Almost any wireless speaker with Wi-Fi can form part of a multi-room audio system. Unless it’s of a certain vintage, or was a suspiciously affordable online purchase, it’s almost certain to feature compatibility with Chromecast built-in, Apple AirPlay 2, DTS Play-Fi or Amazon Alexa. So once you have more than one, you can set up a multi-room audio system pretty easily.
And yet. The piecemeal approach to a multi-room set-up is understandable, but it’s not ideal. The differences in audio priorities, and consequently in sound, from one brand to the next can be extremely marked.
If you want music to follow you seamlessly throughout your home, don’t you want it to sound consistent as it does so? Of course you do. It doesn’t do any harm that speakers from the same brand tend to share a common aesthetic - an additional kind of consistency that can be equally important to some owners too.
So we’ve spent the last few weeks living with ten multi-room systems from a variety of high-profile manufacturers. Some of these brands have been forces in traditional hi-fi for donkey’s years. Some came from nowhere to quickly help redefine the market. All of them promise to combine convenience with performance in a manner designed to part you from your cash in double-quick time.
Sonos achieved the highest overall score in our tests (though it was a hard-fought contest - you shouldn’t consider Sonos a completely default choice in this company), while Bowers & Wilkins’s Formation range is our Hi-Res favourite.
- Take your music wherever you go with one of the best Bluetooth speakers
We’d have needed a much longer shortlist if we’d included every
wireless multi-room audio company that arose simply to grab a bit of the
Sonos action. But thanks to its wide range of products and
applications, its exemplary ease of use and, crucially, its very
acceptable sound quality, Sonos remains where it’s always been: in the
The expert's view
Best multi-room speakers: the shortlist
1. Bowers & Wilkins Formation range
Launching an all-new wireless multi-room range of six different products (including a high-end pair of extremely serious standmount speakers), all at more-or-less the same time, can mean only one thing: Bowers & Wilkins means business. Mind you, was there ever a time it didn’t?
Available in black, (sometimes) silver or (sometimes) white
2. Audio Pro range
We can’t pretend we weren’t a tiny bit disappointed by the look of Audio Pro’s A10 wireless speaker - it is a bit more generic, a bit less the old Audio Pro ‘Mickey Mouse meets a koala bear’ design language. Happily, the A10 proves more than worthy of slotting into the Audio Pro catalogue - because its sounds every bit as good as its very capable partners.
Available in black, grey, white or (sometimes) wood-effect
3. Naim Mu-so 2nd Gen range
Having virtually single-handedly invented the idea of truly premium wireless speakers, it makes perfect sense for Naim to try and own the truly premium wireless multi-room audio market too. Its current range may only be two products strong - Mu-so 2nd Gen and Mu-so Qb 2nd Gen - but they’re both brilliantly accomplished performers. Just as well, as there’s that premium price to justify…
Available in black (other cost-option colours are available)
4. Bluesound range
Bluesound was quick out of the blocks with a hi-res audio wireless multi-room solution for the discerning convenience-craver (and here we mean proper, full-fat 24bit/192kHz hi-res audio, not the CD-standard 16bit/44.1kHz Amazon is currently trying to pretend is hi-res). One or two specification gaps in the range, but audio performance that can’t be argued with.
Available in black or white
5. Harman Kardon Citation range
Harman Kardon had a good hard think about things before finally launching its Citation range of wireless speakers at the start of this year. And from small, unassuming little kitchen-friendly models to imposing, futuristic stereo floorstanders, it’s safe to say there’s a Citation for every eventuality - and all boasting 24bit/96kHz hi-res audio capability.
Available in black or grey
6. Marshall range
Many of the speakers in this test try awfully hard not to disturb the look of your interior decor too much. Marshall, safe to say, doesn’t - unless your decor is of the ‘mosh-pit’ variety. Even the smallest multi-room speaker in the Marshall range is big and assertive-looking - which is not dissimilar to the way they sound.
Available in none-more-black
7. Sonos range
The original and, let’s face it, still the best. Sonos got in on the ground floor of the wireless multiroom audio boom and, thanks to an ever-widening, ever-improving range of speakers, has maintained a position of ubiquity ever since. Superb ease of use hasn’t done any harm either.
