Everything you need to know about wireless speakers
In the history of audio, few product categories have expanded as quickly or dramatically as wireless speakers. In the past few years, the evolution of wireless audio technology has helped the genre blossom from novelty to near-ubiquitous. From boom boxes and speaker docks, we’ve transitioned to a legion of wireless speakers that allow you to stream the entire history of recorded music from your armchair.
However, while there’s never been a better time to get into the wireless speaker game, the ocean of available choices out there can be pretty daunting. As such, we’ve put together this guide to help you filter through the noise and zero in on the absolute best solution for your wireless audio fix. So watch your heads, folks, because we’re dropping knowledge.
Demystifying wireless: Bluetooth, NFC, Wi-Fi, Airplay, DLNA, and multiroom
Before we begin narrowing the wireless speaker field, let’s first shed some light on the most common wireless tech available. If you’re already familiar with these terms, feel free to skip to the next section. If not, here’s a quick breakdown to clear things up.
For many folks, the ideal wireless protocol will be Bluetooth. Some may still think of it as the tech behind those annoying headsets that flash at you from the ears of some joker in the checkout line, but Bluetooth for wireless audio has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception. While it is often handicapped by a transmission distance of 33-50 feet, Bluetooth chips are ingrained into nearly every modern mobile device or computer, and Bluetooth requires no network to connect, meaning it will work anywhere on the planet. It’s also extremely easy to use, requiring mere seconds to connect.
In its most recent iterations, Bluetooth offers high functionality and battery efficiency. But most importantly, while it was once known for its poor audio resolution, Bluetooth is now often indistinguishable from Wi-Fi streaming. With the added aptX codec and other improvements, Bluetooth can even provide simulated CD-quality resolution. (AptX isn’t compatible with iPhones or iPads, but since most users will be sourcing low-res streams or MP3 files, that’s often a moot point.) Often the most current Bluetooth version will be the most efficient, but quality always wins when it comes to the difference between this year and last year’s models. As always, let your ears decide.
NFC, or Near Field Communication, is a wireless protocol you’ll hear about a lot when shopping for wireless speakers, but it’s really not all that important. Its range is extremely limited, requiring devices to be close enough to touch for data transference. And when it comes to wireless speakers, it’s really only useful for simplifying the Bluetooth connection between your phone and your speaker (called pairing), accomplished by just tapping the devices together. It also isn’t compatible with iPhones when it comes to wireless audio. In other words, NFC isn’t helpful for everyone, and it certainly isn’t necessary.
While Bluetooth has made up a lot of ground in wireless audio, Wi-Fi is still superior in some ways. At its best, Wi-Fi streaming can offer a host of services and features for your speaker, as well as accessing audio from multiple sources like NAS storage devices or media servers. Wi-Fi also allows for higher resolution audio transmission than Bluetooth, making it ideal for those looking for a premium speaker to playback high resolution audio files. It’s also preferred if you don’t want your tunes to be disrupted by mobile notifications.
That said, Wi-Fi is often more expensive, and in certain ways, limited. While its extended signal can offer more immediate range, speakers that employ it are usually tied to the local area network over your router, making them homebound. While more and more speakers are going hi-res (higher than CD-quality audio), the rise of Spotify and other streaming services that stream compressed audio are increasingly making that less of an incentive. And while some speakers, such as Sonos, are a breeze to setup via Wi-Fi, some can be a pain.
Finally (and most confusing), when it comes to mobile streaming, Wi-Fi is generally less of a complete means of connection, and more of a rail system for other streaming protocols that use it. Those include speakers with dedicated mobile apps (e.g. Amazon’s Echo), protocols like Airplay and DLNA, and the growing selection of app-based multiroom speaker systems (more on those below).
