Welcome to How To, where we break down the absolute basics of a particular A/V topic. Multiroom audio is on the block here - and we’re loving it. We think you will too.
Multiroom systems have become the quiet juggernaut of the audio industry. Ever since features like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi became commonplace, manufacturers have been tinkering, slowly freeing us from the chaos of wires and ceiling speakers and making their products better and better. Now, it’s never been easier to get a truly fantastic multiroom system, most of which can be accomplished by buying a few speakers and downloading an app.
More importantly, it’s not just we now can play music in different rooms at the same time. It’s that we can play music of a really, really high quality. One of the biggest advancements, led by companies like SONOS, is the emergence of CD quality audio, played wirelessly, with effortless control. Here at The Master Switch, we love the idea of being able to seed the rooms in our houses with cute little speakers that will do our bidding, without so much as a single wire in sight (with the exception of the power cord, of course; wireless electricity is still a long way off). In this edition of From Scratch, we’re going to show you how to get started.
What did we do before Wi-Fi?
God knows. It’s hard to even remember when you had to use an ethernet cable to connect to the Internet.
In terms of listening to music, wireless audio and multiroom systems was certainly possible before Wi-Fi. The usual way was to actually wire the rooms in your house with multiple speakers all connecting to a central hub somewhere. We trust we don’t have to explain why this approach has fallen away over the past few years. There’s a lot of nostalgia in the audio world, but this is one cowboy that nobody is sad to see ride into the sunset.
Bluetooth was the next logical step, and for a long time, this was what manufacturers used. The problem is, as good as Bluetooth can be, it comes with certain problems. Having to connect and reconnect your device or devices every single time quickly became tiresome, and there were the inevitable connection problems when the device moved out of range. There were also questions about the quality of the audio. It’s alright for home theater, where all the equipment tends to be static, but multiroom systems were just a little too much for it to handle. It worked fine, but it was hardly the revelation everyone thought it would be.
Fortunately, a few innovators came along and changed everything. Chief among these is SONOS, an American company who’ve been quietly working on the problem since the early years of this century. They hit upon something blindingly obvious.
Which was to use Wi-Fi, right?
Correct. If you have a home within existing Wi-Fi network, there’s absolutely no point in using Bluetooth. For the most part, Wi-Fi is strong, reliable, able to effectively transmit high-quality audio, and you don’t have to constantly reconnect it if you want to use it. By developing speakers that used Wi-Fi, SONOS and others were creating an always on, effortless system that would really launch the market for multiroom audio into the stratosphere.
Of course, because there are always competing protocols and software programs and manufacturers, it’s sometimes a little difficult to get certain devices to talk to each other. That is changing, however. A protocol called Allplay Audio, developed by Quallcom, claims to “gives makers of audio equipment freedom to differentiate and reveal new value in wireless speakers, A/V receivers, and other audio accessories. Powered by a superior Wi-Fi system-on-a-chip with flexible I/O architecture, the module also offers a minimalist footprint designed to support embedded and discreet accessory uses and deliver rich wireless audio for both the mass consumer and the high-end audiophile.”
What that means, in normal people language, is that any system can talk to the other. It allows software manufacturers to work across hardware, regardless of who makes it. It’s the great leveller, and although it’s not quite as popular as it should be yet, it’s going to be. Another one to keep an eye on is Play-Fi, which similarly allows you to build a multiroom system without caring too much about who makes the speakers. As long as it's Play-Fi enabled, you can just mix and match.
Anyway, that’s the background. Let’s talk about how you actually go about implementing this nonsense.
What do I need?
Here’s the absolute beauty of multiroom audio.
In other From Scratch guides that we’ve done, we always spend a little time talking about the different pieces of equipment you’ll need. When it comes to multiroom audio, you know you need? You need speakers. As many as you feel comfortable with. Really, that’s all there is. You don’t need receivers, wires, conjugated routers, none of it. You just need a speaker for each room in your house (or more than one if you’re feeling flush). Sure, without actually spend a little bit of time picking out the speakers you want, but it really doesn’t get any simpler than that.
Okay, well, you do need a smartphone. It is theoretically possible to control multiroom audio without one, but really, doing it via an app is the simplest and most logical way. And really, if you don’t have a smartphone, you’re missing out on a hell of a lot more than multiroom audio. Doesn’t matter whether it’s an iPhone or Android or anything else. Once you’ve got the speakers and the phone and the app, you’re good to go. Unusually for audio products, setup instructions for modern multiroom systems are easy to follow, and very difficult to mess up. No wires, no problem.
But how do I know which speakers to buy?
Like any audio product, different speakers have different values, as well as different prices. We’ve broken down the best ones here.
However, it’s worth going into a little more detail about how you should pick your speakers. You are, after all, going to be buying more than one of them, and so there are a few things you need to bear in mind.
The first, very obviously, is sound quality. Like any audio product, there will be differences. A speaker’s sound quality comes from a variety of factors, including the number of drivers it has, how big they are, how well they were made, the housing they are contained in and a zillion other things. Ultimately, all this costs money, and it will be up to you to figure out how much you’re willing to spend for good sound quality.
There is also high resolution audio to consider. We don’t talk about this in the section below, as it’s enough of a game changer (we think) that it deserves something a little more in-depth. Meantime, just trust us when we say that, as with anything to do with audio kit, sound quality should be a number one priority.
Then you need to think about the number of speakers you’re actually going to buy. This is just as simple as going, “I have five rooms in my house and so I need five speakers.” How big are the rooms? What’s in them? Where are you actually going to put the speakers? Is your house open plan? Could two rooms conceivably be serviced by a single speaker? How often would you be in a situation where you’re listening to music in that particular room? Would it be better to skip that room entirely, and just put two speakers in the room you’re in most often?
