In the recent post "5 tips to hide your speaker cables", the last suggestion proposed was to use wireless audio solutions to make your speaker cables disappear. Trying to summarise this option proved challenging though as there are many wireless flavours in the audio industry. To explain this category in a simple and comprehensive way, a specific post was required.
Why is my wireless speaker wired?
One thing we need to clarify immediately is the definition of wireless. In fact, by wireless, manufacturers mean that the traditional signal cable which connects the speaker to your music system is no longer required. It doesn't actually mean your speaker is fully "wireless".
Indeed, music travelling through speaker cables is carried on an amplified signal from your audio receiver or amplifier. This signal can't be transmitted "over the air" because of the power or energy it carries, so instead of amplifying the signal before the transmission it has to be amplified after. This is why every wireless speaker is actually active, meaning connected to the mains power for the amplification (vs passive for traditional speaker configurations). Some argue that it doesn't make the speaker truly wireless unless you use batteries but it is usually much easier to find a nearby power socket than running cables across the room.
Active speakers are actually not new in terms of speaker design as they are widely used in the professional world (studio recording, monitoring, stage, etc.). They do offer some advantages over passive designs but I won't elaborate on this in this post as it might get a bit too technical (questions in the comments are welcomed though).
Having set this brief technical introduction on the wire dilemma, I will try to present below an overview of the 6 possible wireless audio options for your home.
1. Wireless transmitters and receivers
In the conventional scenario of using a stereo or multichannel system, speaker cables can be replaced by simple wireless transmitters and receivers. The volume will still be managed directly from your audio receiver making this solution completely transparent from a user point of view. The wireless receiver can be stereo, and therefore speaker cables will be connecting to two speakers, or mono in which case every speaker has its own wireless receiver and dedicated amplifier. The first ones are typically used for surround speakers to avoid running cables from the front to the back of the room while the later offers more flexibility as each speaker is totally independent with their own receiver/amplifier (see KEF solution on the right for instance).
I have used myself the Kef Universal Wireless System which I found on the second hand market for cheap. I believe this product is end of life though, so it might be difficult to find now. You can however find other solutions from Rocketfish, Soundcast, Amphony and Dayton, for instance.
Depending on the models, count on a budget between 100 to 400 euros / USD / GBP for this type of solutions. Bear in mind that this is a good workaround for integration purposes but the audio quality will not match a standard wired solution and certainly doesn't aim at high-end systems.
2. Bluetooth, Airplay speakers
You probably saw tons of these new generation of speakers already. The concept is different here as the speaker requires a smartphone or tablet as the source for music playback. Initially, they actually offered docking possibilities so your mobile device acts as a control unit and display while charging at the same time but thanks to Apple with the change from 30 pin connector to Lightning, hardware manufacturers just stopped offering docks or rarely do so nowadays.
I suppose it actually makes sense to control your music from the comfort of your sofa instead of standing by your sideboard so I don't think you will miss so much the docking functionality (apart from charging your mobile device).
Are these solutions interesting?
From a quality stand point, the offer is now so broad that you would surely find a product that would suit your needs unless you are a die-hard audiophile. These speakers make most sense though if you are committed to music streaming services such as Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, Deezer or Qobuz. You can of course use a variety of other apps to broaden your options such as TuneIn to access worldwide radios or even Youtube and Netflix to improve your video watching experience.
While some of these products do provide good room filling possibilities, what is often lacking is good stereo soundstage as they are mostly single speaker solutions. Consequently, they rarely represent a good solution for true high fidelity listening sessions and TV playback purposes. They also often lack inputs and outputs and therefore can't truly replace a Hifi system if you intend to use a turntable, legacy CD player or AM/FM radio.
Note that to be complete on this matter some soundbars and sound bases do offer receiver functionalities with HDMI video inputs, digital and analog audio inputs as well as wireless connectivity such as Airplay and Bluetooth. These solutions are relatively new and seem to grow in popularity as indeed you minimise the number of cables and still pack plenty of functionalities.
Prices in this category range from roughly 200 up to 3000 euros / USD / GPB for the top end of the Market.
3. Battery powered wireless speakers
For those who value mobility and true wireless functionalities, battery powered speakers are the way to go. Obviously here units are scaled down for the purpose but still potentially pack decent sound capabilities with few hours of music playback "off the wall". You may actually find that most of the time the unit will be on charge on a sideboard or chest of drawers and only when going in the kitchen or balcony you will actually use the battery. It sorts of replace the old portable radio units that people where carrying around some years back. No antennas here, but lots stylish designs with colours and shapes that will fit in most interior decors.
The smaller models are actually meant to be used out of home even, like during holidays or in the park if you just can't stop listening music.
