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Looking for good wireless speakers that sync easily to devices.
May 2, 2014 2:57 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to help my Dad find the right speaker or speaker system. Ideally he wants something wireless, something with incredible sound quality, and something that allows him to really easily play music from his phone or computer from anywhere in the house.

He was looking at the Bose 30 dock speaker, but it isn't Spotify enabled, and I don't think it's what he really needs anyway. I don't think he really wants a wifi smart speaker that can be programmed with Pandora stations. That is too complicated.

I think what he needs is maybe some sort of bluetooth-enabled speaker system? He wants to be able to just play a song from Spotify or his iTunes library on his computer or phone and have it play through the speakers (no wires, no complicated syncing system, etc). He's not super tech savvy, so the ideal thing would be a system that does basically this without a bunch of bells and whistles.

Something that doesn't need to be installed in the wall or ceiling is much better. It would also be great if it could be expanded, with additional speakers being added to other rooms for example.

My dad can be fussy about the sound quality. In the past he has tended toward Bose and JBL speakers - he's not a brand loyalist by any means, so he's open to anything, but the sound quality is really important.

Let's say that money is no object. What is the best possible solution here?

Thanks everyone!
posted by Lutoslawski to Technology (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
I should have mentioned that the devices are iPhone and Mac Book.
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:02 PM on May 2


One option would be to get a sound-bar for a TV. Most of them are blue-tooth enabled and have a sub-woofer - so they are capable of giving good results. Personally I'd combine the soundbar with a universal remote like this Logitech Harmony 650 - to simplify the task of switching from one source from another. Wirecutter is good at reviews and recommendations: eg portable blue-tooth speakers, sound-bars.
posted by rongorongo at 3:06 PM on May 2


For sound quality, a good set of the highest-end speakers (likely bookshelves) you can afford with some good quality amplifier(s), as required, with everything wired. Then some sort of wi-fi enabled music player feeding the amps.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 3:10 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]


Bluetooth has a short range. It won't work "from anywhere in the house".

If you don't mind going all in on Apple technology, you could use AirPlay (either by setting up an AirPort, an Apple TV, or just with airplay enabled speakers). That uses wifi, and it's simple in that you just play the audio on your phone or computer like normal, but tell it to send it to the airplay device instead of using the built in speakers or headphone jack. So it's pretty easy and supports whatever thing he's already doing.

I don't have any personal recommendations, but here's a review of a bunch of airplay enabled speakers.
posted by aubilenon at 3:11 PM on May 2


Sounds like he wants Sonos. You can get standalone speakers, or a sort of a hub that you plug existing speakers into. Smartphone app. Power cords, but no signal wires.
posted by adamrice at 3:23 PM on May 2 [7 favorites]


he wants something wireless, something with incredible sound quality

Unfortunately he can only have one of those things. If sound quality is key then Airplay is likely the best choice, bluetooth sound, even with AptX, isn't incredible at all.
posted by Cosine at 3:29 PM on May 2


I forgot Sonos, that's probably a higher quality stream than Airplay.
posted by Cosine at 3:31 PM on May 2


Sonos, Sonos, Sonos. I work in this industry (though not for them) and there is nothing else currently available that comes remotely close to solving exactly this problem. They support all major streaming services, and they do great job of keeping their support updated as APIs evolve and things change on the service provider end (this can be a major problem with flavor-of-the-week streaming players; Spotify changes the way they do things and the manufacturer of your 6 month old device just shrugs, but Sonos has ongoing relationships with all the providers and adds new ones as they become popular.)

If he's a real audio purist he should get a Connect and use the digital out to go to a nice DAC which is in turn connected to a nice amp and speakers of his choosing (you can get astonishingly good audio out of a Sonos this way, especially if you're playing your own music from lossless files.) If he's pretty fussy but not insanely so, get a Connect Amp and hook that up to decent speakers directly. If he just wants something better than run-of-the-mill computer speakers the Play 5 (which is the best of their self-contained units) should suffice.

