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July 29, 2016

The best multiroom wireless speaker system

by John_A

By Chris Heinonen

This post was done in partnership with The Wirecutter, a buyer’s guide to the best technology. Read the full article here.

We’ve spent hundreds of hours over several months using six multiroom wireless speaker systems in every possible room and even outside, and determined that Sonos is the best. It has a class-leading music ecosystem, excellent sound quality, and unparalleled ease of use. Because Sonos has a variety of great-sounding speakers at different prices, just about anyone can get into a Sonos system with room to grow.

Who should get this

Multiroom wireless speaker systems are for people who want to be able to play music all over their house and easily control it from their phone, tablet, or computer. They let you play different songs on each speaker, or group speakers together to play the same song in multiple rooms. They support both local media libraries and streaming services, allowing you to play music from almost any source. They make it easy to expand your system by just adding another speaker or zone.

If you care only about music in a single room, or don’t care about multiple sources, other options—like Bluetooth and AirPlay speakers—will work for less money, although they require your phone, tablet, or computer to be the streaming source. (Multiroom wireless audio solutions access the music sources directly, so they won’t wear down your phone’s battery life.)

How we picked and tested

We spent several months using six speaker systems in every room (and even outside) to find the best multiroom wireless speaker system. Photo: Chris Heinonen

We looked for audio systems that could be set up in multiple rooms, either as speakers or as sources for an existing audio system. We wanted systems that could play back local music (your MP3s, for example) and stream music from online sources (Spotify and the like) completely from your smartphone or tablet so that you would never need to physically access the speaker. Each speaker, or “zone,” needed to be able to play from a different source than other speakers, or to be grouped with those other speakers for all of them to play from the same source. The ideal multiroom wireless speaker system is reliable and easy to install and update. It should also offer a large variety of products at a wide range of prices, as well as support for Bluetooth or AirPlay.

We researched all the models currently available, and we spoke to Ty Pendlebury of CNET and Darryl Wilkinson of Sound & Vision, who review multiroom wireless speaker systems. We then picked the most promising systems, and for each one we brought in at least two zones’ worth of equipment for testing.

Once we got everything in, we put the speakers all around the house, from the basement to upstairs, to make sure range wasn’t an issue. We listened to local files and the main streaming services (Spotify, Pandora, Amazon, Apple Music) on all of the contenders. In the case of soundbars, we watched movies and TV as well. With systems that had a 3.5-millimeter line-in, we used a switcher to send the same music to all the speakers and directly compare them.

Our pick

Sonos has done the multiroom wireless speaker system thing longer than anyone, and the company’s experience shows. Photo: Chris Heinonen

Sonos is the best multiroom wireless speaker system because it supports the most streaming services, has a wide selection of great-sounding speakers, offers thorough search features, and comes with a well-organized app that runs on almost all major platforms. Sonos keeps its platform current by adding more services regularly, introducing new features such as Trueplay room-correction technology, and updating its models. The Sonos user experience is the best of any of the multiroom wireless speaker systems available.

Sonos offers speakers that start at the low end with the small Play:1 and extend to the Playbar soundbar for use with a TV. You can use a single speaker, combine two into a stereo pair, or even build a 5.1-channel home theater system using the Playbar, two other speakers for surrounds, and the matching Sub. If you already have speakers that require an amp, you can use the Connect to add them into a Sonos system. The Connect also has a stereo input if you want to connect a turntable, tape deck, or Bluetooth receiver. Passive speakers, like our favorite bookshelf speakers, can be added by using the Connect:Amp, but if you’re looking for a stereo solution you can get a pair of the impressive Play:1s for less. The most serious audiophiles might consider upgrading to a pair of Play:5s.

Currently, Sonos supports 48 streaming services, whereas many other multiroom systems offer a half dozen or fewer. That selection covers all the major ones, including Spotify, Pandora, Amazon, Google Play, and Apple Music. You can also play back your local music library and subscribe to podcasts. No matter how or where you get your music, the odds are that Sonos will support it. Plus, Sonos keeps all of its services inside a single, well-designed app for your computer or smartphone, which makes it easy to search across every service you subscribe to.

Budget pick

Google Chromecast Audio makes it easy to affordably convert sound systems around your house into a whole-home audio system.

If you aren’t ready to invest a few hundred dollars into a Sonos system, the Google Chromecast Audio offers an affordable and compelling alternative. You get an Oreo-sized puck with a single 3.5-mm output that is both analog and optical. It lets you stream from a huge number of iOS and Android apps (Spotify, TuneIn, Google Play, Plex, Pandora, and more), supports grouping rooms together, and offers high-resolution audio.

However, it doesn’t have the simple, single app that Sonos offers (instead, it’s integrated into individual apps and browsers). Also, some services still don’t work with it, and because it isn’t a unified hardware-and-software system, you’ll need to turn on a separate speaker each time you want to listen. Sonos handles all of that directly inside the app. But you can forgive a lot of its downsides at this price.

This guide may have been updated by The Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.

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