Wireless speakers have become the quiet juggernaut of the audio industry. Ever since features like Bluetooth and WiFi became commonplace, manufacturers have been tinkering, slowly freeing us from the chaos of wires and ceiling speakers and making their products better and better. Now, it’s never been easier to get a truly fantastic wireless, multiroom system, most of which can be accomplished by buying a speaker (or three) and downloading an app. Here at The Master Switch, we love the idea of being able to seed the rooms in our houses with cute little speakers that will do our bidding, without so much as a single wire in sight, with the exception of the power cord, of course; wireless electricity is still a long way off. In this guide, we’re going to show you how to get started.
- What’s The Quality Like When Compared To Wired Speakers?
- WiFi Vs Bluetooth
- What If I Have Two Or More Speakers From Different Manufacturers?
- How Many Speakers Do I Need To Buy?
- Speaker Buying Advice
- What About High-Res Audio?
- Three Great Speakers You Can Buy Right Now
- Video Breakdown
Up until recently, wired speakers were where the action was. Wires, clunky and annoying as they may have been (and still are), were infinitely better at transmitting audio than a wireless signal.
One of the biggest debates in the world of audio was whether buying more expensive cables actually made a difference to the sound, and it’s a debate that still rages today. But whichever side you came down on, you would never venture something so foolish as to say that wireless audio could beat wired for fidelity.
While that’s still true, the gap is a lot narrower than it used to be. The difference between a high quality wireless signal and that transmitted over a wire is starting to get to the point where you have to work quite hard to find the difference. Oh, we’ve no doubt but that last sentence has enraged the hard-core audiophile crowd, but for most of us, it’s true.
A couple of things have made this possible. Firstly, we are now able to transmit sound over WiFi, which means that we can handle a lot of data, which will improve the quality of the sound. Secondly, Bluetooth standards have been creeping higher and higher – the latest protocols, like Bluetooth 4.1, can handle a truly staggering amount of data, all of which results in more depth and detail to the sound. Thirdly, speaker design has improved, and continues to do so. Enhanced driver technology, better power management and more allow wireless speaker makers to more than match their wired counterparts.
Conducting a side-by-side, blind test can be tricky – not because it’s impossible to set up multiple speakers, but because there are so many differences between wired and wireless speakers, in terms of construction. But while we were putting together this guide, it occurred to us that we should backup our arguments with a little bit of a test. So although we don’t delve deep into scientific measurements on this site (as valuable as they are, we don’t think you need that much detail to buy a speaker or a pair of headphones), we did put together a relatively scientific test, using products from a company named Audioengine, who make both wired and wireless speakers.
For our test, we lined up their HDP6 wired bookshelf speakers, against their HD6 wireless speakers. It’s a little hard to compare them in absolutely scientific conditions, because obviously we have to select an amplifier for the wired speakers that will differ from the wireless (we used an old Yamaha receiver, the HTR-2067, which doubles just fine as a stereo amp, and has a sound we are intimately familiar with). But we controlled what we could, relying on the same sound source, positioning them in the same place in our testing room, and playing identical tracks. We also did a blind test, getting the friend who leant us their HD6s to play the material. In addition, the speakers have very similar construction - both are roughly the same size, are constructed from the same material, and both have 5.5" Kevlar woofers and 1" silk dome tweeters. They also have an identical frequency response.
While there were subtle differences in the sound, we were very hard-pressed to name either set of speakers ‘better’ or ‘worse’, and we couldn’t tell which was which in our blind test. One speaker set - later revealed to be the HD6 wireless pair - had a little bit more low-end presence, while the passive bookshelf speakers delivered a touch more detail. In both cases, the sound was perfectly acceptable. We’d have to do extensive testing with other sets of speakers to be sure, but we’re pretty confident that wireless audio, at the very least, has the potential to be the equal of wired.
If anything, this topic has more heated debates than the one about whether you should use wires or not.
For a long time, we at TMS told everybody who asked to go for WiFi. Our logic was simple: wireless signals are able to transmit more data at higher speeds, and so result in better audio quality. To prove this, all we had to do was turn to our SONOS PLAY:3 (Full review), which far outperforms any Bluetooth speakers we’d tested.
But times have changed. With the development of Bluetooth continuing, new technology like aptX, which reduces the bit rate on a Bluetooth signal without having a serious effect on the quality, has made a real difference in audio fidelity. That’s in addition to technology like Bluetooth 5, which was revealed last year and which features in the new Samsung Galaxy 8; it can deliver up to 2 MB a second at a greatly increased range. This is something that is going to continue to get better and better.
So right now, there’s very little difference between the two. What should govern your choice is actually what you are already. If you have lots of Internet connected devices on your home network already, then you may want to steer clear of WiFi-only speakers, like that SONOS. If, however, you only have a few things connected to the Internet, then you should spoil yourself and get a WiFi-capable speaker to handle your audio. In our experience, this is more effective for true multiroom setups, too, where you have different speakers playing in different parts of your home.