Available in black or (sometimes) white
8. Bose range
This is a cuspy time in the Bose multi-room and/or smart speaker range - nice new voice-controlled speakers like the £400 Home Speaker 500 exist alongside old stagers like SoundTouch 10. Even if it’s currently a little behind the curve, though, the Bose brand is never to be taken lightly.
Available in black or silver
9. Apple HomePod
Even by Apple’s standards, the HomePod is remarkably Apple-centric product - if you’re not already deep in the Apple ecosystem, you may as well forget it. And it comes from a multi-room range of precisely one speaker - so let’s hope HomePod is as suitable for the living-room as it is for any other room in the house.
Available in black or white
10. Libratone range
If any nation is allowed to trade (partially, at least) on its design reputation and heritage, it’s Denmark - and so, as a consequence, is Libratone. The brand’s five-strong wireless speaker range is colourful, and fun in a grown-up sort of way - the fruits of Libratone’s first ten years of existence are pretty impressive.
Available in black, grey, red or green
Best multi-room speakers: how we selected
If there’s one thing we learned early in the course of this test, it’s that you’re not short of choice. The market for wireless multi-room audio - like the universe itself - has been expanding in all directions for a while now, and shows no sign of slowing down.
There was some chaff to be sifted out, certainly. But getting down to a final ten systems meant a) looking long and hard at the likes of John Lewis, Amazon, Richer Sounds and the rest to establish popular price points, and b) leaving out some decent contenders.
Fundamentally, everyone wants the same thing from their wireless multi-room audio system. You want simple, straightforward operation, whether that’s via an app or using voice control.
You want compatibility with your favourite music streaming services, as well as access to any music stored somewhere on the home network. You want absolutely rock-solid, never-fails wireless stability. And the sort of sound quality more commonly associated with a traditional hi-fi system - ‘traditional’ in this instance meaning ‘ugly, inconvenient and featuring what seems like miles of cabling’.
A competitive price is important too. Obviously it’s possible to pay too little for this sort of thing - Amazon offers wireless multi-room speakers from as little as £14.99 each, which is frankly alarming - but no one likes to think they’re paying over the odds.
A nice wide range of products to suit all environments and configurations is optimal too - and certainly the likes of Bluesound, Bowers & Wilkins, Harman Kardon and Sonos, with their various combinations of soundbars, stereo speakers and stand-alone units, fit the bill there nicely. But we’ve also included hi-fi savants Naim (despite its small range of two products) on the basis that the company spearheaded the market for premium, ‘proper’ wireless speakers. And we’ve included Apple (with its single multi-room speaker) because, well, it’s Apple.
But ultimately, of course, it’s about sound - otherwise what’s an audio system for? Poor sound discounts a product from meaningful consideration even quicker than a poor control app does, while glorious sound can conceivably make up for some shortcomings elsewhere. Only some, mind you.
Best multi-room speakers: how we tested
There’s an interesting combination of the subjective and the empirical to be considered when it comes to testing wireless multi-room home audio systems. Broadly speaking, these two categories divide into ease of use and sound quality.
"Ease of use", of course, covers quite a few empirical elements that all warrant investigation. You’re committed to using a control app in order to set up your individual speakers in the first place, and then to set up the multi-room element of your system - so how is that experience?
Is the app logical, friendly and easy to understand? Does it do as it’s told? Is it stable, or is it prone to crashing? The app might well be your main source of interaction with your multi-room set-up, and it almost goes without saying that an unreliable app can profoundly spoil the experience - so we give a decent amount of weighting to its implementation and useability.
Some of these speakers have a little smattering of physical controls too, mind you - because sometimes it’s easier and quicker to push (or touch) a button than it is to fish out your smartphone and fire up the app. Or, at least, it should be.
And then there’s voice control. Speakers that support Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri are judged on how quickly their ears prick up when summoned, and how adept at following instructions they are.
And because this test took place in the United Kingdom, where region accents change noticeably every 30 miles or so, we’ve also considered how well they deal with requests from Glaswegians, from Brummies, from Thames Estuary users… Implementation of the speakers’ listening mics is just as important here as how attuned to a Geordie accent a third-party voice assistant is.
Having given due investigation to the implementation and success of control methodologies, we then had a long look at the empiricals of build quality and finish. After that, it’s subjective questions all the way.
"Design" is a knotty one. Obviously, part of the reason to choose a single-brand multi-room system is for some aesthetic consistency - and, in terms of design, we have our favourites from this group just as surely as you do. But as long as a system is built and finished properly, we don’t give disproportionate emphasis to its looks.
