Ever since Monster lost its lucrative Beats contract, the company has seemingly struggled to find the "next big thing" to replace it. After several years of gaudy headphones and disappointing Bluetooth speakers, has the company finally struck paydirt with its SoundStage speakers?
Monster is relatively late to the multiroom streaming game, trailing names like Sonos and Samsung, and it has wisely decided to partner with an open system -- Qualcomm's AllPlay -- rather than try to go it alone. At the moment, the only AllPlay products on the US market are available from Monster and Fon , but more are promised.
The Monster SoundStage S1 ($229) is Monster's smallest and least expensive multiroom speaker, but it's also potentially the best value. It generates a huge sound for its small size, and its connectivity options will ensure anyone will be able to hook it up. The larger S2 ($299) and S3 ($399) are also available.
That pricing in the US lines up closely with Sonos' Play:5, Play:3 and Play:1 series of speakers, which is pretty tough competition indeed. Monster's speaker will be available in the UK and Canada in October 2015 as the StreamCast. (No pricing available yet for the UK, but its US prices convert to £145, £190 and £253, respectively.) Meanwhile, Australian pricing and availability is yet to be announced.
As far as sound quality is concerned, it's not surprising that the S1 has a "Beats" sound, given that Monster designed the first Beats headphones . If you like like bass and crisp percussion without any of those pesky midrange distractions -- voices, acoustic instruments -- the S1 will satisfy your sonic desires. For a little over $200 it's likeable and "big" sounding but if you want something more with more accurate midrange and a classic hi-fi sound, it's not for you.
The SoundStage S1 is the smallest speaker in the new SoundStage line, though it's still large for the price at 11.5 inches across, 4.9 inches high and a deceptively thick 3.5 inches deep. Though it's not designed to be portable -- there's no battery on board -- it's surprisingly heavy at 4.4 pounds.
The front of the unit is quite unobtrusive with its Monster logo and black metal grille, which wraps around at the edges.
Looking down on the SoundStage you can see that the main console has a pointed "lens" or "boat" shape. Touch the console and it lights up with a series of controls including forward/back, play/pause and volume. There is also a Wi-Fi and a Bluetooth indicator on the left and a power button on the right. Though they are ostensibly controlled by a mere touch, I didn't find them very sensitive, having to press Play several times at one point.
Much like Sonos, there's no remote control included with the unit. Instead you use the AllPlay JukeBox or Monster SoundStage apps on your iOS or Android device.
Unlike the Sonos Play:1, he SoundStage S1 is a stereo speaker that features dual 3-inch drivers in addition to a passive oval bass driver at the rear of the unit. Monster doesn't include power specifications, but this small speaker is capable of going much louder than most other speakers at this price point.
The S1 offers a number of different connectivity options, with the two big ones being Bluetooth and Qaulcomm AllPlay. AllPlay is an open streaming standard which offers integration of numerous streaming apps as well as allowing users to play music from different devices within the home network. Its competitors include the other open standard, Play-Fi and Sonos' closed ecosystem. Monster is also one of the first companies to combine multiroom and Bluetooth successfully: pair your phone to one AllPlay speaker and then stream it to all of the other speakers in the house.
The S1 will also play Spotify Connect for easy access to your music without leaving the Spotify app. It also supports other services within the AllPlay app including DLNA, Rhapsody, Napster and iHeartRadio, with Tidal and SoundCloud forthcoming. There's no mention of native Pandora support at this stage, but Monster suggests using Bluetooth for unsupported apps.
Other connectivity options include dual USB, optical digital and line-in. Monster says transmitting digital around the house in full quality (stereo) is planned for later in the year.
On Android, the AllPlay devices are also controllable by the free DoubleTwist music player under its MagicCast feature (adding other DLNA devices attracts an $8.99 fee).
If you're a fan of high-resolution music, AllPlay is one of the only systems that allows users to stream at full quality. Sonos and Denon HEOS will simply refuse to play hi-res files, while Play-Fi will downscale to 44.1/48kHz. While it's hard to say whether the difference between CD quality and hi-res would even be discernable on a tiny system like the S1, hi-res support is more about peace of mind and compatibility at this stage. The quality differences will become more important once Monster releases its own AllPlay dongle for existing stereos in 2016.
