Wireless music systems take music stored on your computer, or streamed live from the Internet, and allow you to enjoy it anywhere in your home. Since no wires are required, placement flexibility is unparalleled and there's no need to spend thousands of dollars on a custom installation. Sound quality ranges from very good to nearly flawless, depending on the device and the source. Setup and use are relatively easy. Install some software on your computer, put the hardware anywhere within reach of your router's Wi-Fi signal and you're in business. Top-rated systems even have apps that simplify control -- assuming you have an Apple iOS (iPad 2, iPhone or iPod Touch) or Android mobile device.
Among wireless music systems that draw the most praise from critics and users, Sonos offers the most expandability and flexibility. You can configure the system to send music to up to 32 locations in your home, with only one requiring a hardwired connection to your network router. Music can be drawn from your Windows or Mac computer, an attached networked storage device (external hard drive) or content providers on the Internet, such as Pandora, Spotify, SiriusXM, Napster, Rhapsody, TuneIn Radio, iHeartRadio, Stitcher and more. You can program your music selection using the Sonos software that runs on your computer or remotely via apps for Apple iOS or Android devices.
The Sonos ecosystem includes powered speakers that provide music without the need for additional electronics, and Sonos players that interface with either your own speakers or a stereo/home theater system. Also available is the Sonos Bridge (*Est. $50): Although it doesn't make a peep on its own, it's a lower-cost way to provide the hardwired link in those setups where having music in the same location as the router is unneeded or unwanted.
The Sonos Play:5 (*Est. $400) is a networked powered speaker that earns pretty good feedback. If it's the only Sonos component you have, it must be connected either directly to your router or via a handy Ethernet connection. If it's part of a larger Sonos system, it can also be used wirelessly in any room within range of the SonosNet wireless network -- a proprietary and secure wireless mesh network (each Sonos device is also an access point) that makes it possible to enjoy wireless music even in areas of your home where regular Wi-Fi might not reach. Sound quality is excellent, according to multiple reviewers.
If you want something more compact and less expensive, the Sonos Play:3 (*Est. $350) might be the right choice. Measuring 5.2 by 10.6 by 6.2 inches (as opposed to 8.5 by 14.4 by 4.8 inches for the Sonos Play:5), it's a comfortable fit for many spaces, including bookshelves and nightstands, CNET reports. Not surprisingly given the small enclosure, sound quality -- while still quite good -- is a step behind the beefier Sonos Play:5.
There are some downsides to the Sonos Play:3 and Play:5. One is that stereo separation is lacking, as you might expect from a single-speaker setup. Another is that while the audio electronics and speakers are very good -- especially in the case of the Play:5 -- they aren't the best you can get. For those who want to marry the Sonos concept of wireless distribution to their own audio electronics, the company offers a pair of solutions.
The Sonos ZonePlayer 120 (*Est. $500) is a 55-watt-per-channel stereo amplifier with a subwoofer output (for a powered subwoofer) and Sonos wireless technology. You can hook up your favorite speakers to it just like you would any other 2.1-channel stereo amp. "On a lark," Home Theater magazine's Darryl Wilkinson uses the ZonePlayer 120 to drive a high-end speaker and subwoofer setup. "Yes, it was a bit of overkill," he says, "but the ZonePlayer 120's little 55-watt amp sounded amazingly good at a moderate volume on these very revealing speakers." Wilkinson adds, "You certainly shouldn't be shy about pairing up the ZonePlayer 120 with a good pair of bookshelf or on-wall speakers."
Finally, the Sonos ZonePlayer 90 (*Est. $350) adds Sonos wireless inputs to any existing stereo or home-theater sound system. Connectivity includes analog stereo audio as well as optical and coaxial digital audio. If you need different Sonos products -- say, a Play:3 in the office or kitchen, a Play:5 in the bedroom, a ZonePlayer 120 in the den and a ZonePlayer 90 for your home theater -- that's no problem. You can mix and match Sonos devices at will on the same network.
Logitech's Squeezebox is another popular wireless music system. Unlike Sonos, there's no proprietary wireless system. Instead, content is distributed via regular Wi-Fi, or wired Ethernet connections if available, so you don't need to place a Squeezebox device at the router. Like Sonos, you can stream digital music stored on your computer or attached network storage device, or from Internet radio stations and other content partners, including Pandora, Slacker, Napster, Deezer, Last.fm, ShoutCast, SiriusXM, Rhapsody and lots more.
Initial setup looks complicated enough to scare off tech novices, CNET reports, but it's actually more of a chore than a challenge. Once it's done, Squeezebox devices have full access to your stored digital music collection, as well as content from those Internet providers (some paid, others free) you chose to include. You can navigate your music from the device itself, which includes a small display. There's also the now almost-obligatory remote-control app for Apple and Android mobile devices, as well as third-party apps that do the same thing and which some users say work better.
Currently, Logitech offers its Squeezebox system in two flavors. The Squeezebox Radio (*Est. $170) looks exactly like its name: It's an all-in-one solution that includes an integrated amplifier and speaker, similar in concept to the Sonos Play:3 and Play:5, but with an added control unit and display. Place it anywhere within range of your home's Wi-Fi, and once configured, that's all you need to enjoy your stored or streamed music. Audio quality draws mixed opinions, but most reviewers say that if your expectations are reasonable, you won't be disappointed. There's no need to physically connect the Squeezebox to your router, though you do lose the benefit of the extended range the Sonos mesh network provides.
If you're in the market for something a little more sonically impressive, the Logitech Squeezebox Touch (*Est. $270) is worth considering. Analogous to the Sonos ZonePlayer 90, the Squeezebox Touch brings wireless connectivity to an existing audio system or to powered speakers you supply yourself. Connectivity is similar, and includes both analog and digital (coaxial and optical) outputs.
Not every reviewer is sold on all aspects of the Squeezebox Touch, with value and ease of use topping the list of quibbles. What most do agree on is that the audio has the potential to sound fantastic. What you hear greatly depends on the quality of the source and of the attached electronics, and while the Logitech Squeezebox Touch can't work miracles with compressed files and low-end electronics, it can produce pretty impressive results when allowed to fully stretch its wings. Stereophile magazine tests the Squeezebox Touch with uncompressed music and high-end audio gear. "The low-level detail, wide and balanced frequency response, and seemingly unbridled dynamics that are characteristic of high-quality playback systems were all being mediated by an inexpensive little plastic box," Kalman Rubinson says.
Wireless music systems are well reviewed by a number of experts. Look to those that regularly cover digital music for the best expertise. That includes sites like CNET, PCMag.com, Home Theater magazine, Britain's TechRadar.com and others. Newspapers like The New York Times and consumer magazines and sites like Good Housekeeping often weigh in, as well. Amazon.com has lots of user reviews.