It’s a tricky one, and there’s no easy answer, mostly because you haven’t invited us inside your house yet to make an assessment (we take our coffee black, thanks).
So what do I do?
A good guide would be to think about how much time you spend in each room, and wherein the room you spend it. Take the kitchen. For most of us, your writer included, the kitchen in our home is quite small. We probably only need one speaker to do the job. On the other hand, if you have a large kitchen, or into cooking, and on moving around a lot doing very noisy things with casserole pots and blenders, then two speakers may be required. Ditto if you like having lots and lots of people over. A crowded living room with loud conversations needs a couple of well-placed speakers. Whatever you do, don’t give up the Wi-Fi password, or some idiot of a guest will decide they want to show you just how awesome Creedence Clearwater revival really is, man.
There’s also ease of use. One of the beautiful things about multiroom systems is that, as they become more and more efficient, so have the means of controlling them. It’s not just that they should be easy to operate on a daily basis. They should be easy to setup, too. You should be able to connect them to the Wi-Fi in under a minute, and be playing music a few seconds later. A lot of systems used to rely on built-in screens and buttons, which could make things tricky, but it is now far more common to do all the connections via an app. This should, in theory, be a breeze.
However: don’t assume it will be. It’s always worth double checking the setup method for any speaker system you buy, on the off chance that it’s a bit more annoying than you thought it would be.
Then you need to think about what the speakers look like. We’re kind of divided about this here. Normally, a good-looking speaker is a nice perk, but we are far more interested in how they perform and how easy they are to use than their aesthetics. When it comes to wireless multiroom audio however, it’s worth paying a little bit more time to what the speakers have to say for themselves in terms of design.
Most speakers can get away with looking utilitarian. Nobody is going to mind a set of big floorstanding speakers on either side of your TV, mostly because that’s where they’re supposed to be. People look at them once, and then never think about them again. That’s not the case with multiroom audio. What you’re doing here is putting speakers in parts of the house where one would not normally expect to see a speaker. If you live by yourself and/or don’t give one hoot about what your place looks like, then you can skip this part, but if not you may want to pay attention.
Color is a big one. Do you want your speaker to stand out, or blend into the background? You could quite conceivably get a bunch of speakers that match the colors of your house, with very little effort. You also need to think about shape. To some extent, you can’t really control this, as most speakers are going to be small boxes of one configurations or another. But think about where you’re going to put them. Do they echo the surroundings, or jar with them? Again, you may not be too interested in this part, but it’s still worth mentioning.
You’ll notice we haven’t talked about placement too much. Why would we? Unlike wired speakers, if you don’t think the sound is quite right, you can simply pick up your multiroom speaker and move it somewhere else. Manufacturers sometimes even include calibration tools, which are app driven, naturally. These tools help you get the best possible sound in very simple ways.
What about my existing speakers?
That’s the big downside of multiroom audio. If you have any existing audio equipment, it sort of makes it all redundant. Honestly this doesn’t apply to dedicated home theatre systems, but if you’ve got tabletop radios and the like lying around the house, you might find yourself with audio gear you no longer use.
Fortunately, multiroom audio companies have thought ahead with this. We’re going to use SONOS as an example again, because they have the perfect bit of kit to solve this problem. It’s called CONNECT, and what it does is turn your existing audio system into a wireless hub. This is a neat little inversion of early multiroom tech, where wireless speakers still needed to be connected to a central hub that would receive the Wi-Fi or Bluetooth signal. Most speakers have everything in the box these days, but what SONOS have done is keep the hub around, available in case you need to connect up your old gear.
You might also want to think about additional features. Obviously all speakers will play wireless audio, but some of them even offer digital radio or subscriptions to streaming music services as part of the package, which can be a great deal if you already listen to a lot of music that way.
Put simply, even with multiroom systems becoming simpler, there’s still a lot to think about before you buy one. In fact, this might be a good time to talk about something in depth: high-resolution audio.
What about high-res audio?
One of the biggest issues in multiroom systems is audio quality. Wi-Fi connection is great and all, but there have still been issues in getting true CD quality sound to bounce from room to room.
Right now, most companies offer transmission at 16-bit/44.1kHz (kilohertz). That’s not quite the highest quality available, but for most people (especially those who habitually listen to compressed audio like MP3s) it is more than acceptable. Essentially, it means that the analogue audio signal is sampled 44,100 times a second to produce a digital version. The bit depth, in this case 16-bit, is the quality of how that signal is encoded. The higher the bit depth and sample rate, the better quality the audio will be. Audio company PreSonus has a great, in-depth explanation available.
Manufacturers are slowly getting around the problem of transmitting true high-resolution audio: that is, as close to CD quality as possible. Bluesound have made the greatest strides here, and their systems manage to offer 24-bit/96kHz audio. It’s a pretty fantastic achievement, if you consider it.
When you’re setting up a multiroom system, you need to decide just how relevant this is to you. The differences between 16-bit/44.1kHz and 24-bit/96kHz are there, but you really have to be paying attention to spot them. You’ll be paying quite a bit of money to up those bits and kilohertz, and unless it is absolutely crucial that the quality of your music be as good as it can be, then it’s probably not essential for you to pay out so much money for it. As always, we recommend thinking through exactly how you’re going to listen, and what you’re going to listen to.
That’s not to say it is an important. We now live in an age where things like Tidal exist, which claim to offer extremely high quality streaming music, as well as early plays of the new Kanye West record for those who actually care. This issue isn’t going to go away, and as manufacturers make more headway, we expect to see high-quality audio becoming available at a cheaper price. For now, all you have to know is that multiroom audio is a fantastic idea whether you live in a mansion or a tiny flat, and if you’ve been paying attention to this handy guide, you'll have absolutely no problems setting it all up.