What you need to know about wireless speakers, and how to choose the system that suits you best.
Selecting a new speaker system to purchase has become an increasingly complex and sometimes confusing process. There are a lot of decisions to me made when it comes to finding the right combination of features and connectivity. At Bayan, we believe it’s important that you know exactly what you are buying; we don’t like to see somebody purchase a product that has features they will never use or lacks the features they desire. Because of this, we have decided to break down some of the main differences with a special focus on wireless solutions.
When it comes to wireless speaker systems, you have three main options: Bluetooth, RF network, and WiFi. We’ve listed them in order from lowest to highest in feature complexity and the size of the price tag. Let’s dive in!
Bluetooth is a simple and user-friendly wireless solution that’s already built-in to practically every modern smartphone, tablet, laptop and desktop pc. Connecting to a Bluetooth device from your phone is painless. Simply tell your phone to search for available devices, and tap on the name of the speaker you wish to connect, then wait a few seconds for the process to complete.
It is simplest to think of a Bluetooth speaker as an extension of the built-in speaker on your phone/tablet. Once connected, whatever sound would normally play from your phone’s speaker will play from the Bluetooth speaker (whether it’s music from Spotify or a video from YouTube), or a text message notification.
Bluetooth however, isn’t without its limitations. In most cases, it is only possible to connect one to one - meaning you can only connect your phone via Bluetooth to one speaker and, while connected, nobody else can connect to the speaker. However, recently Bluetooth has started to introduce more complex ways of connecting – it is possible with the right hardware to connect multiple phones to the same speaker and assign priority to which will play music over the other, and conversely it is also possible to connect one phone to multiple speakers – either as stereo paired speakers (2 speakers one of which is left and one is right, time synchronised to each other) or by daisy-chaining the speakers together (which introduces a time lag between each speaker – they are not time synchronised to each-other). Bandwidth (how fast data is transferred) can also be an issue with Bluetooth. For example, some high quality audio files are large in size and will end up sounding degraded after being transferred from your phone to the speaker. There is, however, a way around this problem; the codec, aptX has the ability to shrink the size of these high quality files so that they can be played in better quality on your Bluetooth speaker. If looking for a Bluetooth speaker, we would highly recommend that you find one with AptX compatibility (such as our fantastic Soundbook X3!)
Note: For aptX to work, it is a requirement that both the transmitting device and receiving device support aptX. Currently most Android phones will support aptX, as will Apple Mac computers, however the iPhone and iPad do not support aptX.
Additionally, using bluetooth will generally introduce a time delay into the music – normally this is not an issue, however it can be frustrating to be watching tv and seeing the lips move and then hearing the audio in your wireless earphones half a second later. This means that typically Bluetooth is not suitable for TV or live monitoring scenarios.
Note: aptX Low Latency may be used to greatly reduce the time delay between transmission and reception of the Bluetooth audio stream – but again both ends (transmitter and receiver) need to support aptX low latency!
An RF Network (Radio Frequency Network) is in many ways, from a user experience point of view, similar to a Bluetooth system. They are both simple to set up, easy to understand, and can be relatively flexible in their use. However, in most cases, your mobile phone, tablet and laptop will not be able to directly connect to an RF network as they can with a Bluetooth connection. These speakers (and headphones) are most often used when a wireless connection is required over a long distance with very little delay from source to speaker. It is also possible to link together multiple speakers via an RF network.
A popular use for this technology is in headphones designed for listening to TV. It is important that the signal strength is excellent and that there is very little delay, especially when watching and listening to somebody talk. Our ears are naturally very sensitive to speech sounds, and if they don’t match exactly with the picture, a small delay becomes very noticeable. In this case the TV is connected to a transmitter device that sends the audio data to the headphones, rather than the TV and headphones being directly connected to one another.
Another example of a common use for RF technology is in live audio situations such as radio microphones or wireless in-ear monitoring for live performances (as seen in the picture above).
Bayan use RF technology in our outdoor Soundscene products to wirelessly link our speakers together with very little delay and enough range to fill a large space with music. You use the system by connecting to one of the speakers via either Bluetooth or a 3.5mm jack cable, then link the other speakers together. One of the speakers it set to be a transmitter and the others as receivers. The reoccurring theme here is external transmitters and receivers – they do not come built in to your standard devices. In reality, all of these technologies are variations on an RF network, the difference being they operate on different frequencies and therefor have different capabilities when it comes to data transfer. That’s a topic for a whole other article so I won’t go into any more detail than that!
This is the big one. WiFi enabled speakers are what many consider the future of home audio. While they are more complex to set up and operate, the technology is advancing quickly and getting more user friendly every year. WiFi music systems are able to do some very impressive things such as stream music directly from Spotify, and send a signal played on one speaker to other speakers in other rooms of the house with such low latency (delay) that it is as if a wire were being used to connect them. It is important when looking for WiFi enabled “Multiroom” speakers to consider a few key points.
Firstly, what services do the speakers support? Most systems will support streaming from your phone/tablet as you would with a Bluetooth connection, however many options have the ability to connect directly to the streaming service (such as Spotify or Napster) eliminating the need to run the app on your phone.
How easy is it to set up? While there is a lot of technical stuff happening in the background, a well-designed system should guide you’re through the setup process in a clear and easy to understand way.
Are they futureproof? Because of the Hi-Tech nature of multiroom speakers, it is important to consider how compatible they will be with future products you may wish to purchase. The technology relies heavily on software, so it’s a good idea to make sure it will be regularly updated so that as the service evolves, your system will too.
Will they work with other speakers? Buying a set of speakers from one company is great, but in the future when you want another pair, will you be locked into buying from that company again? Some companies will tie you into their brand by stopping other company’s products from working with theirs. If you don’t feel comfortable with that, you might want to look for speaker systems that use Qualcomm’s AllPlay® technology. AllPlay® is more of a universal system that will enable any speakers running the software to communicate with one another.
Buy Bluetooth if you want simplicity and ease of use on a smaller scale, and are not worried about a delay between transmitter and receiver. Buy RF Network if you want Bluetooth but bigger and with more flexibility. Buy WiFi if you want it all! (And you’re not afraid of putting a little bit of time into learning the system). With this knowledge, head to Google and begin your search for the perfect sound solution!
Why not have a look through our Wireless Products and systems, now that you are armed with the know how you can be sure to choose the right wireless system for you.
This post was written by Jack Chapman and John Whitehead.