Multi-room speaker systems are more popular than ever - especially as mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad allow us to carry our entire music library from room to room, or connect to streaming services such as Apple Music or Spotify with a quick tap.
There's a lot of choice out there, offering a wide variety of features, specs, designs and price tags. But the speaker market - and especially the multi-room speaker market - got a real shake-up in 2018 with the release of Apple's new AirPlay 2 software, so it's time to look at the best AirPlay choices currently available for your Mac and iOS devices.
(If you're looking for a bargain, be sure to also read our roundup of the best speaker deals.)
Music streaming & compatibility
Having your favourite music follow you around your home is great, but conventional multi-room speakers often have significant limitations. Many, for example, will only work with a limited number of streaming services that are built into the apps provided by each manufacturer.
As you might expect, most will work with Spotify, while Tidal and Deezer also get a lot of support. But for some reason, Sonos is one of the few manufacturers of multi-room speakers that also supports Apple Music. In fact, some speakers only provide apps for iOS or Android mobile devices, which means that you can't even play music from iTunes on a Mac.
The other big problem with conventional speakers in the past was that you have generally had to buy them all from one manufacturer when assembling a multi-room setup, because rival speakers were incompatible and wouldn't work together.
AirPlay vs AirPlay 2
But the speaker market changed dramatically in 2018 with the release of Apple's updated AirPlay 2 software. Released to coincide with the HomePod launch, AirPlay 2 has also been licensed to a number of well-known manufacturers, which means there's now a wide range of compatible speakers available.
The first version of AirPlay, released back in 2010, was like a souped-up version of Bluetooth, allowing you to stream audio from any app on your Mac or iOS devices to any AirPlay-compatible speaker and freeing you from reliance on the manufacturer's apps. AirPlay also uses a Wi-Fi connection, which means a higher bandwidth than Bluetooth and better sound quality - not to mention longer range.
The simplicity and versatility of AirPlay is great, but - like Bluetooth - its original version was only designed to work with one speaker at a time. AirPlay 2 takes Apple into the multi-room market, with the ability to stream music to several speakers in different rooms. (Alternatively, you can create a HomePods stereo pair in the same room.)
But the real game-changer with AirPlay 2 was 'interoperability', the ability to link together speakers from different manufacturers for the very first time. This means you can mix and match speakers around your home - picking, for instance, a HomePod as your main living-room speaker, a little Sonos One in the bedroom, and Libratone's portable Zipp 2 for drinks in the garden - and have them all linked up to play music simultaneously.
Which version of AirPlay is supported?
The important thing to remember is that there are now two types of AirPlay speaker on sale. Several still use the original version of AirPlay - which is limited to streaming music to one speaker at a time - but most new speakers focus on AirPlay 2. Some will have the AirPlay logo on the packaging, but this doesn't specify whether it's AirPlay or AirPlay 2. It's therefore important to check which version is supported by any speaker before buying.
But even the original AirPlay is still really useful for owners of Macs and iOS devices, so we'll continue to review basic AirPlay speakers as long as they're still being sold. However, we'd recommend opting for newer speakers that provide the multi-room versatility of AirPlay 2 wherever possible.
It's also worth mentioning that some older AirPlay speakers can be upgraded to work with AirPlay 2 as well. Libratone's new Zipp 2 uses AirPlay 2, but it's possible to download a software update for the older first-generation Zipp speakers that adds support for AirPlay 2. Unfortunately, that's not the case with all AirPlay speakers, and some models - such as the Zeppelin Wireless from Bowers & Wilkins - are stuck with basic AirPlay.
Sound Quality vs Price
The fact that Apple licenses both AirPlay and AirPlay 2 to other speaker manufacturers has other advantages too. The HomePod provides excellent sound quality, but it comes with a pretty hefty £320/$349 price tag. Buying three HomePods for a multi-room system would set you back almost £1,000/$1,100.
Those on a budget may prefer less expensive alternatives from other manufacturers, such as the Sonos One or Libratone's Zipp 2 range. At the other extreme, some really expensive hi-fi systems in the pipeline offer AirPlay 2 support for audiophiles and home cinema buffs. These options give you flexibility: you can spend heavily on a really high-quality speaker for your living room, for example, while opting for a less expensive model in the kitchen.
