What Hi-Fi (UK) - - Multi-room Speakers -

No longer are wire­less speak­ers tinny lit­tle Blue­tooth mod­els that sound worse than flatscreen TVS. To­day’s wire­less speak­ers are stylish prod­ucts with the lat­est stream­ing tech­nolo­gies in­side – and they are packed with clever fea­tures. Tak­ing note of new trends and how peo­ple lis­ten to mu­sic, they now in­cor­po­rate multi-room abil­ity and the likes of Spo­tify Con­nect. And they can sound great.

Wire­less speak­ers had long pri­ori­tised con­ve­nience over sound qual­ity, but that tide is turn­ing. Even as they re­tain their ease of use, sim­ple con­nec­tiv­ity and por­ta­ble fea­tures, they have evolved to de­liver ex­cel­lent sound qual­ity – the best close to good enough to be called hi-fi.

But with such a vast va­ri­ety of wire­less speak­ers avail­able on the mar­ket, how do you pick the one that works best for you? This handy guide will nar­row things down for you.

All shapes and sizes

Wire­less speak­ers can be big, boxy units; they can be small and cylin­dri­cal. Some have rugged ex­te­ri­ors, oth­ers opt for an el­e­gant mod­ern de­sign. They can even look like 1920’s air­ships.

The point is, wire­less speak­ers can look like any­thing and come in any size. The ques­tion,

Multi-room, Blue­tooth, wi-fi and Air­play… the choice of wire­less speaker op­tions is con­fus­ing. Let us en­lighten you

then, is what will you use yours for? For your bed­room, a sen­si­bly sized Geneva Model S Wire­less DAB+ or Au­dio Pro Ad­don T3 is ideal. If you want some­thing more por­ta­ble, try the KEF Muo or UE Boom 2. If you’re the ad­ven­tur­ous type, the UE Roll’s rugged, wa­ter­proof build will with­stand plenty of knocks and mud splashes.

Se­ri­ous kit re­quires se­ri­ous cash

On the other hand, if you’re look­ing for a wire­less speaker to be your main mu­sic sys­tem, be pre­pared to spend some cash. And make space in your room. Speak­ers such as the B&W Zep­pelin Wire­less, Geneva Aerosphère Large and Naim Mu-so may cost a pretty penny (up­wards of £500), but their sound qual­ity is worth it. They’re a vi­able al­ter­na­tive to a ded­i­cated hi-fi sys­tem, and make a great style state­ment in your liv­ing room too.

You’ll want to tem­per sonic ex­pec­ta­tions de­pend­ing on the size and price. Don’t ex­pect huge, room-fill­ing, bass-heavy sound from a tiny por­ta­ble speaker like the UE Roll. Do ex­pect it from the more am­bi­tious Naim Mu-so, though.

Por­ta­ble ver­sus mains-pow­ered

Por­ta­ble speak­ers have a recharge­able bat­tery, so you’re not tied to a mains socket. You can sim­ply pick up the speaker and take it with you. De­pend­ing on how big it is, that might mean to an­other part of the house or to the beach when you’re on hol­i­day.

Take note of the speaker’s bat­tery life. Four hours is fine if you’ll be lis­ten­ing in the gar­den, but you’ll prob­a­bly want eight hours or more if you’re tak­ing it with you on hol­i­day. It de­feats the point of a por­ta­ble speaker rather, if you have to keep plug­ging it into the mains ev­ery few hours to charge it back up. The ul­tra­portable UE Roll lasts for nine hours, while the KEF Muo clocks in at 12 hours on a full charge.

Mains-pow­ered speak­ers, inevitably, are more re­stricted. Mains-pow­ered, then, works best for speak­ers that will stay at home. They’re usu­ally big­ger and more ex­pen­sive than por­ta­ble ones – the Geneva Model S Wire­less DAB+, B&W Zep­pelin Wire­less, B&O Beoplay A6 and Naim Mu-so are cases in point – and they’re de­mand­ing enough that they need a con­stant source of power to drive the speak­ers and reach their full per­for­mance po­ten­tial.

Which wire­less stream­ing method?

Once you’ve de­cided on the shape, func­tion and porta­bil­ity of your wire­less speaker, the next thing you need to think about is how you’ll be send­ing mu­sic from your smart­phone or ipod to the speaker. Will you be stick­ing with stan­dard Blue­tooth? Are you tempted by Air­play? Or do you plan on a multi-room sys­tem?

