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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.

The Play-Fi mobile app

Currently, Play-Fi receiver vendors use a rebranded mobile app provided by DTS, the generic version of which is available for download from the website. There are versions available for Android, iOS, and Kindle Fire.

The rebranded apps are functionally equivalent despite minor differences in appearance. The mobile app lets you take control of receivers; change the volume; start, stop, and skip songs; and set up and rename receivers. It also lets you combine multiple receivers into "zones" so you access them in virtually any combination.

In addition to streaming music stored a smartphone or tablet, the Play-Fi mobile app will grab music from DLNA servers on your home network, but it doesn't work with iTunes servers. It can also stream music from online sources, such as Pandora, Deezer, SiriusXM, Songza, and others. Spotify is notably absent from this list, although you can stream it from a Windows PC app. Podcasts and Internet Radio are also available. That's a good selection, even if it pales in comparison to what Sonos has to offer (everything mentioned here, plus Rdio, Rhapsody, Spotify, Slacker, and many others).

Play-Fi is friendlier with Android than it iOS. The Android mobile app can stream lossless FLAC and WAV files at sampling rates up to 192kHz and up to 24-bit resolution (although they are down-sampled to sampling rates of either 44.1kHz or 48kHz and 16-bit resolution).ALAC, the Apple Lossless Audio Codec is not supported.

Both apps can stream lossy MP3, AAC, and M4A files. When you stream from a Windows PC (the Mac is not currently supported), the app encodes the audio stream using a DTS codec customized for Play-Fi.

The Windows app doesn't function as a player, instead inserting itself into the final audio chain and redirecting sound to Play-Fi devices. That means you can use any player or file format you care to. However, the lag from the extensive caching Play-Fi uses makes it unsuitable for movie viewing unless you employ something such as VLC's track-synchronization feature.


[Note: Jon L. Jacobi evaluated the performance of the Play-Fi system.]

To test the technology, I set up a moderately complex, multi-room matrix consisting of one Android phone, two iPads, and three Play-Fi products: Phorus's PR5 Receiver, Polk Audio's Omni S2R Rechargeable, and Wren Sound Systems' Wren V5PF Play-Fi Speaker. I connected a pair of Boston Acoustics' CR100 speakers to the Phorus PR5; the other two products have speakers integrated with their Play-Fi receivers.

The Wren was on my wireless networks' 2.4GHz frequency band, while the other two were initially on its 5GHz band. With only the mobiles devices and receivers in the mix, my Play-Fi experience was relatively glitch-free after the set-up phase. I was readily able to use any of the three mobile devices to take control of any of the receivers, though at times I had to re-select the Phorus PR5 or adjust its volume before it would commence playback.


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