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As of CES 2014, seemingly every electronics manufacturer is taking a shot at wireless audio -- from Panasonic to Samsung to Bose. While Sonos and Squeezebox have been around since the start of the millennium, it took until the last year for the rest of the industry to decide that wireless, multiroom audio was worth developing.
The M7 ($350 street) is the first of Samsung's new Shape wireless audio platform, which will include a smaller streaming speaker (M5) , a surround-sound system, and a Blu-ray player. The Shape M7 is a well-built, versatile streaming speaker that sounds better than the comparable Sonos Play:3, with a few feature perks like built-in Bluetooth and the ability to wirelessly connect to some Samsung TVs. On the other hand, it supports only a handful of streaming services -- no Spotify -- and it remains to be seen how committed Samsung will be to the Shape platform. Squeezebox fans know all too well what it can be like when their wireless audio platform is abandoned.
Sonos remains our go-to recommendation for wireless, multiroom audio -- especially the Play:1 -- but the Samsung M7 is a plucky newcomer that could mature into a serious competitor.
The Shape M7 is a large speaker that's roughly the same size as the center channel in dedicated 5.1 systems. It has a sleek, wedgelike shape, with a textured speaker grille and a plastic cabinet that's available in either a white or black finish. The speaker can be positioned horizontally or vertically using the included stand, and in the vertical position you can pair two M7 speakers for stereo. Each cabinet contains five drivers in total, with two tweeters, two midrange drivers, and a 4-inch woofer.
Each speaker supports Bluetooth (from a phone or compatible 2012 or later Samsung Smart TV), NFC, and dual-band Wi-Fi. With a single-speaker system, you can connect directly to the speaker over Wi-Fi using your smartphone; there's also an Ethernet port on the back of each speaker for making a direct, wired connection. For a multiroom setup, you'll need to add the Samsung Shape Hub ($50) to your system, which connects to your router to sync and coordinate streaming music to multiple rooms.
Note that while there is a USB port on the back, it's used only for firmware updates, so you can't directly connect a USB hard drive full of music.
The system currently supports a small number of streaming services including Pandora, Amazon Music, Rhapsody and TuneIn. The system supports DLNA in addition to the music on your iOS or Android device, and will playback 24-bit/192Khz files--something the CD quality-only Sonos can't do.
As far as further services are concerned, Samsung has been unable to provide details beyond "watch this space." Spotify is the most glaring omission at this point, but Sonos supports a much larger range of services, including Spotify, Rdio, and Beats Music.
The system is controlled by the Samsung Multiroom app, which is relatively simple to use, particularly in the way it handles multiple speakers. Adding new ones was a snap, and while the speakers have an "add" button on the rear, the autodetect was so good we never had to use it. The app also lets you click a button to put two speakers in stereo and swap left and right if they get connected the wrong way.
When it comes to playing music there are a few quirks though -- for example occasionally it would prevent us from pausing the playing track. Also, pressing the big "Play" button doesn't automatically play the last thing you listened to, you need to press the Menu key above to get something playing. Creating playlists is also currently problematic as you can't add tracks from Amazon, and there's no on-the-fly lists without opening a playlist first. It's also unclear at first how to access playlists -- you need to swipe to the left.
One missing piece in the controller puzzle is the lack of a desktop app. Squeezebox had one, Sonos has one, and even Play-Fi will get one, eventually.
Given the price similar price, and the fact that we didn't have a Play:5 to compare it to, we did most of our listening comparisons with the Sonos Play:3.
As a background speaker the Shape M7 does its best work. Unless you sit very close to the speaker -- close enough to lick it perhaps -- you're not going to hear true stereo from a device that measures only a foot across.
With music, the M7 showed more detail in the upper-mids, and even when playing the low bit-rate Dig Music radio station there was more air and space than we heard on the Play:3. The Samsung had a more defined midrange that flattered voices in particular. There was also more of a bass thump from the dedicated woofer on the Samsung, which served it well during rock tracks.Hooking it up to a Samsung F8000 TV was very successful and easy. The two devices recognized each other quickly and we soon had lag-free audio via the speaker. The speaker did a better job of music ("Red Right Hand") and movies ("Mission: Impossible II") than any TV speaker we've ever heard. If you're looking for a "sound bar" which also does music, this is probably your best bet besides the Pioneer SP-SB23W -- be aware there is no subwoofer option on the Samsung though.
While you can make a stereo system out of the M7, it's not something that would please audiophiles. First, activating "stereo mode" immediately raised the bass EQ by a quite noticeable 3db (though it wasn't difficult to adjust it back). By Samsung's own admission this speaker features a "stereo effect" rather than actual stereo. While you can hear things coming out of the left and right speaker, there is no imaging to speak of at all. Vocals don't come out of the middle but are seemingly thrown out as if by a ventriloquist--it's hard to know where they're coming from. However, this isn't a problem unique to Samsung -- the Sonos Play:3 in stereo configuration also had phasing issues when placed side by side.
Sonos has had 10 years to iron out its system, and Samsung's has been on the market for only 3 months. As a result you've got to expect some growing pains, but the Samsung's signal was a whole lot more stable than the Phorus Play-Fi system, for example, which had problems when presented with a wireless-heavy environment. There were occasional dropouts with the M7, as we've found with the Sonos system in the same room, but the ability to stream hi-res 24-bit files with no real problem is a feather in Samsung's cap.
We've seen many streaming products come and go recently: Logitech canned its Squeezebox products, the Google Nexus Q died before it even begun, and Sony's NS310 wireless product disappeared the year it was released. That's one of our biggest questions with the Shape platform: Will Samsung stick it out and support this system over the long-term? After only three months in, there's no way to say, but the M7 is certainly a promising start, especially when it comes to sound quality.