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 Mini 2
Supports AirPlay 2
AirPlay speakers are generally a bit more expensive than conventional ones, but Libratone's Zipp Mini 2 is a terrifically versatile little speaker that combines AirPlay 2 multi-room streaming, a lightweight portable design, and good sound quality for £229/$249. The older, first-generation version of the Zipp Mini is still on sale in a few online stores, and can be updated to use AirPlay 2 as well, so that's also a good option if you can find it on offer anywhere.
The Mini 2 looks just like its predecessor, with a neat cylindrical design that stands 224mm high and 100mm in diameter. It weighs just 1.1kg, and the handy carrying strap means it's easy to pick up and carry into another room, or out into the garden for a BBQ. The internal battery lasts for up to 12hrs, so it's a great option if you need a portable speaker that can last all day - or all night - long.
The AirPlay 2 support lets you stream music over your home Wi-Fi network, but the Mini 2 also provides straightforward Bluetooth for non-Apple devices, as well as a 3.5mm connector and even a USB port for playing music stored on a memory stick or hard drive (features that Apple should take note of when it gets round to updating the HomePod). The Mini 2 also includes a set of three microphones, which can be used with Amazon's Alexa voice assistant - but not with Siri, unfortunately (although that's down to Apple, rather than Libratone).
Sound quality is very good for such a compact little speaker, too. The cylindrical design allows it to fill the air around it and create a nice, spacious sound. It's a detailed, warm sound, that works well with the lush harmonies of Queen on Somebody To Love, but it's also powerful enough to handle the riotous rock-dance mash-up of Planetary (Go!) by My Chemical Romance. The bass could be a bit firmer, perhaps, but that's a lot to ask for a compact speaker of this size, and the all-round versatility and sound quality of the Mini 2 is hard to beat at this price.
3. Yamaha MusicCast 20
Supports AirPlay 2
Yamaha doesn't make too much fuss about its MusicCast speakers, but it actually produces one of the widest ranges of AirPlay speakers of any audio manufacturer. That range includes several speakers that support AirPlay 2, as well as soundbars for use with your television, specialist hi-fi receivers, and even a turntable for super-hipsters listening on vinyl.
We opted for the entry-level MusicCast 20, which has an RRP of £199, but is available on sites such as Amazon for as little as £149 (or about $230), making it one of the most affordable AirPlay speakers currently available. Despite the low price, the MusicCast 20 supports Bluetooth and dual-band Wi-Fi, and also includes an Ethernet interface for rooms where your Wi-Fi signal might be a bit weak. The only omission here is the lack of a 3.5mm audio connector.
You'll need to use Yamaha's MusicCast app to set up the speaker initially and, to be honest, the app is a bit fiddly to use, with a variety of settings spread across a whole series of menus. But once you've downloaded the software update for AirPlay 2 you can just ignore the app as the MusicCast 20 will be available within the iOS control centre, just like any other AirPlay speaker.
The speaker's 40W output isn't spectacularly powerful, but it creates a light, detailed sound that will be more than adequate for a bedroom or in the kitchen.
The MusicCast 20 stands just 186mm high, 150mm wide and 130mm deep, but it creates an attractive, open soundstage that allows Enya's Only Time to float gently through the air in my office, and it pulls out all the details in the light percussion and the ethereal chanting harmonies. At the other end of the spectrum, the MusicCast 20 does a good job with the deep, sinister electronic bass of Prime Evil by the Orb.
In fact, it's the higher frequencies that reveal the speaker's only real weakness, with the shrieking falsetto and mariachi horns of Knights Of Cydonia by Muse sounding a little underpowered. But that's forgivable in such an affordable speaker, and if you want a bit more power then the MusicCast 50 is available for £329 (or $500). Or you could even buy a pair of the MusicCast 20 speakers and link them together for wireless stereo for only slightly more than the cost of a single Apple HomePod.
4. 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.
5. Bowers & Wilkins Formation Wedge
Supports AirPlay 2
Bowers & Wilkins was one of the first speaker companies to get on board with AirPlay, launching its popular and distinctive Zeppelin way back in 2006. Unfortunately, the design of the Zep was so old that it couldn't easily be updated to use AirPlay 2, so B&W has discontinued it and come up with an equally eye-catching replacement, called the Formation Wedge.
The Wedge is just one member of B&W's new Formation range, which includes some impressive floor-standing stereo speakers, a soundbar, and an amp called the Formation Audio that can be used to add AirPlay and Wi-Fi streaming to an existing hi-fi setup. The bad news is that the Wedge is a bit more expensive than the Zeppelin, costing £900/$9900 - but that's still less than a new iPhone, and the Wedge is a seriously high-quality speaker system that will certainly earn its keep as part of your home entertainment system.
The new triangular-slab-of-cheese design does look a little odd, but that's partly because the Wedge is designed to tuck right into the corner on a shelf, or by a wall in rooms where space is tight.