Playing from his iTunes Library on the computer would require one-time setup of a network share, but that's as complicated as it gets, all the other configuration is "plug this cable from your router into the Sonos Bridge, then fire up the app, press a button on the front of the Sonos box, and start streaming music." I am amazed at how effectively Sonos has managed to hide the details of the underlying IP infrastructure and make a solution that anybody can set up.
posted by contraption at 4:41 PM on May 2 [5 favorites]


Sorry, I guess AirPlay is more in line with the solution you describe, but I will still respectfully submit that once he tries out the Sonos interface he will prefer it to piping the sound from his computer directly over speakers. If he does really want to do that, he can add an AirPort Express and connect its output to the line in of a Sonos Connect or Connect Amp, then have that audio come out of any Sonos speaker in the house.
posted by contraption at 4:47 PM on May 2


I forgot Sonos, that's probably a higher quality stream than AirPlay

You can't do better than lossless, which is what AirPlay is. With it or Sonos the limitations on quality will be the analog end of things, and the source material i.e. Spotify.
posted by aubilenon at 5:00 PM on May 2


I have the Zeppelin and I love it. The sound quality is excellent and it was so easy to set up on my Mac. It looks beautiful too.
posted by seawallrunner at 9:44 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]


You can also connect an Apple Airport Express to any speakers that have a built-in amp, or to an amp that then connects to speakers. The Airport Express needs to be configured to connect to your wifi network, and thereafter, as someone mentioned, iTunes can send music to it. I use both configurations myself and can vouch that it works. In one place, I have Audioengine A5 speakers (which are powered speakers) to which an Airport Express sends output directly (via a 3.5mm cable). In another place, I have an Airport Express sending output to a AudioSource Amp 200, which in turn is connected to plain, unpowered, free-standing speakers.
posted by StrawberryPie at 4:41 AM on May 3


Sonos is fantastic, particularly if you want to have multiple rooms playing simultaneously (same or different). It's a bit expensive for just one room. The Play:5 is quite good sound quality for the size of the speaker. Needs to be paired with a bridge. It supports a lot of Internet radio options, can also play music files off a file server in your home. It's a very consumer-friendly product.
posted by Nelson at 9:30 AM on May 3


Sonos is ridiculously expensive and AirPlay does 95% of what Sonos does, with less work.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:50 PM on May 3


A couple clarifications: the Play 5 does not need to be paired with a Bridge, provided you can get network wiring to the Play 5 directly. The Bridge, as the name suggests, is a wired-to-wireless bridge as well as a wireless repeater, and is only necessary when you need to get signal to a spot with no wired network available. As long as one Sonos component is connected to ethernet and any others are distributed such that no component is more than 50 feet or so from another, you can get away without buying a Bridge.

AirPlay does not do 95% of what Sonos does, it does one thing out of the long list of Sonos features (it sends an audio stream from an Apple computer or iOS device to a speaker system you provide.) It's one of the more useful things, and it does it quite well (especially if you bypass the built-in DAC of the Airport Express and use an outboard unit instead) but it is not a Sonos replacement by any stretch.

Some things that Sonos does that AirPlay does not:
- Centralized control over the currently playing content that allows it to be adjusted from any device, not just the one sending the music
- Credible multi-room support (AirPlay does support multiple rooms, but only from iTunes on a computer, and I believe the only allowed targets are Apple-manufactured products i.e. an AirPort Express or an Apple TV)
- Streaming from Android devices
- Direct support for a huge variety of free and subscription-based music services
- Access to a large music collection stored locally on a NAS without turning on a computer
- Ability to use a single integrated device with built-in amplification and speaker, that can be carted around the house like a boom box and plugged in anywhere there's power (and proximity to the Sonos wireless mesh)
- Ability to wirelessly create a stereo or surround-sound system, including subwoofer, out of the same modular components that can also be used independently to send stereo sound to a room
- Easy to use, well-maintained app with consistent UI across every major computing and mobile platform

