Over the years, Sonos, once a fledgling startup, has grown up to dominate the DIY multiroom wireless audio space. Now it has plenty of competition.
Bose has launched a line of Wi-Fi speakers under its new SoundTouch brand, which the company touts as having a simple setup and operation, and it is aimed squarely at Sonos' audience.
Like Sonos, Bose is serving up a few different standalone speakers, including the SoundTouch 30 ($699), a larger speaker designed for larger living spaces, and the smaller smaller SoundTouch Portable ($399) and SoundTouch 20 ($399), which are designed for somewhat smaller rooms.
You can join those speakers up, renaming them for the rooms they live in, and like Sonos, you can stream music to a single room or have the same music play on all your speakers at the same time.
Signaling that it's going all in on wireless audio, Bose says that moving forward all its new speakers and music systems will be SoundTouch enabled, so you should have a lot of choices as far as the types of speakers you can add to a multiroom setup.
The $399 Bose SoundTouch 20 reviewed here competes with Sonos' Play:5 speaker, which is roughly the same size and costs the same. The Bose arguably sounds better than the Play:5, with a warm, focused sound that flatters most material. It also measures up well in the style department -- it's a pretty sharp-looking speaker with a sleek, minimalist industrial design.
It has few features that the Sonos doesn't offer, such as Apple AirPlay support, and Bose has built its user experience around the concept of six preset buttons that are designed to get you to your favorite music quickly.
That's good, but Bose still has some work do with making the setup even easier, improving its mobile apps, and integrating popular music services such as Spotify, Rdio, Beats, and others.
Sonos is well ahead on those fronts, but we expect that Bose will close the gap and improve the SoundTouch system with a steady stream of software upgrades over the course of 2014 and beyond. At the same time, of course, Sonos won't be standing still -- it too is working to improve its already excellent system and will no doubt release new speaker options.
Design and features
The SoundTouch 20 is a relatively compact speaker measuring 7.4 inches high by 12.4 inches wide by 4.1 deep. In typical Bose fashion, the speaker's design is fairly minimalist, though it does have a few more buttons than Bose's popular SoundLink Bluetooth speakers (no, this speaker does not have Bluetooth).
The top of the unit features the aforementioned six preset buttons, plus volume up/down, an auxiliary input, and a power button. A five-line OLED display in the center of the console shows track data. It's worth noting that the six preset theme is very similar to the scheme found on the now-defunct UE Smart Radio. Unlike the Smart Radio, however, (and the Squeezebox by extension) the Bose doesn't support on-the-fly playlists.
The lack of a Mute or Play/Pause button on the unit is a little frustrating, but you do get a remote -- and most of these types of systems don't come with one -- and it features the same functions found on the unit, plus playback controls. However, it still lacks a Mute button.
The SoundTouch 20 shares many of the same traits with the Sonos system, but one of the differences is that it's designed to work with your existing Wi-Fi network and doesn't require a special "bridge" as Sonos does. That Sonos Bridge, which connects to the Ethernet port on your router, sets up a separate "mesh" wireless network that's dedicated to streaming your audio and helps remove the hiccups typically associated with a Wi-Fi network, which aren't incredibly reliable.
The SoundTouch 20 also features a "wired" Ethernet connection for those who prefer it, but Bose is pushing the simplicity of its system and how easy it is to set up "using your existing home Wi-Fi network" and nothing else.
We found the setup relatively straightforward if a little awkward. With mesh network systems like that of Sonos and the Samsung Shape, you set up one unit (or the bridge) with a wired Ethernet connection (the bridge plugs into your router) and the system automatically recognizes additional speakers, which are simple to add.
In the case of the Bose, you have to connect each unit to your PC via USB and then place the speaker where you want it. We had a little trouble with a corporate firewall (no other wireless system we've set up encountered this), but you shouldn't run into this problem at home.
One thing that would help is if you could set up everything through your mobile device rather than your computer. Bose is working on offering a setup through its iOS and Android apps (a feature Sonos offers), but currently that feature isn't available.