Music Flow is a good alternative to Sonos, as well as a target for all your Casting pleasures.
The top dog in wireless music is, of course, Sonos. But it's absolutely not the only player in the game. LG for a while now has had its Music Flow system. And they're of the same ilk. Multiple speakers can communicate to each other and play simultaneously, all tied together by your home's Wifi system.
Music Flow has one other trick up its sleeve, however — support for Google's "Cast" protocol. As in you can send music to it just like you send music or video to a Chromecast. (OK, Sonos has this same trick, but only for Google Play Music. In any case, we're talking about Music Flow here.)
So let's take a quick look at one of the more affordable speakers in this family, the H3.
There actually are nine speakers in the Music Flow family now. (Whether you can get them where you live is another matter for another time.) There are four soundbars (HS9, HS8, HS7 and HS6) for use with your home entertainment system. The standalone speakers range from the 70-watt H7 to the 50-watt H5 to the single-channel, 30-watt H3 (which is what we're taking a look at here). There's also the H4 Portable (20 watts with a built-in battery), and a bridge to tie everything together if you need to.
This is a more-than capable streaming speaker, especially if you can get it on sale.
Insofar as the H3 goes, it's a large, blocky speaker — about 4 inches by 5 inches by 7 inches. It's a little bigger than the Sonos Play 1, but the blocky shape absolutely gives it a different overall look — and feel, if you're into the "feel" of speakers. On a bookshelf or in still pictures it's not bad at all. But in real life it stands out a bit more.
You connect to Music Flow a couple ways. There's the aforementioned Bridge, which will tie multiple speakers together. And there's your basic Bluetooth method for going straight from your phone. What we're interested in here is Google Cast — the protocol that we've been enjoying for a couple years now with Chromecast. The Cast protocol has been baked into Sonos for a good while now, too, but only for Google Play Music. So more options are always good. And as we pointed out in our ChromeCast Audio review, sometimes you want something that can stand on its own, out in the open, with as few wires as possible. That's where this comes in.
Setup is pretty simple. Pull the speaker out of the box, and plug it in. (I'm digging the right angle on the plug itself, too.) You can plug in via ethernet if you want, or use the included Wifi connection.
You'll need the LG Music Flow app to get things started. Music Flow has had Cast capability for a number of months now, but my speaker still needed an update out of the box. The app will get your phone connected directly to the speaker until you give it your Wifi password — after that it can handle things on its own. This process is also where you'll see your first update, if in fact you need one. It took just a few minutes, and then I was on my way. The whole process is analogous to Sonos' setup — maybe just not quite as polished as far as the app itself is concerned.
I don't have a second Music Flow speaker, so I haven't really used the app in that regard. (Again, that wasn't my goal here.) As a Cast target, however, it's worked as expected. Fire up Google Play Music, or Pocket Casts — anything that can stream to a Cast target — and you'll see the Music Flow speaker listed. It shows as the same sort of target that Sonos does — that is to say it doesn't have the fancy icon that Chromecast Audio has. But no matter. It works just the same, up to and including being recognized by Spotify as a target that requires Spotify Premium if you want to stream. (And we have feelings about that.)
As for the really important part — how the H3 sounds — it's not bad. Maybe not as full and rich as Sonos (and that could well be a product of some sort of software thing over the hardware), but it's not bad at all. The speaker gets plenty loud for my needs — I've got it parked in the kitchen — music is more than adequate for casual listening, and news and podcasts are crisp and clear. I'm not crazy about the volume control — there's a capacitive wheel on top, much like the iPods of old — but you can always just use the volume control on your phone.
The only real sticking point for me here is the price. The H3 runs about $20 or $30 less than Sonos Play 1. That extra money buys better design, slightly better sound, continuous updates — and that same Cast support. But if you're looking to save some money overall (and this makes more sense the more you buy), Music Flow seems to be a more than decent alternative.