Wireless speaker shootout: Sonos Play:1 vs. the Bose SoundTouch 20 and Samsung Shape M7

Can these challengers unseat the reigning Wi-Fi speaker champ?

Published: March 12, 2014 02:00 PM
Sonos Play:1, $200

For the last decade, audio has often taken a back seat to video. It was overshadowed by TVs with ever-bigger screens, the explosion in streaming movie and TV services, and the emergence of mobile devices, such as smart phones and tablets, that let you watch your content on the go.

But thanks to these mobile devices, there's a booming demand for wireless speakers that let you easily play audio content—everything from music to cell-phone conversations—in almost any room in the house. Bluetooth systems are popular, but they tend to limit you to speakers that are in only one room. Wi-Fi speaker systems, on the other hand, let you stream music to several rooms in the house, and many can work together to work in a multichannel setup.

We recently decided to test the new Play:1 speaker from Sonos—the company that essentially invented the category—against new Wi-Fi speakers from Bose (the SoundTouch 20) and Samsung (Shape M7) to see if they were credible challengers to the Wi-Fi speaker throne. Here's what we found.

Sonos Play:1, $200

Sonos not only helped to invent the wireless speaker category, the company also set the bar for performance, ease of use, and flexibility. But its speakers tended to be pricey, especially for a multi-room system, or a multichannel system with a subwoofer. With the new Sonos Play:1 speaker, priced at $200, though, Sonos now has a model for the masses. The question is whether it's still able to deliver the sonic goods at that lower price.

The Play:1 speaker is a small, stylish, and solidly constructed mono Wi-Fi speaker, offered in either black or white cabinets with a silver-colored, nonremovable metallic mesh grille. Like the larger Play:3, $300, the Play:1 delivers very good sound, with bass that while not extremely deep is well-balanced and more extended than expected given its small size. Like other Sonos models we've tested, it's also very easy to use.

Also like other Sonos speakers, the Play:1 sounds great on its own—but when you pair it with another Play:1 speaker in a stereo configuration, you get a richer, more detailed sound with a wider soundstage. You can also add a Sonos-powered subwoofer ($700) and the Sonos Playbar ($700) speakers to create a full 5.1-channel multichannel system, or use it with other Sonos speakers to form a wireless multi-room sound system.

Looking for a wireless speaker? Find the right model with our Wi-Fi & Bluetooth Speakers buying guide and Ratings.

One of the benefits of a Sonos system is that it complements your existing Wi-Fi network with its own dedicated mesh network, so you don’t get interference from other devices on the network when playing music. Another is that each Sonos component acts as a transmitter, extending the range of the network beyond the range of your router. Like other Sonos speakers, the Play:1 has an Ethernet jack, since at least one component in any Sonos system requires either a wired broadband connection or the use of a Sonos bridge wired to your router.

The Play:1 has direct access to several online music services, including Pandora, Rdio, and Spotify. Sonos speakers no longer come with a remote control; instead there are free Sonos Controller apps for Android and iOS portable devices, or PC and Mac computers. The Play:1 lacks a wired analog (3.5mm) input, a feature found in the other players. Sonos can play iTunes music, but not copyright-protected files purchased before April 2009.

The verdict: The top dog in our shootout. Despite being less expensive than its siblings, the Play:1 is another Sonos winner, with satisfying performance and a good number of streaming-music choices. It's a great way for the uninitiated to get into the Sonos world and for current users to expand their systems without spending a lot of money.

Bose SoundTouch 20, $400.

Bose SoundTouch 20, $400

Sitting smack dab in the middle of a three-model SoundTouch series of wireless speakers that clearly targets the Sonos crowd, the SoundTouch 20 is Bose's first run at the multi-room speaker market. The speaker, which uses a proprietary but AirPlay-compatible Wi-Fi technology, has an Bose-looking upright, rectangular design and a small OLED display housed on a plastic panel that's centered on the front of the unit's dark-gray, cloth-covered grille. The unit's controls—Power, Aux, Volume Up/Down, and six presets—are on the top of the enclosure, which like the side panels is white.

Unlike the Sonos Play:1, the SoundTouch comes with a small infrared remote control, with rubberized buttons for choosing presets or controlling volume, play, and other functions. The speaker has an auxiliary minijack input for connecting portable devices, plus an Ethernet port for a wired connection to your home network. It also has a USB port for setting up the system via your computer.

Despite its larger size and higher price, the SoundTouch 20 doesn't rise to Sonos's level when it comes to sound quality. Overall sound was good; compared to the Play:1, though, bass wasn't as defined and could be a bit boomy, and midrange lacked detail. Still, the speaker will probably be fine for most noncritical listeners looking for the convenience of a wireless speaker system for music and movie/TV soundtracks. It's also easy to set up using the SoundTouch app on a computer, and easy to use.

