This issue: Smart Speakers
NAIM MU-SO £895
Naim, purveyors of those iconic amps, is also eyeing up new markets and this is its attempt to grab a little smart speaker action. The Mu-so is double the price of its two rivals in this round-up, but it boasts a stunning, high-end, ultra-solid build. You can change the colour of the grilles to suit the room you’re in too. Aesthetically, this is a lovely bit of hi-fi kit. There are plenty of features, including six drive units and compatibility with Bluetooth, Spotify and Tidal, which are all controlled via an app. There’s also a wealth of connectors and an internet radio option.
Sonically, the Mu-so is well beyond its cheaper rivals too. Sure, there’s plenty of bass, but that underpins a performance that’s high on detail, musicality and control. King Gizzard’s Bone fizzed out of the speakers, while the Mu-so gave Martin Courtney’s trademark jangly guitar a real presence. Both were an absolute joy to listen to. If you have the cash, then the Mu-so will not only complement your smart-looking living room, but its performance will impress you too
Sonos Play:5 £429
Sonos is one of the biggest, if not the biggest name in multi-room audio, and the Play:5 is its mid-range speaker system. Like all Sonos kit, it’s designed to be part of a home network, so this can sit on a mesh home network and see and interact with other Sonos products. The Play:5 is brand new, only debuting in December 2015. It comes finished in white, and has six speakers powered by six digital amplifiers, which combine to deliver a powerful performance. It also comes with software that enables you to optimise the speakers to suit the size and features of your room. Like the Bluesound, you can also add a second speaker and create a stereo pair. It’s also controlled via an app, though it does lack the Bluetooth connection facility of the Bluesound, which may be an issue for some.
Sonically, though the Play:5 is an accomplished performer. King Gizzard’s Bone sounded more precise than the Bluesound, though admittedly it lost some of the drama and impact of the cheaper model. There’s less going on in the mid-range here, which may suit some people’s tastes but not others.
Bluesound Pulse Mini £419
Smart speakers start at around £200, but if you want something that’s more than just a minor upgrade on a portable hi-fi then you should think about spending around £400 on a model like the Bluesound Pulse Mini. It’s a striking-looking device finished in white (there’s a black option too), with basic controls sited on the top. There’s plenty of power, with two full-range drivers and a bass driver pushing out 60 watts. It’s controlled by an app, which also enables you to easily stream Spotify, Deezer or Tidal, the latter in high resolution when it launches in 2016. You can stream music using Bluetooth or WiFi, or play your own music via a USB stick or through your network.
It delivers a hefty, punchy, bold sound. Bone by Aussie psychsters King Gizzard & The Wizard Lizard was powerful with lots of bass. Our other choice, Little Blue by Martin Courtney, from Real Estate, was also very upfront, though lacking a little in subtlety and detail. If you want to get a room-filling smart speaker on a budget, then the Pulse Mini is a great place to start.
Smart speakers are the hottest new thing in audio. A step on from the iPod/iPhone docks, they aim to offer decent hi-fi sound in smaller rooms, while taking streamed music as their source. Some can also connect to networks, so you can play music stored on your computers too. Prices for smart speakers start at less than £200, but spend a bit more and you take home a product with superior build quality and higher levels of sound performance.
Of the three smart speakers on test here, there’s a clear winner. The Naim Mu-so not only looks amazing, but it also delivers a performance that has plenty of power, detail and musicality. It’s also twice the price. If you want a less dear smart speaker then both the Bluesound and the Sonos have much going for them. The Bluesound delivers a more ballsy, busier sound, while the Sonos is more mellow and more rounded. Choosing between them is largely a matter of taste.