Streaming audio has grown from a niche to a mass product in about a decade. Previously, you needed an unprecedented amount of technical knowledge: now everyone can install and operate a multi-room system. We look at the offerings of the seven largest brands that build audio systems, such as Sonos, Denon and Samsung.
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When you hear 'multiroom audio', you almost automatically think of Sonos. The California brand introduced the first ZonePlayers about twelve years ago. Due to the robust own wireless network and the – at the time – unparalleled ease of installation of the players, streaming audio was suddenly very accessible. Also for the not so technically savvy users. Now we are more than a decade further and the established order in the audio world has also seen the light. Think NAD who came up with Bluesound. Or Denon, who has established a direct competitor to Sonos with HEOS. And what about Yamaha? Or the German Teufel, which merged with Raumfeld a few years ago. And Bose? And Samsung ... in short: enough choice now.
The major differences between the various systems can be found in a few areas. First of all, of course, the appearance. What's beautiful is a matter of taste, so we're not going to say much about that. In addition, the range varies per brand. Sonos, HEOS, Bose and Samsung mainly focus on all-in-one speakers. Bluesound, Raumfeld and Yamaha also focus on other types of solutions. Think of separate streamers, rip systems or active systems to which you only need to connect speakers. Yamaha, Denon and in a sense NAD (Bluesound) also have amplifiers that incorporate their streaming system.
Another striking – and important – difference can be found in the network technology. Where Bluesound and Sonos use their own system, the rest uses upnp. There is something to be said for both choices. By making its own system, a manufacturer limits the possibilities of the consumer. The device cannot simply play from a NAS and cannot be operated with generic apps. However, a proprietary system is in many cases more stable, because the manufacturer can coordinate everything: the performance does not depend on the performance of, for example, the network or the user's NAS. However, Upnp offers more flexibility. And many consumers find that very pleasant.
We kick off with the most famous of the list: Sonos. Sonos has really set a trend with its lineup. And we have to admit: it is clear and well thought out. There are a number of speakers: from small to large, they are the Play:1, Play:3 and Play:5. Recently, the Play:5 has been completely renewed: it sounds different, has more features (touch keys and sensors to determine how it stands) and looks a lot more modern than its predecessor. In addition, there is the soundbar Playbar and a matching subwoofer. The soundbar also plays in 3.0 channels. If you want surround (Dolby 5.1 is supported), then two rear speakers (for example the Play:1 or Play:3, but the '5' is also possible) and a subwoofer are a must.
For those who already have a good hi-fi system, the Sonos Connect is an option: that is a separate streamer that you can connect to an existing system. If you want a compact system, the Connect:amp is an option. It contains an amplifier (55 watts per channel) so that you only need to connect speakers.
The strength of Sonos lies in the easy installation, the support of countless streaming services and the excellent app. We dare to say that anyone can install Sonos products and operate the app. The whole thing feels very intuitive. There is, however, a point of criticism: the sound quality is no more than average. In this test we heard systems that far surpass Sonos in terms of sound quality. Think of Raumfeld, HEOS and certainly Bluesound. Support for high-res audio files and Bluetooth is also missing, and we are missing inputs on the devices. Digital inputs in particular should not be missing these days. Other than the Playbar, no Sonos device has a digital input. In short: we lack flexibility at Sonos.
8 Score 80
- Very nice app
- Easy installation
- All streaming services are supported
- Sonos has been overtaken by sound
- Connectivity is below par
High res audio?
We mentioned high-res audio in our review of the Sonos system. But what is that? When recording music, an analog signal – the direct, electrical music signal – is chopped up into samples by an analog-to-digital converter. In many cases, this happens 96,000 times per second. The so-called sampling frequency is then 96 kHz. The more samples per second, the more precise the conversion is. Then there's another factor: the bit size. This determines the dynamic range. In studios, 24bit samples are used. That gives a (theoretical) dynamic range of 144 dB. This is useful when editing audio.
A CD can process a digital signal with a bit size of 16 bits and a sampling rate of 44,100 samples per second. That is laid down in the redbook standard. Streamers do not have that limitation and can often process high-res these days, i.e. 24bit audio with a sampling frequency of 48 kHz or higher. Think 24 bit/96 kHz or 24 bit/192 kHz or even more. And that is clearly audible in many cases.
The German brand Raumfeld is part of the Teufel group. The product range is quite extensive and quite different from, for example, Sonos, HEOS or Bluesound. This is particularly evident in the 'Stereo' line. Those are simply speakers – a floorstander and a bookshelf model – containing a streamer and amplifier. And why not? They sound downright good. And for those looking for a great, full sound: look no further!
