Multi-room speaker systems have become increasingly popular in recent years, especially as mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad allow us to carry our entire music library from room to room, or to connect to streaming services such as Apple Music or Spotify with just a quick tap on an app.
Having your favourite music follow you around your home is great, but multi-room speakers often have important limitations. The biggest problem when buying a multi-room system has always been that you generally have to commit to buying all your speakers from a single manufacturer, as hardware from different manufacturers generally won't work together.
Music streaming support
The other limitation with many of these speakers is that they 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, and 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. (Some speakers can only be used with iOS or Android mobile devices, which means that you can't even play music from iTunes on a Mac.)
Those limitations still apply to many multi-room speakers; but the market changed dramatically in May 2018 when Apple released its updated AirPlay 2 software.
The original version of AirPlay was designed to work with one speaker at a time, but AirPlay 2 moves into the multi-room market. It actually provides a number of new features, including the ability to create a HomePods stereo pair, but you can also 'group' multiple HomePods in order to play your music in different rooms at the same time.
But AirPlay 2 doesn't just work with the HomePod: in fact, its most innovative feature is its 'interoperability'. Apple is licensing the AirPlay 2 software to a number of other speaker manufacturers - including Sonos, Libratone and Bang & Olufsen - and any speaker that works with AirPlay 2 will be compatible with the HomePod and AirPlay 2 speakers from other manufacturers. This means you will be able to mix and match speakers around your home.
There aren't a lot of AirPlay 2 speakers available right now - it's only the Sonos Beam and Sonos One that support AirPlay 2 at the moment, although Libratone and Bang & Olufsen have got software updates for AirPlay 2 coming. There are also several new speakers coming from a number of other manufacturers, so keep an eye out for the AirPlay logo on any new multi-room speaker that you're thinking of buying.
Sound Quality vs Price
High-tech features such as AirPlay 2 and Siri are great but, of course, you still have to focus on sound quality as well. The HomePod provides premium sound quality but, at £320/$349, it comes with a premium price tag too. Buying three HomePods for a multi-room system would set you back almost £1,000/$1,100.
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 you can spend extra on a really high-quality speaker for your living room, 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. Most multi-room speakers rely on Wi-Fi to stream music around your home, but it helps to have a few other options as well.
The HomePod has been criticised for only supporting Wi-Fi, with no Ethernet, Bluetooth, or even a 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, or maybe a 3.5mm connector for use with a CD player.
Best multi-room 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 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
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 - with an update for AirPlay 2 due in autumn 2018 - 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 we're really looking forward to a new second generation of Zipp 2 speakers.
Setting up any of the Zipp speakers is a piece of cake for Mac or iOS users, thanks to their support for AirPlay. The Libratone app simply prompts you to tap the touch-sensitive glowing logo on top of the speaker, and it then automatically connects 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.
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 livelier - or a lot livelier - and Knights Of Cydonia pelts along, 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.
3. Apple HomePod
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.
4. 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. 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 said it will provide a software update for AirPlay 2 soon, although a date hasn't been announced yet.
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.
5. Dynaudio Music 1
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 towards the end of the year.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.