Wireless Audio Basics

An A-to-Z guide to having beautiful music in your house—without wiring.

SONOS PLAY3 and BRIDGE

Do you want more music in your house, but don’t want to run wires down the hall or through the walls to get it? How about sending music outside without having to trench your yard and pipe wires through conduits? Oh, and of course you want access to your digitally stored music collection and favorite Pandora stations, right? Then it’s time to start shopping for a wireless music system. Here are some frequently-asked questions, with answers, about wireless audio, plus a roundup of some great products, many of which have been thoroughly tested by the Electronic House editors.

What does the term “wireless audio” mean, exactly?

Technically, an AM/FM radio is a wireless audio system, but today we generally mean a system that is wirelessly connected to the audio source and usually can play back music from the Internet. These products can be stand-alone players or components. Often they’re wirelessly controlled as well via a smartphone or tablet app. Most of the products will still need power, so unless it’s a portable product with a battery, then yes, technically you still need at least one wire to plug into a power outlet. Products like the Sonos Connect Amp, NuVo Technologies P200 player and WASP Audio LINK-Mount allow you to connect your own speakers. Others, like VOCO’s V-Zone+, connect to another audio system via a digital or analog connection.

Nuvo NWAS_Gateway_P200_iPhone5

How is a system wirelessly connected?

Wirelessly, of course. Seriously, wireless is only part of the product. Some wireless music systems include an Internet gateway device that needs to be connected to your home Internet router or switch. The gateway wirelessly connects to the various receivers in the house (this is how both Sonos and NuVo work) which may or may not require additional speakers, or may be connected to other components, such as a home theater pre-amp or receiver. Other products use a smartphone or tablet, connected by Bluetooth or AirPlay, as their gateway to the Internet.

What kinds of audio components can be wirelessly connected?

The audio components that connect to a wireless music system vary depending on the specific product, and what you want to listen to, but most are capable of streaming music from Web-based services (such as Pandora, Spotify or vTuner) and locally stored music files from a PC, networked hard drive or smartphone/tablet. With the latter, Bluetooth and Apple’s AirPlay are usually the wireless connection methods.

Some products are also able to connect to components, such as a CD player and an external hard drive (via USB or network).

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Is a wireless music system better than a wired music system? If so, why?

This depends on what you want out of your music experience. Wireless isn’t always better, but it’s usually easier to install. Also, with streaming services, you have access to almost any music you can think of. However, few wireless systems can play high-resolution files (24-bit content support, a capability that the Wireless Speaker & Audio Association–WiSA–and its members are pushing forward), so if high-res is important to you, you should look into more traditional hardwired solutions. On the other hand, good digital signal processors (DSPs) and amp designs can enhance the audio quality of wireless audio systems. And if the system is connected to another audio system, like your home theater system, the external amp and speakers can have a great impact on the sound quality.

The performance of wireless audio systems also hinges on the quality of the network, which means network activity, network interference and bandwidth issues can all impact reliability. If your music source is an online app coming from a smartphone, then what happens when the phone leaves the room or runs out of battery power? You’ll want to keep a phone charger handy.

Can a non-wireless product be converted into a wireless system?

Yes, somewhat. Nearly any audio device can be connected to a Bluetooth adapter or an Apple AirPort Express. This will facilitate wireless streaming of music to standard speakers. Unfortunately, this solution will yield a listening experience that will be sub-par to that of a wireless multiroom music system, but it’s a good option for upgrading a single-room player to wireless capability for $100 or less.

Speaking of affordability, most of the products and systems we’ve listed on page 72 (go to the manufacturers’ websites for more info) cost in the hundreds of dollars, not in the thousands like traditional speakers and audio components. They’re scalable, too, so you can start with one or two pieces and add more products to fill your house as you go. There’s a good reason more and more companies are riding the wireless audio wave. And it may be the right time for you to start surfin’ too.

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