No, we save the majority of the subjective emphasis for the way a system sounds. Again, it’s unity that brings you to choose a single-brand set-up - but we contend that sound (and the unity thereof) is a fair bit more significant than unity of design. So we’ve given the appropriate amount of weighting to the way these speakers sound - because, after all, the world’s best control app plus the world’s swishest design isn’t going to compensate for poor audio performance.
Best multi-room speakers: the test results
There is no aspect of wireless multi-room audio performance that Sonos doesn’t excel at. It’s impeccable when it comes to ease of use - its control app is the gold standard here. There’s a comprehensive range of products, from which you’re bound to find an item or two that suits you. And every Sonos speaker sounds, at the very least, competitive at its price - several of them are the best pound-for-pound wireless speakers around, full stop.
Bowers & Wilkins’s Formation range is, in some ways, pretty similar to Sonos. It’s comprehensive, it sounds like the money’s worth, it’s easy to set up and has unshakeable wireless stability.
Of course, it’s a fair bit more expensive - but it has high-resolution audio potential, and it has all-but-imperceptible lag when syncing from one room to the next. Plus it has that, ahem, individual aesthetic.
Third place belongs toAudio Pro - and it’s safe to say the range is within touching distance of those that finished above it. Some voice control, some delightful design flourishes and invigorating across-the-board sound more than make up for its slightly buggy control app - and let’s not forget the properly huge, and properly bonkers, Drumfire speaker. It deserves a page all to itself.
For a while, fourth-place Bluesound had the wireless hi-res audio action all to itself. And given it offers full-on 24bit/192kHz, it’s still the highest of the high-res offerings around.
Don’t be intimidated by the app (it seems that it’s been designed to look much more complicated than it is) and instead get on with enjoying the detailed, spacious and thrillingly complete sound it’s capable of facilitating.
Or you could just throw caution to the wind, max out your credit card and get involved in Naim’s brilliantly tactile and satisfying Mu-so 2 range.
‘Premium’ is every respect, the two Mu-so 2 speakers look, feel and sound tremendous - taken as an overall package, they fully justify the not-inconsiderable outlay. Might have conceivably finished further up the list if it wasn’t for the sometimes-flaky control app.
Quite often in lists like this, by the time you get down to sixth place you’re dealing with the also-rans. That’s not true here - there isn’t a bad system in this whole selection, and Harman Kardon’s Citationrange is well worth consideration.
Audio is slightly skewed towards the bass-y (which, for some listeners, will be the opposite of a bad thing), but in terms of finish and ease of use, the Citation range is a match for any other here.
Seventh place belongs to Apple - unless you’re an ardent Apple fan, with an iPhone and/or an iPad and an Apple Music subscription. If that’s the case, you can put the HomePod a bit further up this list, because it sounds really really good. And it’s splendidly made, so the fact that there’s no Bluetooth connectivity, and that any streaming service except Apple Music is only available via AirPlay 2, won’t worry Apple fetishists in the slightest.
Siri proving to be a bit of a half-wit compared to Alexa or Google Assistant is aggravating, though.
Eighth place isn’t the most glamorous place to finish in a field of 10 but, as we’ve already said, there isn’t a duff product in this entire list. In fact, the least agreeable thing about the whole Libratone experience is the convoluted app - and even that’s just as nice to look at as the speakers themselves.
Compared to the sound of the very best speakers here, the Libratone's sound a bit chunky and ponderous, but everything in this test is relative - as we will continue to say until we’re blue in the face.
The word ‘iconic’ has been devalued somewhat lately, but in the case of Marshall it’s an apt description. Having been kings of the on-stage back-line for decades, the company’s move into wireless speakers and headphones is shaping up nicely - and its wireless multi-room range is a winner for anyone who wants their speaker to look like a guitar amp. In absolute terms the sound is slightly blunt, but just drink in those looks again…
Ordinarily, shortlist.com likes to put a ‘One to Avoid’ section at the bottom of features like this. This feature doesn’t have that section, because even the Bose system that’s fetched up in tenth place has areas of real strength.
The newer models, in particular the Home Speaker 500 (with its full-colour display and robust sound), are well worth auditioning. The Bose Music app, though, has (at the time of testing) a broken link from the ‘Product Help’ button - which counts as ‘poor’ in anyone’s language.