Airplay is Apple’s way of magically sending files, music, and even video over Wi-Fi (For most devices, anyway. A “direct” version of Airplay is becoming more available). Many Wi-Fi speakers incorporate the technology, and if you have an iPad or iPhone, the little Airplay symbol in the menu of iTunes and other music apps makes it extremely simple to push music to your speaker — once you’ve connected that speaker to the wireless network, that is. Other than being Apple-specific, the main downside to Airplay is that Apple charges companies a lot to use it, which gets handed down to you, often lumping an extra Benjamin on the bill.
Short for Digital Living Network Alliance, DLNA is an organization and an open protocol for transmitting music, pictures, and video from devices over Wi-Fi. If you’re an Androidian, this is often the default way to play when it comes to Wi-Fi speakers. Unfortunately, while DLNA is extremely ubiquitous, found in everything from game consoles to photo frames, it’s also notoriously clunky and slow. In today’s market, there are increasingly fewer reasons for Android users to choose DLNA over Bluetooth or other Wi-Fi options.
One category that’s been expanding like crazy lately multiroom speaker technology. These Wi-Fi-connected systems employ an integrated mobile app that links to your phone, computer, and even storage devices. The systems allow you to stream your entire music collection, as well as streaming apps like Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, and others. Most impressively, the more multiroom speakers you add to your arsenal, the more you can link up (to a point), allowing you to spread latency-free audio throughout the home, or play different music on each, simultaneously. In addition to all those features, multiroom speakers offer high-quality sound, with more and more systems incorporating CD-quality resolution at the minimum. (Though, again, the benefits of this will depend highly on your source audio.)
Whatcha, whatcha, whatcha want?
Now that you’ve gone to wireless protocol school, it’s time to think more broadly about what you actually want from your speaker. These days, saying you want a wireless speaker is a bit like saying you want a motorized vehicle: Are we talking about a Vespa, or a Mack truck? A tank, or a Ferrari? A single unit, or a fleet? Depending on your needs, you can expect to spend anywhere from $100-1,000 (or more), with a wealth of different functionalities from the features we’ve listed above.
Apart from the basic idea of wireless connection, you’ll want to decide the most important features to you, i.e. how you will be using the speaker. Will you be listening mostly at home, or on the go? In the living room, or by the pool? Near a power source, or in the woods? Are you sourcing hi-res FLAC files, or spinning Spotify streams? Determining how you want to use your speaker will help you lock down the most value, and the best audio experience.
When it comes to portability, there’s move-it-around-the-kitchen portable, and then there’s take-it-to-the-top-of-Mount-Everest portable. While there are speakers on keychains these days, obviously, the smaller you go, the more sound will suffer.
For a quality speaker that goes wherever you do, our list starts with the palm-sized Roll, from Ultimate Ears ($100). Stepping up in price to the $150-200 range unearths several other worthy options like the Braven BRV-X, the Riva Audio Turbo X, and the Creative Sound Blaster Roar, all of which offer epic sound for the money. That’s a good start, and you can find many similar options on our Best Wireless Speaker list.
If you’re idea of portable is less wilderness, and more backyard barbecue, the ratio of sound performance to price steps up considerably. G-Project’s G-Boom is a boombox-style wireless speaker with pretty decent sound for around $100. If battery power is a concern, check out Eton’s Ruckus XL ($100-200), which has powerful sound, and uses solar power to charge its battery. There’s also the stalwart Harman Kardon Onyx Studio, which offers excellent sound, chic style, and a convenient handle to move it around the house
Portability is all well and good, but it’s a dangerous world out there, and sometimes you need a little protection. One of our favorite purveyors of rugged speakers is Braven, which offers a fleet of hefty speakers, including both the BRV-X we mentioned above, and its cheaper little brother the BRV-1, along with several other models like the new BRV-Pro and BRV-HD. All are covered in armor, and offer some water resistance. If you’re going on a rafting expedition, you may need a watertight solution, like the Ultimate Ears Roll we mentioned above, which is fully submersible, as is the company’s top dog, the Megaboom. You can also find more rugged options in this list.
