Music-streaming services grabbed more love from listeners in 2013, reports Billboard. It’s a trend sure to escalate this year, as new converts come to appreciate the virtual universe of music available via free and low-cost ($5 to $10 a month) subscription services and the specialty Wi-Fi/Internet music devices that nab and serve them up.
Hardware maker Sonos and retail giant Best Buy have been leading the charge with instructive TV ads and store displays on these new-millennium digital “stereos” — most of them wireless, multi-room expandable and controlled by a smartphone or tablet app. Market-savvy Bose and Samsung are turning up the heat with their just-launched Wi-Fi audio systems.
Here’s the lowdown on what’s available:
Sonos: This company far exceeds younger rivals in system polish and the number of free and paid music services (more than 20) that you can stream on its devices.
Sonos hardware creates a unique wireless network for ultra-stable signal relay throughout the house that funnels the same or different music to specific room players. The brand’s small family of products feel and sound substantial, from the least expensive $199 Play 1 powered mono speaker to the $699 home-theater Playbar sound bar, which also functions as a music/radio streaming player. Grade: A+
Bose SoundTouch: It’s no surprise that Bose’s first Wi-Fi music systems are attractive, easy to use and built to last, be it the AC/battery-operated SoundTouch Portable, my favorite at $399, louder and bassier SoundTouch 20 (also $399) or big room-filling SoundTouch 30 ($699).
Six preset buttons (and a wireless remote) call up favorite Internet radio stations from vTuner and Pandora. The companion SoundTouch control app lets you dig deeper.
At the moment, Bose systems don’t support on-demand paid music services. But your iPhone or iPad music subscription can be wirelessly “thrown” to a SoundTouch via a tap of the on-screen AirPlay icon. SoundTouch gear holds true to Bose’s big-sound-in-small-packages magic formula — with just a tad of midrange “bump-up” for romantic warmth and comfort. Grade: B+
Pure: As one of Britain’s leading makers of digital radio, Pure’s family of affordable music-streaming devices and service deliver good value — and just a little quirkiness.
The handsome, spunky Jongo S3 Wi-Fi and Bluetooth speaker ($199) is especially cool, running on rechargeable battery power (10 hours) as well as AC, with supertight sounding front, top and rear-firing speakers. Also check out the Pure Wi-Fi/Bluetooth tuner (A2, $129), which delivers streaming music to an old-school stereo rig.
The unlimited Pure Connect music streaming service is a steal at $5 a month, spotlighting almost as many British artists as American and going deep into artists’ catalogs. Grade: B+
Samsung Shape: Designed for vertical or horizontal placement (as is the slightly smaller Sonos Play 3), the weighty, wedge Samsung Shape M7 ($399) is a fine-sounding streaming music player — when it works.
I had recurring problems (system lockups, lengthy pauses between tracks) with two early production samples, requiring rebooting. The control app for Android/iOS phones is slick, and the first-gen product comes with a small but nourishing array of streaming options — Rhapsody, TuneIn Radio, Amazon Cloud Player and Pandora.
Also, a Shape M7 uniquely supports Samsung Sound Share tech built into some Samsung TVs, functioning as a wireless Bluetooth speaker for the television, too. That’s a major impetus to buy, despite the software hiccups. Grade: B-
Phorus: The promise here is ultra hi-fi, perfectly synchronized multiroom sound, using a communications approach called Play-Fi that’s theoretically better than Bluetooth or Airplay (which also are supported in Phorus hardware).
But the improvements are impossible to detect on the modest, cone-shaped Phorus PS1 speaker ($199). Phorus streaming content also is paltry, just Internet radio (strictly through the Android app) and Pandora. Grade: C-