It's not the cheapest solution by any means, but it's so much better at what it does than anything else out there that it really deserves to considered in a separate class from the proliferation of poorly thought out BlueTooth and AirPlay speakers that it's often lumped in with. Also consider: the cheapest Sonos solution, the Play 1, is $199 dollars and is a complete self-contained system, speaker and all, that will work by plugging it into power and network, installing an app and hitting one button. The AirPort Express is $99, comes with no speaker or amp, and must be properly configured with Apple's Airport Utility to be used on an existing network as an AirPlay target (if you just plug it in its default configuration as a router, it will not only not work for AirPlay but will also take down your existing network until you disconnect it again.)

Now, the Play 1 is a tiny little speaker that is a serviceable replacement for a clock radio or iPod speaker dock, but probably not good enough for somebody who wants good sound. The nice thing about Sonos is that the system is flexible and expandable enough that you could buy a second Play 1 and put it in the room with the first to try out as a stereo pair to see if that's adequate, then if it's not you can upgrade the main room to a Connect or Play 5 and move the Play 1's to a bedroom, or stick one in the garage and one in the kitchen, or buy a soundbar and use them as surround speakers.
posted by contraption at 1:36 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]


- Credible multi-room support (AirPlay does support multiple rooms, but only from iTunes on a computer, and I believe the only allowed targets are Apple-manufactured products i.e. an AirPort Express or an Apple TV)

That's not true, at all. There are numerous third-party vendors (Pioneer, Yamaha, etc.) that make standalone systems that offer built-in support for AirPlay.

- Streaming from Android devices

Doubletwist provides AirPlay support for Android phones.

- Ability to wirelessly create a stereo or surround-sound system, including subwoofer, out of the same modular components that can also be used independently to send stereo sound to a room

You can certainly do this with receivers from the third-party companies I mentioned, among others.

(if you just plug it in its default configuration as a router, it will not only not work for AirPlay but will also take down your existing network until you disconnect it again.)

Uh, what? That's nonsense, it does nothing of the sort. I don't think you know what you're talking about.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:33 PM on May 3


"There are numerous third-party vendors (Pioneer, Yamaha, etc.) that make standalone systems that offer built-in support for AirPlay.

This is true, but in practice (at least for the three or four variations I've experimented with) the implementation always seems buggy and lacking in full support. I would consider it a minor miracle if you could throw together "AirPlay-enabled" devices from two or three manufacturers and have them play properly synchronized multiroom audio. Not impossible, just vanishingly unlikely to work as well as Apple-native stuff.

Doubletwist provides AirPlay support for Android phones.

Oh, sweet! I hadn't heard about that and am reinstalling on it my phone right now, thanks for the tip. [After installation, it looks like they charge 9 bucks for the privilege of unlocking AirPlay support, which I'm disinclined to do just for a test. Still, it's good to know there's an option.]

You can certainly do this with receivers from the third-party companies I mentioned, among others.

I'm not so sure that's so. Can you point out one in particular that is a self-contained unit which can be used as a single stereo speaker, or as one half of a stereo pair, or a surround channel in a 5.1 setup? I don't think the surround thing is possible at all since audio AirPlay is 2-channel only.

Uh, what? That's nonsense, it does nothing of the sort. I don't think you know what you're talking about.

What I'm talking about is the fact that (unless something has recently changed) the AirPort Express comes out of the box configured to act as a router. Thus if you plug it in and attach it to your network without first configuring it, it will merrily start handing out DHCP leases with itself as gateway for its nonexistent WAN connection, meaning that any DHCP device connected to the network will have about 50/50 odds of getting a real address from the real router instead of an invalid Express-issued address. It's not that hard to set it up properly, but it does involve firing up the special Apple configuration software and cracking open the manual if you're not experienced with it.