There were a few limitations. For example, unlike the Play:1 and the new Samsung Shape M7 wireless speakers, you can't combine two of the SoundTouch speakers to form a stereo pair, which, with proper speaker placement, can be used to create a more expansive soundstage. Also, at the time of our testing, the Bose SoundTouch had limited access to streaming music services; it could access only Pandora Internet radio. The company says that more services will be added in the future.

On the other hand, the SoundTouch 20 is compatible with Apple AirPlay, so you can use it with other (current or future) AirPlay speakers in a multi-speaker setup. And you won't need an optional bridge unit to connect multiple SoundTouch- or AirPlay-compatible speakers in a multi-room configuration, something the Sonos may and the Samsung does require. As mentioned, Bose is the only system of the three to include a simple remote control, though you can also download a much more versatile free Bose SoundTouch app for Android and iOS devices to use a smart phone, tablet, or computer to control the speaker.  

The verdict: Perhaps in an effort to achieve simplicity, the SoundTouch 20 gives up some flexibility and some features we sometimes find in multi-room speakers. It's also rather pricey. For those who live in Apple's world, the SoundTouch 20 is worth considering, as it can sync to your iTunes library, but Android users would probably be better served by a different speaker system. One feature we liked were the six presets, which let you easily call up favorite music selections without having to fire up another device.

Samsung Shape M7, $350

Samsung Shape M7, $350

This distinctive-looking, wedge-shaped Samsung Shape M7—which can be positioned either horizontally or vertically (using an included mounting stand)—is basically the company's answer to Sonos, with a few interesting additions, such as Bluetooth and NFC technology. The attractive speaker comes with a black or white enclosure with complementary-colored, diamond-shaped textured grilles. Hidden behind a plate at the rear of the speaker are several connections, including a 3.5mm audio input, an Ethernet jack, and a USB port that's used only for firmware updates.

The M7 can be used with its proprietary Wi-Fi-based technology and with Bluetooth for connecting to Bluetooth-enabled portable devices or to Samsung TVs that have the SoundShare feature. It also has a 3.mm auxiliary input for wired connections to music players. In general, we found the speaker was very easy to set up and use, especially if you have a WPS-enabled router. There are a few buttons (including Mute and Volume) on the top of the unit, but you can get iOs and Android apps that let you control with smart phones and tablets.

Thanks to its unusual shape and the combination of dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and DLNA (AllShare) support, the M7 is among the most versatile speakers we've tested, though it's not without some limitations. One is that there's no option for adding a subwoofer—but while it lacks deep bass, it's hardly bass-shy.

When used as a single stereo speaker, the Shape M7 delivers good overall sound quality—a bit better than the Bose SoundTouch 20, but not quite as clear and detailed as the Sonos Play:1. So it should be a fine choice for most noncritical listeners looking for a wireless stereo speaker for music and movie or TV soundtrack reproduction.

But sound quality bumps up to very good when two M7s are paired to form a two-speaker stereo system, though you've now spent $700 for the speakers and $50 for the hub. When we paired two M7 speakers, bass became more balanced and thus less prominent, midrange lost some of its softness, and treble was a bit more extended.

The M7 speaker streams audio wirelessly from Internet services such as Amazon Cloud Player, TuneIn Radio, Pandora, and Rhapsody—more services than Bose, but not as many as Sonos. It can also stream from network-connected hard drives and computers. It can also stream content directly off your phone or tablet via Bluetooth, which Sonos can't do. You can also use your phone, tablet, or computer to access Internet streaming services the Shape M7 lacks, such as Spotify.

Unlike Sonos, the M7 system doesn't require at least one speaker to be wired directly to your router. But if you want to create a stereo pair or a multi-room system, you'll need the optional hub, which connects to your router via an Ethernet cable. Like Sonos, the M7 doesn't come with a separate remote control. Instead, you use the free Samsung Multiroom app on an Android or iOS device. The app also lets you add speakers and have them work as a stereo pair. There's also a pairing button on the speakers.

The verdict: The Samsung Shape M7 is an impressive first step into the world of Wi-Fi speakers, especially when you consider its versatility. Like the Sonos—but not the Bose SoundTouch 20—it can play high-resolution (lossless) audio files. It also features manual or NFC Bluetooth pairing, which the Play:1 lacks. Still, the M7 comes in second place in our three-speaker shootout. But we'll continue to monitor improvements in all these speakers systems to see if any can usurp Sonos' throne.

—James K. Willcox

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