More than any other category described in this post, you can find a tremendous choice of battery powered speakers on the market at a very wide range of prices, starting as low as under 50 euros / USD / GBP for small low quality speakers up to 1000 euros / USD / GBP for the most exclusive solutions.
4. Multiroom wireless speakers: Sonos and BlueSound
I decided to make a separate category for these two as they stand a bit apart in the industry. Essentially, they are multiroom solutions but Sonos did not become a heavy weight in the audio industry because people suddenly felt the urge to use multiroom speakers all around their home. I don't think so.
Sonos first offered a very good stand alone wireless speaker which rated better than the competition except maybe the likes of Bose. What helped them stood out was the best in-class user interface and the integration of streaming services like Pandora, Spotify, TuneIn, etc.
The flexibility of the system not only allows perfect synchronisation and zoning of the music in your home but also enables stereo pairing (when using two speakers) and in the case of Sonos even replace a full home cinema system with the PLAYBAR (in combination with a the SUB and a pair of PLAY1 for the rear surrounds). You may not have the level of inputs receivers offer but it does represent a solid alternative to traditional systems and allows you to really experience modern music interfaces at their best.
What distinguish the less renown BlueSound from Sonos is maybe the more premium positioning with a focus on HD audio playback and a better sound quality although I have not had the chance to experience these speakers myself, but online reviews tend to confirm that claim. Other traditional audio companies such as Bose, Denon and Yamaha for instance are trying to join the multiroom audio market but still lag a bit behind. Their hardware solutions are mostly fine but their lack of expertise in software is dragging them down in comparison to Sonos or BlueSound.
In terms of pricing, consider a budget between 200 up to 1000 euros / USD / GBP for speakers with multiroom functionalities.
5. Hifi wireless speakers
Speaker brands could not let the wireless wave pass without surfing it at least a bit (let's be honest they lost the mainstream market). Without using a true universal wireless standard and more often proprietary solutions, they do offer overall a higher sound quality than the Sonos and other Airplay and Bluetooth speakers and this is mostly due to the traditional speaker engineering design and configuration (stereo, larger boxes).
Speaker manufacturers like Elipson, focal, DALI and Dynaudio to name a few are betting on wireless to extend their portfolio and allow users to cut the cord without compromising on sound quality (CD or even HD audio quality for Dynaudio). Check out their solutions and you may find your perfect wireless hifi system.
Here pricing starts around 400 euros / USD / GBP but go as high as 15000 euros / USD / GBP.
6. WISA the emerging wireless HD audio standard
I keep repeating that there is no clear standard but this may actually change. WISA which stands for Wireless Speakers & Audio, is indeed an upcoming standard that enable high quality HD audio to be transmitted in the home between speakers and WISA enabled transmitters. While a lot of industry heavy weight have joined the Association there is not a lot of solutions available on the market yet.
Why is WISA interesting?
- WISA offers seemless transmission of audio signals up to HD quality (24 bits at 96 KHz) in a frequency bandwidth (5.2 to 5.8 GHz) which is much less busy than the other wireless audio technologies
- WISA will allow interoperability between brands, which means you won't be stuck with a single brand and different price ranges will be available
- WISA transmitters can be implemented in audio and AV receivers but also Bluray players or even directly in the TVs, which means that you will be able to control your sound source from a variety of devices and still benefit from same the high quality wireless connectivity
- WISA will be easily configurable via an app and will allow consumers to start from a simple stereo sound system and later extend to a full blown 7.1 home cinema setup if desired
The only brand which so far has released WISA products is Bang & Olufsen and it makes sense. Indeed, B&O well before WISA emerged already embedded AVR functionalities directly in their TVs to avoid cable mess and simplify connections. Since the brand is famous for design and simplicity, implementing the WISA technology is not disrupting their product architecture at all and actually feels like a natural step into the wireless world eliminating the last remaining cables from their system.
B&O is not for everyone though but don't worry plenty of WISA solutions should come to the market soon. First of them is Klipsch the famous US based speaker manufacturer which will bring a much more affordable range of WISA speakers soon. Enclave Audio, a new Californian startup is also preparing to launch their very affordable WISA surround system to the market in Q4 this year. Other brands have been showcasing prototypes at trade shows so expect many more products to hit the market in 2016.
So many options may seem overwhelming if you are not so familiar with the audio and video world. I hope that reading this post will help you figuring out which solution fits best your needs. I believe that although the industry is a bit messy at the moment, it is very exciting to see that a lot of new solutions are emerging and targeting very different needs. The product visuals presented here and the development of technologies like WISA also highlight the growing importance of the design and how it integrates in the home. Good sound quality and fine designs are definitely ingredients we like at The Dandy Domain!
You have some questions about wireless audio solutions? You are still not sure which product is best for your home? Don't hesitate using the comments below or contact The Dandy Domain directly.
Thanks for reading!
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