Best multi-room speakers overall reviewed
Sonos range, from £198
Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be first with a good idea. Sometimes your good idea can be snatched up by competitors, turned into something friendlier or more affordable or better performing - and your ground-breaking hard work becomes nothing more than a footnote.
That’s not what happened to Sonos, though. The California company popularised wireless streaming of locally stored music throughout the home, and thanks to a pretty relentless program of product development and range expansion (as well as the sort of impeccable control interfaces some competitors might conceivably kill for) it’s maintained a position of ubiquity ever since.
The ‘from £198’ here refers to the cost of a couple of the Symfonisk bookshelf speakers Sonos developed in conjunction with IKEA - because expanding a model range downwards is just as valid as doing so upwards. And it brings Sonos ownership within the grasp of many more people than previously.
This is a model range that’s getting bigger and better all the time. As well as the Symfonisk bookshelf speaker, the IKEA collaboration has produced the remarkable Symfonisk table lamp speaker (£150), and from there on up there is a speaker for more-or-less every eventuality.
The more expensive (and, let’s not pretend otherwise, higher performance) speakers start with the Sonos One SL (£179) - this is also available as the voice-controllable One (£199). The recently introduced Move (£399) is Sonos’s first portable speaker, complete with battery power, weather-proofing and Bluetooth connectivity. Or you might prefer the bigger, burlier sound of the bigger, burlier Play:5 (£499).
There’s also a subwoofer, the £699 Sonos Sub. And on top of this, Sonos offers a range of in-wall and in-ceiling speakers, as well as traditional stereo amplifier (the £599 Amp - no one ever accused Sonos of getting carried away when naming its products) and the Port (£399), which can turn a regular passive system into a wirelessly streaming powerhouse.
So it’s an extremely comprehensive offering. But it’s transformed from "interesting" to "compelling" for two very specific reasons: the simplicity and stability of its control interface, and the sound it makes.
The Sonos app is an object lesson in how this sort of thing should be done. The app is legible, easy to use, absolutely stable and does as it’s told. There isn’t an electronics manufacturer who doesn’t aspire to this level of performance, but the companies who actually achieve it are few and far between. It’s almost enough to sell the Sonos ecosystem by itself.
The clincher, though, is sound quality. Each Sonos speaker does a little more than you might reasonably expect at its price - and the company’s overall tonal balance is pleasing in the extreme. There’s plenty of low-end heft, but it’s properly controlled. There’s stacks of detail revealed in the midrange, so singers sound like individuals, and there’s sufficient bite and attack at the top end. When used singly, the speakers sound open and uncongested, and when used as a stereo pair they’re focused and revealing. And if you want antisocial volumes, you got ‘em.
Best multi-room speakers for hi-res audio reviewed
Bowers & Wilkins Formation range, from £399
As we’ve repeatedly suggested, you make your own mind up when it comes to design (and aesthetic considerations in general). But it’s safe to say you won’t mistake Bowers & Wilkins’s Formation range for anyone else’s wireless speakers.
Formation is a thoroughly thought-out, high-performance, high-resolution and high-price suite of wireless speakers with numerous applications. Formation Wedge (£899), for instance, is a big standalone wireless speaker; Formation Flex (£399) is a much more compact, cylindrical wireless speaker that can be used singly, or in a pair either in a stereo arrangement or as the rear speakers in a home cinema surround-sound set-up.
If you decide you like the idea of wireless home cinema sound, Formation Bar (£999) is a soundbar of immodest dimensions that can either deliver the front three channels of a multi-channel soundtrack or serve up stereo music. There are further home cinema possibilities provided by Formation Bass (£899) - this is a wireless subwoofer that can augment the Bar with the sort of low-frequency rumble that the biggest Hollywood blockbusters demand.
Formation Duo (£3500), on the other hand, is a big and reasonably traditional-looking pair of stereo speakers - they’re unmistakably a Bowers & Wilkins design, from their decoupled tweeters to the saucy bulge of their mid/bass drivers. At the money they (like the rest of the range) are far from cheap, but (like the rest of the range) they have the performance to back up the asking price.
The Formation range is finished off with Formation Audio (£599), a wireless streamer that enables a regular passive system to function wirelessly. It also allows analogue sources - a turntable, for instance - to stream wirelessly to a Formation speaker.
