It’s great to listen to Miles Smiles in the living room—but even better to keep listening to it when you head into the kitchen to make dinner, or when you move out to the patio to enjoy the sunset. Much of the audio gear we buy has the capability to achieve this built in, but many listeners don’t even realize it’s there.
The reason we have this capability—and perhaps the reason we often overlook it—is because the core technology is built into our smartphones, tablets, and computers. And as with so many other options buried in the countless menus and apps on these devices, we may have to do some digging to find it.
Today’s multiroom audio systems use your WiFi network to send audio through a home wirelessly. They can send it from your phone, tablet, or computer—or pulled straight off the internet—to as many speakers in as many rooms as you want. They can send the same audio to every room or just to certain rooms, so you can have Stan Getz playing for a dinner party while your kids are hanging out in their room playing Billie Eilish. Volume can be individually adjusted for each room, either on the system in that room or with an app. And unlike Bluetooth, wireless streaming is lossless, with no sonic degradation.
Perhaps the best known multiroom audio technology is Sonos, which launched its wireless multiroom products in 2005 and has since become one of the most popular speaker brands. Sonos offers a few different models of wireless speakers plus soundbars and a subwoofer. They’re known for ease of use and reliability; I can’t remember hearing anyone complain about setup problems with Sonos systems. You can stream from more than 100 different online services, and play files stored on your computer or phone. The downsides to Sonos’ proprietary approach are that the technology is available only in Sonos products plus a few IKEA-branded products, and while you can add Sonos capability to an existing stereo, the required device costs $449.
Ironically, the most ubiquitous streaming technology might be the least used: Amazon’s Alexa, used in about 50 million Amazon Echo speakers in the U.S. alone. Considering that Amazon adds new capabilities to Alexa every week, it’s no surprise that many people don’t know it can do multiroom audio. Perhaps the biggest advantage here is the low cost: as little as about $35 for an older-generation Echo Dot. The Dot has its own tiny speaker built in, but more importantly, it can send sound to existing stereos through a wired connection, and to wireless speakers and headphones via Bluetooth. Alexa technology is also included in innumerable wireless speakers, soundbars, TVs, and A/V receivers. Of course, Alexa has smart speaker functions, which could be a big upside or a big downside, depending on your feelings about Big Tech and privacy.
Apple and Google offer multiroom audio technologies both under their own brands and licensed to various other brands. Apple’s tech is called AirPlay. The original version didn’t allow streaming of different music to different rooms, but the new version, AirPlay 2, does. Google’s tech is called Google Cast, sometimes referred to as Chromecast. Like the Amazon Echo Dot, the Google Home Mini can be used to add Google Cast to an existing stereo, but it offers only a Bluetooth connection, with no option for a wired connection.
DTS Play-Fi and Bluesound are aimed at audiophiles, as both have the capability to distribute high-resolution audio to multiple rooms. Play-Fi is available in many audio brands, and DTS expects it will also be added to many TV lines soon. Bluesound is built into products under the Bluesound, NAD, and PSB brands. Both are compatible with AirPlay 2 systems, and Play-Fi is also compatible with Alexa and Google Cast systems. Both can play streaming services as well as files stored on a phone or computer.
All of these systems have subtle advantages and disadvantages that are beyond the scope of this article, so do a little research before you buy. Or better yet, if you have a wireless speaker, soundbar, receiver, or TV purchased in the past five years or so, take a closer look at it—because you might have a wonderful new feature already waiting for you.
What’s Lossless Transmission?
In digital audio, lossless transmission means the audio isn’t degraded in the transmission process; it’s an exact copy of what went in. If the process is lossy, that means the signal is degraded, and much of the original audio data is discarded, although it’s generally done in such a way that the listener doesn’t notice. WiFi audio transmission is lossless, while Bluetooth is lossy. However, most of the audio transmitted over WiFi is already encoded with a lossy technology such as MP3 or AAC.