A Guide to Today's Wireless Audio Options

It is now blindingly obvious that music has burst free of its chains. Even the traditionalist audio categories I cover have ways to make music fly through the air. Let me run through some approaches to wireless connectivity—some well established, others new and novel. When we get to the finish line, I'd love to hear about what you use and what you would like to try.

Bluetooth: It's nearly impossible to find an A/V receiver, active soundbar, or wireless speaker that doesn't offer Bluetooth to mate with smartphones and tablets. It has become the baseline in wireless connectivity. What makes Bluetooth so powerful is its simplicity. As a pure device-to-device connection, it does not need to go through a home network. Pairing is usually easy, and with NFC (near field communication), bumping one device on another goes from easy to effortless. The downside of Bluetooth is that, as implemented in consumer audio products, it compresses the signal. If the signal is lossy to begin with, Bluetooth adds a second layer of compression. But the compression has improved, with the basic SBC profile improved upon in CE products by aptX and AAC.

AirPlay: Apple's proprietary wireless protocol provides CD-quality sound, meaning up to 16 bits and 44.1 kHz, though it does not support high-res audio or non-Apple-approved formats. It works through a home network, not device to device, so you may not get good results in parts of your home where the wi-fi signal is weak. Many, though, not all, AVRs offer AirPlay. AirPlay is not limited to iTunes software. Some music service apps, such as Spotify and Pandora, work with AirPlay (as well as Bluetooth).

DLNA via wi-fi: My receiver reviews treat DLNA as a receiver feature, and not necessarily a wireless one—it also works via ethernet. But DLNA can tap into your home network via wi-fi, and it covers a multitude of devices, including A/V, mobile, and none of the above. Accessing DLNA via an AVR interface can be awkward, requiring you to drill down through menus to get to the music stored on your PC or NAS. But it supports a wide range of audio file formats including lossless FLAC, ALAC, and DSD. Wi-fi is also the vehicle for proprietary wireless technologies from Bose (SoundTouch), Denon (HEOS), and other manufacturers too numerous to list. But I'll toss in a couple of notable new ones...

Play-Fi: DTS-owned Play-Fi is a lossless protocol and also travels through a wi-fi network. It is used in wireless speakers (standalone or in pairs), soundbars, and other products. Manufacturers who have adapted Play-Fi include prestigious speaker brands like Definitive Technology, MartinLogan, Paradigm, and Polk, plus Wren, whose standalone speakers are among the best I've heard. As I wrote here, Play-Fi can stream to up to 16 devices, with 8 of them receiving the same content, or 8 people receiving different content. AirPlay support is optional.

Yamaha MusicCast: Yamaha has invented its own wi-fi based multi-zone audio technology. Yamaha has used the name MusicCast before but the current version should not be confused with the old one. It is totally new and used in AVRs from 2015 forward plus soundbars, a soundbase, a standalone speaker (WX-030, pictured), and powered monitors. It supports high-res file formats such as FLAC and DSD. The beauty of MusicCast for AVR users is that any input on the receiver, including the phono input and FM tuner, travels via MusicCast to any other compatible products. So you might tune in NPR on your receiver and let MusicCast punt Nina Totenberg's Supreme Court reporting to the little speaker in your kitchen. Cool, huh? MusicCast also supports Bluetooth as both receiver (grabbing music from your smartphone or tablet) and transmitter (sending the Bluetooth signal to other products on the MusicCast network). See my forthcoming review of the Yamaha RX-V2050 receiver, which MusicCasted to a couple of WX-030 standalone speakers.

Sonos: No roundup of wireless technologies would be complete without a mention of the world-beating Sonos lineup, which has become widely acclaimed by using proprietary mesh networking—stringing together device-to-device links—to connect wireless audio products. It can work within, or independently of, a wi-fi network. When working via wi-fi, Sonos speakers still coordinate with one another. The speakers come in ascending sizes, operate in ones or twos, and are joined by a soundbar, a wall-hugging sub, and a couple of amps that feed those traditional passive speakers that you just can't bear to give up. Sonos supports app-facilitated Trueplay room correction and 42 different streaming services.

So here are a few questions: What kind of wireless products and protocols do you use? Would you like them to do more? Finally, are you interested in any of the newer wireless technologies?

Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems, now available in both print and Kindle editions.