As a product range, then, there really ought to be something here to suit the majority of users. And in terms of the way Bowers & Wilkins has implemented Formation’s wireless connectivity, and consequently its multi-room performance, it’s hard to imagine any user being anything other than deeply impressed.
The Formation set-up app is brief, but effective (and quite nice to look at). And once it’s used your home Wi-Fi network for the initial setup, Formation creates its own independent mesh network on which to operate. The robustness of this bespoke network contributes to what Bowers & Wilkins claims is one-microsecond synchronisation between speakers - so music can move around the home with no discernible lag.
That’s an awful lot of trouble to have gone to, so it’s just as well the Formation range works beautifully and sounds outstanding. Music can be accessed via aptX HD Bluetooth, Spotify Connect or AirPlay 2 - and the range is Roon-ready, so networked audio is accessible too. Once on board your Formation device, it’s dealt with by a 24bit/96kHz DAC - and in every respect, no matter the particular Formation product you’re listening to, the results are gratifying in the extreme.
Every significant aspect of music reproduction is handled confidently. Low-frequency extension, midrange fidelity and high-end attack are all judged well. Timing is good, focus (in the stereo products) is convincing, and overall tonality is convincing. This is an articulate range of products, voiced with the sort of fanatical care we’ve all come to expect from Bowers & Wilkins. To get this level of music eloquence from a simple-to-use multi-room system is a cause for celebration - no matter how expensive it is.
Comparing the rest on test
There’s only one thing stopping the Audio Pro range going absolutely toe-to-toe with Sonos, and that’s the relative poverty of its control app. In every other meaningful respect, Audio Pro’s range of speakers great and small is completely deserving of your attention - and, in fact, if you preference is for an up-and-at-’em sonic signature, you might find you prefer the Scandinavian option to the Californian. Unless you want to incorporate some home cinema soundbar action into your multi-room experience too, anyhow.
Of course, Harman Kardon has you covered if that’s the case. Its Citation range is wide enough to keep anyone happy, it has effective Google Assistant control and it is capable of dealing with 24bit/96kHz audio natively.
And in the Citation Towers it has a genuinely unique wireless stereo sound offering - in looks, at least. If it wasn’t for the Bowers & Wilkins, Harman Kardon would be duking it out with Bluesound and Naim to be our preferred hi-res audio option.
Bluesound remains a compelling choice for those who consider nothing less than 24bit/192kHz to be hi-res audio (and those people may have a point).
These aren’t the most glamorous or luxuriously finished products around, but they have it where it counts: in sonic performance.
And anyway, if it’s glamour and luxury you want to accompany your musical enjoyment, be prepared to bite the bullet and shell out for a few Naim Mu-so 2nd Generation products. All the audio quality you could reasonably expect, a frankly unreasonable level of volume (especially from the full-size Mu-so), and a physical control interface that’s so much nicer than anyone else’s here it almost justifies the outlay by itself.
If you want to make a design statement without breaking the bank, though, perhaps Libratone should be your port of call. The available colours are lively without being garish, the feel and finish is great, and the sound (while not quite the most accomplished in this test) is agreeable.
It’s a fine line between ‘fun’ and ‘wacky’, but it’s one the Libratone range treads confidently.
‘Agreeable’ is a fairly understated way of describing the sound of the Apple HomePod, too. Even by Apple’s standards, the HomePod is deep inside the company’s walled garden, it’s true, and it’s equally true that Siri has some catching up to do where voice assistants are concerned.
It could be easier to set HomePod up as a multi-room proposition, too. But as far as audio quality goes, the HomePod could be Apple’s most successful product since… well, it could be Apple’s most successful audio product ever.
Having spent quite a lot of this feature banging on and on about how there are no bad products here, we nevertheless have to acknowledge that Marshall and Bose are bringing up the rear of these prodigiously talented groups of speakers.
But no, that’s not the same as saying they’re bad products, not at all - it’s just that they’re not quite as downright impressive as the others. But if you like the Bose’s sonic signature (crisply attacking, just a little self-consciously grown-up) and the fact that Home Speaker 500 has a nice bright display, the makings of a very acceptable multi-room system are there.
As far as Marshall is concerned, we know how this works. The audio quality is decent (if not class-leading), but to those who are turned on by the unique aesthetic then it’s undoubtedly the finest multi-room offering on the market. And if that’s you, well, we’re not about to tell you you’re wrong.