But what if you have are weak or crowded WiFi signal, but still want to stick with WiFi? In that case, it may be worth investing in something like the SONOS BRIDGE or the Raumfeld Expand, which will greatly increase the capacity of your network.
However: don’t sweat it too much. Remember that blind test we did earlier? The HD6 wireless speakers we used rely on Bluetooth. The quality is good. Just trust us.
Of course, because there are always competing protocols and software programs and manufacturers, it’s sometimes a little difficult to get certain devices to talk to each other. If you have a Paradigm speaker (like the PW 600 - full review here) and a Bluesound speaker, you obviously want them to play nice. But how?
That is changing, however. A protocol called Allplay Audio, developed by Quallcom, claims to “gives makers of audio equipment freedom to differentiate and reveal new value in wireless speakers, A/V receivers, and other audio accessories. Powered by a superior WiFi system-on-a-chip with flexible I/O architecture, the module also offers a minimalist footprint designed to support embedded and discreet accessory uses and deliver rich wireless audio for both the mass consumer and the high-end audiophile.”
What that means, in normal people language, is that any system can talk to the other. It allows software manufacturers to work across hardware, regardless of who makes it. It’s the great leveller, and although it’s not quite as popular as it should be yet, it’s going to be.
Another one to keep an eye on is Play-Fi, which similarly allows you to build a multiroom system without caring too much about who makes the speakers. As long as it's Play-Fi enabled, you can just mix and match. Just be warned: their app sucks.
Anyway, that’s the background. Let’s talk about how you actually go about implementing this nonsense.
Here’s the absolute beauty of multiroom audio.
In other guides that we’ve done, we always spend a little time talking about the different pieces of equipment you’ll need. When it comes to wireless audio, you know you need? You need one speaker. Just one.
You can have more. As many as you feel comfortable with. Really, that’s all there is. You don’t need receivers, wires, conjugated routers, none of it. You just need a speaker for each room in your house (or more than one if you’re feeling flush). Sure, without actually spend a little bit of time picking out the speakers you want, but it really doesn’t get any simpler than that.
Okay, well, you do need a smartphone. It is theoretically possible to control multiroom audio without one, but really, doing it via an app is the simplest and most logical way. And really, if you don’t have a smartphone, you’re missing out on a hell of a lot more than multiroom audio. Doesn’t matter whether it’s an iPhone or Android or anything else. Once you’ve got the speakers and the phone and the app, you’re good to go. Unusually for audio products, setup instructions for modern multiroom systems are easy to follow, and very difficult to mess up. No wires, no problem.
Like any audio product, different speakers have different values, as well as different prices. We’ve broken down the best ones here.
However, it’s worth going into a little more detail about how you should pick your speakers. You are, after all, going to be buying more than one of them, and so there are a few things you need to bear in mind.
The first, very obviously, is sound quality. Like any audio product, there will be differences. A speaker’s sound quality comes from a variety of factors, including the number of drivers it has, how big they are, how well they were made, the housing they are contained in and a zillion other things. Ultimately, all this costs money, and it will be up to you to figure out how much you’re willing to spend for good sound quality.
Then you need to think about the number of speakers you’re actually going to buy. This is just as simple as going, “I have five rooms in my house and so I need five speakers.” How big are the rooms? What’s in them? Where are you actually going to put the speakers? Is your house open plan? Could two rooms conceivably be serviced by a single speaker? How often would you be in a situation where you’re listening to music in that particular room? Would it be better to skip that room entirely, and just put two speakers in the room you’re in most often?
It’s a tricky one, and there’s no easy answer, mostly because you haven’t invited us inside your house yet to make an assessment (we take our coffee black, thanks).
A good guide would be to think about how much time you spend in each room, and wherein the room you spend it. Take the kitchen. For most of us, your writer included, the kitchen in our home is quite small. We probably only need one speaker to do the job. On the other hand, if you have a large kitchen, or into cooking, and on moving around a lot doing very noisy things with casserole pots and blenders, then two speakers may be required. Ditto if you like having lots and lots of people over. A crowded living room with loud conversations needs a couple of well-placed speakers. Whatever you do, don’t give up the WiFi password, or some idiot of a guest will decide they want to show you just how awesome Creedence Clearwater revival really is, man.
There’s also ease of use. One of the beautiful things about multiroom systems is that, as they become more and more efficient, so have the means of controlling them. It’s not just that they should be easy to operate on a daily basis. They should be easy to setup, too. You should be able to connect them to the WiFi in under a minute, and be playing music a few seconds later. A lot of systems used to rely on built-in screens and buttons, which could make things tricky, but it is now far more common to do all the connections via an app. This should, in theory, be a breeze.
However: don’t assume it will be. It’s always worth double checking the setup method for any speaker system you buy, on the off chance that it’s a bit more annoying than you thought it would be.