Indoors and Outdoors
Some manufacturers provide more specialised speakers too, such as soundbars that you can use with your TV, or sub-woofers that can provide a bass boost for parties, or for sound effects when watching films.
Some even include rechargeable batteries and lightweight, portable designs so you can pick them up and carry them from room to room - which is certainly cheaper than buying a new speaker for each room - or take them out into the garden for a barbecue.
Connectivity is another key issue. The HomePod has been criticised for relying on Wi-Fi for streaming, with no option for quick and easy Bluetooth streaming for Android and other non-Apple devices. It doesn't have a 3.5mm audio connector either, which would allow you to use it with a CD player or other audio devices.
Fortunately, many AirPlay and AirPlay 2 speakers provide a greater range of connectivity, allowing you to play music from a wider range of devices than the HomePod. Sonos has even announced it will be releasing an AirPlay 2 amplifier soon that can form the centrepiece of a serious home entertainment system.
In other words, AirPlay 2 is here to stay. Here's our choice of the best AirPlay and AirPlay 2 speakers that are available in 2019.
Best multi-room speakers
1. Sonos One
Supports AirPlay 2
Sonos was the first company to really popularise multi-room speaker systems, and it was also the first to add smart voice technology to its multi-room speakers when it launched the Sonos One towards the end of 2017. The voice technology in question is Amazon's Alexa, but Sonos has released a software update that adds support for AirPlay 2: it's now compatible with Apple's HomePod and allows you to stream music and audio from any app on your Mac computers or iOS mobile devices.
The Sonos One is essentially an updated version of the existing Play:1 speaker, which is still on sale for £149/$149, but the addition of internal microphones and the Alexa technology bumps the price of the Sonos One up to £199/$199.
That's still a lot cheaper than the HomePod and of course, the One is still compatible with other Sonos multi-room products, including the larger Play:3 (£249/$249) and Play:5 (£499/$499), along with a number of soundbars and sub-woofers that you can use as part of a home cinema set-up. And, rather ingeniously, if you've got an older Sonos speaker that doesn't support AirPlay 2, you can use the One to control those other speakers as well.
As well as including AirPlay 2, the Sonos app supports a wider range of streaming services than any of its rivals: 52 at the last count, including Apple Music, Spotify and Tidal, as well as specialist services such as Nugs.net which plays live gigs, and Qobuz for jazz and classical. And, of course, the app handles the multi-room side of things quickly and easily, allowing you to pair two of the Sonos One speakers for stereo, play different songs in different rooms, or the same song on every speaker all at once.
But a good app wouldn't count for anything if the sound wasn't up to scratch. As we mentioned, the One is essentially an update that adds Alexa to the original Play:1, so the two speakers provide very similar sound quality. But that's certainly not a disappointment, as the One produces a bigger, better sound than you have any right to expect from a speaker that stands just 162mm tall.
Sonos doesn't reveal the power of the two internal amps, but the One is perfectly capable of filling a medium-size room with sound. Its power is matched by clarity too, bringing a silky warmth to Karen Carpenter's voice on Yesterday Once More.
The bass is a pleasant surprise too, given the speaker's compact dimensions, and there's a satisfyingly firm slap to the bass guitar on The Big Sky by Kate Bush. The One is also able to keep an eye on all the details as the avalanche of drums and chanting vocals mount up in the closing section of that song.
Our only minor criticism here is that the One can't quite reach some of the really high frequencies - such as Roger Taylor's shrieking falsetto on Queen's Somebody To Love. We'd also like to see a wider range of connectivity features, as the Sonos One is limited to just 2.4GHz Wi-Fi and Ethernet, with no Bluetooth or even a simple 3.5mm connector.
But when it comes to sound quality, value for money and multi-room flexibility, the Sonos One yet again confirms Sonos as the leader in this increasingly competitive market.
