WiFi audio -- products that stream audio wirelessly via your home network -- is suddenly becoming a crowded field. Despite the onslaught of products using Apple's AirPlay technology, Sonos has had the market mostly to itself. Now its being challenged by companies whose HR departments alone are probably bigger than Sonos: Bose, with its SoundTouch systems, and Samsung, with its $399 Shape M7.
Last week Samsung hosted a hands-on session with some new TVs or something, which I originally turned down 'cause who cares about TVs? But then they told me they'd have a couple of Shape M7s up and running -- and that I'd have the chance to not only listen but to measure them, too.
To skip to my lab measurements of the Shape M7, click here.
• Controllable through computers, smartphones, and tablets running Samsung wireless app
• Bluetooth wireless audio capability
• Can be used singly or in stereo pairs
• Can be used vertically or horizontally
• Supports MP3, WMA, non-DRM AAC, Ogg Vorbis, WAV, FLAC
• Two 0.8-inch/20mm tweeters
• Two 2.2-inch/56mm midranges
• 4-inch/100mm woofer
• 3.5mm aux stereo analog input
• Available in white or black finish
• Dimensions 5.4 x 15.8 x 7.6 in./13.7 x 40.1 x 19.3 cm
• Weight 8.8 lbs./4 kg
The idea with the Shape M7 is the mostly the same as with Sonos wireless speakers (like the new Play:1). The speaker streams audio wirelessly from Internet services such as Amazon Cloud Player, TuneIn Radio, Pandora and Rhapsody, and also streams from network-connected hard drives and computers.
You control the Shape M7 through a smartphone, a tablet or a computer -- anything that can run Samsung's wireless app, which is available for iOS and Android mobile devices. You can connect a whole houseful of Shape M7s (and whatever smaller or larger Shape devices Samsung might produce in the future), and control them all from whatever device you're using. You can send individual audio streams to each one, or run the same audio to all of them (yep, they play in sync), or run your favorite bossa nova recordings to four of them for a party while your daughter hides in her room playing Justin Bieber on her own Shape M7. Etc., etc., etc.
The Shape M7 offers one welcome twist Sonos products lack: Bluetooth. Using Bluetooth, it's easy to stream content directly off your phone or tablet, which Sonos can't do. You can also use your phone, tablet or computer to access Internet streaming services the Shape M7 lacks, such as Spotify.
Bluetooth is an especially handy feature for a guest room, because it lets them use their own devices easily. (Of course, Sonos owners can just buy a cheap Bluetooth speaker for their guest room. I'd told there are quite a few of those available these days.)
Setup / Ergonomics
Like Sonos, Samsung uses its own wireless network to transmit audio, and uses your home WiFi network just to stream from the Internet and connect with wireless system is a lot different. Unlike Sonos, the Samsung system doesn't require that one device in the system be wired directly to your router with an Ethernet cable. However, if you want multiroom functionality, with all your Shapes playing in sync, you have to buy Samsung's $49 Hub.
(For a complete explanation of AirPlay, Sonos and other wireless audio standards, see "Which of These 5 Wireless Audio Technologies is Right for You?")
You can place the Shape M7 horizontally, or vertically using a snap-on stand. You can also pair two of them for stereo sound, just as you can with the Sonos Play:3 and Play:1. I listened mostly with the unit in the horizontal position, with just one speaker active, because that's how I figured most people would use the Shape M7.
I got to audition the Shape M7 partly using Bluetooth from my Samsung Galaxy S III phone, partly using a wired connection from my iPod touch, and partly using music stored on a Galaxy Note tablet Samsung had on hand.
From the first few bars of R.E.M.'s "7 Chinese Brothers," I could tell the Shape M7 sounded pretty good. The bass was full and pretty well-defined, and the midrange didn't show the roughness that many wireless speakers like this deliver. "It's kinda like a Play:3 with more bass," I noted.
The treble was a little on the soft side, something I noticed even more when I put on "Airpower," from Twin House, a recording of acoustic guitar duets by jazz guitarists Larry Coryell and Philip Catherine. The mid-midrange -- where the sound and resonance of the acoustic guitar's body resides -- was gorgeous and detailed, but the high frequency harmonics coming off the strings were lost.
Fortunately, the Samsung wireless app includes bass and treble control for each speaker in the system, marked in increments of +/1 with a maximum range of +/-3. (I don't know if those numbers represent actual decibels or something more abstract.) Turning up the treble by +1 brought balance to the Shape's sound. I tried +2, but that made the sound too crispy for my taste.
With the treble tweaked, I cranked up Wale's "Love/Hate Thing," and was pretty darned happy with what I heard. "I LOVE the bass on this thing!" my notes said, marveling at the Shape M7's ability to play deep bass notes loudly while retaining a nice sense of punch and definition. Wale's rap and Sam Dew's vocal sounded extremely upfront, present and clear. The huge spaciousness of the backing vocals was lost, but hey, you can't get real stereo from a device just TK inches wide.
While the Shape M7's sound was always full and robust, it didn't play as loud as I'd hoped. In the large conference room where I heard it, I kept it cranked full-blast for much of my listening.
While the meeting room setting didn't allow me to perform measurements as good as I can do in the relatively wide open space of my backyard, I was able to do some gated and in-room measurements to get an idea of how well-engineered the Shape M7 is. You can see a tiny version of the frequency response chart here. To see the full-size chart, along with a more in-depth explanation of the measurement techniques and results, click here.
To sum up, the response is surprisingly flat: ±2.6 dB on-axis, ±3.7 dB averaged across a ±30-degree horizontal range. However, the tweeter has negligible output above 15 kHz.
But it doesn't play all that loud. On my MCMäxxx test, cranking Mötley Crüe's "Kickstart My Heart" as loud as the Shape M7 could play without gross distortion -- which in this case meant with the volume full up -- the Shape M7 got up to only 93 dB at 1 meter. That's loud enough to fill a room, but I think Samsung could have pushed the drivers a little harder and gotten more output (at the expense of a little more distortion, of course). The much smaller, $199 Sonos Play:1 hit 95 dB on the same test.
I like the Shape M7 a lot. While I couldn't compare it directly to the Sonos Play:3 or Play:5 (which I've never listened to at length), according to the best of my memory it sounds better at least than the Play:3, with clearer mids, smoother treble and more powerful bass. But given that the Shape M7 costs $100 more, that should come as no surprise.
As I see it, there's only one clear-cut reason to buy a Shape system instead of a Sonos system: Bluetooth. On the other hand, Sonos has the advantages of a full line of products and a whopping 21 Internet streaming services. And once you get into AirPlay, you have an almost unlimited selection of products and streaming services.
I guess the Shape M7's ultimate worth will be determined by how industrious Samsung is in adding more streaming services -- especially Spotify -- and more products to the line.