COMMENTS
Old Ben's picture

I bought my wife a Bose Soundlink, which she loves so far. It's very small and can be plugged in or run off its battery, so it's very portable. My wife can carry it around the house with her to play music from her phone via Bluetooth. The sound quality is pretty decent. I'm sure it wouldn't sound great if you cranked it up to 11, but for music in the background, it is great!

estunesnsuch's picture

Stereo sound reproduction anyone? I have 2 UE Megabooms, because they can be paired to provide stereo playback. Don't know why almost the entire wireless industry ignores the most basic audiophile playback setup...it is almost exclusively ignored, even in so-called audiophile publications. I can't imagine any other system/setup that so completely ignores stereo sound reproduction. My 1980-is era boom-box has two speakers that can be disconnected from the "box" and moved apart (several inches, anyway) to provide better stereo separation...so I know "stereo" is not a new concept. Just can't understand why an entire industry fails to address the most basic form of "quality" music reproduction.

gunhed's picture

Speaking of bluetooth speakers, when are we getting a review of the most amazing bluetooth speaker in the world ?

canman4pm's picture

I get my wireless kicks two ways:

1) is through my 3rd gen Apple TV which is plugged into my AVR, an Onkyo -616, in the livingroom. While the ATV is actually Ethernet, not wifi connected, I still push content from my iPhone and iPad via wifi. I often push music from my iMac to it and occasionally pull music from the iMac to the ATV. It still amuses me that I can do it both ways.

2) Upstairs in the bedroom, I have an Onkyo soundbase for its wee tv, which I use, via Bluetooth, to play music from my phone, primarily for shower singing sessions. I love bathroom reverb acoustics.

Serious listening still involves sticking little shiny disc-y thingys into a PS3, connected to my AVR. And for occasional fun, I picked up an old Grundig stereo system of 1960ish vintage at a garage sale about a decade and a half ago. It's a waist-high cabinet containing a Bakelite 16-33-45-78 RPM turntable, AM/FM/SW radio and two oval, side-firing speakers with a forward firing woofer. Connections include a pair of XLRish looking plug holes for an external "width speaker" for greater stereo separation and an input/output for a reel-to-reel tape machine.

jazzfan's picture

I use the granddaddy of wireless/wired music streamers - the Squeezebox line of devices. Unfortunately after purchasing the Squeezebox line several years ago Logitech has discontinued most of these great products. However there is still a very active online community of users, many of whom offer lots of help and support.

Formats supported: mp3, mp4, acc, flac (and several others including wav) up to 24bit/96kHz (for the Transporter and the Touch) and 24bit/48kHz (for Squeezebox Classic and Receiver)

The Squeezebox devices all offer either analog output or bit perfect digital output for use with an eternal DAC.

Squeezebox devices can all operate individually with each device playing different music or the devices can be synchronized together to play the same music.

I have a dedicated Windows 10 computer which has my music library and which runs the Logitech Media Server software. All streaming is done via ethernet or wi-fi over my home network.

My Devices:

1 Transporter
3 Touches
2 Classics
1 Receiver
1 iPad (when using iPeng - see below - with support for flac and up to 24bit/96kHz playback)
1 iPhone (when using iPeng - see below - with support for flac and up to 24bit/96kHz playback)

My Controllers:

Ipeng (on iPhone and iPad)
Orange Squeeze (on Nook tablet)
Moose and Muso (third party software)(on desktop and laptop Windows computers)
Squeezebox Controller

One other note: when away from home and using iPeng I can remotely stream from my music library to my iPhone via wi-fi or cellular.

Long Live Squeezeboxen!

LesCarter's picture

I'd like to upgrade from my current BT speaker but I'm a bit frustrated at all the proprietary wi-fi standards. Looks like Sonos is here to stay and probably AirPlay, but you mention Yamaha MusicCast being all new. How long will controller apps be available for the old MusicCast. DLNA is clunky to use, not multi-device (one at a time) but seems likely to be supported with necessary software for some time. Per comments above a good speaker might last 20 years. Play-fi looks promising but isn't available in more than 6 or 7 devices at present. Buying a Play-fi device or especially a Bose or Heos, etc is placing a bet that necessary proprietary software will be available for a long time.

ezraz's picture

Cool article, very informative.

Until wireless can push proper 24/192 in perfect time sync so the soundstage isn't all smeary, I use wired speakers.

About 2010,2011 I started to realize how much I hated MP3s, even my own creation, but I chalked it up to aging and grumpiness. I had stopped mixing my own music in 24bit since it took so much hard drive space and no one would ever buy it that way. You need the CPU for plugins so you drop to 16/44 a lot, especially back then.

Finally around 2012 I heard about hi-res DAPs, realized people actually traded what i called "masters" aka 24bit stereo files as something called FLAC, sorted out what that was, and was a convert.

Since then my favorite digital media thing to do is re-rip lossless 16/44 or buy 24bit and throw away the mp3 files. I friggin love it, it's like new paint, new glasses, new ears, new love in old places, it's amazing.

Lossy is dangerous because it's such a screwing with the area where our senses define our perception. It's called "perceptual coding" after all, that should tell you something.

So anyway -- watch out for wireless if you have to do more compression. Lossless preferably 24bit is the only way to go if you want to really hear what's there.

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