There are a lot of ways nowadays to get music from your phone or PC to a speaker, but as consumers continue to move towards streaming services, the need for connected speakers continues to increase. In the past few years, that need has mostly been filled by Bluetooth speakers that users connect to and use to send music to usually one speaker or one music player with multiple speakers in the same room. However, new Wi-Fi connected services have enabled whole house audio through a multitude of proprietary standards and usually with outrageously high price tags.
Qualcomm’s AllPlay solution is a platform that combines their own Wi-Fi audio module with an SDK and the streaming services that they support into a complete Wi-Fi audio platform. The platform allows for multiple users to manipulate multiple Wi-Fi speakers in the same room or different rooms, depending on where they are installed. My goal is to see how well different AllPlay speakers work together as well and to see how my personal music consumption is changed by the AllPlay platform and the accompanying supported apps and services.
The AllPlay Module and Platform
The AllPlay platform depends on Qualcomm’s own hardware solution combined with their SDK and other software to create a unified experience. This is partially accomplished with the AllPlay smart audio module which is a small 2×2 QCA Wi-Fi SoC (QCA – Qualcomm Atheros) that has the ability to support many I/Os including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Digital line in and analog line in, among many others. Because the module is a powerful one it allows for support for multiple audio formats and standards, which include DLNA and AirPlay. So, just because a device supports AllPlay doesn’t mean it can’t support other platforms as well. The platform as a whole also supports up to 10 different speakers over Wi-Fi, which should be enough for any home, big or small, and even more if you add ethernet. In addition to supporting so many speakers, it also claims less than 5ms steaming across zones, meaning that it should be close to perfect in terms of audio syncing. And of course, the module supports the entire purpose of this platform and is able to enable higher quality high-resolution lossless audio over Wi-Fi since Bluetooth still has significant quality loss.
The Speakers and Apps
Each of the three different speakers I used in my testing of AllPlay are part of a bigger play by each manufacturer to offer a selection of different Wi-Fi enabled speakers to give you an affordable way to get whole house sound. Monster, Lenco and Hitachi all offer three different types of speakers with varying power outputs and pricing. Monster’s small S1 sells for $229 and the big S3, which I tested, sells for $399. However, Hitachi’s own line ranges at a lower $129 for the small W50 all the way up to the W200 which is $179. I’m not going to be reviewing the speakers individually, but I will make some mentions about each speaker’s capabilities and usability with AllPlay and accompanied apps. There’s also the Gramofon, which is a little box that can connect via Wi-Fi or Ethernet and makes any older analog sound system connected through Wi-Fi with a simple setup and a few plugs. This means that if you’re already happy with your speakers you don’t necessarily have to go out and buy new speakers to get the AllPlay experience.
The Monster Soundstage S3 is Monster’s premier offering in their SoundStage line of speakers, and it shows. The Soundstage S3 features a plethora of connectivity and capabilities, with a marked focus on bass with a large bass driver in the back delivering plenty of quality sound with the boss when you need it. It supports NFC for Bluetooth pairing as well as USB, 3.5 mm, and digital in. All of these sources can be used in addition to Wi-Fi streaming and their primary purpose is to allow for the re-streaming of content from the speaker to the other speakers and to do it with high quality. It also has the ability to switch between all of these difference sources with a fairly non-discrete menu bar that allows for the adjustment of sound and source. That includes Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Digital and analog aux. This speaker is also aesthetically the most attractive out of the bunch that I got to test for the purpose of the AllPlay platform, so kudos to Monster for that. Monster also bundles a Soundstage application with their speaker (Android and iOS) that allows you to manage your different AllPlay speakers (both Monster and not) thanks to the AllPlay SDK. The application helps you setup your new speakers as well as manage existing speakers, which is useful. Overall, the application isn’t much of a departure from Qualcomm’s default AllPlay Jukebox, but it helps keep the brand and experience strong.
Lenco’s PlayLink 6 is possibly the most simple looking speaker of the bunch, but that doesn’t mean that it is by any means inferior. Lenco is a respected name in high quality audio and the sound this speaker produces is not only some of the best sound but it is also incredibly loud and capable of filling more than one room with high quality music. Much like the Monster, it also features NFC capability to streamline Bluetooth pairing, which is a great feature but honestly seems legacy when you have Wi-Fi streaming capability. The difference with the Lenco is that it does not have any USB connectivity, but does have Ethernet connectivity for users that may not have the best wireless signal. For my testing, however, I used Wi-FI throughout the house without any issue. It also has a mode switching button on the back and the volume controls are on the left front corner while the power button is on the right front corner. Lenco also bundles their own app with their speaker, which also appears to be a slight departure from Qualcomm’s AllPlay Jukebox, although slightly better looking in terms of UI.
The Hitachi W200 is the most affordable and the most middle of the road out of all the speakers I tested for this review. It isn’t as big as the Lenco or Monster speakers but it packs two drivers and two tweeters and the same functionality, including NFC, Bluetooth, Aux in and wired Ethernet capability. Once again, for this speaker I did not make use of the Ethernet jack for the purpose of testing Wi-Fi, which is really the main purpose of this speaker. And much like the other two speakers it is also capable of filling more than just one room with fantastic sound, in fact, this speaker was the one that sat next to me while writing most of this review and it mostly had to be at the lowest volume levels purely because of how powerful it is (22 Watts). Hitachi also adopted their own bundled app for their speaker, also basically the same as the Qualcomm AllPlay Jukebox, but there’s really not much wrong with it because the Jukebox is a pretty powerful application for controlling AllPlay speakers.
Onboarding experience and setup
As things go with most Wi-Fi enabled technologies, there is a certain level of initial setup that can make or break a user’s first experience with a device. Fortunately with all of the speakers I tested, they all utilized Qualcomm’s onboarding tool which makes connecting your speaker to your home network a breeze.
