(Pocket-lint) - LG entered the multiroom music arena not with an exploratory dip of the toe, but with an explosion: a fully-featured line-up of audio products, designed to cater for just about any situation.
In its sights is Sonos, the system that has not only set the standard, but dominated the multiroom space for a number of years. There are plenty of pretenders for Sonos' crown, but many fall short.
We've been living with a number of LG's Music Flow devices including the HS6 soundbar and subwoofer, the H7, H5 and H3 speakers for six months. So how does LG's system stack up?
LG has taken a quality approach to its family of Music Flow speakers. Great looking anodised aluminium bodies offer a minimalist design: there's no fuss over details that don't matter and a cohesive language that makes these speakers look like a family.
As such, the H7 and H5 offer the same sort of scaled looks, with metal bodies encompassing grilles to the front. It's a fuss-free design, spared of any garish branding; the silver finish is contemporary too, fitting into pretty much any room you'd want to place them in.
The placement of LEDs, controls, and the subtle marking of things like NFC contact points, means that you know where you are with these speakers. A common design feature is the space to the bottom, giving room for the speaker to breathe and lending some added elegance to the looks.
The other family design trend is the angular front. It's applied to the HS7 soundbar's subwoofer, as well as the H4, H5 and H7 speakers, giving a distinctive look and escaping the big, flat and boxy looks that some speakers of this ilk exhibit.
The HS6 soundbar matches the grille design of the rest of the Music Flow family, but moves over to a plastic body that matches the colouration of LG's TV sets. That helps it bridge the gap in design terms between the two different areas of audio and TV in which Music Flow sits.
There are the HS7 and HS9 soundbars too, both stepping up the output from the HS6, so there's a range to suit your home cinema tastes.
System setup and connectivity
One of the appealing things about the Music Flow system is that LG has equipped it with a wide range of connections. Each speaker offers NFC, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, as well as a wired Ethernet connection.
Bluetooth is generally a separate system from the Wi-Fi networking route, which can be confusing at first. The NFC that all the speakers offer triggers a Bluetooth connection, as is typical for NFC, and Bluetooth works point-to-point per speaker, rather than across the entire system - something to remember when you tap your phone.
But Bluetooth can also be used for automatically moving music from one speaker to another, with a "follow me" feature. If you enable this, when you move to a new room the closer speaker will start playing. This uses Bluetooth LE as a sort of proximity detection, but sticks to Wi-Fi playback. In smaller properties, you might find it's constantly trying to switch and we found we'd rather make a larger group than have music switching speakers all the time.
LG really pitches the Music Flow system as a Wi-Fi networked system. You can mix and match Wi-Fi and Ethernet connections, so, far example, you might have your soundbar wired in and your peripheral speakers connected via Wi-Fi and that isn't a problem.
Setup of Music Flow is fairly straightforward and all handled by the smartphone app, but as with other systems where you have multiple networked components, it's prone to losing track of what is where at times.
Software updates have made setup smoother during the months we've been using Music Flow, but it's still a system prone to errors: if it doesn't work, there's often no reason given, and you're left to try turning it all off and starting again.
Music Flow is controlled through the smartphone app and you'll need this to connect your speakers. The system requires a button press to connect a new speaker, with the app then doing the rest. The app controls not only the configuration of your speakers, but also the music they play in most circumstances.
This is an important point: if you want to play music, you'll need a phone or tablet to control it. You can't play from the speakers themselves, there are no displays for navigation, no tuners for FM or DAB radio. This is a smart connected system - aside from direct connections, like HDMI or optical on the soundbar.
Software: Features and follies
With this being a connected multiroom system, much of what Music Flow does hangs on software. We've already pointed out that pretty much everything needs an app to work.
The LG Music Flow app acts as a hub for a number of services, offering you multiple sources of music.
It will handle your home network music, such as that on a DLNA media server, local music on your device, as well as services including TuneIn Radio, Deezer, Napster and Spotify Connect.
There's also support (added recently through a software update) for Google Cast, which enables Google Play Music, TuneIn (again) and NPR One direct from their native apps, so there's a range of options for streaming music.
It's worth remembering that in most streaming situations Music Flow isn't dependent on the control device. Unless you're playing from your phone, or via Bluetooth, you can safely walk out of range and things keep playing. Setup a Spotify stream and it will happily play that until the cows come home, even if you have to walk down to the shops to buy more Prosecco.
Spotify is sticking to its guns when it comes to being independent and with Music Flow it's no different. The Spotify icon in Music Flow is just a link to the proper Spotify app, so all control comes from there.
The advantage is this is a native Spotify experience, so it all works as normal for Spotify. That means you can open Spotify on your computer and control your Music Flow speakers through Spotify Connect as well on your phone.
To use Music Flow's fancy features, like grouping, you'll have to switch back to the Music Flow app, but if you've made a pairing, that speaker group will then appear as an option for Spotify Connect, both playing as normal.
