Cutting the cord

Is it possible to have high-end wireless speakers and still have audiophile-grade sound? Amy Wallington finds out.

Wireless technology can be very appealing to homeowners. Not having cables often means the device can be placed almost anywhere in the home. 

Speakers are one of the most common wireless home devices, but is cutting the cord the best thing to do for high-end, high resolution audio? And can we trust wireless technology to ensure we can play our audio whenever we want? 

“Wireless speakers transmit the music information through radio frequencies instead of through cables,” explains Julien Laurent Bergere, Bang & Olufsen’s category director for staged and flexible living. “The most popular wireless technologies are Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, the latter offering even higher quality. Music is nowadays encoded digitally and transmission can happen over Wi-Fi, meaning that this transmission can happen with CD or studio quality, rather than FM radio quality.” 

Only battery-powered speakers, which are usually small, portable units, are entirely wireless, as Michael Johnson, marketing director at KEF Europe points out: “Firstly, the term ‘wireless speakers’ can be a bit deceiving in a sense – sometimes there are cables involved! Wireless speakers could be a speaker designed with an internal chargeable battery, often a smaller, portable speaker or it could be an active speaker arrangement – either a one-box or a stereo speaker configuration – with mains cables to power them. But what they both have in common is the capability allowing the user to connect or ‘pair’ a device wirelessly via a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection and stream digital audio files from a connected device.”

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Bang & Olufsen’s Beosound 2 

Wirelessly streaming audio to a speaker can be done using multiple technologies – Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, AirPlay 2, Google Cast, or WiSA just to name a few. “The speaker will have a wireless audio streaming protocol built in together with an amplifier and speaker all in one unit,” highlights Amit Ravat, managing director of Lithe Audio. 

Inez Bukdahl, head of branding at DALI highlights the two most popular methods of streaming music to a wireless speaker. “Bluetooth is the most common wireless music streaming method. It is inherently a compressed signal, but recent developments mean that the sound quality is now very respectable. The main problem with Bluetooth is that it requires your phone for streaming so the music will stop playing if you leave the room.

“Many wireless speakers have Wi-Fi connection for direct support for music services over Wi-Fi which gives you the ability to access the music content in a high quality format. This typically requires a control app on your phone.”

Lithe Audio offers a Bluetooth and Wi-Fi ceiling speaker – Bluetooth being more of a single room solution while the Wi-Fi solution connects to the router to enable mobile devices to send instructions to initiate the stream from the internet to a single or group of speakers through the router for multiroom audio. 

“In terms of audio quality, we have now introduced Bluetooth 5 in our ceiling speakers which supports higher bandwidth of data streams compared to Bluetooth 4 or 4.2,” expands Ravat. “Bluetooth 5 makes the gap between Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in terms of sound quality pretty narrow. 

“The choice between a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi system is not really based on the sound quality, range or bandwidth, it’s to do with multiroom solutions. Bluetooth is good for a single room system which integrates with Alexa or Google Home. A multiroom in-ceiling audio system which works with AirPlay 2, HomeKit or Siri then requires Wi-Fi. The audio side between the two systems is very close now, although Wi-Fi will have a slight edge in terms of audio clarity.”

“The biggest new development is Ultra-POE which will carry 100W on CAT6A.”

In high end audiophile-grade systems, does wireless streaming compromise the sound quality? 

“The quality of any speaker whether wired or wireless is primarily down to the drivers, the cabinet and the crossover,” suggests Peter Gibb, director of sales in EMEA for CI at Dynaudio. “Since we design and make all of those things in house we can maintain that quality on the speaker itself, there is no need for it to suffer. In fact there are some advantages of using wireless speakers; the fact that they need to be active is a big benefit. We can specify the amplification ourselves to best match the speaker, we can use the DSP instead of passive crossovers which means we can make the signal path shorter and cleaner and get the best performance out of the drivers, while protecting them at the same time. We can also use DSP to provide some Room EQ options to help with getting the best sound in any location, and no speaker cable you use will transmit a signal as cleanly and accurately as a lossless wireless connection. It’s important to make sure that the latency is very low. 