If you can’t stand to be without top-notch audio performance, even at the beach, you’ll want to look at Soundcast speakers like the Melody. At $400, it’s no budget buy, but it offers incredible sound quality in a fully armored shell — a great choice if you don’t mind a speaker that looks like a thermos. The company offers several other premium outdoor options at higher price scales. And really, durability in portable speakers these days is more of a standard feature than a pricey upgrade.
A relatively new category — but one we expect will grow with time — is the smart speaker, which begins with Amazon’s revolutionary Echo. What can this speaker do? What can’t it do might be a better question. Offering everything from sports scores and weather updates to online shopping — all controlled via voice commands — Amazon’s new device is much more than a speaker. Thanks to its dedicated app and voice assistant Alexa, the speaker is extremely fun and easy to use, and sound quality over Wi-Fi is surprisingly impressive from the speaker’s 360-degree driver ring. You want cool tech, and wireless audio? The Echo is your choice for now — and we expect more competition for the speaker soon.
Looking to fill out a big house with tunes and keep everybody happy? Multiroom is your audio solution of choice. Sonos (which tops out at CD-quality sound, we’ll add) pioneered the genre, famous for its brilliantly simple architecture which sets up with the press of a button. The series begins with the $200 Play:1, and goes up from there. We’ve also had a chance to audition the top of the line Play:5, and believe us when we say it stands up to its $500 price point brilliantly.
Other options include the Soundtouch collection from Bose, and growing offerings from LG and Samsung (which also offer Bluetooth connection). But apart from Sonos, we’re most impressed with up-and-comers in Yamaha’s MusicCast system, which encompasses 22 components (including the audiophile-grade NX N500) and lets you share nearly any hardwired source, and DTS’ Play-Fi speakers, which are especially awesome because Play-Fi is an open source architecture that lets you mix and match brands from Definitive Technology, Martin Logan, Klipsch, Rottel, Polk, and many others. How’s that for versatility?
The centerpiece of sound
Finally, there are those speakers engineered to be a total sound solution. These pieces are designed to look great, sound fantastic, and take up minimal space in order to fill your room with sound, without filling it with gear. As you might guess, they will run you a chunk of change, starting around the $300 range.
If modern style is your bag, check out speakers from Bowers and Wilkins, like the pricey Zeppelin Wireless ($700), or the more reasonable T7 ($350) which is portable, and still packs an epic punch of brilliant sound for the size. For powerful sound with a vintage vibe, look at the new Authentic line from JBL. Or, if your wallet is stacked, look at the ridiculously powerful and present Stadium (you don’t even want to know). There are also some affordable wireless shelf speaker sets from the likes of Grace Digital, Aperion Audio, Edifier, and Thonet and Vander, all of which offer great value for the price, and can double as computer speakers.
Finally, there are newer options like the Raumfeld collection, a growing company out of Germany dedicated to delivering high-end stereo audio, along with the convenience of wireless connection. These are essentially audiophile-grade speakers you control with your phone — and while you’ll pay a bit more for them, they’ll earn their fee with top-notch performance.
An eye on quality
Our final piece of advice has to do with learning how to find quality products. Of course, you can follow many of the brands we’ve outlined above, including Braven, Klipsch, JBL, Sonos, Bose, and Bowers and Wilkins. In addition, you’ll want to give attention to other eminent brands like Sony, Harman Kardon, Denon, and Cambridge Audio.
But beyond brands, you can look for quality construction. Does the exterior cabinet look chic, or gaudy and cheap? Give the speaker a knock – does it feel chintzy, or solid? Generally, metal is a better sign than plastic, though a solid plastic exterior is no threat to quality. Also, look for stability – some speakers will actually dance around on the table from bass-heavy tracks. Finally, let your ears be your guide: If it sounds good, it is good.
That concludes our guide to find your wireless speaker soulmate. Now you know what to look for, and as G.I. Joe always said, knowing is half the battle. You’re ready, so go out there and wrangle yourself some awesome wireless action!