If you’ve got a hefty music collection, you don’t want it gathering dust on the shelf or locked away in your computer. Thankfully there are several ways to liberate your music and enjoy it around your home, but what’s the best way to go about it?
Introducing the basic components
A multi-room streaming audio system consists of four main components - content, players, a delivery platform and a controller for sending your music where you want it. In a perfect world you’d plan every aspect before buying anything, but most home networks and entertainment systems are hotch-potch collections cobbled together over time.
Leveraging gear you probably already own, you can use DLNA to easily stream your music library from a computer or Network Attached Storage drive to most media players. For example you could stream music to a range of DLNA-compliant AV receivers, network media players, Blu-ray players and games consoles - listening to the music through your television or running it into your surround sound system.
You’ll get the best results streaming audio over an 802.11n 5GHz network, as it’s faster and less prone to interference
than 802.11g running at 2.4GHz.
If you want to get away from the lounge room, you’ll also find DLNA apps for many smartphones, plus iGadget owners can stream music from a iTunes on a PC/Mac using Home Sharing (and perhaps play the sound through an iPod dock).
Stepping up: Digital Radios
If you’re ready to step up, Pure’s new internet-enabled digital radios
are DLNA compliant, so they can sit in the bedroom or on the kitchen bench and pull music over your wifi network from your PC or a network drive. There are plenty of other wifi-enabled radios and music players around, and most will also let you listen to internet radio as well. Some even take batteries, which is great for listening in the backyard if your wifi network reaches.
The next step: Multi-room audio
All this is handy for getting music from A to B, but it’s not a true multi-room audio solution. If that’s your goal then Apple’s AirPlay solution is appealing - especially if you already live an iCentric lifestyle. Apple’s $129 Airport Express (802.11b/g/n) turns any powered speakers, or music player with an auxiliary input, into a wireless music player. AirPlay is also built into the Apple TV plus a handful of stereo systems from the likes of Denon, Marantz and Bowers & Wilkins.
AirPlay speakers show up in a drop-down menu in iTunes, or in the iPod app on an iPhone/iPad/iPod touch. It’s easy to send music to one or more speakers, but you can’t send different songs to different rooms (unless you play the music from separate devices). You can control your playback devices remotely from an iGadget, but not from a computer. A key drawback of AirPlay is that a computer must be running in the background, unless you’ve got a first-gen Apple TV with a built-in hard drive.
Logitech’s Squeezebox range of music players are also designed for multi-room audio, but the Australian offerings are pretty poor and you should also look at the US site. The Squeezebox gear offers more remote control flexibility than the Apple gear, plus it includes an iPhone app. The Squeezebox also plays more formats and offers easier access to a wider range of content without the need for a PC. Unfortunately it’s not as user-friendly as AirPlay and it’s more expensive, especially if you want to hook it up to your existing sound system or speakers. Some gear, such as the Squeezebox Duet, only runs over 802.11g at 2.4GHz.
Sonos Digital Music System
While AirPlay and Squeezebox have their limitations, the Sonos Digital Music System is the gold standard when it comes to multi-room audio. It combine's the elegance of AirPlay with the functionality of Squeezebox, but the hefty price tab has been a turn-off. That's changing with this week's launch of the new $419 Play:3 wireless Sonos speaker to sit alongside the $599 Play:5.
The Sonos gear creates its own mesh 802.1n wireless network, making it easy place speakers anywhere around your home. The speakers also include Ethernet ports (similar to the Airport Express) which offer internet access to Ethernet-enabled devices such as media players connected to your TV. You can also connect any audio device into any Sonos speaker, such as a CD player, and send the music to any or every Sonos speaker throughout your home. Along with the Play:3 and Play:5, you can also buy ZonePlayers to attach to your existing speakers or sound system (although they're more expensive).
The Sonos system can be controlled from a Sonos wireless controller, from a PC/Mac or from an iOS or Android touchscreen device. These let you stream music from a range of sources - a computer or network drive, the output from your AV gear, internet radio and online music services such as Stitcher, TuneIn, Aupeo and Anubis.FM.
In terms of sound quality the Sonos speakers blow the Squeezebox gear out of the water. The new Play:3 is competitively priced with AirPlay when you factor in an AirPort Express and the price of comparable speakers. If you’re completely overhauling your entertainment system, or building a home network and entertainment system from scratch, it’s certainly worth evaluating the Sonos Digital Music System rather than cobbling together a multi-room audio solution.