Filling a Room With Wireless Sound

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About a year ago, I wrote about the best way to set up wireless audio -- how to get the music that lives on your computer onto speakers scattered throughout your home.

My conclusion back then -- that a combination of iTunes, Apple AirPort Expresses and some low- to medium-price powered speakers was the best solution -- remains a pretty good one. But in the intervening months new products have arrived (indeed, Google announced on Wednesday the Nexus Q, its own home-entertainment module), and my position has, as the politicians say, evolved.

Not to make matters complicated, but there are now three ways to accomplish the same wireless audio goal. Hopefully, the one that is right for you will be readily apparent. Here's how they break down.

APPLE AIRPORT EXPRESS This is the recommendation I made last year, but let's recap briefly. A $99 AirPort Express can connect to any speaker or amplifier that has an audio-in port. Which is great, because that means that AirPort Expresses can work with audio gear you already have.

If you have multiple rooms and you don't have your house wired for speakers (and most people don't), you will need multiple AirPort Expresses, one per speaker pair. If you are buying new speakers to work with an AirPort Express, you can get powered speakers (also known as "PC speakers"), which don't require an amplifier. Powered speakers don't have to be expensive. You can find decent pairs online for $40, though you can also spend a lot more.

The upside to this solution is its cost. If you are outfitting, say, two rooms with inexpensive powered speakers and AirPort Expresses, you are looking at a total of less than $300, or $150 per room. Additional features, like controlling all of this, even other music services like Spotify or MOG, from your smartphone, are available via free apps. Compared with what else is out there, it's a pretty good deal.

THE HIGH-END SOLUTION: SONOS If better-quality sound is what you are after, and you like the idea of including streaming services like Pandora and Spotify in your virtual jukebox, then Sonos may be the best choice for you.

Sonos makes two kinds of speakers -- the larger Play: 5 ($399) and the smaller Play: 3 ($299) that can wirelessly play the music that lives on your computer. In May, the company also added a wireless subwoofer ($699) to its lineup.

It is an extremely elegant setup. Compare what you need for the AirPort Express with what the Sonos system requires:

AirPort Express Solution: One Apple Airport Express, one left speaker, one right speaker, one audio cable to connect the AirPort to the speaker, another audio cable to connect the two speakers to each other, a power cable for the speaker pair (also, possibly, an extension cord for the speaker power cable).

Sonos Solution: One Sonos speaker. One power cord.

Setup is equally smooth, The Sonos has to be one of the least rage-inducing pieces of tech I have encountered in a while.

There are other benefits as well. Sonos speakers sound great. Yes, the Play: 5 sounds better than the Play: 3, but it should -- it's bigger and it costs more.

Playback in multiple rooms is truly simultaneous. (On Wi-Fi systems, you can sometimes detect a delay as you move from one room to another.) You also have the option to send different audio to different rooms. Admittedly, this doesn't really come up all that often, but I don't have teenagers (yet). When I do, they may want to listen to their music in their rooms while I'm happier with a little Al Jarreau and some Chablis.

Where Sonos also excels is in its all-inclusiveness. The system's app is both catholic and agnostic. It is happy to incorporate songs from iTunes, Spotify and Rhapsody into one playlist. The AirPort solution doesn't prevent you from using these services, but you have to be fully in one or the other. Sonos lets you mix and match, which is nice.

And so Sonos is easier to set up, sounds better, has more features and plays nicely with more sources. All excellent, but Sonos gear will cost you: The least expensive speaker will still cost you $300 a room, twice the price of the AirPort solution.

Another downside is that the computer that contains your music must be powered on, with iTunes running, and the computer has to be within range of your home network. This may not sound like much, but it can be annoying, particularly if you own laptops. It doesn't pass what I call the "Just Wanna Plop Test." You come home from work, uncork a bottle of something to drink and pull out your smartphone to start playing music. If the laptop is upstairs and it's closed, you first have to go upstairs, wake it up and then fire up iTunes. This makes you crabby.

BLUETOOTH SPEAKERS One of the most delightful developments in recent tech has been the rise of the Bluetooth speaker. Here is a product that keeps it pretty simple: It uses a wireless connection to link your smartphone or computer to a speaker. Play something on a device and sound comes out on the speaker.

This is more important than it sounds. See, when you pair a smartphone with a Bluetooth speaker -- new models include Bose's SoundLink ($300); Jawbone's Jambox ($200) and Big Jambox ($300); and the vacuum-tube-equipped Samsung DA-E750 ($800) -- you are cutting out the middleman. You most likely have music on your smartphone already. Why go through the rigmarole of linking back to a computer so it can then send audio to a speaker when you have the music right there in your hand? Instead of a phone being a remote control, why not make your phone the source?

To be fair, this setup is not without its drawbacks. For starters, if the phone is the source, then whoever holds the phone is the boss. Fortunately, the Jamboxes have a way or two around this. Two phones can be paired to the same speaker, so if your spouse starts playing something but then has to duck out to buy more limes before the guests arrive, you can still control the music from your phone.

The Big Jambox also has next- and previous-track controls on the unit itself. (Both the Jawbones and the Bose have volume controls as well.) So if you are playing a playlist of songs, anyone can tap the top of the speaker to back up or advance to the next track.

Your phone (or computer, if it has Bluetooth) has to also be in range of the speaker, which means about 33 feet. That is usually not a big deal in many homes, but if you have a yard, it could pose a problem from time to time.

You also cannot send audio to more than one Bluetooth speaker at a time. This prohibits a multiroom setup, but unlike the other two methods mentioned here, these speakers have rechargeable batteries and are completely portable. If you are in the kitchen, but moving to the dining room, just pick up the speaker and take it with you.

And just plop.

interact

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published June 28, 2012 1:00 PM


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