2. Libratone Zipp 2
Supports AirPlay 2
We've always been fans of Libratone's Zipp speakers. They sound good, obviously, and Libratone was also one of the first companies to support Apple's AirPlay streaming software several years ago.
The Zipp speakers also included features such as Bluetooth streaming and ye olde 3.5mm audio connector that Apple's own HomePod lacks. And all that was wrapped up in a light, portable design with a rechargeable battery that allowed you to easily carry the Zipp from room to room, or out into the garden for a BBQ in the summer.
That portable design worked really well, so Libratone hasn't made any major changes for the Zipp 2. But, on the inside, it has refined the speaker drivers to provide a stronger, more precise sound. There's also a 'room correction' feature, similar to that of the HomePod, that automatically adjusts the sound to suit the layout of the room around it.
The Zipp 2 now supports AirPlay 2, so it provides versatile multi-room connectivity, and can be connected to the HomePod and other AirPlay 2 speakers as well. And the final touch is the inclusion of a new microphone that allows the Zipp 2 to listen out for your voice commands - although it uses Amazon's Alexa rather than Apple's Siri (which Apple keeps just for the HomePod, sadly).
The Zipp 2 is a little more expensive than its predecessor, at £279, but it's still cheaper and more versatile than the HomePod even if it doesn't work with Siri. There's a smaller Zipp Mini 2 model also available, providing a really portable option for smaller rooms for just £229, and both models are available in a variety of colours to suit your taste.
3. Bluesound Pulse Flex 2i
Supports AirPlay 2
Bluesound makes really nice multi-room speakers, but we haven't looked at them on Macworld in the past as the company's BluOS software wasn't very Apple-friendly... until now. A software update has added AirPlay 2 compatibility to the firm's entire Pulse 2i range of wireless speakers.
The range starts with the Flex 2i, a compact little speaker just 183mm high, 125mm wide and 100mm deep. The angled back panels are designed to fit neatly into the corner on a shelf, but also allow you to lie the speaker on its side so it aims the music upwards and outwards into the room.
Bluesound packs a lot into the compact design, and the Flex is a lot more, well, flexible than Apple's HomePod. It includes both dual-band Wi-Fi for connecting to your home network and Bluetooth for quick and easy pairing with devices that don't need multi-room connectivity. There's an Ethernet interface as well, and a USB port that lets you play music stored on a memory disk or hard drive.
It's even got a combination 3.5mm analogue/optical connector that will allow you to connect a CD player or other audio sources, and an optional battery pack (for £69/$80) to turn it into a portable speaker for weekends away or BBQs in the garden.
The BluOS app is, to be honest, a bit of a mess, and it's only available for iOS and Android devices, so playing iTunes music from a Mac (or Windows PC) would normally force you to rely on Bluetooth. But the addition of AirPlay 2 now means you can play music direct from any app that you have on your Mac or iOS devices - including, of course, Apple Music, or rival services such as Spotify and Tidal.
This little speaker doesn't disappoint on sound quality either, producing a clear, detailed sound, with nice, firm bass for such a small unit. It's not the most powerful speaker around, with a power output of 25W, so if you want something to get the party going then you might prefer something a bit larger and louder, but the Flex 2i is a great option for a bedroom or kitchen where space is a bit tight.
4. Apple HomePod
Supports AirPlay 2
Although the HomePod was launched in February 2018, it had to wait until May for the release of the AirPlay 2 software that adds multi-room capabilities. It was worth the wait, though, as AirPlay 2 is incredibly versatile - as long as you're only using Apple devices and services.
The AirPlay 2 update allows you to pair two HomePods together to provide wireless stereo, or stream your music to multiple HomePods in different rooms all at the same time. You can play different songs on different speakers, and even stream audio from apps, such as Netflix or the BBC iPlayer, which aren't normally supported by other types of multi-room speaker. And, crucially, AirPlay 2 also means the HomePod will work with AirPlay 2 speakers from other manufacturers, such as the new Sonos Beam.
And while there have been criticisms of the Siri voice control system - which only works with Apple Music, and ignores the existence of rivals such as Spotify and Tidal - all the reviews of the HomePod have praised its sound quality.
