The best Wi-Fi speakers and music systems of 2018
The Sonos One is the current top of the heap when it comes to Wi-Fi speakers, helped along by its voice-operated smarts. Sarah Tew/CNET
The Sonos One is the current top of the heap when it comes to Wi-Fi speakers, helped along by its voice-operated smarts.
Wireless audio for the home has been around for a long time, but in the past few years, we’ve seen a big spike in systems and products using Wi-Fi as an alternative to Bluetooth. And it’s easy to see why.
Wi-Fi delivers the same basic convenience as Bluetooth: using your phone to play back music over an external speaker or sound system. Just like Bluetooth, it can work with a subscription app like such as Spotify or Apple Music, a radio service like Pandora or TuneIn, or your own music collection. But Wi-Fi sounds better than Bluetooth, has better range and doesn’t take over your phone’s audio channel — so you can take a call without interrupting the song, for example. It also works great for multiroom audio, allowing playback from multiple speakers all over the house, all controlled by a single phone app.
It’s for those reasons that we prefer Wi-Fi to Bluetooth. Now the question becomes which Wi-Fi speaker, product or ecosystem is right for you. That’s where this guide comes in. We’ll run down the top companies, tell you our favorite products and let you in on other stuff you to know before you buy. There’s tons to cover, so let’s get started.
Sonos, Amazon, Chromecast and everything in between
When many people think about wireless home audio, the first name that comes to mind is Sonos. With its easy-to-use speakers and reliable ecosystem, Sonos has long been the king of the Wi-Fi audio hill. And it continues to go from strength to strength with recent releases such as the Sonos One and the Playbase.
But the market has been upended by Amazon’s family of Echo speakers and Google’s range of Home products, all of which combine wireless audio with voice control and home automation. The Apple HomePod has also made some ripples, though its secret weapon is not its hardware but its Apple AirPlay 2 wireless system — also used by Sonos and others.
Apple vs. Sonos vs. Google: The best (and worst) Wi-Fi speakers
In terms of value for money, our favorite Wi-Fi music player remains the diminutive Chromecast Audio from Google. At only $35 (£30), the tiny streamer turns any stereo into a wireless music system, with multiroom capabilities and 24-bit/96kHz playback for the audiophile crowd. A Cast system can include “Chromecast built-in” products from a half-dozen other companies and can also be voice-controlled with the Google Home ($129 at Dell Home). If there were ever a threat to every other company that produces a multiroom system, this is it.
There are also plenty of other viable Wi-Fi audio options from more traditional audio names. From the Bose SoundTouch system to Denon HEOS 1 and its optional battery pack, the number of Wi-Fi audio options are exploding. That includes plenty of audio-video brands (such as LG and Sony) with sound bars and other devices that feature Google’s Chromecast built-in audio standard. While DTS Play-Fi offers great support from vendors including Klipsch, Onkyo and Polk, the overall experience is still not as enjoyable as that offered by other competitors.
Apple is also a player in the expanding multiroom market with its AirPlay 2 standard which is directly competitive with the Chromecast ecosystem. The new system offers some compatibility with existing devices and can send music to multiple speakers without the use of third-party software.
A pair of Sonos Ones in stereo mode flank an Apple HomePod. Sarah Tew/CNET
A pair of Sonos Ones in stereo mode flank an Apple HomePod.
What are the major multiroom standards?
When you buy a Wi-Fi speaker you’re also investing in an ecosystem — a family of products and apps that work together, but usually don’t work with other ecosystems.
If you want to play a song in “house party mode” for example, where it blasts from multiple speakers throughout the house simultaneously, all of those speakers have to share the same ecosystem. For Sonos and other proprietary systems, all of those speakers will have to be Sonos (or connected to a Sonos device). For Chromecast, all of the speakers regardless of brand, will need to be Chromecast-compatible. Et cetera.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the major ecosystems out there today. With the exception of Chromecast, all of them have companion phone/tablet apps.
- Chromecast built-in: For the cost of entry and ease-of-use Chromecast built-in is our current favorite Wi-Fi music system. There’s no new apps to learn — just press the Cast button in an existing, compatible app and music will play to the speaker(s) of your choice.
