Can Any of These Premium Wireless Speakers Beat Sonos?
Picking the right wireless speaker system is more complicated than chasing sound quality. These little music machines tend to be permanent fixtures in your home, almost like a small piece of furniture, so an attractive design is important, and nobody wants a gadget that’s a nightmare to set up or a system that so hard to use that junior can’t listen to Blink 182 in the living room without broadcasting the noise onto the kitchen speaker.
In theory, paying a premium for the very best wireless speaker system should offer a premium experience. A pair of Sonos One speakers ($400 total) is an affordable way to get started with wireless speakers, but we wondered how much more value you’d get by spending at least twice that much. Does double the dollars mean double the sound? Are more expensive speakers more fun to use? Are they just prettier?
In this Battlemodo, we looked at premium wireless speakers that cost at least $500 for an individual speaker, but we tested them out in pairs, because most people would need two for a full stereo experience in a large-is space. Our contenders include the very Danish-looking Beoplay M5 by Bang and Olufsen ($1,200 for a pair), the bookshelf-friendly KEF LSX ($1,100 for a pair), and well-reviewed Pulse Mini 2i by Bluesound($1,000 for a pair). Just to keep our reference point, we also included the Sonos Play:5 ($950 for a pair).
With both the casual music fan and the fervent audiophile in mind we looked at three things: How easy are the speakers to set up? How do they look, and more importantly, how do they work in real life? And finally, how do they sound?
One of the best things about Sonos is that setup is a breeze. You really just download an app, plug in the speaker, tap through some screens, and you’re good to go. From there, you can custom-tune the speakers using a feature called Trueplay, which is also easy. You can also add additional speakers through the app with a few more screen taps. So to see if setting up the competing premium speakers could compare to this breezy experience, we simply set up each pair and took note of the moments when we wanted to throw them out the window.
In general, all of the speakers have a similar setup process. You download an app, connect to the speaker’s temporary wifi network, input your own wifi credentials, and then finish up in the app. The Beoplay M5 and the Bluesound Pulse Mini 2i suffered from some similar app-based frustrations during this seemingly straightforward process. My main complaint was that the apps didn’t do a good job of explaining what was going on during the process. This issue became more pronounced when setting up a second speaker, which took several tries with both the Beoplay and the Bluesound speaker.
The KEF LSX, by contrast, was a breeze. Rather than a seemingly never-ending series of screens, the LSX Control app gave me a simple six-step process to getting the speakers set up. And much to my delight, this process allowed me to set up both speakers at the same times, and when it was all over, they worked together as one system, whereas the Beoplay and Bluesound speakers needed to be linked and re-linked constantly. The only thing that felt slightly confusing about the KEF speakers was the presence of a second LSX Remote app that I could use to stream music and make surprisingly precise equalizer adjustments. The KEF speakers were the only set that required two apps instead of one, and it wasn’t immediately apparent that one was for setup and one was for control. It wasn’t rocket science, either. Plus, most of the time, I just accessed the speakers through the Spotify app, though, so this wasn’t a big deal.
Then there’s the Sonos setup process. It’s so simple and slick, I couldn’t believe how frustrating the Beoplay and Bluesound processes felt in retrospect. The KEF setup was smooth but still second to Sonos.
In some cases, design can be a subjective thing. If you’re talking about aesthetics, some people might want a speaker that looks like a speaker while others might prefer a speaker that looks like a small fuzzy trashcan. But for the purposes of this battle, we adopted a broader, more objective definition of design that took into account looks as well as the overall user experience. That also included studying how each pair of speakers was designed to work with larger home audio systems.
The Beoplay M5, I will admit, is one of the most attractive speakers we tested. It’s a sleek column of fabric with an almost invisible base and an innovative aluminum control wheel on the top. You can twist the top to adjust volume and tap to pause. You can also swap out that fabric sleeve for other colors—each one costs $90—and it almost goes without saying that the speaker could become a conversation piece in your home. The Beoplay also features 360-degree sound thanks to a mid-woofer in the front, tweeters on all sides, and subwoofer on the bottom. But if you’re looking for a versatile speaker, this is not the one. The Beoplay M5 works with other Beoplay speakers in their wireless series, but it’s only input is a 3.5-millimeter audio jack.
The Sonos Play:5 and the Bluesound Pulse Mini 2i tell similar stories. These two speakers could actually be cousins in terms of aesthetic appeal. Both sit wide and low, with a big speaker grill on the front that obscures their driver arrays. Both also feature a combination of tweeters and woofers. (The Bluesound Pulse Mini 2i has two tweeters that sit under two woofers, and the Sonos Play:5 has three tweeters that lineup on top of three mid-woofers.) When you turn the speakers around, however, it’s the same story of a single 3.5-millimeter input. The Bluesound speaker does come with an adaptor that lets you plug an optical audio cable into that input, but it’s obvious that these wireless speakers are designed primarily to work with other wireless speakers. I would also like to add that the Sonos Play:5 speakers are very big and heavy at 14 pounds apiece.