Apple's HomePod got excellent reviews for its sound quality when it was launched earlier this year, but there were criticisms. Some felt its Siri voice technology was not as 'smart' as some of its rivals, such as Amazon's Alexa; the promised ability to pair two HomePods together for true stereo sound had gone missing; and (most disappointingly for many people) you couldn't stream music to multiple HomePod speakers in different rooms around your home.
AirPlay 2, an update to Apple's Wi-Fi streaming software, will provide multi-room connectivity, but this - along with stereo pairing - is currently listed as "coming later this year" on the Apple website. It's rumoured that one or both may arrive quite soon with an update to iOS 11.
(AirPlay 2 also promises to be compatible with speakers from other manufacturers, which would allow you to create a mix-and-match multi-room speaker system using a wide range of different speakers for the very first time. At the moment, you still have to buy all your multi-room speakers from just one single manufacturer, such as Sonos, which has always been the pioneer and leader in this increasingly popular and competitive section of the audio market.)
Buying multi-room speakers is a complicated business, though. Apart from anything else, using Wi-Fi to connect multiple speakers in different rooms is technically very difficult - a lot more difficult than simply using Bluetooth to stream music to a single speaker that's close by and within the 10m range of the Bluetooth connection.
This extra level of complexity means that the manufacturers have to develop their own multi-room apps in order to set up and control multiple speakers in different rooms. A poorly designed app can make it hard to use even a single speaker, let alone control an entire multi-room setup, and some manufacturers only make apps for iOS and Android mobile devices, completely ignoring people who may have their music library stored on a Mac or Windows PC.
There are some multi-room speakers that sound great, but their Mac support is such a mess that we simply couldn't recommend them to anyone that owns a Mac. (Yes, Samsung, we're looking at you...)
This is one of the reasons why Sonos has always had such a strong lead in the multi-room market. Its speakers sound good, of course, but the Sonos app has generally been far easier to use than most of its rivals, and also runs on Macs and Windows PCs as well as iOS and Android mobile devices.
Apple Music compatibility
The Sonos app was also the first multi-room product to work with the Apple Music streaming service, which is obviously a must-have feature if you subscribe to the service. Even now, there are multi-room speakers that don't work with Apple Music, although some manufacturers get around that problem by supporting AirPlay, which allows you to bypass the manufacturer's own app and stream audio directly from any app on any Apple device.
Sound quality vs price
Of course, there's sound quality to consider too. The HomePod sounds great but, at £320/$349, it comes with a typically expensive Apple price tag. Buying three HomePods for a multi-room system (when AirPlay 2 arrives) would set you back almost £1,000/$1,000.
To cater for more limited budgets, most manufacturers of multi-room speakers provide a range of speakers at different price points. This gives you a bit more flexibility, so that you can spend some extra money on a really high-quality speaker for your living room, while opting for less expensive models for other rooms, such as the kitchen or bedroom.
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 that 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 BBQ.
Connectivity is another key issue. The HomePod was criticised for only supporting Wi-Fi, with no Ethernet, Bluetooth, or even 3.5mm wired connector. Sonos takes a similar approach, although it does at least include an Ethernet connector for homes where the Wi-Fi might be a bit dodgy. However, it can still be handy to have Bluetooth for quick and easy pairing every now and then, or maybe a 3.5mm connector for use with one of those old-fashioned CD-player thingies.
Apple could still shake up the entire multi-room speaker market if it delivers on its promises for AirPlay 2, but in the meantime here's our guide to the best multi-room speakers currently available for your Mac and iOS devices. (If multi-room is less of a priority for you, take a look at our guide to the best Bluetooth speakers.)
1. Sonos One
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 the company has said that it hopes to add support for Apple's AirPlay to some of its speakers later this year (although, like everyone else, it's still waiting to see when Apple will actually launch AirPlay 2).
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. If you're not a fan of Alexa then you could save some money by sticking with the Play:1.
Of course, the Play:1 and the Sonos One are both compatible with all the other Sonos multi-room products, which include 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. It even sells a standalone amplifier called the Connect:Amp (£499/$499) that can add multi-room connectivity to an existing hi-fi system.
One of the keys to Sonos' success is the Sonos app, which is available for Macs and iOS devices, as well as Windows PCs and Android. There's no support for AirPlay at the moment, but the Mac and iOS apps make it easy to listen to your existing music from iTunes or Apple Music.
The Sonos app also 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 Sonos 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 Sonos 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 Sonos 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 Sonos 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 Sonos 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. Marshall Acton Multi-Room
"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.