As I've said, the Sonos system is in my opinion the best thing going for shrink-wrapped multiroom audio solutions by far (with Squeezebox running a close second until Logitech ruined and then abandoned it) and I've recommended it widely to friends and family who have all reported great results. Also, just to complicate things a little more, adding AirPlay support to a system with a Sonos Connect is as simple as connecting an AirPort Express to the Connect's line-level input and making a simple configuration change in the Sonos software: AirPlay audio (or any other line-level source like a CD player or even a turntable with a phono preamp) can be piped through to any speaker or group of speakers in the Sonos system.

Apple's AirPlay is very well implemented and a great option for what it does, but it's a different class of product entirely and really shouldn't be compared to Sonos in terms of feature set. Third-party AirPlay implementations are almost always glitchy, and even if you find one that's perfect right now your chances of having it continue to support any new features introduced by Apple as software/firmware updates to the stuff they manufacture is effectively nil. If you do go AirPlay, your best bet imo is to use AirPort Expresses and connect them to separate powered speaker systems. If your dad really just wants to play the sound from his computer or his phone out through the speakers, this might in fact be the way to go (although I have seen non-technical users have a hard time understanding the AirPlay concept, forget that they're still sending to the powered-off speakers when they want the sound to come out of the computer again, forget that they need to turn the speakers on to get sound out of them, etc.)

I think that's more than enough detail from me for this thread (and I have seen the fearsome power of your zeal in other threads, BP, and know there's not much point trying to argue you around to another point of view even if that were an appropriate thing to do here) so I'll bow out now.
posted by contraption at 7:23 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]


Anyway, if you use iTunes to manage your music, one benefit of the AirPlay-based approach over Sonos is that you can continue to manage your music library with iTunes. With Sonos hardware, you have to manually set up your iTunes library to synchronize changes and additions with a separate Sonos library. Some audio file formats that iTunes supports may need special tags to sync with the Sonos library, or they are not supported and will need transcoding to work with Sonos hardware, which usually involves a loss of quality. In sum, depending on your setup, it can be more work and messier to manage additions and changes to your music library.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:48 AM on May 4


This is true, but in practice (at least for the three or four variations I've experimented with) the implementation always seems buggy and lacking in full support.

I have two AirPort Express devices and two third-party receivers which provide full audio AirPlay support. In my experience, I am able to make full use of various music sources with all four devices, like iTunes and those made available with third-party software such as AirFoil.

Oh, sweet! I hadn't heard about that

There are a number of third-party software options which extend AirPlay to other platforms and applications. Doubletwist, AirFoil, AirServer, Parrot are several cross-platform, non-Apple examples. These options have been available for some time.

Can you point out one in particular that is a self-contained unit which can be used as a single stereo speaker, or as one half of a stereo pair, or a surround channel in a 5.1 setup?

I had noted one model of surround sound receiver from Yamaha in a previous comment. Most digital music is not encoded in surround sound, in any case.

What I'm talking about is the fact that (unless something has recently changed) the AirPort Express comes out of the box configured to act as a router.

In reality, the AirPort Express comes out of the box with no configuration at all. It is necessary to run the AirPort Utility on an iOS, OS X or Windows host to configure a new AirPort Express to act as an AirPlay repeater. Further, turning on a new AirPort Express will not bring down the local wired or wireless network.

Since asking about AirPlay and Sonos on this site four years ago, I have had several opportunities to evaluate and work with the hardware and software options in question, at home and elsewhere.

While Sonos is certainly an alternative to AirPlay, it has some technical downsides (such as one major issue that I mention above) and it is very expensive, in comparison. If the end user makes use of iTunes or iOS, AirPlay is likely going to be the easier option that provides nearly all of the same features. If the end user is not tied to iTunes to manage his or her music, then Sonos offers a similar feature set, and the user could then pick either option based on budget and desire to reuse or replace existing audio equipment.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:41 PM on May 5


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