Streaming music around your home: Sonos and cheaper alternatives

Sonos speakers connect to each other and stream music around your home
Sonos speakers connect to each other and stream music around your home
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IT HAS long been possible to stream music from one room of your house to another: many of us have spent hours, at various times in our lives, running yards of cable around the skirting boards and under the carpet to a second pair of loudspeakers.

But times have changed, and even though we now have more wires in our homes than ever, this is one we can do without.

A new raft hi-fi speakers that stream music across multiple rooms has now reached the mainstream market. There are top-end models from makers like Sonos and Bose, and mid-range alternatives from the likes of Roberts and Samsung. You’ll find your local Currys and John Lewis suddenly has shelves of them.

Think of multi-room audio as central heating for your ears, because the principle is the same. Your heating system has a central boiler that sends hot water to your taps and keeps it flowing around your radiators; multi-room audio does the same for your music, or, if you prefer, The Archers.

At the heart of the system is a receiver which can access all your music - whether it’s a library of MP3 files on a computer, an online service like Spotify or, if you insist, a shelf full of CDs. You don’t have to choose between them: you can switch between platforms at will. The sound is “broadcast” to satellite speakers around your house, connected via your home wi-fi network. This is a step up from Bluetooth portable speakers, which are independent of each other, and offer limited range and so-so sound quality.

You control what you want to listen to from an app on your phone or tablet, which can access music stored on the phone itself, on another computer on your network, or online.

The quality of the sound will, as you would expect, depend on the build of the speaker - and those from the premium brands are not cheap. Expect to pay at the very least £150 per unit. However, you can start to build a system with a single speaker and add more in other rooms when you need them. You can then group your speakers into zones and send different music to each one. For practical purposes, it’s a case of putting the app on everyone’s phone and letting them access the same music library.

You don’t have to begin from scratch, and if you already have a traditional amp and speaker setup that you love, Sonos, the market leader in multi-room streaming offers a £350 “Connect” unit that plugs into any amplifier or a £500 alternative with an amp built-in, which hooks up directly to any pair of speakers.

Roberts, the traditional radio manufacturer based in South Yorkshire, has a much cheaper alternative - currently £130 at John Lewis - which also lets you stream music from your MP3 files, internet radio and online subscription services to your existing system, again with the possibility of adding extra speakers in different rooms.

Unlike Sonos, Roberts does not offer a custom app or a proprietary wi-fi protocol, but you can control the system using the third-party Undok app.

As more of us start to store our music in clouds, rather than on shelves, central repositories may become the de facto way of accessing and playing tunes in the home. But whether you need a central streamer at the moment depends on how you like to listen and who you want to listen with. It’s a social statement as much as a technical one.