Then there are the smaller all-in-one models: the One M and the small variant One S. There is also a Cube: a bit of an odd one out, because it is more of a design speaker. He doesn't sound great either. Finally, Raumfeld has a Cinebar and Sounddeck for the TV. Raumfeld also has a separate streaming device: the Connector 2. And an Expand: a controller unit with a WiFi access point in it.
All Raumfeld streaming devices support high-res audio. We are very charmed by Raumfeld's sound reproduction. The Stereo L and M just sound good. The One M ditto, that's one of our favorites when it comes to all-in-one solutions. The Cinebar takes some tweaking with the subwoofer, but it also surprises positively.
The installation is a clear ten-step plan. It can't really go wrong, but it does require more effort than with Sonos or, for example, Bluesound and HEOS. The app is clear, but can still be improved here and there. It lacks the intuitive controls, it's hard to say exactly where it is. Perhaps it is because there is a lot on one screen.
9 Score 90
- Sounds very solid
- Price is sharp
- Easy installation
- Stereo L and M are big
- The app is a bit busy
Bose is one of the most famous audio brands in the world. The brand has broken through with noise suppression and of course the famous white 'milk cartons'. Of course, Bose didn't linger in the 90s. This brand also has a multi-room audio system: the SoundTouch. The system consists of a number of speakers, the SoundTouch SA-5 amplifier and the Wave SoundTouch IV (a type of wireless receiver).
Bose never releases specifications about the products. So we had to find out for ourselves whether the system supports high-res audio, what Wi-Fi technology Bose uses and what amplifiers are in it. We see that Bose has equipped the SoundTouch 10, 20 and 30 with 2.4 GHz WiFi-n. The Wave still has wifi-g, which is not useful, because in theory it can slow down the entire wireless network. Fortunately, there is also wired Ethernet, so that WiFi does not have to be used.
Bose's focus is on ease of use. The app is very clear in design, and the operation on the devices is logical. However, that's where the benefits of the Bose system end. First of all, we are required to register before we can use the system. We don't like that. Also, it just doesn't sound right at all. The 10 comes across as very bald. The 20 lacks finesse and the 30 is again too full and a bit clumsy in sound. We have not had the Wave and the SA-5 amplifier in our hands.
5 Score 50
- Remote control
- Buttons on the devices
- Sounds mediocre
- Registration in the app necessary
Not many people will know that Yamaha was the first to hit the market with a networked multi-room system (with a wireless option). At the time – 2003 – the company was simply too early. But now the market must be ready. Yamaha MusicCast is a bit of a special case. We are actually talking about a network streaming module that can be built in anywhere. So whether it's in a small all-in-one speaker or a hyper-advanced, high-end AV receiver: it doesn't matter. With that in mind, you will understand that it is virtually impossible to outline the product line of Yamaha's MusicCast. So we kept it to the MusicCast Trio: a package that consists of the YSP-1600 soundbar, the WX-030 speaker and the ISX-80 (a kind of wall clock with a built-in speaker).
The installation of Yamaha is very simple. After installing the app, you can search for the speakers and include them in the system. Even the wireless part runs without problems or complex operations. It's just a matter of pressing the connect button. A point of attention: the ISX-80 does not have an Ethernet connection and that can cause problems. This speaker also has a pretty hefty adapter. Just watch it work it out. By the way, the app is remarkably good. It is very visual: rooms all have a photo, and you can choose that yourself. Pairing is a little different than usual: we usually tap the zone and then pair it, but it works by tapping the hyphen and then choosing zones. That takes some getting used to.
A nice extra of MusicCast is that it sees and can display both upnp and AirPlay sources. It is also possible to connect via bluetooth and to transfer this stream to other speakers. A bit similar to Harman's Omni ReStream idea.
Then the sound quality. There is not much to say about it, because there are so many products. What we can say about the Trio-Pack is that the soundbar and ISX-80 sound great. The WX-030 speaker seems a bit out of balance.
8 Score 80
- A lot of choice
- nice app
- Good installation
- Large adapter at ISX-80
- Doesn't support many services yet
Everything about the Wi-Fi?
Almost all systems we tested have Wi-Fi. Now it is of course wonderful not to have to run cables, but realize that a wireless system does not always have the stability and bandwidth needed to stream properly. In addition, it is wise to connect fixed devices in a network to a cable. Not only for operational reliability, but also to keep the wireless network free for devices that need it. This keeps your WiFi network fast and the audio stream stable.