Then you need to think about what the speakers look like. We’re kind of divided about this here. Normally, a good-looking speaker is a nice perk, but we are far more interested in how they perform and how easy they are to use than their aesthetics. When it comes to wireless multiroom audio however, it’s worth paying a little bit more time to what the speakers have to say for themselves in terms of design.
Most speakers can get away with looking utilitarian. Nobody is going to mind a set of big floorstanding speakers on either side of your TV, mostly because that’s where they’re supposed to be. People look at them once, and then never think about them again. That’s not the case with multiroom audio. What you’re doing here is putting speakers in parts of the house where one would not normally expect to see a speaker. If you live by yourself and/or don’t give one hoot about what your place looks like, then you can skip this part, but if not you may want to pay attention.
Color is a big one. Do you want your speaker to stand out, or blend into the background? You could quite conceivably get a bunch of speakers that match the colors of your house, with very little effort. You also need to think about shape. To some extent, you can’t really control this, as most speakers are going to be small boxes of one configurations or another. But think about where you’re going to put them. Do they echo the surroundings, or jar with them? Again, you may not be too interested in this part, but it’s still worth mentioning.
You’ll notice we haven’t talked about placement too much. Why would we? Unlike wired speakers, if you don’t think the sound is quite right, you can simply pick up your multiroom speaker and move it somewhere else. Manufacturers sometimes even include calibration tools, which are app driven, naturally. These tools help you get the best possible sound in very simple ways.
One of the biggest issues in multiroom systems is audio quality. WiFi connections are great and all, but there have still been issues in getting true CD quality sound to bounce from room to room.
Right now, most companies offer transmission at 16-bit/44.1kHz (kilohertz). That’s not quite the highest quality available, but for most people (especially those who habitually listen to compressed audio like MP3s) it is more than acceptable. Essentially, it means that the analogue audio signal is sampled 44,100 times a second to produce a digital version. The bit depth, in this case 16-bit, is the quality of how that signal is encoded. The higher the bit depth and sample rate, the better quality the audio will be.
Manufacturers are slowly getting around the problem of transmitting true high-resolution audio: that is, as close to CD quality as possible. Bluesound have made the greatest strides here, and their systems manage to offer 24-bit/96kHz audio. It’s a pretty fantastic achievement, if you consider it.
When you’re setting up a multiroom system, you need to decide just how relevant this is to you. The differences between 16-bit/44.1kHz and 24-bit/96kHz are there, but you really have to be paying attention to spot them. You’ll be paying quite a bit of money to up those bits and kilohertz, and unless it is absolutely crucial that the quality of your music be as good as it can be, then it’s probably not essential for you to pay out so much money for it. As always, we recommend thinking through exactly how you’re going to listen, and what you’re going to listen to.
That’s not to say it is an important. We now live in an age where things like Tidal exist, which claim to offer extremely high quality streaming music, as well as early plays of the new Kanye West record for those who actually care. This issue isn’t going to go away, and as manufacturers make more headway, we expect to see high-quality audio becoming available at a cheaper price. For now, all you have to know is that multiroom audio is a fantastic idea whether you live in a mansion or a tiny flat, and if you’ve been paying attention to this handy guide, you'll have absolutely no problems setting it all up.
You'll find our list of this year's best wireless speakers right here, but we can easily offer three vastly different picks if you're looking to get started:
In terms of simple, budget friendly speakers, we can’t think of one better. It’s not going to challenge big-name audiophile speakers, and it may not handle high resolution audio particularly well, but it sets up in minutes, and offers a phenomenal user experience. It’s a couple of years old now, but is still among the best systems available.
In our review, we said: “In the PLAY:3, SONOS have created an absolutely brilliant system that deserves every accolade it gets. If you’ve experienced wireless home audio before, you’ll be astonished by how easy this is to use and how well it’s been put together. If you haven’t, it’s a total revelation.”
By using the included microphone and room correction software, you can calibrate the speaker to your listening environment, resulting in some of the best wireless sound available. It’s also Play-Fi equipped, and although we’ve had significant problems with their app, the PW 600 works with other speakers just fine.
From our review: “…Sound quality is where the PW 600 truly excels. If you want something that will treat your ears right, then we’d absolutely recommend getting the speaker. We think the sound is worth the annoyances.”
An excellent third option from a very capable brand. The Minx Air 200 has both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity, as well as access to Apple AirPlay, Spotify and Internet radio. It has its own app, a couple of analogue inputs, and delivers crisp, powerful sound.
In his review, our writer Niko Tsonev said: “Using the Cambridge Audio Air 200 for the best part of three weeks has been liberating. After the initial setup is done, you just end up forgetting about it, which is always a hallmark of the best music systems. It’s a great system which, despite having a couple of flaws, is a very solid contender in a crowded marketplace. We’re impressed.”