Blue­tooth – sim­ple and ubiq­ui­tous

Blue­tooth is the most com­mon tech you’ll see in wire­less speak­ers. It’s easy to use, tak­ing only a cou­ple of sec­onds to make a con­nec­tion. You’ll find Blue­tooth in nearly all wire­less speak­ers as well as in most smart­phones, tablets and lap­tops. It’s the eas­i­est and most fuss-free method to use with wire­less speak­ers, tak­ing only a cou­ple of sec­onds to make a con­nec­tion.

Blue­tooth also doesn’t care if you’re an Ap­ple or An­droid user. It doesn’t pick favourites, so ev­ery­one can use it to stream songs. Stan­dard Blue­tooth has a range of about 100 me­tres, but use a speaker in the house (with all the walls and other ob­struc­tions) and this range drops no­tice­ably. In­side you can rely on a range of around only 10 me­tres or so.

Air­play – Ap­ple only

Air­play is Ap­ple’s own way of stream­ing files wire­lessly and, as is the way with the Cu­per­tino com­pany, it works only with Ap­ple prod­ucts. Still, that’s use­ful if you’re an Ap­ple-only house­hold. Set up can be fussy and takes longer than Blue­tooth as it pig­gy­backs your home’s wi-fi net­work, but you’ll have to do it only once.

Air­play’s lim­i­ta­tions have seen it go out of favour in re­cent years. Even if you are a big Ap­ple fan, it’s sim­pler to con­nect your iphone or ipad us­ing Blue­tooth. We gen­er­ally pre­fer the sound qual­ity of Blue­tooth over Air­play, too.

A few se­lect mod­els (Li­bra­tone Zipp, B&W Zep­pelin Wire­less, Mon­i­tor Au­dio Airstream S200, Naim Mu-so, for ex­am­ple) still fea­ture Air­play, but the days of ded­i­cated Air­play speak­ers are long gone.

Wi-fi – for higher-qual­ity stream­ing

If your wire­less speaker has an eth­er­net port and built-in wi-fi, you can plug it straight into your home net­work. The ad­van­tages? You can stream higher-than-mp3 qual­ity tracks from any source that’s also con­nected to the same net­work: your smart­phone, lap­top or your NAS box. So if you’ve got a li­brary full of Cd-ripped and hi-res files, you might want to look into speak­ers that sup­port the higher res­o­lu­tion. They are be­com­ing more com­mon now though, with many, such as the Naim Mu-so sup­port­ing mu­sic streams of up to 24-bit/192khz.

Multi-room – for mu­sic all around the house

Multi-room speak­ers are all the rage now: why not turn your home into one seam­less mu­sic hub? The more speak­ers you buy, the more you can dot around – then link them all up, so you never miss a se­cond of sound. Or you can ar­range it so each room is play­ing a dif­fer­ent song – per­fect if you’re host­ing a themed party.

The suc­cess of a multi-room speaker lives and dies with its app, and how easy it is to con­nect to your mu­sic source and home net­work. A welloiled app that makes this process seam­less is the rea­son Sonos re­mains the mas­ter of multi-room. Blue­sound is hot on its heels, though, of­fer­ing hi-res au­dio for a high-end price.

Spo­tify Con­nect – Spo­tify made sim­ple

If you’re an avid user of Spo­tify Pre­mium, it’s worth look­ing for a wire­less speaker that has Spo­tify Con­nect, such as the B&O Beoplay A6 or Li­bra­tone Zipp. Th­ese speak­ers have Spo­tify em­bed­ded in them, mean­ing songs won’t be stream­ing from your phone but straight from the cloud. This frees up your smart­phone (you can make calls with­out in­ter­rupt­ing the mu­sic), and it doesn’t drain your bat­tery ei­ther.

With Con­nect, you can also flit be­tween sources, and send songs from one speaker to an­other with a but­ton tap. It’s a nice fea­ture that makes a big dif­fer­ence once you start us­ing it.

Con­clu­sion? There’s a lot of choice out there. A lot. But now that you’re armed with all the knowl­edge, pick­ing your next wire­less speaker should be plain sail­ing.

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