Sound advice: how to connect all your home hi-fi into one harmonious system
The rise of streaming has made home listening more fragmented - this will reconnect it
Home hi-fi used to be so straightforward. You had your big system in the main room, where you could blast out Led Zep and Nirvana CDs, or stick on some nice trip-hop or ultra-lounge if you needed to set a relaxing atmosphere. You had your radio in the kitchen, keeping the voices of Gerry Ryan, Gaybo, Pat Kenny and Dave Fanning wafting out soothingly all day long. The kids had their own walkman or boombox in their bedroom, and if they needed more music, they could just make another mixtape off the main stereo.
Okay, it was all a bit disconnected, but everyone was happy. The rise of mp3, streaming, smartphones and tablets, far from bringing all our music together, has made home listening seem even more fragmented.
In our house, for instance, we’ve got a stereo in the main room that’s getting on a bit - the CDs are starting to skip and jam, and one of the speakers has developed a definite crackling noise, but it mainly gets the job done. It doesn’t connect up to any other part of the house, but we’ve found a novel way of streaming music to other parts: turn the volume up and open all the doors. There are mini-stereos in the bedrooms, in various states of disrepair, none of which connects with the other.
Our shelves are filled with CDs, most of which we no longer listen to (I’ve grown out of Oasis - finally), and there are mini-stacks of CDs scattered about the house (at least we’re never stuck for a coaster for our cuppa). Languishing in a drawer somewhere is an ancient noughties iPod whose battery died long ago, a boxful of minidiscs complete with broken minidisc player, and a stack of neglected LPs that have been left behind in the vinyl revival.
And, no kidding, we actually have a vintage Edison wind-up gramophone in the attic, complete with box of wax Amberol cylinders, including that viral smash hit from 100 years ago, I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles. Don’t ask.
Great sound in every room
How do we connect all that scattered sonic debris together and create a more unified sound environment at home? Where can we find the one multiroom system to rule them all? In older days, you’d have had to rip walls out and put in wiring to connect up speakers in different rooms. Now that bluetooth and wifi are ubiquitous, however, you don’t have to call in the builders. All you need is a good wifi connection, and, with the right system in place, you can beam your music to any part of the house.
The bad news is that if you want great sound in every room in the house, you need to be willing to shell out for it. The good news is that you don’t have to dump your own old-school sound system - you can incorporate a multi-room system with your own hi-fi stereo, allowing you to stream your own collection around the house, or stream music from your favourite subscription service - Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music, whatever. Once you have an amp with all the necessary outputs, you can connect a streamer to it and pump the music wherever you need it.
Another advantage of wireless multiroom systems is that nothing’s fixed in place; you can move everything around as easily as you move the chairs around. So if you’re redecorating or reconfiguring your room, you’re won’t have to rip any speakers out of the wall.
So, what do you need to get your house wirelessed for sound? Ignore the techie jargon - it’s actually not that complicated. You need a speaker (or two) for each room you want to bring the noise. You need an app on your phone to speak to the speaker and tell it to play music from your Spotify or Tidal playlist. If you also want to be able to tell the speaker to play music from your own hi-fi system, you need to add a streamer - a compact box that you hook up to your stereo, which will use your wifi to send the tunes around the house. You can also hook the streamer up to your PC, and play the tunes you’ve stored there.
Putting all your music in one place
If you want to bring your scattered music collection together in one place, you could add a hard drive. Many multiroom systems will offer a hard drive where you can store all your music in high-res FLAC or WAV files. But before you throw out all your CDs, make sure you have back-up.
Ivan Cloney of Cloney Audio told me the salutary tale of a customer who painstakingly put his vast CD collection on a hard drive, then gave the CDs to charity shops. One night a storm sparked off a power cut, and next time he tried to access his music, he found his hard drive had been fried.
But storing on a hard drive could be more hassle than it’s worth, and unless your collection comprises rare bootlegs or specialist jazz titles, or you’re a stickler for sound quality, your streaming service will do the job nicely. And don’t waste a minute digitising your vinyl collection. The whole point of vinyl is listening to it on vinyl - turning it into a WAV file defeats the purpose.
A good multiroom system isn’t cheap, but it doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive either. You can probably trawl the web and find off-brand bargain systems, but really, who wants a multi-room system that sounds like your house is infested with singing mosquitos? Still, you shouldn’t have to remortgage the house to get it up to speed on sound.
And if it all seems like too much to pay in one chunk, the good thing about wireless multi-room systems is that you can add components as and when you need/can afford them. So you can start with one or two speakers where you do most of your listening, then add more as you go along.
We’ve chosen three systems in three different price ranges, “well worth it”, “because I’m worth it” and “high net worth it”. The only thing you have to decide is, how much is it worth to you to finally bring all your scattered sounds together and turn your house into one harmonious haven of musical bliss?
Sonos used to be the only wireless multi-room system in town, but, as rival systems gained market foothold, the brand - started up in 2002 - has adapted to become one of the most versatile and best-value systems around. And it’s perfect for building up your multiroom system one component at a time. Start with the Sonos One speaker (€229). It’s small, neat and unobtrusive, and it packs a room-filling sound into its compact size, though it has its sonic limitations.
