Wireless speakers – hot on the heels of the digital music revolution – are now one of the most popular products on the audio market, with people embracing the convenience and flexibility of streaming their music at home, as well as out and about.
Now, in what looks like the next logical step, multi-room music is stepping into the mainstream. New products are ready to challenge existing players, with specialist companies and big-hitters alike introducing their own systems.
These companies aim to offer new features and functionality that sets them apart in an ever-crowded market. But what is multi-room? And what can we look forward to?
Getting in on the act...
Plenty of new players have come on the market this year, with Samsung starting 2014 by launching the M5 and M7 wireless speakers that can be used to create a multi-room system. And then there's Musaic, the brainchild of ex-Cambridge Audio engineering head Matthew Bramble.
The Musaic system (above) comprises wireless speakers that are placed around the home and use your home wi-fi network to stream audio. Elsewhere, Bluesound's high-resolution system arrived in the UK having already been available in the US.
Meanwhile, the Mu-so is a major departure from Naim's more traditional audio products, and is to arrive on shelves this autumn, while the Denon HEOS system is a similar step in to the relative unknown for a big audio brand. Look out for our reviews of both very soon.
IFA 2014 saw the market really go mainstream with the debut of multi-room systems from the likes of Monster, LG, Lenco and Harman Kardon, all powered by Qualcomm's AllPlay technology - more on that later.
A competitive market
All this means more multi-room choice for you, the consumer, and makes it more likely that you'll be able to find a wireless streaming solution that suits your home needs.
Arguably the best way to get started is with AirPlay or Bluetooth.
Systems such as the Arcam rCube and Pure Jongo provide varying degrees of multi-room functionality, but if you want more control from a more advanced system, Sonos remains the manufacturer to beat – 12 years after first appearing on the scene.
Sonos has been our go-to system of choice for "Wireless Hi-Fi" since 2002 and its tremendous success is one of the catalysts for new competitors. But you should still shop around.
Sonos doesn't have AirPlay or Bluetooth, nor any sign of high-res audio support – despite announcing that it has partnered with Deezer Elite to offer "high-res" streaming. Sonos called 2014 "the year of software", so no new hardware is expected this year, but there have been impressive updates to the company's apps and the music services offered.
Neverthless, could a lack of new products open the door to rival systems?
New rivals, new features?
If wireless music is one of the more eminent hi-fi trends of 2014, high-resolution audio is another. It's certainly gaining traction and – already – there are new multi-room systems claiming to deliver 24-bit/192kHz playback.
This feature, and a general focus on higher-end sound quality, could well be a game changer for new products. Bluesound's high-res support, for example, is front and centre of its own plans for multi-room audio.
And then there's Musaic and Simple Audio that also support superior sound formats. The Qualcomm-powered systems such as the Monster SoundStage will also support high-res music tracks.
Bringing together multi-room music and high-res audio combines two prominent trends this year. But does that mean any system without high-res support is now behind the curve?
AllPlay - a smarter platform?
If compatibility and not audio quality is your primary concern, then you'll be interested to know that the latest multi-room systems to appear on the market incorporate Qualcomm's AllPlay smart media platform – and it's all about togetherness.
Wireless speakers and systems that use the platform are able to work in partnership regardless of their product brand. AllPlay allows companies to create compatible devices and services, and developers to make Android and iOS streaming apps.
AllPlay can stream music across up to 10 different audio zones at once, and it streams from phones, tablets, servers or the cloud.
The platform has been built on the AllJoyn framework that's hosted by the AllSeen Alliance, and it's part of a wider movement that aims to connect up a range of devices around – not just hi-fi – in an effort to create the ultimate "smart home".
Island of the streams...
When it comes to deciding the wireless multi-room system right for you, it might be wise to have a think about which online services you want to or already use, making sure they're supported or integrated at the outset so you're not disappointed.
AllPlay systems already support Spotify, Napster, iheartradio and more, with the list expected to expand in due course. Meanwhile, Sonos has added in Google Music Play, SoundCloud and now Deezer Elite, to an impressive roster that already includes the likes of Spotify, Rdio and Qobuz.
3 of the best
Best multi-room streaming system in our Awards 2013, Sonos is still very much the champion of this class - and with the Play:3, you get a cracking little performer. Sonos is flexible, simple-to-use and multi-talented - even without high-res support, it's still the system that leads the pack.
Samsung M5 (pictured)
Samsung has made a highly commendable first foray into the multi-room market, with the M5 the smaller of the two speakers that's currently available. It offers a spacious sound and underlines the company's credentials as it looks to take on Sonos; a great platform from which to challenge.
Multi-room has finally come to hi-fi, and we've been wondering whether it has been worth the wait. If the Bluesound multi-room system is anything to go by, the answer is yes... and then some. High-res audio support is a big plus in our opinion, but its user experience is also a winner.
More to come...
If that has whetted your appetite for more multi-room musings, then be sure to pick up the November issue of What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision when it hits the shelves on September 24th.
We've pulled together six competing systems to see if Sonos can retain its crown as the king of the wi-fi airwaves. Or will there be a new entry at number one? All will be revealed in good time...