- Sonos: It’s kind of expensive and a little exclusive, but Sonos still offers some of the best hardware available. The company is moving away from the megalithic single app in favor of supporting third-party services (Spotify Connect, Apple AirPlay 2). Considering the exacting sound quality and the bomb-proof build, Sonos is still the premium Wi-Fi system to get.
- Bose SoundTouch: Like Sonos but only a little bit worse. Lots of app support and handy shortcut buttons.
- Samsung Multi-Room: It’s fine, and the app is pretty easy to use. But how long can Samsung hold out against its ally Google?
- Yamaha MusicCast: A fun app, a relatively mature ecosystem and a number of different-priced options. Its Yamaha-only status limits its appeal, however
- Denon HEOS: A limited number of products at a premium price makes the appeal limited even though the app has improved. The release of HEOS receivers like the AVR-S730H should help ameliorate some of the issues.
- DTS Play-Fi: The ecosystem offers the most number of manufacturers, which is great, but despite being on its second generation it’s still the hardest app of all to use. It offers lots of streaming services, though.
- Apple AirPlay 2: At No. 8 with a bullet, the reach of Apple’s new system is only beginning, but we expect it to grow alongside its Music streaming service.
- The rest: Bluesound, All-Play, LG MusicFlow; the list goes on. In terms of reach, none of them stand above these eight.
Before you buy
In the next section you’ll find a list of our favorite current devices and hardware. Before you take the leap, however, keep a few key points in mind:
- Is it smart? In the wake of devices like the Apple HomePod and the Sonos One on you’re going to see an avalanche of devices with microphones onboard. While the world won’t end if your speaker system can’t be controlled by your voice alone, smart speakers such as the Google Home Max are nonetheless an exciting development. If you have “legacy” equipment you may find your speaker can still be controlled via an inexpensive Amazon Echo Dot or Google Home Mini.
- Make sure your favorite music and audio apps are supported. Most products support Pandora and Spotify, but double-check first to be sure. Is your music stored in iTunes, Google Play Music or Amazon Music? You’ll still be fine with a Sonos (for instance), but other products may offer less than perfect support.
- Make sure your choice works with your phone(s) or tablet(s). Nearly all of these products are compatible with Android and iOS, but at differing levels. For instance, Chromecast Audio works with every app on Android, but only a smaller subset on iOS. Likewise, Sonos’ Trueplay tuning system works only on iPhones, not Android devices.
- Look at multiroom expansion options. If you’re interested in piping audio into two or more rooms, look at the prices and features of other products in the same product “family.” All Sonos products work together, as do Yamaha’s MusicCast, LG’s Music Flow and Bose’s SoundTouch products, to name but a few. Chromecast built-in products are compatible across brands and work with Google’s own Chromecast Audio and Google Home products, and offer the lowest price of entry.
- Better performance and features may be only a firmware update away. For better or worse, all modern-connected devices are now works in progress. What you get out of the box isn’t necessarily the final result. The better companies are always tweaking and updating their products, delivering anything from small usability enhancements to game-changing new features. For instance, a 2016 software update to all Sonos products added Spotify Connect — some of which almost predate Spotify itself. And Google made good on its promise to add multiroom support to its Chromecast Audio product months after it debuted, making an already great product even better. In other words, a product that is hard to use today could be our most recommended tomorrow with the right software.
The best Wi-Fi audio products right now
With those recommendations, caveats and suggestions firmly in place, here are the best Wi-Fi audio products we can recommend right now.
While the Google Home is getting better, it still has some distance to go before it challenges the Echo, but in contrast the Chromecast Audio is fully formed and a giant-killer. The Chromecast Audio includes multiroom music capabilities, compatibility with Spotify and hi-res audio support across the board. On an Android device, with universal support for any audio app, it’s near perfect; iOS users, meanwhile, just need to make sure their favorite apps are compatible — thankfully, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, Google Play Music, Deezer and dozens more make the cut. Those quibbles notwithstanding, it’s the best way we can think of to spend $35 on upgrading your existing home hi-fi. Read the review of the Google Chromecast Audio.
