If you have a smartphone or tablet in your household, you need not be tied to either its tiny, tinny speaker or a single Bluetooth or Wi-Fi speaker -- why not play your music through half a dozen different speaker at once, all in different rooms? Multi-room audio has been around for a decade now, but the race is heating up of late; Samsung's new M5 and M7 wireless multi-room speakers are the company's attempt at dethroning Sonos as the Wi-Fi hi-fi system of choice.
What Is It?
The Samsung M7 is the larger of the two speakers in Samsung's launch-day speaker line-up (the M5 is also available and a smaller M3 is on the way); its cabinet is a triangular prism shape that looks vaguely like the centre channel in a surround sound home cinema setup. That cabinet hides five speaker drivers -- two tweeters, two mid-range drivers and a single 4-inch woofer for low frequency effects.
You can buy the $499 M7 in either gloss black or gloss white -- the black is my choice of the two, but the white looks probably slightly more avant garde. The speaker's grille, which wraps around the slightly curved front and continues all the way to the rear ports, has a beautiful design that looks attractive and really lifts the tone of an otherwise pretty standard looking speaker.
Although you'll be doing most of the controlling of the M7 and Samsung's other Wi-Fi speakers' settings over the complementary iOS or Android app (a Mac and Windows PC 'app' is also available), you can change volume using the touch sensitive scroll wheel and mute buttons on the M7's top right. When plugged into power, three more touch-sensitive buttons light up for the M7's non-Wi-Fi inputs -- there's direct Bluetooth streaming from a smartphone and Samsung's SoundShare mode, which hooks the speaker up to any reasonably recent Samsung TV to act as an external speaker.
To hook up the M7 with another M7 or M5 over Samsung's mesh Wi-Fi network -- it doesn't use regular 2.4GHz/5GHz for its inter-speaker communications -- you'll need to buy a multi-room M2 Link Hub. Failing that, as long as you have at least one of the speakers hooked directly into your home network router with Ethernet. This is something worth remembering -- for a true wireless audio experience you'll have to buy an additional accessory.
What Is It Good At?
As an all-in-one speaker, and even if you're only purchasing and using a single speaker (and in this regard the M7 is aurally superior to the M5), the Samsung M7 is incredibly versatile and far more so than the Sonos speakers against which it is competing. Want to play music through two or three or more speakers at once? Use Samsung's Wireless Audio app. Want to simply and quickly play music on a single speaker? Use the M7's NFC tag to connect smartphone and speaker over Bluetooth within a couple of seconds. You can even use an older non-Bluetooth audio player with the M7's 3.5mm stereo input (a feature lacking on the lesser M5).
The M7 is a reasonably powerful speaker. It doesn't quite have the outright musicality and audio power of a $599 Sonos PLAY:5, but it handily eclipses the $449 PLAY:3. Even as a single-speaker system, the Samsung M7 can fill a small- to medium-sized room with sound without running short of power. There's a good amount of mid-bass courtesy of the 4-inch woofer, and treble is further clear and brassy as you move closer to the speaker's central axis. There's only a minimal amount of distortion as you move close to and reach the M7's maximum volume, too, which makes it easier to push the speaker to its limits.
It does all this while looking good, too. I have a pair of Sonos PLAY:5s at home (they're actually ZonePlayer S5s from 2009, but that's only a name change), and I think the M7 handily beats them in the design stakes; the glossy top panel does pick up fingerprints like nobody's business, but after a quick polish you'd never know. You can wall mount the M7 using an optional bracket, or stand the speaker vertically using the supplied foot attachment. I prefer it sitting flat, but if you're space-poor then the vertical option is equally aurally pleasing.
Samsung's Wireless Audio multi-room app is, for the most part, a good experience -- which is crucial when it's your main conduit for playing audio through multiple speakers at once. Setting up a speaker or speakers is a relatively simple affair, whether you have it wired directly into your network or whether you're using the Wi-Fi bridge. You can set different names and zones for multiple speakers, you can stream different audio to different speakers, you can selectively mute or change volumes or group everything together at once -- everything you'd expect from a multi-room audio system is available. Not as many music streaming services are supported as I'd hoped to see, though -- even Spotify was only a relatively recent addition.
What Is It Not Good At?
One of the biggest issues facing the Samsung M7 and the rest of the company's multi-room speaker ecosystem at the moment is that the smartphone app doesn't support a great deal of streaming music services. Spotify and Rdio are supported, of course, but if you use another service like JB Hi-Fi Now!, you're out of luck. Obviously the ecosystem will grow with time and more services will be added according to the demands of customers and potential customers, but at this stage chief competitor Sonos has a decade-long head start and that's going to be difficult to beat.
The slightly off-square speaker design did give me a headache when I was first setting it up; you can't push the M7 all the way back into a 90-degree corner and have it sit flush; the curved fascia and rounded rear - where the power, Ethernet and 3.5mm audio jacks live -- are all just a little bit off my perfect idea of a speaker system. Of course, Sonos is a worse offender in this regard, so it's not exactly a point in that competitor's favour either.
There are a few small niggles in both the software and the way hardware works -- for example, switching to Bluetooth cuts off the Wi-Fi audio stream, but it appears to keep playing in the Wireless Audio app until you attempt to switch songs. These will be ironed out with time, of course, but it's obvious the system is still in its infancy and is developing. For the most part it's a trouble-free experience using the M7 throughout your day to play songs or listen to podcasts, it's just not completely seamless.
The Samsung M7's stereo speaker mode -- which needs a second, matching speaker -- you can only pair an M7 with another M7, or an M5 with another M5 -- does some untoward things to the audio that the speakers produce. For one, it doesn't actually split stereo audio to a left speaker and a right speaker, so there's no separation to speak of; it also boosts bass by a large amount which can lead to distortion at higher volumes. Even if you're using a single speaker, there's not a great deal of stereo separation due to the M7's small footprint.
Should You Buy It?
A system like Samsung's M7 and M5 speakers only really comes into its own when you have two or three or four or more speakers set up, ideally in multiple zones. If you're in a multi-user household there'll likely be some fights over control of your home's audio system, of course, but if you're willing to make the outlay of buying $2000-plus worth of speakers to kit your house out, you won't be disappointed. If you're part of a modern family all kitted out with smartphones and streaming subcriptions, the M7 is an appropriately high-tech speaker.
As long as you're already a subscriber to a supported streaming music service -- Spotify is the default choice for most Australians, obviously, so it's good to see it supported -- or if you have a large shared music library at home, Samsung's M7 speaker is great on its own -- and better in a group -- as a wireless audio system. If you're willing to buy into the Samsung multi-room speaker family, the M7 is a great first purchase -- it's versatile in its connections and sounds good for its price tag; if you can find it for its current ~$430 street price it's an even better deal.