3. Libratone Zipp Mini
At just £169/$249, the Zipp Mini is one of the most affordable multi-room speakers currently available, but it's packed with features, including support for AirPlay, and a rechargeable battery that lets you easily pick it up and carry it from room to room, or out into the garden when the sun comes out.
Available in a variety of colours, the Zipp Mini includes a 60W amplifier, which should be powerful enough for most medium-size rooms, but if you want something a little more powerful then you can opt for the larger Zipp speaker, which costs £249/$299 with 100W worth of amp inside it. And, in Europe only, both models are also available in special 'Copenhagen' editions, which cost about £80 extra and use more expensive materials, such as a metal base and leather carrying handle.
Setting up any of the Zipp speakers is a piece of cake for Mac or iOS users, thanks to their support for AirPlay (and Libratone has also announced that it will provide a software update for AirPlay 2 when that becomes available later in 2018). The Libratone app simply prompts you to tap the touch-sensitive glowing logo on the top of the speaker, and it then automatically detects the speaker and connects it to your network.
You can play different songs to each speaker individually, pair two speakers together for stereo sound, or create 'soundspaces' that link two or more speakers together to play the same music. It also supports Amazon's Alexa for voice commands, and DLNA for playing music stored on network drives.
Oddly, the app doesn't support many streaming services - just Spotify and Tidal at the moment, along with a search tool for locating internet radio stations. That's not a problem for Mac or iOS users, as you can stream audio from any app or device using AirPlay, but owners of Windows or Android devices may have to fall back on more limited Bluetooth streaming rather than Wi-Fi.
Sound quality is pretty impressive for such a small speaker. The Zipp Mini doesn't quite have the clarity and attention to detail of some of its more expensive rivals, but it has an attractive, warm sound, and its cylindrical design helps it to fill the room by emitting sound all around it.
It only stands 225mm high, but the Zipp Mini produces an imposing sound with the widescreen atmospherics of Enya's Orinoco Flow, while the delicate strings on Max Richter's On The Nature Of Daylight hang gently in the air and display a rich, mournful tone. But switch to something a bit more lively - or a lot more lively - and Knights Of Cydonia pelts along at full speed, with the guitar and drums workout of Muse's prog-rock epic sounding impressively tight and pacey.
Even the bass is surprisingly firm for such a compact little speaker, and while the Zipp Mini might not be powerful enough for your main speaker system it'll work a treat as part of a wider multi-room set-up. And, if Apple delivers on its promises for AirPlay 2, you'll even be able to mix and match the Zipp range with speakers from other manufacturers too.
4. Denon Heos 7 HS2
There are several models in Denon's multi-room Heos range, including the little portable Heos 1 (£149/$199), but if you're looking for some serious room-filling sound then we reckon it's worth spending a bit extra for the top-of-the-range Heos 7. Make sure you get the latest HS2 model - rather than the older HS1, which is still available in a few online stores - as it provides Bluetooth along with its Wi-Fi multi-room streaming, and also supports high-res audio (and we look forward to the day that Apple discovers high-res audio and brings iTunes and Apple Music into the 21st century).
The setup procedure with the Heos is a little odd - and could be awkward for some people - as it requires you to download the Heos app on to an iOS or Android device and then connect your device to the speaker with one of those old-fashioned 3.5mm audio cable thingies (that Apple has been trying to phase out since the introduction of the Lightning-only iPhone 7). Somehow or other, the app is able to send your network password to the speaker over the audio cable, and the Heos then connects to the network automatically.
It has dual-band 2.4GHz/5GHz Wi-Fi, and there's an Ethernet port on the back as well, so you can opt for a wired network connection if the speaker is in an upstairs bedroom where the Wi-Fi is a bit dodgy. It's got a USB port too, so you can play music stored on a hard drive or memory stick, and supports DLNA for playing music from most NAS drives and media servers.
Unfortunately, the software side of things doesn't work equally well. It's a shame that the Heos doesn't support AirPlay, as that would eliminate the need to rely on Denon's own iOS app.
The navigation and playback controls in the Heos app are rather clumsy, and it doesn't support a very wide range of streaming services either. You can stream from Spotify, Tidal and a few others - but there's no Apple Music (unless you switch to a more limited Bluetooth connection), which might well be a deal-breaker for some people.