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Wireless speakers are a great solution for multiroom audio. Image: Lithe Audio

“The other key thing is the source material. If you want to have a great quality system, whether it’s wired or wireless, you need to have good quality source material, and to ensure that it can be used without compression or buffering, you need to make sure that the speakers have enough bandwidth on their wireless frequencies.”

However, many hifi lovers will tell you that true high resolution and audiophile-grade quality cannot be achieved without cables. Jonathan Pengilley from Habitech believes the only way to get true quality is by using a cable. He explains: “I was speaking to the chief speaker designer at Sonance about three years ago and I was asking him about the next big thing for speakers. He gave me some statistics on power consumption of speakers and it was a lot higher than I had realised and that is why he felt that wireless speakers were a pipe dream.
 
“The biggest new development is Ultra-POE which will carry 100W on CAT6A. Mix the new POE standard with a signal carrier, i.e. Dante, and you can have unlimited speakers powered on CAT cable. This could be revolutionary. It’s not suitable for all applications and I think there will always be the demand for traditional speaker cables but for the developer market and the midrange markets it has benefits.”

Bergere argues that having a wired system also presents challenges. “Wired speakers are very intuitive in principle, but not always easy as the connection involves hardware – having the right cable length, connector type, reaching out to the connector bay at the back of the amplifier, not mixing up channels or inverting polarity (which causes bass to disappear and music to sound hollow).”

“Having no cables in the walls means easier and faster install times and the ability to retrofit ceiling speakers in any property.”

Integrators can also benefit from the convenience of no wires when using in-wall or in-ceiling speakers. Ravat says: “Having no cables in the walls means easier and faster install times and the ability to retrofit ceiling speakers in any property.”

He continues: “The all-in-one nature of Lithe’s products means there is no requirement for a separate rack to house the amplifiers which saves valuable space in people’s homes.”

Although having no cables is definitely more convenient, Pengilley argues that wiring an in-wall or in-ceiling speaker isn’t as inconvenient as it sounds. “Developers want simple and cost effective solutions as they are dealing with whole building projects so they don’t want lots of complexity for the tech. Due to the tech explosion, they are having to put CAT cable in for Wi-Fi access points so to be able to use one of those cables for a speaker is great. I don’t think it will be long until we start using Ultra-POE for lighting with a control protocol laid on top like Dante for music. All the networking, IoT, access control, AV, lighting, fire, basically everything will sit on a CAT6A cable.”

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Lithe Audio offers Bluetooth and Wi-Fi wireless in-ceiling speaker solutions 

On a more consumer level, Sonos was one of the first speaker companies to introduce wireless multiroom audio into the home. Greg McAllister, sound experience manager at Sonos highlights: “It allows you to group together more than one speaker and configure your set up however you want to listen in your space. This means it is very easy to have speakers dotted around the house, all playing the same content, without having to physically connect every speaker to the same music source using wires. With Sonos, you can quickly reconfigure room groups, such as grouping the kitchen with the rest of the house once you’ve started cooking right from the Sonos app.”

McAllister is also confident that Sonos’ wireless speakers sound just as good as a wired ones because of its Auto Trueplay technology. “The design process was extremely detailed, making sure the sonic performance was suitable to both indoor and outdoor spaces. The Sonos Move speaker offers smart, adaptable sound with a surprisingly deep bass and an ultra-wide soundscape. New features like Auto Trueplay means it can adjust its own tuning automatically to its environment. It also directs the high frequency content through a custom wave-dispersion device, which gives an even sound coverage over a wider area.”

Similarly, Steve Croft, Linn Audio’s custom installation and distribution sales lead agrees that wireless speakers are best used for multiroom applications: “We think of products such as our Series 3 wireless speaker as being part of the enriched living spaces of a multiroom audio system, specifically in areas that are difficult to reach with traditional cabling. A Series 3 in one of these spaces would complement and enhance any other rooms of wired audio, and as all Linn digital sources communicate using Linn Songcast, music is synchronised.”

