, with an outstanding musicality across the board that weâre not used to hearing from wireless speakers.
Such quality doesnât 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 â not only is it the middle priced, itâs 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 phoneâs settings and then enter your Wi-Fi details through the app. Itâs straightforward enough, and it didnât 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. Itâs the first multi-room system to support Tidal Masters using MQA too â 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). Thereâs 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 â not just the speaker itâs connected to.
At the time of writing, Bluesound has said it is working on voice assistant support, namechecking Alexa, Google Assistant and HomeKit/Siri as well as Bixby, but there are no 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 whatâs 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
JBL is making it really easy to choose its Link series of smart speakers. There are four speakers in the lineup with a nice, clear range of price, specs and size. First up, there's two portable (ish) IPX7 waterproof speakers, the $149.95 Link 10 and the $199.95 Link 20 and then there's two larger, at-home, higher end speakers, the $249.95 Link 300 and the $399.95 Link 500.
The focus here is on usability and features. So not only are these Wi-Fi speakers which can be voice controlled via built-in Google Assistant and far-field mics, and connected to a Google Home/Chromecast powered multi room set up (which is very quick and easy to do via the app).
But they're also Bluetooth speakers with a dedicated Bluetooth pairing button - even the models designed to be left at home. One niggle, which could be a dealbreaker especially for the larger speakers, is that there's no aux-in port. JBL has gone all in on wireless which is neat but might make it one key input short for some audiophiles.
When it comes to music, JBL Link speakers work with Spotify, Google Play Music and Pandora and supports 96kHz/24-bit HD streaming. And as per a Google made Home speaker, they can be used to control smart home devices from all the main brands that support the Google Assistant ecosystem.
When compared to the Google Home, Google Home Mini and Google Home Max, there are a few features lagging behind for third party Assistant speakers like the JBL Link family - such as voice calls - but generally you'll get a very similar day-to-day experience.
As for sound, we've spent the most time with the JBL Link 500 which has 4 x 15W of power, two 89mm mid/bass woofers and two 20mm tweeters. It's a fun, powerful, room-filling stereo sound that works well when you crank it up loud so a perfect option for house parties.
The Link 20, meanwhile, makes a great kitchen speaker - that's where we've been using it - though we would say the size and weight makes it not quite as portable as we'd like for picnics in the park - better to go for the cheaper Link 10 if that's your main reason for buying. The Link 10 goes for five hours on one charge, though, the Link 20 for ten hours.
So for this range of solid all-rounders, that offer good value for money, our only other criticism is that the design hasn't exactly bowled us over. The portable speakers look exactly as you'd expect. The Link 500 (and Link 300) don't have that classic, hi-fi look of a lot of the other systems in this test which might actually appeal - it's personal preference of course. It has softer, curvier edges but doesn't quite match Sonos, particularly its recent kit, or even some of Google's own efforts on statement style.
- Google voice support
- Nice range, good value
- Double up as portable, BT speakers
- No aux in
- Design is meh
- Some Assistant features are late