Welcome to ‘Kagoo Explains’ - a series of short articles de-mystifying some of the confusing terminology used to describe tech. This week we’re looking at multi-room audio, and how you can use it to easily fill your house with music!
One hub to rule them all
Traditionally, setting up multiple speakers for a sound system involved a lot of fiddling, trailing wires & trip hazards - and those were only really limited to a single room. However with the advent of multi-room audio, it’s simple to set up a large amount of speakers anywhere you want - whether it’s for a home theatre setup, or to broadcast music through every room in your house!
At it’s most basic, multi-room audio systems use a wireless connection to connect compatible speakers into a single network via a hub, which then allows you to stream music directly to them from a single source. The majority of these systems have support for a wide range of streaming services (Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube Music, etc), allowing you to access whatever you feel like listening to. Some systems also allow you to link up to PCs to play audio files and music from your collection, without the need to use online streaming systems.
There are 2 main ways the speakers communicate wirelessly - the first is by utilizing your existing wi-fi network and piggy-backing off that to stream music. This is easier to set up, since it uses already existing architecture. However because it is sharing the network with everything else in your house, it’s possible audio quality can suffer if the wi-fi network gets overloaded.
The second method is something called a ‘closed mesh network’ - this is used by Sonos in their excellent multi-room audio systems. This still uses your local wi-fi as a starting point, but then creates its own closed system purely for music streaming. For this reason, closed mesh networks are far less prone to interference and performance degradation.
App-controlled musical freedom
The individual speakers and hub are controlled through a mobile app - depending on the company, this allows you to stream a single song to multiple speakers, or different songs to each. This is great for everything from parties - if you want a single unified sound to burst through the house - or in a family setting, when everyone may want to listen to their own music and not be pestered by Dad’s terrible taste in 70s prog-rock.
The exact abilities and ease-of-use of these apps varies significantly depending on the company - some are extremely easy to use and feature every extra you could possibly need, while others are more bare-bones, concentrating on getting the basics absolutely perfect. The focus on mobile apps also means that these systems are designed to seamlessly slot into a Smart Home setup - allowing for voice control via Siri or Alexa.
Multi-room audio systems aren’t just good for streaming across multiple rooms - they can also be used to easily set up home cinema systems or surround sound systems, with wireless speakers working alongside subwoofers and soundbars to create a massive soundstage for your films.
Look before you leap
While it’s a great bit of technology that can really benefit music lovers and film nuts alike, there are a few caveats to pay attention to when choosing a multi-room audio system. As alluded to above, there are significant differences between currently available audio systems. Some control apps (such as Apple’s AirPlay 2) don’t allow different speakers to play different sounds, so it’s an all-or-nothing approach. More troublingly, some multi-room systems have notable gaps in supported streaming services - for example, Denon’s ‘HEOS’ system doesn’t support YouTube Music, while Bose’s ‘SoundTouch’ system won’t play nice with Tidal.
Finally, most multi-room audio setups rely on specific speakers. With some notable exceptions, manufacturers design the control apps to only work with their own brand of hardware. So you can’t buy a Sonos system, then add some Bang & Olufsen speakers into the mix. There is some cross-compatibility between the systems - Apple’s Airplay 2 system works with multiple brands of speakers, including Sonos’ hardware - but this cooperation is few and far between.
Most of the systems we’ve mentioned either stream music online, or require a computer connection for audio files. But what if you’ve got a hi-fi setup already? Your super-rare ELO 45s aren’t on Spotify, and you just like the feeling of physically choosing a record or CD and putting it on.
Well, the solution is an multi-room adapter - effectively turning your hi-fi into a streaming source that can be beamed throughout your house. 2 excellent options are Audio Pro’s ‘Link 1’ and Sonos’ ‘Connect’. Simply connect a 3.5mm or phono cable to your hi-fi system, add it as part of your network on the relevant app, and BAM - your vintage LPs are wireless!
The bottom line is that multi-room audio systems are brilliant, but they require some thought and research before you dive in. Consider the streaming platforms you regularly use, whether you already have a hi-fi or sound system you want to add to the mix, and research whether the capabilities of the individual system are right for you. As ever, we’ll be bringing you the best multi-room audio systems, as well as top soundbars, headphones and other audio gear, so keep with Kagoo for the most complete info, and the best deals!