It stands just 6.8in tall, but squeezes in no less than seven tweeters and a 20mm, upward-firing woofer that combine to produce a surprisingly spacious and detailed sound for such a compact unit. The bass could perhaps be a little beefier, but that's asking a lot from a speaker of this size - and, of course, AirPlay 2 gives you the option of adding larger speakers from other manufacturers to your multi-room set-up.
It's true that the HomePod is more expensive than rival smart speakers, but we reckon that its sound quality and the multi-room versatility of AirPlay 2 are worth every penny.
The only real drawback with the HomePod is that it's very much locked into Apple devices and services. If anyone in your family has an Android smartphone or tablet then the HomePod simply won't work with those devices, and it doesn't have a conventional 3.5mm audio connector or Bluetooth streaming for non-Apple devices either.
5. B&O BeoPlay M3
Supports AirPlay 2
Bang & Olufsen is one of the best-known names in the traditional hi-fi field, but it's no stick-in-the-mud, as the company also boasts one of the widest ranges of wireless multi-room speakers currently available - including the eye-catching silver cone design of the BeoSound 1 and BeoSound 2 speakers, which cost around £1,100/$1,500 and £1,400/$2,000 each. However, you don't have to spend that much to get the B&O sound. The compact M3 comes in at just £279/$299 and still provides attractive sound quality and an impressive range of connectivity features.
Admittedly, things got off to a slow start with the M3, as B&O has no less than eight different iOS apps on the App Store, and it took us a while to figure out which one we needed for the M3 (and even then we couldn't get started until we set up a new user account in the app). But, thankfully, things picked up after that as the app then prompts you to use Bluetooth to pair your iOS or Android devices with the speaker, and uses the Bluetooth connection to configure the speaker and quickly connect it to your Wi-Fi network.
After that, you don't really need to worry about the B&O app at all, as the M3 supports AirPlay so that you can simply stream music straight from any app or streaming service on any of your Macs and iOS devices. B&O has also announced a software update for AirPlay 2.
There's a 3.5mm connector for wired devices too - something missing in some of its multi-room rivals, including Apple's HomePod - and, if you're so inclined, the M3 supports Google's Chromecast as well.
Adding more speakers for a multi-room setup is straightforward too. You can select a different music source for each speaker - we had Radio 5 on the M3 in our office, while the BeoSound 1 was thundering out Muse in another room - or just tap the Multi-Room button to group speakers together so that they all play the same music. You can even adjust the volume of each speaker separately, so that people in the kitchen at parties can still chat, while everyone else has a boogie in another room.
The compact M3 stands only 151mm tall, but produces a surprisingly powerful sound - in fact it was loud enough to annoy the neighbours at only 70% of maximum volume, so it can certainly make some noise at parties if it needs too.
The sound leans a bit towards the bass, which will work well for dance music - and the fuzzy bass and grinding guitar of Muse's Supermassive Black Hole had real weight, despite the M3's modest dimensions. But the strong bass does slightly hamper the higher frequencies, which didn't have the clarity of some of the M3's rivals, and we noticed that the falsetto on some of those old multi-tracked Queen epics tended to get lost at times.
The sound is also a little indistinct at lower volumes, so it might not be the best choice if you just want to lean back and relax to some gentle classical music. But, if you're looking for an affordable speaker that can get the mood going at a barbecue or dinner party, and provides versatile wireless connectivity and multi-room capabilities, then the M3 has a lot going for it.
6. Dynaudio Music 1
Supports AirPlay, not AirPlay 2 (but firm says an update is imminent)
It's even more expensive than Apple's HomePod, but the Dynaudio Music 1 earns its keep with good audio quality, AirPlay support and rechargeable battery for portability.
The eye-catching angular speaker - available in several colours to suit your décor - stands just 8in high, so it'll fit easily onto a shelf or coffee table. It's surprisingly powerful, though, with its 1in tweeter and 4in woofer capable of filling most small or medium-size rooms with sound.