Grouping and surround sound
Grouping is one of the appealing features of a multiroom speaker system. Not only can you send the music to wherever you want it - rather than just cranking the volume up - but you can make groups of speakers to play the same music across a wider area.
This is perfect for parties, where you might want control of the music from one place, but have it playing across your whole house. You can't make and name groups in Music Flow, you have to open up the speakers and tick the boxes, which is a little clunky.
The music sometimes breaks briefly when you make or change a group, which isn't great when you're entertaining. It feels like it needs to be a little more seamless, letting you add speakers on the fly when you want them, or when you want to extend the music to a wider area.
If you have a soundbar, then you have the option of creating a surround sound system. This is an option for those wanting a bigger sound experience in front of the TV, as you can assign left and right speakers and group your Music Flow speakers together.
It's not all smooth sailing, however. On our setup it introduced syncing problems, with a slight delay on the audio. There's an AV sync setting in the app to try and counter this, although we didn't have great success and found that if one of the speakers decided to drop off the network, your surround sound grouping vanishes. In short: if you're a huge cinema fan, this might not be the best option for you.
And if there's one thing that's plagued us, it's been speakers that drop off the network. This was less of a problem for the HS6 soundbar, although its utility is different to the satellite speakers: it's playing through HDMI, rather than being dependent on the networked connection. However, at times we found it couldn't been seen on its Ethernet connection, which sort of defies logic.
The result of speakers dropping off is that you want to play some music in your kitchen, for example, and the app can't see the speaker. Or, you open up Spotify to use Spotify Connect, and the speaker you want isn't an option on the list.
We also found that sometimes the reported speaker wasn't playing. Again, this feels like some sort of network problem, but you can see the track that's playing in the app, the timer ticking through, but there's no music coming out of the speaker. Playback failures occurred with networked music, but anyone who has a networked storage system will know that sometimes that too just vanishes.
We also found that moving speakers could cause all sorts of problems. Sometimes when plugging speakers back in they are recognised as part of Music Flow without a problem, instantly connected and integrated. Other times we've had half the speakers vanish, needing to be added to the system again, running through the whole setup process.
One thing is clear though: the stronger your Wi-Fi connection, the better everything plays together. If you're on the end of your Wi-Fi's range, you might want to consider an extender or try a PowerLine adapter connected to Ethernet.
LG HS6 soundbar review
The HS6 soundbar features HDMI in and out, meaning you can easily hook it up to your home cinema system. There's also an optical input for the return from your TV if you're using other direct HDMI inputs or the internal TV tuner.
It comes with the wall-mounting kit in the box and makes for a quick installation using the supplied template to drill the holes in the wall for the brackets.
We found the performance from the £350 320W soundbar to be great. It offers plenty of volume for the average living room, although higher spec soundbars will give you richer audio. The soundstage is fairly wide, with noticeable left and right separation, so it doesn't sound like everything is being pushed through the centre.
The accompanying subwoofer, we found, is best placed fairly central to the soundbar, otherwise it occasionally drops off briefly. It offers good performance, adding richness to dialogue, punch to soundtracks and gravitas to special effects.
There's an accompanying remote for the HS6, the functions of which are duplicated within the Music Flow app, but placed too deep to be useful. Here you can do things like turn off the front display and the front status LED, as well as change the sound mode.
You can change the subwoofer level, as well as switch the sound effects, with the option for cinema - which is better for movies - music, standard and so on, each making a noticeable difference. We eventually stuck to standard, which seemed the most consistent and balanced.
As part of the Music Flow system it also supports all the other functions, as well as Bluetooth, in addition to the dedicated functions in support of your television. However, we've found that switching to a different input mode can cause a strange bug in the HS6. After we've been using it for music playback, it will sometimes turn itself off every 20 minutes when you're watching TV, for no discernable reason.
The long and short of it is that the LG HS6 is a good soundbar whether you're using the additional connected features or not, although it's rather expensive if you're not.
LG H7 and H5 review
The meat of the Music Flow system comes from the H5 and the H7, priced at £229 and £329 respectively. They are the equivalent of the Sonos Play:3 and Play:5, occupying the same sort of size and price. The H7 is rated at 70W compared to the H5's 40W.
These are speakers designed to fill a room with sound. Both offer the same design and features with a slightly angled front meeting in the middle. The build quality is excellent, most fitting of the price point.
There's very little control on the speakers themselves, save for a top dial to change the volume. This can also change the input to Bluetooth with a click, which might be handy when switching to a different device not running the Music Flow app, such as a visitor's iPhone perhaps.
There's a large port in the rear of both speakers that helps give the bass some depth (and doubles as a handy grab handle when moving the speakers around). Otherwise, both have two main drivers and two tweeters, with that slight angle in the design helping to widen their delivery for better room-filling sound.
