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Want to join together hi-fi kit from a number of different manufacturers? DTS Play-Fi might be for you - but what is it? How can you get it? And what will it work with? The answers are below...

What’s the first thing you think of when someone says the word ‘multi-room’?

For some, it's a dedicated set-up from a single manufacturer. Sonos is probably best-known, with its interlinking speakers, soundbars, and soundbases - but it’s certainly not the only one. Bluesound – with its ‘BluOS’ app - is an alternative we often recommend.

But what if you want to mix and match hi-fi devices from multiple manufacturers, cherry-picking devices in order to get the best performance and fit in each room? DTS Play-Fi might be your best option.

It claims to provide “premium wireless audio for every room of your house”, and will work with a wide array of products. Let’s take a look.

MORE: Multi-room audio: everything you need to know

What is it?

The McIntosh RS100 uses DTS Play-Fi to stream music

DTS Play-Fi is, at the most fundamental level, is an app that lets you connect and control various hi-fi devices together in order to stream audio from one to another. This can be within one room for a multi-channel setup, or across multiple rooms in your home.

The range of compatible devices, from an array of different manufacturers, includes portable wireless speakers, tabletop stereo systems, A/V tuners, preamps, amplifiers, streamers, and media servers – all of which can be managed by your smartphone, tablet, or PC.

DTS Play-Fi launched in 2012, and originally was available only on Android. But now its dedicated control app is available on iOS, Kindle Fire (the operating system on Amazon’s Fire tablets) and Windows PCs too.

On Windows, however, there are two varieties of Play-Fi app: a free version, and a Play-Fi HD” version. The latter costs $15 (approximately £10), which buys you a code for from the DTS online store and ultimately gives you greater control over your audio. You can sync the sound from a video you’re watching on your PC to your hi-fi system, for example, or choose individual soundtracks to stream to your hi-fi while alternative audio plays from your computer’s speakers.

MORE: How to choose the right wireless speaker

How does it work?

Download the app and you should quickly see a list of available devices. Tap to select it, then choose audio from a number of sources including Amazon Music, Tidal, Deezer, Spotify (through Spotify Connect) and Qobuz, as well as internet radio stations via iHeartRadio and SirusXM.

Some DTS Play-Fi compatible products will also support AirPlay – Apple’s method of streaming audio and video from iPhones, iPads and other devices. However, this is an optional feature that isn’t available in every DTS Play-Fi product. Similarly, Apple Music is not available on the service at the moment.

You can configure two separate speakers into a stereo pairing – one playing the left channel audio, the other playing the right – using the app, or (if you have at least six DTS Play-Fi compatible products) create a 5.1 surround-sound system.

Those speaker groups can then be designated as ‘Zones’, which allows you to delegate music to different rooms of your house. For example, you could have a Tidal Masters stream going to the speakers in your living room while a Deezer stream plays in the bedroom.

MORE: Best music streaming services

More after the break

Can I play hi-res music?

DTS Play-Fi will play MP3, M4A, AAC, FLAC, WAV, and AIFF files. They can be streamed up to a 16bit/48 kHz resolution limit without compression – anything bigger than that will be compressed by default.

However, that can be changed using the service’s Critical Listening mode, which lets you stream 24bit/192kHz music across your wi-fi network. A word of warning though: since those files are generally pretty large (many of our hi-res music files are between 30MB and 70MB per track, compared to 3.5MB for the average MP3 file), DTS advises using a wired connection for more reliable performance.

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Which products support DTS Play-Fi?

Among the products supporting the multi-room service are soundbars, systems and speakers from Definitive Technology, Integra, Klipsch, Polk, MartinLogan, McIntosh, Onkyo, Paradigm, Rotel, Phorus, Pioneer, Soundcast and Thiel. Aerix’s all-in-one system, the Duet, has it included too.

For sending and receiving audio, Anthem’s receivers and processors, and Arcam’s rPlay streamer use Play-Fi, while on the portable side a smattering of Acer’s smartphones and HP’s tablets are compatible.

MORE: Best music streamers

How many products can I connect using DTS Play-Fi?

In the words of The Notorious B.I.G., the sky’s the limit. You could theoretically connect as many products as you like together - but DTS recommends a maximum of 32 Play-Fi devices per home network, lest performance start to suffer.

Up to 16 Play-Fi products can stream the same song, whether that’s from your phone, tablet, or Windows PC. You can designate a maximum of four zones, with each zone streaming audio from a different source.

Up to eight people can use the same wi-fi network to stream songs using DTS Play-Fi (provided they’re all using different devices).

MORE: Best hi-fi deals 2018

What about voice control?

DTS Play-Fi is also beginning to support Alexa – Amazon’s voice assistant found in its Echo range of products – from this month on. This functionality is available in two ways: “integration of Alexa Voice Services” (which is for products with the Alexa voice assistant built-in) or “Works with Alexa” (which means you’ll be able to control Alexa-based music streams on DTS Play-Fi products).

While integrating Alexa into third-party speakers isn’t new, the details of having Alexa control your music are yet to be seen – right now it’s unclear whether you’ll be able to get the voice assistant to direct music to specific speakers or ‘zones’. We’ll let you know the full capacity of this integration when it’s full rolled out.

MORE: Amazon Echo Spot review

What are the advantages?

The main advantage of DTS Play-Fi is its versatility. Being able to connect products from multiple manufacturers means you’re not locked into any particular walled garden.

Moreover, because it works with more expensive equipment - which generally speaking provides superior sound quality - using DTS Play-Fi to link them together should result in better sound than more affordable one-brand alternatives.

DTS Play-Fi also scores over more mainstream platforms like AirPlay 2 or Google Chromecast in providing audio streams at 24bit/192kHz.

MORE: How to play hi-res music on your iPhone

What are the disadvantages?

While DTS Play-Fi works with multiple products, it is not guaranteed all of those products will enjoy the same functionality. Within the platform’s own apps, only iOS and Android provide hi-res capabilities  - the PC app is currently limited to CD-quality output.

Similarly, many products that utilise DTS Play-Fi – including the McIntosh RS100 and the Arcam rPlay – lack support for Bluetooth. As the most popular way of streaming music (and a protocol that might, with Bluetooth 5, provide competition in the multi-room world) this is a notable omission and one that could be annoying for many users.

What are the alternatives?

Many other companies offer their own services to connect up audio kit – controlled through bespoke apps. Bluesound and Sonos are the current standouts in that respect – each routinely wins What Hi-Fi? Awards in their respective multi-room categories.

Products from Naim (Uniti and Mu-so), Audio Pro, B&O, Bose (its SoundTouch devices), and Denon’s HEOS range all have their own varieties of multi-room application too.

Each has features that set them apart – Sonos, for example, uses your smartphone to tune the speakers specifically to your room – and their own unique designs. Which one you prefer is ultimately down to personal taste.

MORE: Best multi-room systems