In the case of all three speakers, they simply needed to be turned into Wi-Fi mode, which is the default mode for all of the speakers. Once in Wi-FI mode, all you have to do is connect your phone directly to the speaker’s Wi-Fi SSID, name the speaker, and then you’ll be prompted to ‘log in’ to the network, which will pull up an HTML5 page for setting up the speaker onto your network. Once that’s done, the speaker will essentially be accessible as a smart speaker to all of your devices on your network. That includes PCs, tablets, laptops and smartphones.
Additionally, if you use the AllPlay Jukebox (or any of the branded apps) you can go into each speaker’s settings and see its IP and MAC addresses, wireless signal strength and network, power source, enable automatic updates (or update now), password protect the speaker, restart the speaker or factory reset it. A very powerful troubleshooting tool, integrated into the platform, which should reduce OEM’s need to support these speakers given their relative newness to the market. Also, thanks to the 2×2 Wi-Fi on these speakers, all of the speakers had full signal around the house, even in places where the signal typically isn’t as great.
AllPlay Jukebox and Native Apps
The AllPlay jukebox is essentially the app that enables you to control everything and group speakers together, which is one of the greatest features of this platform. It also allows you to adjust volume, audio sources for streaming, and all of the settings I just talked about. The AllPlay Jukebox from my experience has been a solid application, which is important since crashing and any kinds of bugs may be a turn off to some users spending hundreds of dollars on these speakers. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said about the AllPlay Radio which is how you can get TuneIn radio functionality on AllPlay with all of the features of the AllPlay Jukebox. I notified Qualcomm of the crashes that I got with the application, which they said they are working on improving. However, because AllPlay allows the stream to continue these crashes did not affect the actual stream, which is partially the point of this technology, to decouple from the phone and give your music more freedom.
Since I use Spotify religiously (like many other people), I decided that I would do most of my testing of the AllPlay platform with Spotify. This makes use of Spotify’s own platform called Spotify Connect, which doesn’t utilize Qualcomm’s Click SDK to give you the full ability to control the speakers and groups like you can with Monster, Lenco and Hitachi’s apps. However, it only takes seconds to fire up one of the Qualcomm AllPlay Jukebox-based apps and group whatever speakers I want into what Qualcomm calls “party mode.”
Apps like DoubleTwist, Rhapsody and SomaFM utilize Qualcomm’s Click SDK which enables those applications to tap into the speakers settings in ways that Spotify can’t. The reason for this is primarily licensing, but I believe it does lessen the music experience because Spotify doesn’t utilize the Click SDK. By using the Click SDK app developers can customize how their users interact with their Wi-Fi speakers, like DoubleTwist does, allowing users to turn speakers on and off in the interface rather than the way that the default AllPlay jukebox does. DoubleTwist is a pretty versatile application, and can do a lot from one app, but most of my music is on Spotify which isn’t as flexible as Click SDK-enabled apps.
Personally, I prefer playing on either one speaker at a time or all of them at once, and when nobody’s home I thoroughly enjoy blasting my music at my preferred volume across the whole house. And because of the Wi-Fi streaming ability I could easily go from room to room and control the music without worrying about disconnecting.
I did try the Bluetooth re-streaming functionality of AllPlay using Pandora (not an AllPlay service yet), which basically takes content from your phone over Bluetooth and re-streams it to the other speakers in the group that you add to the Bluetooth paired speaker. It worked pretty well, but the experience simply wasn’t as good as streaming over Wi-Fi. In fact, when I tried the Bluetooth re-streaming feature of AllPlay with the Monster Soundstage S3 I forgot that I was on Bluetooth and walked out of range of the speaker and lost my music. I managed to get spoiled by AllPlay in a very short period of time and I suspect many users will simply get used to this platform and functionality and ditch the legacy Bluetooth functionality.
To me, the most interesting omissions for streaming services are Beats Music and Google Play Music. Admittedly, I don’t use either of those services as I consider them inferior to Spotify (I have tried both). However, these applications, if you are a subscriber may make something like Bluetooth re-streaming an attractive feature and something that would allow users to utilize this technology without necessarily having to be fully supported. That’s what makes this current iteration of the AllPlay platform so great, it really is very inclusive and flexible.
One interesting thing about these Wi-Fi speakers and that platform overall is that you can control the speakers from multiple devices as long as they are on the same service/account. In fact, I discovered later in my testing that I could control my Spotify from any PC in my house as long as it was logged into the same Spotify account. Additionally, I could send ANY audio from any PC on the network directly from Windows without any application, which I found to be an interesting hidden feature. After all, you can stream music from your NAS to these speakers, so streaming from your PC directly shouldn’t be much of a stretch, and it isn’t.
There’s also the ability to display what songs are playing on certain AllJoyn capable LG TVs, which may be useful to some users, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to test that feature and frankly its less of an AllPlay feature but more of a pointer towards Qualcomm’s AllJoyn IoT platform and its connectedness with AllPlay.
The Qualcomm AllPlay platform takes the company’s wireless expertise and combines it with their mobile software capability and has created a nearly seamless experience to allow people to enjoy their music in the way it was meant to be listened to. From my experience, AllPlay speakers are an absolute must have for anyone that likes having high quality music around their home and likes to be in control. The beauty of the AllPlay platform is that it allows you to mix and match manufacturers without much concern for compatibility, which is great. However, not all speakers are made the same and some speakers are louder than others and you may need to fine tune that if you end up getting different speakers from different manufacturers.
Even with some of these compromises, it still allows you to have a fantastic audio experience across multiple brands without concerns about compatibility and I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t particularly think that I would trade these three speakers in for three of the same speaker because they are all fantastic speakers on their own and having the three of them working together really isn’t much work at all.