For Achim Schulz, senior product manager of Sound United, wireless is the most simple way of adding multiroom audio to the home: “Simply plug in the power cord, do the Wi-Fi onboarding, and enjoy your favourite music in every room. A key stand out for our Denon Home multiroom wireless speaker is that they are capable of producing hi-res audio up to 192kHz / 24-bit. They also come equipped with HEOS built-in technology which also features in our Denon and Marantz AVRs as well as select mini systems, amplifiers, and soundbars.”

Another attraction of cutting the cord on speaker cables is that it usually means you can mix and match brands. Bergere suggests: “It gives homeowners great flexibility and freedom to build their home music system across speaker brands, with the experience being controlled by Apple AirPlay, Google Cast, Spotify, Amazon Music, etc. These popular music streaming technologies work across brands and some offer the flexibility to, for instance, control lighting as well as music, or to programme your favourite home rituals.”

Something to be mindful of when choosing a wireless speaker system are limitations of compatibility. “For the hifi enthusiast, they lose the ability to choose or upgrade components of their system such as choosing their own amplifiers, DACS, or maybe the source to get the specific sound they want,” says Gibb. “As technology develops you can upgrade part of your system rather than need to change the whole thing out.”
 
Homeowners with a wireless system can sometimes experience drop out if their network cuts out. Johnson says: “Wireless networks are often problematic depending on the space/bandwidth available. If there are multiple devices all running on a single network, bandwidth can be limited and that can make the user experience less than optimal. Bluetooth suffers range issues and one could consider that wireless speakers might not appeal to those users that might enjoy building their own system and changing/improving elements of that system over time.”

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The Xeo range was one of the first wireless hifi systems from Dynaudio. It uses all the great technology from its hifi ranges but is completely active

From a listening point of view, Schulz clarifies: “The soundstage of wireless speakers can be surprisingly big and enveloping for such small units. However, achieving true stereophonic sound from a wireless speaker can be quite difficult as the left and right channels are too close together. Thankfully, we have addressed this with our Denon Home range, which allows users to stereo pair two speakers for a wider soundstage that is more in keeping with traditional hifi set ups, just without the wires and with a smaller footprint.” 

A fairly new wireless protocol has recently come to market and is gaining a lot of traction in the wireless home speaker and cinema markets. WiSA stands for the Wireless Speaker and Audio Association, and is a consumer electronics consortium dedicated to creating interoperability standards used by leading brands and manufacturers to deliver immersive sound via intelligent devices. 

Tony Ostrom, the company’s president defines: “WiSA is both a hardware and software specification that delivers wireless, high quality audio from a source to up to eight powered speakers to create an immersive cinema quality experience. This is made possible by using 24-bit, 48kHz or 96kHz signals with a very low 5.2 milliseconds of latency and one microsecond of synchronisation.”

Ostrom continues: “The association is spearheading collaborative marketing efforts for its members by expanding into the consumer-facing cornerstone of the wireless cinema industry.”

He also believes that this is an area that will see future development in the world of wireless. “You will see new advancements in more immersive home entertainment experiences including Dolby Atmos integration via wireless audio and room filling 4D VR coupled with wireless multi-channel immersive audio enabling new ways to experience entertainment in more dimensions.”

Audio is one of the biggest components of a high-end home, with homeowners wanting the best their money can buy. There is a lot of investment in this sector with some exciting developments likely to be on their way. 

Bukdahl suggests: “Thanks to products like Sonos, wireless audio is becoming the norm for audio solutions and we now see this trend gaining momentum in the traditional hifi segment. We are going to see more and more active wireless high-end speakers and with this we will see a host of new features, not just in terms of user features but also in terms of clever acoustic features and DSP based technologies to improve the sound quality to new levels.”

Ravat concludes: “Consumers are looking increasingly for a more integrated whole home audio solution, not just for their audio but wider than that; they want to integrate audio, lighting, heating and security to create a system. With the formation of ‘Connected Home over IP’, global brands will be pushing for interoperability of products. Consumers are and will in the future look for products which will work together with their existing or future purchases and not just audio as a standalone system.”