HEOS is a sub-brand of Denon and it almost literally copied the Sonos product line. There is a HEOS 1, 3, 5 and an even bigger one: the HEOS 7. Then there is the Link that can only stream and the Amp for those looking for an all-in-one solution with an amplifier. If you are looking for a soundbar, you can go for the HEOS HomeCinema. What HEOS does well is ensure that the user has no shortage of inputs and outputs. For example, every new generation of HEOS has bluetooth and the Link and Amp also have digital and analog inputs. Very handy for those who want to link other things. In terms of sound, HEOS does a little better than Sonos in our opinion. The Link and Amp (2x 100 watts) in particular play a bit nicer and more powerful than Sonos. Add to that several connection options and in fact HEOS puts down a better product.
The installation is a piece of cake, also wirelessly. It's a matter of plugging in and following a few steps in the app. It is not necessary to configure the library, because HEOS works with upnp. The fact is: you depend on how well the NAS indexes everything, how fast it is and how it forwards the data to the HEOS. The app itself is a bit of a different story. Linking various zones in particular is not very intuitive. That goes with 'drag and drop', but which zone is now master? In addition, we find it annoying that we have to create an account to be able to use all functions.
9 Score 90
- Sounds good
- Solid range
- App could be better
Bluesound was launched in 2013 and then came up with a series of somewhat strange, cube-shaped streaming devices. Although the whole was well put together, the design did not really catch on. In short: the second generation has a more conventional design.
Bluesound's product range is similar to Sonos in a way. There are a number of speakers (Pulse Flex, Pulse Mini, PulseBar and Pulse) and three streaming devices without built-in speakers (the Node, the PowerNode (2x 60 watts) and the Vault). The second generation officially has a '2' behind the type numbers. Except for the Flex and the Pulse Mini, because they are new. The goal of Bluesound is simple: to bring the best possible sound quality within the price segment. And we believe it has succeeded. Bluesound sounds the best of all the tested devices. Incidentally, it is also the most expensive system within this test, by a fairly wide margin. But yes: those who want something beautiful ... Opinions are divided about the Bluesound app. Many quirks have disappeared since the new version. However: some things could be a bit more logical and a bit calmer. The Resources menu, for example, looks quite busy. It also sometimes takes too many taps to come back to a main screen. That works, but is not very useful.
10 Score 100
- Sounds very good
- Career opportunities
- Great app
- Price can be a threshold
Samsung Wireless Audio
Samsung's current product line is not the brand's first foray into the multi-room audio market. A while back it had the M-line. A complete failure, because the system didn't sound right and was full of bugs. So now a new attempt and to be honest: it is very solid! The line consists of five streaming speakers: R1, R3, R5, R6 and R7. All speakers are omnidirectional; the sound goes in all directions. The R1, R3 and R5 look the same, in different sizes. The R6 and R7 are designed slightly differently: more egg-shaped. It sure looks neat. Samsung has chosen to only offer a wireless connection. A bit of a shame, because if your WiFi is not in order, it can cause problems and you want to be able to connect a network cable.
Fortunately, the installation is a piece of cake. The app easily finds the speakers and after entering the password we can play. Via upnp we directly find our media servers. Navigating through the app is quite pleasant and intuitive. We can just find everything, although it is all very colorful, which is distracting. You can make a stereo pair with any speaker, which is funny, but it is not entirely sound technically sound: it gives a squint sound and stereo image. The reproduction is very pleasant, partly because of the omnidirectional nature of these speakers. The point with normal speakers is that they often sound a bit bare in 'mono'. Only with a stereo pair does it start to sound a bit more substantial. These Samsungs are much less affected by this.
Samsung Wireless Audio
8 Score 80
- Sounds nice
- Flexible connection
- looks nice
- App is very colorful
- External adapters
- Wireless only
If we look at the overall picture, Bluesound has tested the best system that we award with the Best quality mark. However, Bluesound is very pricey, which might make our Denon HEOS Editorial Tip, which also sounds excellent, more interesting. Although we award two quality marks, it is ultimately up to you to determine what is decisive. Also keep in mind that multi-room audio is addictive and you may want to have speakers in multiple rooms, which will add up to your expenditure. So think carefully about your purchase and actually listen to some different systems yourself and try it out to see whether the sound quality and operation meet your needs.
In the table (pdf) you will find the test results of the 7 tested multi-room audio systems.