LG Music Flow: Hands-on with the most compelling Sonos rival yet
LG has launched a comprehensive wireless multi-room audio system it is calling LG Music Flow. It is a complete system of audio devices that will rival the dominant player in this segment, Sonos.
We've seen a number of launches in recent months and years offering multi-room solutions, but from the time we've spent with Music Flow so far, it looks like LG are really on the right track.
If you missed the Sonos boat, or are turned off by the high pricing, then sit up and pay attention, because LG might have just hit the ball out of the park.
The LG Music Flow speakers
The LG Music Flow system is comprised of a number of units, from the smallest - the H3, up to a full soundbar and wireless subwoofer offering in HS6.
LG have a lot of experience in soundbars, and recent devices - like the SoundPlate 540 - are testament to LG's growing skill in this area.
The speaker family is designed to compliment LG's other home entertainment offerings, with a lovely metal silver-grey finish. They feel like high quality speakers and they look great too, with fuss-free modern design.
The speaker names reveal something of their performance ratings. The first devices to launch will be the H7 (70W, £328.99), the H5 (40W, £229.99) and the R1 network bridge (£49.99) and will be available in the UK in September 2014.
This will be followed by the H3 (30W, £149.99) and the HS6 soundbar and wireless woofer (320W, £499.99). There's no clear date, with LG just saying "soon after".
We spent some time listening to all of the speakers in the range and we're impressed with the quality. LG told us that the speakers have been designed for a balanced sound, designed to make vocals clear, so the details don't get lost in the bass.
That's true and we're impressed with the room-filling audio of the H7. It's the daddy of the speaker range, offering 70W and uses multiple drivers with a pulp and foam diaphragm. LG hasn't released all the specs for the system, but is placing an emphasis on quality.
The LG Music Flow system will support 24 bit, 192kHz quality audio across its devices, offering HD music playback.
Sitting behind every wireless multi-room system has to be a connection that works. LG uses a range of technologies, with a dual-band Wi-Fi mesh network allowing multiple point connections between devices. There's also Bluetooth and NFC, as well as Ethernet connections for a wired solution.
We're yet to experience exactly how the interplay between wireless and wired would work - something we'll explore when we review the LG Music Flow system more fully.
We mentioned NFC. In this implementation, LG is calling it Tag On. The idea is that you can walk up to a speaker, tap your smartphone on it and Music Flow uses that to let the music follow you. If you walk into a different room, you can tap the speaker to move the music there.
Of course you get control of all the speakers through the app anyway, but this means you can be listening to something in the kitchen, walk upstairs to your bedroom and tap the speaker to have the music there, rather than fiddling with the app each time.
LG Music Flow will also be the first UK product to launch featuring LG HomeChat. This is a service that lets you communicate with LG products using the Line messaging app. We can see that telling your washing machine to start a wash cycle remotely has some benefit, we're not currently sure why you'd need the same option for a music system - if you're not there to listen, why use HomeChat?
There's also a clever proximity feature, so if you're on your way home listening to music, you can continue to play when get home, moving the music to your speakers for that uninterrupted move from headphones to speakers.
Adding speakers to the system seems to be very easy, simply a case of tapping the button and linking it up in the app.
Home cinema skills
Of course the HS6 soundbar offers more traditional audio inputs as part of a home cinema setup and we saw it demoed using an optical connection from the TV, but then connected to H3 rear speakers in a surround sound arrangement.
The soundbar has a wireless subwoofer and can be used for regular music listening as well as to boosting your TV audio, rather like the Sonos Playbar and Sub. You simply have to create a surround sound grouping with your speakers and that's it, you've got a home cinema system.
Of course the soundbar and sub are really a 2.1 system, so adding rear speakers gives you 4.1 rather than 5.1, but the soundbar does what it can to decode your 5.1 or 7.1 input and recreate the effects. We're sure that the soundbar will come with all the smart functions that current LG soundbars do, but we don't yet have all the details on it.
You also get individual points of control, so if you want your back channels to be more subtle, you can turn them down and you have complete flexibility in how you arrange your speakers and which speakers you use. If you want to move a pair of speakers in from elsewhere in the house for an ad hoc movie night, then it's easy to do so.
Music: Spotify, Deezer, TuneIn, network, and more
When it comes to sourcing music, one of the strongest propositions of Sonos has been integration of services like Spotify. LG is coming out all guns blazing in this department too. You'll get access to Spotify, Deezer, TuneIn Radio, and Napster in the UK, other services may be available in other territories.
You'll be able to play music on your device, as well as music you have on your local home network - from a sharing PC or media server, for example.
But Music Flow is smarter than that: if you have friends over and they have the Music Flow Player app and are connected to your network, you can access music they might have on their smartphones too.
For non-streaming service music you get Gracenote support as well as a Mood Station feature. This will give you playlists based on moods from your local music. It's rather like the playlists of Spotify, which are also supported.
We spent some time playing with Spotify on Music Flow. Rather than reskinning Spotify, Music Flow takes you through to the Spotify native app environment, integrating Spotify Connect. It's a seamless move from one place to the other, so if you're a Spotify Premium customer, it looks great and you can stick to familiar controls.
LG Music Flow Player app
Controlling the whole thing is the app Music Flow Player app. This will be available for Android and iOS at launch, with Windows and Mac apps to follow. LG may then expand to other platforms, such as Windows Phone, although the impression we got talking to LG was that this was still to be decided.
The app provides a fairly intuitive system to access your music as well as manage your speakers. We didn't have time to fully explore it, but finding music and controlling volume was easy enough.
Grouping speakers is also easy and you get full control over what is playing on what speakers where. You can have Spotify playing in one room, a home cinema setup watching a movie in another. Like Sonos you'll be able to view and manage the volume across all your speakers easily.
We also noticed that you can assign left and right channels to different speakers, but there's plenty more exploring we'll need to do to discover if there are any obvious limitations in the system.
Our introduction to LG Music Flow has left a great impression. We like the quality of the sound we've heard so far. We like the design and the build quality of the speakers, as well as LG's ambition: this isn't a half-baked entry into multi-room audio, it's an explosion.
The pricing and range of speakers looks to compete directly with Sonos, priced to slightly undercut. Sonos may have been the go-to system for the last few years, but LG's offering looks really comprehensive and compelling.
We can't wait to get it in for more detailed reviewing.