• Group review: Multi-room audio

    Music shouldn’t be confined to one room in the house – you want it in every room. Here, I look at four solutions.

    Boston Acoustics MC200 Air

    Boston Acoustics
    PROS: Slim design
    CONS: Limited features
    RATING: 3/5

    Its small footprint and slim design make this Boston a tempting option for the nooks and crannies around your home, although you’re sacrificing a few advanced streaming options.

    Despite its appearance, this Boston doesn’t include an iPod dock, but you can play music from an iPod via USB or play audio from practically any device via the 3.5mm auxiliary input (which could include an iPhone cradle with an audio output). You’ll also find a headphone jack on the side.

    As for networking, the Boston features an Ethernet port and 2.4GHz Wi-Fi (but no 5GHz) – letting you treat it as an AirPlay or DLNA wireless speaker. It managed to play music in sync with our Apple Airport Express as part of our AirPlay multi-room audio tests, which is impressive because third- party AirPlay gear often struggles to connect.

    Strangely you need to press the Boston’s Air button to switch between AirPlay and DLNA mode, whereas most wireless speakers can make this switch automatically. The Boston’s basic remote control and lack of LCD screen means you can’t browse the contents of your home DLNA server and you can’t access internet radio or subscription services like Spotify. The workaround is to access such content on an iGadget and then use AirPlay to send the audio to the Boston.

    This 30-watt unit packs two 3.5in speakers which deliver crisp sound and don’t distort at high volumes, although it’s not as loud as the competition and the low end could be a little richer. The MC220 Air features wall-mounting points on the back, but it might feel a little undersized for medium-to- large rooms.

    Bottom line.
    Its slim design could make the Boston a good fit for your bedside table, kitchen bench or bathroom; however, you’ll find other devices in this price range with extra features like an iPod dock, FM radio or CD player.

    Apple AirPort Express

    $119 (plus speakers)
    PROS: Cheap to get started
    CONS: Limited to iTunes
    RATING: 4/5

    Apple’s tiny AirPort Express extends the range of your Wi-Fi network and lets you run Ethernet to hard-to-reach corners, but you can also plug powered speakers into the 3.5mm auxiliary jack to create a wireless speaker that shows up in iTunes on your computer or iGadget.

    You can stream music to one AirPlay speaker from an iGadget or stream the same song to multiple speakers from iTunes on a computer (or from a first-generation Apple TV with its built-in hard drive). You can control the music coming from iTunes or Apple TV using an iGadget, but you can’t control them using iTunes on another computer.

    Unlike Sonos, iTunes can’t simultaneously stream different music to different rooms – you need to use a separate copy of iTunes (iGadget or computer) to provide each music stream. The AirPort Express’ support for 802.11n at 5GHz helps combat interference issues and the Apple gear will happily play music in sync across several rooms via 2.4 or 5GHz. The frustration here is that you’re locked into Apple’s ecosystem.

    You can’t treat the AirPlay speakers as DLNA speakers. From a computer you can only stream from iTunes, not from streaming services like Rdio and Spotify. Listening to internet radio also relies on finding a stream that plays in iTunes, while streaming audio from an iGadget is a workaround, it can only connect to a single speaker. If you want to get the most from AirPlay, look to Rogue Amoeba’s Airfoil (rogueamoeba.com/ airfoil) which lets you stream audio from any Mac/Windows application as well as stream music to computers and handheld devices.

    Bottom line.
    Using your own speakers can make this a cost- effective solution, although it’s best to use matching speakers in adjacent rooms so there’s a smooth sound transition as you move between rooms. If you’re looking to spend several hundred dollars per room on speakers, weigh this up against the more flexible Sonos system.

    Sonos Digital Music System

    From $419 (Play:3 speaker)
    PROS: Access to subscription music
    CONS: A little expensive
    RATING: 5/5

    Sonos is the gold standard when it comes to multi-room audio. The speakers create their own 5GHz wireless mesh network, handling interference better than 2.4GHz networks. You can stream different music to every room or group rooms into zones, plus the Sonos stations also put an Ethernet port in each room.

    It’s easy to stream music to a Sonos speaker or zone from your music library on an iGadget, computer or straight from
    a network drive when all your computers are shut down. You can control the system from an Apple or Android gadget or a computer. If you’re still wedded to your CD player or iPhone cradle, you can plug it into the back of any Sonos speaker and stream the output around your home.

    Along with your own music library, Sonos also offers access to internet radio and a wide range of subscription services including Spotify, Rdio, MOG and Songl. The music from any source plays in perfect sync across all speakers, while each point is also recognised as a DLNA speaker for streaming from other devices. As with Apple’s Airport Express, it’s easy to start with one Sonos speaker and expand your system over time.

    Along with speakerless base stations for connecting to an existing sound system or speakers, Sonos offers the Play:3 and Play:5 wireless-enabled speakers as well as a subwoofer and a Playbar soundbar for connecting to your television.

    It’s possible to link a pair of Play:3 speakers for wider stereo separation or to act as rear speakers for the Playbar (which can also link to the subwoofer).

    Bottom line.
    Sonos speakers seem a little expensive, but they offer excellent sound quality, which doesn’t distort at high volumes. Matching an Airport Express with speakers of the same quality wouldn’t work out much cheaper. About the only thing missing here is AirPlay support, but it’s redundant when you’ve got so many other options.

    Denon CEOL/ CEOL Picolo

    $799 Picolo ($999 with CD player)
    PROS: FM/CD/USB playback
    CONS: Distorts at very high volumes
    RATING: 3.5/5

    This shelf system looks like the odd one out, but it packs plenty of great features.

    The Denon has a hideaway 30-pin iPod dock on the top, plus you can connect your iGadget via USB or play audio from a USB stick. You’ll find a headphone jack on the front, while on the back are digital optical and analogue inputs along with an FM antenna socket and sub-woofer connector. You can pay an extra $200 for a built-in CD player with MP3/ WMA support if you’re still attached to your collection of discs or just plug a CD player into the back.

    This model also features a front 3.5mm auxiliary input for playing audio from practically any device. When it comes to networking, the Denon features built-in Ethernet and 2.4GHz Wi-Fi (but no 5GHz). You can send music to the Denon as an AirPlay or DLNA speaker – but the audio was slightly out of sync with our Apple Airport Express in our AirPlay multi-room audio tests (a common problem with third-party AirPlay gear).

    The remote control and front LCD display let you browse the library on your DLNA server or else listen to Last.FM (not available in Australia!), Spotify and internet radio stations.

    The screen displays the details of the current track, but you can also control the system from another room using the free Denon Remote App from the iTunes store. This 2 x 60-watt system features 12cm woofers and 2.5cm tweeters, which offer impressive sound quality, assisted by the fact you can move the speakers further apart for improved stereo separation.

    Bottom line.
    The Denon might make a good compact shelf system in the bedroom or living area and would service a medium-sized room, although the sound distorts when you really crank up the volume.

    By Adam Turner
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