The sound quality doesn't disappoint either, with attractive texture and warmth on more gentle vocal tracks and strings, along with plenty of detail on denser, more powerful rock sounds. The bass could perhaps stand to be a little firmer, but that's a common weakness with compact speakers such as this, and Dynaudio makes a number of larger (and more expensive) speakers if you need something with stronger bass.
You can pair two Music 1 speakers together as a stereo pair, just like Apple's HomePod, or use the Dynaudio app to set up a multi-room system. However, the Music 1 also outguns the HomePod in a number of areas. It provides Bluetooth for quick wireless connections with a wide range of mobile devices, and also includes a 3.5mm input for wired connections, as well as USB-Audio from iOS and other mobile devices. And there's the 8-hour rechargeable battery, which will allow you to easily pick up the speaker and carry it from room to room, or out into the garden for a late-summer barbecue.
The Dynaudio app is a bit of a mess, but that's not really a problem for owners of Macs or iOS devices, as the speaker's AirPlay support allows you to bypass the app and stream music or audio from any source or streaming service that you want to use. Dynaudio also throws in a 9-month subscription to Tidal, and tells us there's a software update for AirPlay 2 coming imminently.
7. Marshall Acton Multi-Room
Supports AirPlay, but not AirPlay 2
"Long live rock 'n roll" proclaims the logo on the manual for Marshall's Acton Multi-Room speaker. And, of course, Marshall made its name with its famous guitar amps back in the 60s, and it brings that heritage to its current range of home speakers.
You do need to be careful, though, as many of Marshall's speakers are available in two different versions, with either basic Bluetooth or Wi-Fi for multi-room connectivity (and icons indicating one or other of these).
The entry-level Acton, for instance, can be bought for around £150/$207 with Bluetooth only, but the multi-room version that we review here steps up to £319/$349. Other multi-room models in the range - all named after tube and railway stations around London, apparently - include the Stanmore and Woburn, which cost £399/$449 and £539/$599 respectively in their Wi-Fi versions.
The Acton sticks with tradition, with a retro design that looks like a miniature amp, complete with a mesh grille and the famous Marshall logo on the front panel, and a set of chunky dials on the top of the unit that provide volume, bass treble, and other controls. There's nothing old-fashioned about the tech, though, as the Acton provides both Bluetooth and dual-band 2.4GHz/5GHz Wi-Fi, with support for AirPlay for Apple devices, Chromecast for Android, and a 3.5mm socket for wired connections.
The initial setup process is a bit of a mess, as Marshall's manual tells you to first download the Google Home app - which, of course, forces you to sign into a Google account before you can do anything else - and to use that app to connect the speaker to your Wi-Fi network. Once that's done you then have to switch to Marshall's own Multi-Room app for full control of the speaker.
Using two apps is simply clumsy, and forcing people to sign into a Google account before they can listen to their expensive new speaker is just plain annoying (especially if they're Mac users who use iCloud for their online services, rather than Google).
But, thankfully, once the Acton was connected to our network it switched over to using AirPlay, allowing us to delete the Google Home app from our iPhone and simply stream music via AirPlay from any Mac or iOS device. You still need the Marshall app for setting up a multi-room system, but there's a simple Single/Multi option that lets you play music to each speaker individually, or to play music on multiple speakers at the same time.
And, finally, we were pleased to hear that the Acton lives up to Marshall's reputation, producing a sound that works particularly well for guitar-driven rock. The intro to Queen's Seven Seas Of Rhye explodes like fireworks as Brian May's power chords come swooping in and Freddie Mercury chews up the scenery with his best rock 'n roll snarl.
The compact speaker packs plenty of power, too, while still managing to avoid distortion as we ramp up the volume. It can do delicate as well, capturing all the mumbled hesitation in Damien Rice's voice on The Blower's Daughter, and lending a sweet, sad tone to the lingering violin notes. The bass is surprisingly firm for such a compact speaker too, and there are those treble and bass dials that let you tweak the sound to suit your own taste.
It might not be the most subtle speaker we've ever come across, but if you're looking for a compact speaker that can rock with the big boys then the Acton Multi-Room really delivers the goods.