True audiophiles might find the dymamic range a little too narrow for their tastes, but for getting music up and running in your kitchen, bedroom or den, it does the job. You can pair up two Sonos One speakers to get even richer, stereophonic sound. The music is controlled through the Sonos app on your phone, which works with many of the top streaming services including Spotify, Tidal and Amazon Musicand Sonos One will blast it out. It’s also Alexa-compatible, so you don’t even have to scroll through your library to find the album you want to listen to.
It won’t be long before the kids will want a Sonos One in their bedroom. Great - they can pay for it out of their pocket money. The Sonos system is properly multiroom, so you can play the same music throughout the house, or different tunes in different rooms - so if you’re not in the mood for your teenager’s Billie Eilish records, you can restrict it to their room while you listen to something a bit less angsty - like Scott Walker.
But what if you want portable sounds, to bring out into the back garden on a nice summer’s day or into the garage while you tinker on your classic Mustang? The Sonos Move (€399) is a powerful portable battery-operated speaker that’s perfect for barbecue night entertainment. It’s weather-resistant, and can play for 10 hours without needing a recharge. And if you’ve moved it so far from the house you can’t get a wifi signal, the Move can connect up with a music source via Bluetooth.
But supposing you simply wanted to play your own music around the house, rather than a Spotify playlist? Time to add in the Sonos Port (€449) - a neat little streaming device that will connect up your stereo system and play your CDs and LPs anywhere or everywhere in the house. Alas, Alexa won’t be able to take the CD out of its case or the LP out of its dust jacket and put it on - you’ll have to keep doing that. But the Sonos Port will ensure that the music reaches the parts of the house other hi-fi systems can’t reach.
Sonos used to be the sine qua non of multiroom systems, but Bluesound has emerged as a leader in high-res house-filling hi-fi, and though it’s pricier than the Sonos, you can hear the difference in the sound. Bluesound boasts that its products bring “studio-quality” sound to every room in your house - and certainly the speakers are big, loud and - most importantly - crisp and clear, and should satisfy the audiophile in your family.
With 80 watts of output and three audiophile-grade speakers, The Pulse 2i all-in-one wireless streaming player (€899) is powerful enough to fill the biggest Celtic Tiger room, while its smaller sibling the Pulse Mini 2i (€599) will sit unobtrusively on a bookshelf or countertop; the sound, however, is anything but unobtrusive.
The Pulse Flex 2i (€349), is the fully portable option, compact but still capable of delivering impressive sound. Put two of these at either end of your bookshelf, and you have a set-up that could rival bigger, bulkier hi-fi systems.
Bluesound works with Alexa, and the BlueOS app will find all your favourite music and stream it straight to your speakers in high-res audio. Again, if you want to stream your own music, along with a range of internet radio stations and podcasts, get the Node 2i streamer (€549) and hook it up to your stereo system.
Or, if you prefer to have all your music stored on a hard drive, skip the Node 2i and go straight for the the Vault 2i (€1,299), a high-res 2-terabyte combined hard drive and streamer that will rip your CDs in hi-res FLAC or WAV files (you can do mp3s also to save space, but I wouldn’t recommend it. You’ll lose sound quality and dynamic range, negating the very reason for buying Bluesound.
Bluesound will require more of an outlay to get your mulitroom system going, but it will reap rich rewards in sheer sound quality and versatility.
For a premium-priced multiroom system that looks good and sounds fantastic, go for Naim’s second-generation Mu-so range, sit back and enjoy the sonic ride. Crafted by serious audiophiles in Salisbury, UK, the Naim range is designed to bring create superb multiroom sound with the minimum of hassle and maximum sound quality. The second-generation range has been tweaked to bring it up to even higher spec, so you can’t go wrong with this system.
The Mu-so 2 (€1,399) is more than a mere speaker - it’s a fully fledged wireless music system pumping out 450 watts of power, and a multicore Single Digital Processor system to seamlessly stream your music. The result is a sound that will not just fill the room - it’ll shake it too. Luckily, the new Mu-so has an improved limiter algorithm that keeps the sound nice and smooth even at high volume.
The big disadvantage with the Mu-so 2 is its bulky, rectangular shape, which won’t allow it to slot into a nook or sit unobtrusively on your kitchen counter. You’ll need to clear shelf space for this, but it’s oh so worth it. Put this in your biggest room, and then add the Mu-so Qb wireless speakers in the other rooms. This is a neat, cube-shaped speaker that again boasts audiophile sound, but won’t take up too much space on the dresser.
And if you want to bring all your sounds together under one powerful, performance-driven roof, Naim’s Uniti Nova audiophile all-in-one system (€4,749) will allow you to rip your entire music collection in flawless hi-res, and play it through a superior 80 watts per channel amp, along with all your streaming channels, internet radio, podcasts etc. Again, you can play the same music in every room, or different tunes in different rooms.
Either way, the sound quality remains the same - like Daft Punk is playing at your house.