Let me start this article by saying that Sonos is good. Sonos is REALLY good. There’s a reason why their name has become synonymous with multi-room audio, even reaching the level of ubiquity enjoyed by brands like Kleenex and Coke.
When people think of a whole home audio system, they call it a “Sonos System,” regardless of the manufacturer, and there’s a good reason for this. Not only was Sonos the first company to get multi-room right by simplifying all the intricacies of latency and delay, they single-handedly brought that Apple “Automagic” element into the space.
At Audilux, probably 90% of our multi-room installs incorporate Sonos in one way or another. It just works, but the recent supply chain issues and very tight constraints on Sonos’ most popular product for installation (the Amp) left me wondering if anyone else could deliver a similar experience.
A cottage industry of competition has sprung up since Sonos began its undisputed reign, each with varying levels of success. We’ve tested everything from Denon/Marantz’s Heos System, Yamaha Musicast, and even some DIY options. While many are functional, no one has been able to effectively replicate Sonos’s ecosystem until now.
Enter BlueSound, a new to us outfit that’s part of Canadian audio conglomerate Lenbrooke. Thanks to a collaborative relationship between sister brands BlueSound products share amplification technology from audiophile legends NAD.
Bluesound has squarely targeted customers who care about audio quality. They’re not trying to be a “Great Value” Sonos knockoff but rather a slightly more upscale alternative for people who value performance above all. But, of course, in our current environment, they’re also an excellent option for someone who wants a system now rather than waiting months on inventory fulfillment.
Let’s take a quick look at their various offerings, see where BlueSound bests the reigning champion, and where Sonos is still in a league of their own.
The Node is is a streamer that competes directly with the Sonos Port as a way to get streaming audio into your home audio system. $599
The hub isn’t really a streamer but is kind of a unique offering that allows you to bring an audio source into your Blue Sound network. You can install this behind a TV or pair it with a turn table. $319
Streamers with built-in amps:
The Power Node is the BlueSound alternative to the Sonos Amp. It’s functionally very similar, but offers an upgraded signal path, hi-resolution audio, and plenty of power. $949
Power Node Edge:
If you have a room that you’d like to incorporate into your system but don’t need quite as much power, the Power Node Edge is a great way to add a room without breaking the bank. Just announced in September of 2022, the Power Node Edge is only $650.
BlueSound has one sound bar option, the Soundbar+. This is, simply put, the best-sounding Soundbar I’ve ever heard. While soundbars are always an upgrade over pint-sized built-in TV speakers, the Soundbar+ is actually capable of enjoyable music playback and has a reasonable amount of bass.
It’s physically taller than most at 5.5″ tall but also considerably more shallow. A wall mount is included in the box at no extra cost, and just like the Sonos Arc, the Soundbar+ offers a way to pipe your TV’s audio into the rest of your home.
At $899, it’s a great alternative to the Arc.
What you get with both BlueSound & Sonos:
Reliable low latency audio across your entire home
Wireless and wired connectivity
Sexy, well-designed applications for your phone
Voice assistant control from Alexa, etc.
If any of the following are you, you should stick to Sonos:
You’re an Apple Music user. Sonos has the monopoly on interfacing with Apple Music, and being forced into using Airplay is no fun.
You aren’t subscribed to premium streaming sources and want to access Sonos’s vast library of radio stations. They’re very high-quality curated programming and don’t cost anything.
You want the most extensive array of device options. Sonos has more models available to custom tailor a system for your home.
Cost is the deciding factor. While the two ecosystems’ pricing is close, Sonos is around 10-20% cheaper overall.
Final Thoughts and Conclusion
At the end of the day, if someone asks for Sonos, that is definitely plan A. They’re still the de facto standard for a good reason, and we know we’re installing a tried and true product that won’t lead to callbacks.
But, if they ask for “Sonos”and need it right now,We’re happy to have another solid option. Perhaps we could introduce you to our new friend from Canada, BlueSound.
When you’re shopping for speakers or any other piece of AV gear, the internet is typically a great resource, with tons of review sites offering a vast diversity of opinions. You can aggregate all of that information and decide what you think the best option would be. Easy as pie.
Unfortunately, this is not the case with architectural speakers.
Some of this plight is caused by the fact that most custom install brands aren’t available for sale directly to the public. It’s also understandable that built-in speakers are a much smaller market than soundbars or even traditional Hi-Fi speakers that sit in the room.