At $200, and with both Alexa and the Google Assistant (forthcoming) as well as excellent sound quality, the Sonos One is the smart speaker to get. Pair it with another Sonos One and you have a flexible, high-quality stereo system for the same price as the Google Home Max. Read the review of the Sonos One.
Polk MagniFi Mini (with Chromecast built-in)
At only $299, it would be very difficult to find another product like the Polk MagniFi Mini. For the same price as some of the other speakers here, this is not only a Chromecast built-in streamer but it’s also a sophisticated sound bar. Combine it with other Chromecast built-in devices such as the Chromecast Audio for an excellent budget multiroom system. Read the review of the Polk MagniFi Mini.
JBL Link 300
$200 is a hotly contested price, with most manufacturers offering smart speakers at this level. The JBL Link 300 is a Google Assistant speaker which offers sparkling sound quality and a Bluetooth option as well. Read the review of the JBL Link 300.
Amazon Echo and Echo Dot
Amazon’s Echo voice-activated speaker started slow in 2014, but has since ramped up to become the standard bearer for a whole new category: the smart speaker. The Echo and its siblings — Echo Dot, Tap and Show — can now have over a thousand “skills” which they can handle after the “Alexa” wake word is spoken. On the audio side, things have gotten better too. Besides the ability to stream any Bluetooth audio from a phone or tablet, Echo products are now fully compatible with Spotify’s music service (in addition to TuneIn, Amazon Prime Music, Pandora and others). And the Echo Dot lets you listen from any speakers or audio system, offering a big improvement over the original Echo’s good-but-not-great sound quality. Read the review of the Amazon Echo. Read the review of the Amazon Echo Dot.
The Bose challenge to Sonos is multiroom-savvy and starts at identical prices, but adds a few additional conveniences. Unlike Sonos, Bose includes dedicated remotes with assignable shortcut buttons. And Bose also supports Bluetooth streaming in addition to Wi-Fi, so — like Echo — it can stream any audio source beyond the built-in services such as Spotify, Pandora, Amazon, Deezer and Sirius XM. We found the entry-level SoundTouch 10 ($200 at Crutchfield) to be a better deal than the SoundTouch 30, which costs two-and-a-half times as much. Read the review of the Bose SoundTouch 10.
Sony STR-DN1080 (with Chromecast built-in)
Our current Editor’s Choice receiver also happens to build in one of our favorite Wi-Fi music ecosystems. You can stream any Cast-compatible app’s music directly to the DN1080, no other gear or apps required. Sure it costs more than the Yamaha below, but if you factor in the dirt-cheap price of Chromecast audio, it can serve as the powerful heart of a whole-home system that still costs a lot less than Sonos. Read the review of the Sony STR-DN1080.
Yamaha RX-V483 (with Yamaha MusicCast)
At a price that’s cheaper than the Sonos amplifier — and $200 less than the Sony — 2017’s Yamaha RX-V483 offers an excellent home theater receiver and Wi-Fi streaming (plus Bluetooth), along with an easy-to-use app. Add more Yamaha MusicCast products if you want to extend the streaming to more rooms in the house. Read the review of the Yamaha RX-V483
Denon HEOS 1
The Denon HEOS 1 is the first portable, waterproof Wi-Fi speaker we’d recommend. Sarah Tew/CNET
The Denon HEOS 1 is the first portable, waterproof Wi-Fi speaker we’d recommend.
With the addition of the optional battery pack, the HEOS 1 is the first portable, waterproof Wi-Fi speaker we’d recommend. While Google Cast compatibility is still apparently coming and the app could use some work, the Denon sounds good and offers more flexibility than any other speaker at the $300 price (this converts roughly to £245). But our enthusiasm doesn’t yet extend to the full HEOS family. Read the review of the Denon HEOS 1.
Originally published on December 28, 2015.
Most recent update, July 9, 2018: Added Apple AirPlay 2 and HomePod.