Of the two speakers, the performance of the H7 is better than that of the H5, although in isolation, both sound great. Side-by-side, the H5 is more muted and less capable throughout the range. But both speakers remain distortion free through the volume range, so if you want to crank them up, you'll still get a crisp delivery of sound.
The sound is rich, perhaps a little bassy for some, but that makes it great for general listening. There is a custom equaliser to change the settings to your preference in the Music Flow app, so that bass can be dipped if you wish.
The H7 is the better speaker, but the H5 slips into a room more comfortably and is a full £100 cheaper than its larger partner, so could be the most popular option when building a system.
LG H3 review
At the smaller end of the Music Flow system is the H3. This is equivalent to the Sonos Play:1, being the same sort of size, and costs £129. This is more like a small room speaker, but with a single driver and tweeter, so it's obviously more limited in delivery than the H7 and H5.
It has the same quality of build though, and all the connectivity too, so fits nicely into the family. There's one difference on the top, however, offering a touch dial rather than the physical dial of the larger speakers. It works well enough, but we much prefer the tactile feeling of the physical dial.
If you're looking for additional speakers for your living room to partner your HS6, HS7 or HS9 sound bar, then the H3 is a good choice to create that surround sound extension, or boost the music in your party room, without taking up too much space.
We've used it as a bedside unit, but the limitation of having no real control without using your phone is keenly felt in that sort of setup. The sound from the H3 is a little boxy and it distorts as the volume is turned up beyond its capabilities, feeling a little strained, but otherwise it's a plucky little 30W speaker that's surprisingly loud for its size.
There are also smaller H4 and P7 portable speakers. These have an internal battery and are designed to be the one to throw in a bag to take with you, as well as being part of the wider system. We haven't had the chance to review them, but we'll update in the future if we do.
LG Music Flow app review
We've talked about the Music Flow system and many of the components of it, but it's worth talking about the app itself as well. It's the interface for the whole thing and, in its present form, it's a little weak.
In an ideal world, you'll use the LG Music Flow app as your music app. If that's the case, you'll be able to walk into your house and switch from headphones to your home Music Flow system seamlessly. (Arguably, you can do the same thing using Spotify with these speakers.)
The Music Flow app falls down in being a little disjointed. It's an everything app: it's a music player for all music sources that can be integrated, but it's also tasked with the job of managing all your speakers all the time. In that sense, it's slightly different to the Sonos remote control app that is only really aimed at home use.
Opening the app takes you to a Home section, where you'll presented with suggestions of what you might like to listen to, as well as streaming services, favourites, playlists, etc, which are cobbled together from your listening habits.
Much of what Music Flow wants to do only works if you have a music collection. If you're a millennial and only stream music, this section is effectively a barren wasteland. But for the music you do have (both network and on your local device), it will be categorised for you and loosely thrown into groups, based around moods.
Hit Gloomy and you'll be asked if you want to listen to sad music or uplifting music. It presented Fake Plastic Trees by Radiohead when we hit sad. Go to Aggressive and select vibrant music, and we get Pretty Fly by The Offspring. Feeling Calm? Here comes Love's Not A Competition by Paramore. So something there is working right.
You can also search, find an artist, play all those songs and so on. From your music collection this all works pretty well, but - and as we've mentioned before - you might then change something, such as the artist, and find that it all just stops; the app shows a spinning circle as it thinks never-endingly and you're plunged into silence.
Flipping to other areas of the Music Flow app feels a little alien. Getting Home again is often a case of moving back though the layers of menu you've dived into, which is frustrating, and it needs a Home button to get to back to the front, where the music is.
But the biggest problem is those moments of silence, when something's gone wrong. Then you have no idea what's going to happen when it all wakes up. We've been sitting at dinner, when the speaker has fired up with Take That - something it was asked to play a few hours earlier. It's enough to put you off your pasta.
When it's working properly, LG Music Flow sings. We've spent many days listening to Spotify Connect through the speakers without any problems. We've enjoyed months of soundbar use with no problems at all. All while thoroughly enjoying the sound quality.
However, it doesn't always work properly. The Music Flow app handles everything, but that doesn't feel stable enough across the whole system. You might pair a couple of speakers and source your music from somewhere else and the speakers fall off the network and you're left feeling lost in the silence.
LG Music Flow is much better than it was six months ago when it quietly launched, but that soft launch suggested to us that something wasn't quite right. So try as we might to overcome the foibles of the system during our testing time, and even after software updates that have improved things, the networking issues can be frustrating. The system has sort of become something that's measured in its frustrations, rather than its successes.
However, Music Flow isn't a bad system. The speakers are great quality, both in build and the performance they offer: that's something that LG has got absolutely right. Having lived with the full setup for months we just feel it needs more stability and refinement to be the Sonos challenger that it could be.