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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.
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.
As noted, Bose's simplicity theme revolves around the use of "presets"; all the new speakers and apps (Android and iOS devices, as well as Macs and Windows PCs are supported at launch) are equipped with buttons numbered 1 through 6. Each number corresponds to a preset in the app.
Using the apps, you can drag and drop specific Pandora or Internet radio stations onto a number to set it as a preset. You can also link one of the presets to the music library on your PC or a specific playlist.
To get your music up and running, you simply press one of the preset buttons that's on the speaker or the included remote, or within one of the apps. Thus, the SoundTouch name.
Unlike other streaming newcomers like the Samsung Shape and Phorus, the Bose lacks Bluetooth capability, but to balance this out it does add Apple AirPlay. In addition to Pandora and Internet radio, the company has said it plans to add IHeartRadio and Deezer in the second half of 2014.
While the number of supported music services is skimpy right now, iPhone users have the benefit of using AirPlay for native apps instead (in other words, you can play Spotify via AirPlay if you want).
The speaker supports DLNA playback from remote devices as well of the file formats MP3, WMA, AAC and Apple Lossless -- FLAC support is on the way. Unlike with Samsung and Sonos devices, there is no "play from my device" feature unless you set up a DLNA server on it (via Windows Media Player, for example).
Like Sonos, the system doesn't tell you tell you which format your music is in, and if it encounters a file type it can't play, the player can simply halt without a warning message (Bose engineers told us this happened because we were playing files from a networked server). Two additional file formats we'd like to see supported are WAV and Ogg Vorbis, the format that Spotify is encoded in.
While Bose hasn't specifically stated it will integrate Spotify, it has said that it's working on adding all major music services, so presumably both Spotify and Ogg support are forthcoming. (Bose reps told us that because they want to include the preset theme across whatever services they add, it requires some custom programming that makes the development process more complicated).
The Bose has a generally warm and tight sound that is particularly good at hiding the sins of poorly recorded (or ripped) music. That's not to say it's not a detailed speaker, but it is able to pick out the important bits and leave out the fluff.
Vocals in particular are very well-served and, as an example, on "Alviverde" by Jun Miyake, singer Arto Lindsay's voice had the breathy intimacy that the Samsung Shape M7 lacked. While there's virtually no stereo image (the drivers on all these tabletop speakers are spaced too closely together), voices are bold and well-formed.
For a relatively small speaker, the SoundTouch's bass response also managed to impress. The Bose has a punchy warm sound that's especially pleasing with rock music and doesn't hurt with gentler styles like folk, either.
One of the most important aspects of a streaming speaker is its ability to resist music dropouts, and this is something private mesh networks like those used on Samsung and Sonos speakers are able to do quite well. Despite being on a standard WiFi network, the Bose exhibited a similar level of reliability, and thoroughly trounced the drop-out prone Phorus PS1.
Whether it was Internet radio or DLNA, wired or wireless, the Bose was able to pull content from multiple sources without issue. It was also able to eke out a feed from our test router from about 100 feet away. (By comparison, from the same spot, the Android smartphone we were using in our tests failed to register the same router).
These observations do come with a caveat: We only tested one speaker and can't comment on how a multiroom system will perform (we'll update our review shortly since Bose is sending additional review samples in the near future).
On a more critical note, while the volume control seemingly gives you lots of headroom, it's essentially unusable after 70 percent. At that level, the speaker plays loud enough to fill a small room. But on anything above that level the bass drops out and the treble hardens. Sure, you can listen to it cranked at full volume, but it just doesn't sound good, at least to our ears.
Bose has gotten a lot right with the Bose SoundTouch 20 and from a pure hardware and performance standpoint, it's arguably a bit better than the similarly priced Sonos Play:5. (Another option for the same money is a pair of $199 Sonos Play:1 speakers, which provide better stereo separation).
However, from a software and services standpoint, Bose still has some work to do. To put it another way, the foundation and framework are in place for an elegant, user-friendly system, but the house isn't quite finished yet. You can certainly live in that house, but it doesn't feel as cozy and comfortable as it should; it's missing a few amenities.
Bose feels that multiroom audio is the future and is investing heavily in making its SoundTouch system better. So, while it may be a little while before it truly catches up to Sonos on the software/services end of things, at least you can have some confidence that Bose is in the multiroom wireless game to stay, and could be one of the significant players in that arena in the coming years.