There is an unmistakable void for honest opinions and unbiased reviews of architectural speakers. If you’re building a new home or dealing with a custom installer you’re pretty much flying blind.
Here at Audilux, we’re going to change that going forward. This post is the first of a series of in-wall and in-ceiling speaker reviews. I promise to do my best to avoid the typical audiophile sensory wankerism and offer clear and level-headed insights.
This is important since in all likelihood you won’t be able to demo any of these speakers yourself.
We’re going to start our new series near the very top of the food chain of in-wall speakers.
The Kef Ci-3160-RL: THX Ultra Certified
Kef speakers are manufactured in Tovil, England, just as they have been for the last sixty-plus years. While most of the industry’s component production has shifted to Asia, Kef is one of only a handful of companies to maintain control of every aspect of their supply chain by manufacturing custom drivers and electronics in-house.
If you’re not familiar with the rest of Kef’s Architectural offerings, they offer three different series that can be specified depending on the quality level desired; ER (Value), CR (Good), and QR (Best). The Ci-3160’s happily occupy a notch above the rest of the QR series and one rung below the flagship reference series.
Unboxing & First Impressions
The first thing that’s apparent when unboxing each speaker is the staggering build quality and weight. 25 lbs. is formidable by any standard, but even more so for a product that lacks a cabinet. Everything about the package exudes attention to detail and high-quality construction.
On a typical in-wall speaker a “dog” tab provides pressure at regular intervals surrounding the baffle. The tabs are tightened and sandwich the outer frame of the speaker with whatever substrate you are installing into. With the Extreme Series, KEF has opted to use a secondary frame that encompasses the entire perimeter of the unit.
This might seem like a subtle difference, but it’s one of the many details that add up to next-level performance.
Pro Tip: One side effect of this design is that the rear frame has to be slid into one side of the rough opening and then pulled back to the intended center location. This does limit how closely the speaker can be installed to any framing so I would suggest adding at least two inches of clearance space to either side in order to facilitate a smooth install.
Stunning Good Looks
It’s no coincidence that the Ci-3160RL made the top of our list of speakers your interior designer will love. The faceplates are machined from a solid piece of aluminum that provides an undeniable bit of visual interest to your decor.
If you’re passionate about hi-fi or an unrepentant audiophile, you’re going to love the look.
In their bare form, the Kefs are an elegant conversation starter and a great excuse to put on a record. Kef also includes paint-able magnetic grills in the box if incognito is more your style.
Sonic performance is a very subjective metric, but I would describe the overall tone of the Ci3160-RL as very focused, punchy, and smooth. One of the significant benefits of using 6″ bass drivers is the very fast transient response. Sure, you’re not going to get earth-shaking low frequencies (or frankly get much action below 60hz), but that would be a silly goal anyway.
When paired with a sub to handle ultra low-end duties, the Kefs offer an accurate representation of the frequency spectrum that’s sure to delight.
As far as the top end is concerned, the equipped Uni-Q tweeter was enjoyable despite my militant preference towards smooth or warmer sounding tweeters. (Read: I Love Ribbon Tweeters) I found it to be very musical and articulate, but it never hinted at taking my head off even at very high volumes.
It’s very pleasantly detailed but mercifully lacks the skulking razor-sharp armament of a Babadook Klipsch horn threatening pain around every corner.
Home Theater Performance
Using the Kef CI3160’s for movies is a walk in the park. They’re capable of nonchalantly delivering soul-crushing volumes without breaking a sweat and then quietly retreating into dialog before you even know what happened.
My test install was in a room that measured 25′ x 30′ x 15′, which is far beyond the purview of the THX Ultra spec.
They easily filled the space at reference level.
It’s probably time I address the elephant in the room regarding the KEF Extreme THX in-wall speakers. They’re undoubtedly expensive.
At $2000 per speaker, the real question is are they worth it? That requires answering a few more questions.
Are you in a 8+ seat dedicated home theater, or a big open concept living space?
Do you want a speaker that offers audiophile performance but blends into your decor?
Are you someone who lives their life by the mantra “Buy the best, buy it once”?
If you can answer yes to any of these questions, I think not only are the CI-3160’s worth it, but they’re a great deal.
Keep in mind these are the install equivalent of the Kef R7, which will set you back an additional $300 each and a lot of floor space.
The Kef Ci3160-RL is one of the few circumstances where choosing in-wall is no compromise at all.