Streaming speakers pack a lot of different services and functions inside, and sometimes it can be difficult to create controller apps without making them too complicated. In the case of the AllPlay Jukebox and reskinned Monster SoundStage apps, it can take a little time to learn to navigate the system the way you want.
What looks like a "hamburger button" or menu up the top is actually a playlist. Tapping it again leads back to the Now Playing screen. Meanwhile, the menu button is actually an upward-pointing arrow, and using Android's back button also gets you there -- though you can press it too many times and quit the app instead.
Thankfully, grouping speakers is easy -- just click on the highlighted speaker name at the top and you can group speakers at will and choose which source it uses.
Strangely, the AllPlay Jukebox application doesn't allow you to add speakers to the system, so you'll need to start with the Monster SoundStage app. The easiest way to set up the system is to use the WPS button on your router if you have one.
If your router doesn't support WPS, you'll have to use the manual setup routine. In our testing the iOS version worked OK, but the Android app required some circuitous setups via the Chrome browser. Monster says it will add the ability to set up speakers entirely within the Android app later this year.
Looking for a party speaker with plenty of boom and lots of tish? That's the sound that informed the Beats range of headphones, and that's what the SoundStage S1 gives you. The S1 has oodles of bass, but it's surprisingly controlled despite the small size, and only a preponderance of treble can spoil things with the wrong track.
Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" sounded great, with a plucky, bouncy bass, slightly recessed vocals and plenty of hi-hat sparkle. Compared to the larger SoundStage S3, the S1 was able to better contain the treble and provide a more balanced sound.
Comparing both speakers to Samsung's excellent sounding M7 speaker using the same song, the Samsung didn't carry as much momentum as the Monsters but was easier to listen to. Both Monster speakers were capable of punchier bass than the Samsung, which lost its way on Nathan East's staccato bass lines.
If you don't listen to dance or hip-hop, however, then the S1's performance is a little more mixed. Rock can reveal new details but also sound a little too cymbal-heavy. Spoon's "U Got Ur Cherry Bomb" sounded like it was performed by an all-tambourine band. If you've ever been to a rock concert, you'll know that the cymbals are the quietest part of the band -- you don't want those speakers (or the audience's ear drums) to blow!
Switch to quieter music and the S1's recessed mid-range can hurt intelligibility, especially compared to the more open-sounding S3. Adult Jazz's "Hum" sounded like the vocalist was calling out from the next room, while the S3 made him appear in front of you. Given S1's small size the soundstage it presented was quite impressive, easily extending a foot out either side of the speaker, though it seemingly does so at the expense of vocal detail. While the S3 sounds bigger and clearer it can be wearing over time. The warmer S1 is half the price and definitely offers a better price/performance ratio.
Compared against its main rival the Sonos Play:1, the Monster had a much more excitable sound that could mangle processed rock such as the Arctic Monkeys. The Sonos Play:1 played a more subdued hand and chose to almost ignore the top end the Monster favored so much. If you want to have music in the background, the Sonos is definitely the one to choose.
As far as the other features were concerned, I was able to hook the SoundStage up to Bluetooth on my phone and then relay that to a Gramofon dongle with no sync issues. Sound quality was a definite step down with more hash apparent in the midrange, especially on the re-transmitted signal, but for many people convenience wins or over quality.
Additionally, the Spotify Connect functionality worked as expected and is much preferable quality-wise than Bluetooth.
The reliability of the toughest streams I tried depended on the bit rate of the music. I was able to stream a 24-bit/44.1kHz FLAC copy of Django Django's "Born Under Saturn" without dropouts, but the system creaked under the weight of Nine Inch Nails' "Hesitation Marks" in 24/48 WAV files, sometimes dropping out five times in a song. Your mileage will vary depending on how many networks yours competes with; for me, it's at least 12 neighbors.
If you're looking to spend around $200 on a Bluetooth speaker for use in the home, then there are real advantages to the S1 -- especially if you like loud thumping beats. Its feature set and sound quality are unbeatable at the price. However, if its subtlety you want, then you should buy a Sonos Play:1 or pair of Audioengine A2s and a Gramofon adapter instead.