For a long time, the pinnacle of a home’s audio system was the hi-fi unit in the living room or study. These expensive stereo monsters were great for those who wanted to listen to their music (or movies!) in that room, but if you wanted to spread the music to the rest of the house you’d have to either crank the volume to police-bothering levels or buy an entirely separate hi-fi for the other room.
Of course, if you had the money you could install a very fancy multi-room audio system. The sort of thing you’d find in a fancy restaurant, museum or the mansion of Bruce Wayne. A cupboard full of amplifiers, miles of cabling and a small hill of money were all that stood between you and a home-wide audio system.
These days things could not be any different. Thanks to modern wireless communication technology most of us have wireless hubs such as internet routers and repeaters that allow all sorts of things to speak to each other. Which means you can now get a modular, home-wide audio system for much less money and effort than ever before.
The best part of it all is that you can build you multi-room system room-by-room. Expanding it as you have the funds to do so, but you can’t usually mix and match products from different providers, which means who you choose to start off with will have an effect on the final system down the line. In this article, I want to cover some of the major choices you have and the basics of how their multi-room setups work. Some of these companies have only recently added multi-room audio to their speaker lineups, so don’t be surprised if new features are added quickly.
Compared to Sonos, the other multi-room smart speaker providers are just young upstarts and pretenders. Sonos has been providing wireless, digital multi-room systems for longer than any of the other companies I talk about here.
When it comes to pure audiophile-level sound quality Sonos simply can’t be beat, but the company has only recently caught on to the smart speaker revolution and so most of the Sonos gear you’ll find doesn’t have any intelligence. Sonos has announced that it will be integrating smart speaker features from Google and Amazon, but this is still in the works and if you invest in a Sonos solution today they won’t be backward compatible.
To get multi-room audio to work with your Sonos system you need to group speakers together in the app. Then when you play music you play it through one group or another, letting you take control over what plays where and when.
It’s a simple four-step process using the Android or iOS app:
- Tap the name of a speaker at the top of the screen, which will bring up the rooms menu.
- Tap on “group”
- Pick all the rooms you want to add to your group and then pick the music you want to play. Easy!
Google Home is the search giant’s answer to smart speakers from competitors like Apple and Amazon. Their speakers have only been out for a little while, but the fundamental technologies have been out in other products for a while. One of the main components is the Google Chromecast, which you can get in an audio-only version too.
The cool thing about the Chromecast is that you can use it with any sound system, even with certain Sonos speakers through an auxiliary cable. Now with the Google Home system, you can group any combination of Home or Chromecast Audio devices into multi-room playback systems.
Just as with the Sonos system you can create and cast to groups from the Google Home app on Android or iOS.
It takes more steps though, but once you get the hang of it, it’s not hard.
- Open the Google Home App
- Tap “devices”
- Tap the device card menu
- Tap “create group”
- Name the group if you want to
- Tap the box next to each speaker that should be in the group
Now you can cast music to the group as a whole!
If you’re looking at the new Apple Homepod speaker or you already have a bunch of Apple stuff then the bad news is that right now there’s no multi-room audio support on Apple technology, but in Sept of 2017 with the release of iOS 11 and Airplay 2 you’ll have the ability to link your Home Pods together with a true multi-room audio solution. Chance are that by the time you read this everything will be in place already, but until the new apps are out we’ll have to wait before we know the exact procedures and limitations.
Amazon and their Echo speakers literally got the ability to play multi-room audio two weeks before I wrote this. Beating Apple out by about a month. The interesting thing about the Amazon solution is that it allows third-party devices to get in on the synchronous-play action.
Just as with everything else, you need to use the Amazon Alexa app to setup multi-room audio.
- Go to “settings” in the Alexa app
- Tap “Multi-Room Music”
- Pick the compatible devices you want to group
- Name the group
You can use that name to give Alexa instructions about what to play. Just say “Alexa play [song] in [group name]”.
You’ll only see compatible devices on the list and this does not include things like the Fire TV or Stick.
The Big Four
These are not the only multi-room solutions on the market, but they are the most mainstream options that regular consumers can afford and easily install. Once you move away from these options you’ll be back to those specialized systems that really are only for a select few to bother with. Who cares? This is a golden age for multi-room audio and we can all throw the parties we’ve always wanted to!