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 streaming as an alternative to Bluetooth. One of the biggest selling features is the ability to control music in a multiroom environment, but even better, many streaming speakers also offer voice control via Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. With so many options out there, where should you start?
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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? From the Apple HomePod ($299 at Apple) to the Sonos One ($179 at Amazon), there is currently an explosion in the number of smart speakers on the market. Eventually apps are going to take a backseat and voice will be the predominant way for users to control their music. If you have "legacy" equipment, you may find your speaker can still be controlled via an inexpensive Amazon Echo Dot or Google Home Mini. .
- Does it offer multiroom? Multiroom is one of the best features of Wi-Fi speakers -- the ability to stream your music to one to several speakers at once is something that can't easily be done with Bluetooth. If this is of interest to you, look at the prices and features of other products in the same product "family." All Sonos products work together, as do Yamaha's MusicCast and Bose's SoundTouch products, to name just a few. " " products are compatible across brands and work with Google's own video dongle and Google Home ($99 at Walmart) products, and offer the lowest price of entry*.
- 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, the Chromecast protocol works with every app on Android, but only a smaller subset on iOS. Likewise, Sonos' Trueplay tuning system works only on iPhones ($1,000 at Amazon), not Android devices.
- Better performance and features may be only a firmware update away. The better companies are always tweaking and updating their products, delivering anything from small usability enhancements to game-changing new features. For instance, Google made good on its promise to add multiroom support to its (sadly discontinued) product months after it debuted, making an already great product even better. In other words, could be our most recommended tomorrow with the right software.
(To clarify, Google offers two different, though compatible, Chromecast products -- one is the Chromecast streaming protocol and the second is the physical Chromecast dongle. In addition, there is also the Chromecast built-in music streaming standard and the aforementioned discontinued Chromecast Audio dongle.)
Now the question becomes which Wi-Fi speaker, product or ecosystem is right for you. Here are CNET's favorite models:
Best speaker for the money
Sonos OneSarah Tew/CNET
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 full review
Best indoor/outdoor speaker
Denon HEOS 1, $169Sarah Tew / CNET
If you want a model that's portable and water resistant the HEOS 1 is the Wi-Fi speaker we'd recommend. The Denon sounds good and offers more flexibility than any other speaker, especially at its new price of $169 (down from $299). While we're still not sold on the HEOS app, the speaker can be controlled by Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa.Read full review
Best for Apple fans
Apple HomePod, $299
With its $50 discount, the Apple HomePod is a lot more competitive with other Wi-Fi and multiroom speakers. It's one of the best-sounding all-in-one speakers with plenty of spaciousness and deep bass.Read full review
Best Chromecast streaming sound bar
Polk MagniFi Mini, $299Sarah Tew/CNET
Featuring a compact bar and excellent sound, the Polk MagniFi offers almost everything you need in a streaming TV speaker, including Chromecast built-in. We picked the MagniFi over the Polk Command Bar because it offers a more robust multiroom system, but if you want Alexa built-in, the Command Bar is an excellent alternative.Read full review
Best streaming receiver
Onkyo TX-NR585, $400Sarah Tew/CNET
The Onkyo TX-NR585 offers an embarrassment of riches in the streaming department with Chromecast built-in, DTS Play-Fi, Spotify Connect, AirPlay and Bluetooth. Of course these won't guarantee it will sound any good, but as it turns out, it performs flawlessly.Read full review
Bluetooth vs. Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi delivers the same basic convenience as Bluetooth: using your phone to play music over an external speaker or sound system. Just like Bluetooth, it can work with a subscription app like such as Spotify (via ) or Apple Music, a radio service like Pandora or TuneIn, or your own music collection. Here are the best reasons to get a streaming speaker:
- Wi-Fi sounds better than Bluetooth due to its higher bandwidth.
- Better range
- 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.
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. These are the top three Wi-Fi systems:
- 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. The release of will also make the system more affordable.
- Apple AirPlay/AirPlay 2: The reach of Apple's AirPlay 2 will continue to , but there are plenty of speakers out there that will support the original Airplay. Great for iPhone users.
There are a number of other systems, some open and some specific to the single manufacturer. These include:
- 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: The release of HEOS receivers like the helped expand the reach of the system beyond a handful of expensive tabletop speakers.
- Bose SoundTouch: Like Sonos, but only a little bit worse. Lots of app support and handy shortcut buttons. It's being swiftly replaced by the non-intercompatible Bose Music.
- DTS Play-Fi: The ecosystem may offer the most number of manufacturers, but it's been at least 12 months since new receivers were announced, and even longer since new speakers came out. Official partners like Polk and Klipsch have opted to release new Chromecast built-in speakers instead. We wouldn't buy new speakers now simply for Play-Fi support.
- Bluesound: Likeable enough, but it's aimed at well-heeled audiophiles.
There are plenty of systems that have largely been abandoned or replaced, whether it's in favor of a newer version or competition from more popular protocols. These include All-Play, LG MusicFlow and Samsung Multi-Room (now SmartThings).
Lastly, we have Amazon's Multi Room Music (MRM) The speaker market has been upended by Amazon's family of Echo speakers which combine wireless audio with voice control and home automation. It's early days for MRM, but the only non-Amazon product that supports it is the .
Originally published Dec. 28, 2015.
Updated April 16, 2019: Added new products and removed references to the discontinued Chromecast Audio