The multi-room features in the iOS app are pretty straightforward, though. You can play different music on each speaker, or simply drag-and-drop one speaker icon on top of another to link speakers together so they play the same music. The big disappointment, though, is that there's no Mac app (or Windows either, for that matter), so listening to an iTunes library stored on a Mac requires you to roll up your sleeves, dig through the Help files on Denon's website, and then delve into the file-sharing settings in System Preferences so the speaker can locate your music files on the network.
The clumsy software is a shame, because the Heos 7 really does deliver the goods with its sound quality. The size of the speaker means it's able to squeeze in two high-frequency tweeters, two woofers for the mid-range, and a dedicated sub-woofer to give the bass some real power.
The heavy bass on Supermassive Black Hole by Muse lands like a punch in the gut, but switch to something more delicate, such as the a capella Kate Bush vocal on My Lagan Love, and the sound floats lightly in the air, effortlessly expanding out to fill the room with sound. That expansive sound is the great strength of the Heos 7, setting it apart from its many more compact rivals, and allowing it to act as your main speaker system in the front room, while you opt for smaller, less expensive Heos models for other rooms.
5. Harman Kardon Omni 20+
There are several multi-room speakers in Harman's Omni range, including a big soundbar and sub-woofer combo that will work really well as part of your home cinema set-up. That two-piece system is a bit pricey, though, costing around £800 (or roughly $870 on Amazon US), so we decided to focus on the mid-range Omni 20+, which comes in just a bit below the price tag of Apple's HomePod. (Just make sure you get the new '20+' model, rather than the original Omni 20, which is still on sale in the US and some UK stores.)
Setting up the Omni is really simple. It doesn't support AirPlay, unfortunately - opting instead for Google's Chromecast - but it does use a little-known feature in iOS called WAC (wireless accessory configuration) that allows the Harman Controller app to automatically detect the speaker and connect it to your network with just a couple of quick taps. You can then assign the speaker to a specific room, and the app even asks if you want to link two Omni speakers together as a stereo pair with separate left and right channels.
You can play different music on speakers in different rooms, or use the app's Party Mode to play the same music on all the speakers at once. There's also a 'group' option that allows you to link speakers in different rooms - perhaps having one track played in all the downstairs rooms, while the upstairs rooms play something else.
The app is neatly designed, too, with an attractive graphical interface (that even managed to download some missing artwork from my iTunes library) and straightforward controls. It doesn't support a vast range of streaming services, but most of the big names are there, including Spotify, Tidal and Deezer - but not Apple Music.
There's no app for Macs or Windows PCs either, but Harman has a partial solution here, as you can connect any device to one of the Omni speakers using either Bluetooth or the 3.5mm wired connection, and that speaker can then transmit music via Wi-Fi to other Omni speakers around your home. That's a clever option, as it means you can still play Apple Music or your iTunes library from a Mac to the Omni; but there are less expensive multi-room speakers that still manage to support AirPlay, which would be the ideal solution for Mac owners.
The compact speaker measures just 166mm high and 260mm wide, so it'll sit easily on a shelf of coffee table, but it still manages to squeeze in two woofers and two tweeters that provide very attractive sound quality.
The Omni 20+ supports high-res audio formats up to 24-bit/192kHz (and maybe Apple will too, one day...) but even with standard CD-quality music playing from iTunes it delivered a clear, detailed sound that worked well with a variety of musical styles. The gentle vocals of Soldier's Poem by Muse had a rich, warm tone, while still capturing all the subtle details in the multi-layered oh-so-Queen harmonies. Switch to something more dense and aggressive, such as the thrashing emo-rock of This Is How I Disappear by My Chemical Romance, and the Omni 20+ has real bite, with punchy power chords and manic, high-speed riffing driving the track forward.
A little more bass wouldn't have gone amiss - the mid-bass is fine, but the deeper electronic bass on a track such as The Orb's Prime Evil lacks body - but that's a lot to ask from such a compact little speaker. And, with options such as that soundbar and subwoofer combo also available, the Omni range is a really good option for anyone that wants to build a wider multi-room system for their home.
6. B&O BeoPlay M3
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, as the company recently released the compact M3, which comes in at just £279/$299, but 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 that it will provide a software update for AirPlay 2 (whenever it arrives...) and, if you're so inclined, the M3 supports Google's Chromecast as well. There's a 3.5mm connector for wired devices too - something missing in some of its multi-room rivals (as well as Apple's HomePod).
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 does lean a bit towards the bass too, which will work well for dance music - and the fuzzy bass and grinding guitar of Muse's Supermassive Black Hole had some 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 BBQ or dinner party, and provides versatile wireless connectivity and multi-room capabilities, then the M3 has a lot going for it.