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DTS takes on Sonos: We go ears-on with three Play-Fi multi-room audio devices

Jon L. Jacobi, Michael Brown | Dec. 9, 2014
There were multi-room audio systems long before Sonos came along, but the market was tiny and very exclusive. If you couldn't afford to hire a custom installer to come in and wire your house, you couldn't have one. Sonos smashed that barrier more than 10 years ago and has worked to lower it further ever since.

There were multi-room audio systems long before Sonos came along, but the market was tiny and very exclusive. If you couldn't afford to hire a custom installer to come in and wire your house, you couldn't have one. Sonos smashed that barrier more than 10 years ago and has worked to lower it further ever since.

But Sonos doesn't license its technology to other manufacturers, so DTS — a company best known for its multi-channel audio technology — decided to exploit that go-it-alone strategy. In 2012, DTS acquired a company called Phorus, which had developed its own wireless multi-room audio system. DTS slapped the catchier Play-Fi brand on that technology and began licensing it to speaker manufacturers, including Harman Kardon, Polk Audio, Martin Logan. DTS also sells its own Play-Fi products under the Phorus brand.

It seems everyone wants a piece of the market Sonos democratized.

As with the Sonos ecosystem, every product stamped with the Play-Fi brand is guaranteed to be interoperable with every other Play-Fi product. To find out if Play-Fi is as good as what Sonos has to offer, we auditioned three mainstream Play-Fi devices: the Polk Audio Omni S2R, the Wren Sound Systems Wren V5PF Play-Fi Speaker, and the Phorus PR5 Receiver (bring your own amp and speakers). You can jump straight into the reviews by clicking the links at the bottom of the page, but if you'd like to know more about the Play-Fi ecosystem, read on.

The Technology

Play-Fi at its most basic is a hand-shake, control, and audio-streaming protocol implemented over an ethernet network (either hard-wired or via 802.11b/g/n wireless). Like a Sonos system (and unlike Samsung's Shape multi-room audio system), there is no requirement for a hub or any Play-Fi device to be hardwired to your router.

Smart phones and tablets use a Play-Fi app to stream audio using their own Wi-Fi connection, and Play-Fi receivers grab and translate it. A single device can stream to multiple receivers simultaneously, but a receiver can only accept a stream from one device at a time.The range of a Play-Fi network is dependent on the Wi-Fi router or access point in use.

Unlike Sonos' technology, Play-Fi does not create its own private mesh network and there is no direct connection between Play-Fi nodes. Play-Fi doesn't have a concrete limit on the number of users or network nodes that can be supported, but DTS tells us that the practical limitation is 8 users and 16 nodes.

Play-Fi devices are standardized in their setup routines, but other features are left to the vendors. Requirements include a button to put the receiver into setup mode as well as an indicator light to tell the user whether the receiver is ready to be set up (slowly flashing), already connected (solid), and so on. Receivers must also automatically power-on when first connected to an AC outlet.

 

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