It stands 232mm high, 440mm wide and 243mm deep, but it packs in plenty of high-end audio technology, including two tweeters, two mid-range woofers and a proper sub-woofer as well. It supports AirPlay 2 and Bluetooth with AptX, and includes an Ethernet interface for wired connections; it also supports playback of 24-bit/96kHz high-res audio files. We live in hope that Apple will one day realise that high-res audio has been around for almost 20 years now...
The sound quality of the Wedge proves it to be a worthy successor to the Zeppelin, especially with that sub-woofer to lend a firm bass sound that most one-piece speakers lack.
Starting with the acoustic strumming of Damien Rice, The Blower's Daughter has a relaxed, natural sound to it, with no artificial colouration, and the delicate, hesitant pauses in Rice's voice make it sound like a live performance in the living room. Switch to the upbeat Rapture by Blondie, and the Wedge effortlessly changes pace, capturing the crisp burst of the opening cymbal, while the sub-woofer allows the funky bass riff to bounce along with an irresistible hip-swaying swagger.
The price may be a bit over the top for many people, but if you're looking for an AirPlay 2 speaker that can hold centre stage as your main music system at home then the Formation Wedge is hard to beat.
6. Bang & Olufsen BeoPlay M5
Supports AirPlay 2
Bang & Olufsen is one of the best-known names in the home audio market, thanks to its combination of stylish Scandi-design and impressive sound quality (the company even has an AR app that lets you visualise its speakers in your home to see how they'll look) so it's great to see the company updating more of its speakers to support AirPlay 2 in recent months. Admittedly, the BeoPlay M5 is a little on the pricey side, costing £550/$600 if you buy it directly from the B&O website, although we've seen plenty of other online stores selling it for considerably less.
The M5 has the understated design that's always been associated with B&O, consisting of a simple cylinder just 185mm high and 160mm in diameter. The speaker is wrapped in a smart woollen sleeve that's available in a variety of colours - and there's even a limited edition with a jazzy print designed by David Lynch.
The minimalist design still finds room for plenty of useful features, though, including a top panel that rotates in order to control the volume and input selection. It has dual-band Wi-Fi for AirPlay streaming and Bluetooth for non-Apple devices, and on the base of the speaker you'll also find an Ethernet port for a wired network and a 3.5mm audio connector. The M5 also supports B&O's own BeoLink multi-room tech for use with older B&O speakers that don't have AirPlay, and Google's Chromecast as well.
But, of course, what you're after with B&O is great sound quality, and the M5 doesn't disappoint. Firing up Prime Evil by The Orb, the M5 surprises us with its firm, sinister bass sound and crisp percussion - unusual for such a compact speaker. But switch to the more gentle atmospherics of Enya's The Humming and the M5 fills the room with a light, hazy cloud of sound that is perfect for a warm summer evening.
So while it's not the cheapest AirPlay speaker you can buy, the M5 will earn its keep with its versatile connectivity and sound quality that can handle any type of music you throw at it.
7. Sonos Beam
Supports AirPlay 2
Along with its well-known range of multi-room speakers, Sonos is also one of the few companies that produces soundbars that support AirPlay 2. The Beam is certainly a good upgrade for any television set, with a slim, compact design that measures just 70mm high, 100mm deep and 650mm wide, and will sit easily under the screen of your TV.
However, the sound quality of the Beam is good enough that you also can use it as a general-purpose speaker for listening to music, or as part of a multi-room speaker system (using either AirPlay 2, or the Sonos app).
The slimline soundbar manages to find room for five separate drivers. There's a tweeter in the centre of the bar that acts as the 'centre' channel and handles voices and higher frequencies, with one woofer and one bass radiator for the left and right channels on either side of the tweeter. There are also two additional woofers - one on each end of the bar - that help to radiate sound out to the sides and create a wider soundstage for music and film soundtracks.
As you'd expect, it works a treat while watching films, really beefing up the sound effects and sonic mayhem in the vast battles in Avengers: Infinity Way. But, thanks to AirPlay 2, we were also able to enjoy music streaming from our Tidal account (with high-res audio files that Apple doesn't yet offer on iTunes or Apple Music).
Prime Evil by The Orb is wonderfully atmospheric, thanks to the Beam's wide soundstage and firm, threatening bass. But switch to something more densely layered, such as Kate Bush's The Big Sky, with its cascading drums, slap bass, and chanting vocals, and the Beam proves smart enough to pick out all the different instruments without losing any detail.
Our only minor complaint is that - like other Sonos speakers - the Beam's connectivity features are a bit limited. There's an HDMI interface for connecting to your TV, and you can use either Wi-Fi or Ethernet to connect it to your network for streaming music from computers and mobile devices. However, there's no Bluetooth, and no 3.5mm connector for ye olde wired devices either.
Read our full Sonos Beam review
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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.