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DTS Play-Fi wireless audio explained

This is the seventh in a series of blog posts on the subject of wireless audio.  Our objective is to simplify what to the average music lover is a complicated and confusing subject.  We will publish a new installment about every two weeks, so please check back again.   As always, we welcome your comments and participation.

–Mike Giffin

In our last post, we noted that different devices often use different operating systems, potentially making them incompatible. Likewise, many wireless speakers are designed to work with only one operating system.  We spent time reviewing one such wireless audio system—Apple’s AirPlay—that works with Apple iOS devices as well as with iTunes (only) running on a Mac or Windows computer.  But what about wireless audio for the enormous population of users who prefer Android devices?

Apple is a tightly controlled system while Android is more open; as a result, Android is slightly more complicated. Specifically, within Android, a wireless audio signal can be conveyed by several different protocols. It’s important to note that even though different systems might all use Android and WiFi, they might be incompatible; the receiver might not recognize the sender. It’s as if they are using the same telephones, but they are speaking in different languages. Therefore, you must choose one protocol.  In this post, we want to focus on a fairly new wireless audio protocol for Android users that is growing in popularity and capability:  DTS Play-Fi.

Play-Fi was developed by DTS, an audio company well known for its digital audio technology used to code the soundtracks in motion pictures. DTS licenses Play-Fi so audio companies can build Play-Fi compatible wireless systems. Play-Fi provides lossless streaming from Android devices such as phones and tablets, as well as networked DLNA devices (more on DLNA later). Importantly, Play-Fi will soon be available for Apple iOS devices and Windows 7, 8 and 8.1 computers. Since Play-Fi will operate with Apple, Android, and Windows, a Play-Fi enabled wireless speaker will be compatible with devices using any of those operating systems. Even better, this “cross-platform” enhancement is backwards compatible with older Play-Fi devices, so any Play-Fi speaker you buy now will remain relevant and up-to-date as features and capabilities are added to the Play-Fi apps. This direct-from-device, multiple-operating-systems WiFi compatibility is available only with Play-Fi enabled systems.

The Play-Fi protocol uses WiFi as its wireless communication path. Play-Fi uses a technique called load balancing to help prevent interruptions in the stream. As with Apple’s AirPlay, Play-Fi also provides lossless streaming. Thus from a fidelity standpoint, AirPlay and Play-Fi can give identical audio performance. The fidelity of the wireless speaker itself ultimately determines how the music will sound. Of course, Play-Fi wireless audio can stream to multiple Play-Fi speakers; you can listen to the same music throughout the house with as many as eight speakers synchronized, or you can listen to different music streaming from different devices to different Play-Fi speakers.

Play-Fi gets even cooler when combined with DLNA. DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) isn’t a specific technology; rather, it is a trade organization originally founded by Sony that develops guidelines that allow devices to share multimedia data. A device that is DLNA-certified is compatible with other DLNA devices. These devices include some televisions, digital cameras, and wireless audio systems. As noted, Play-Fi is compatible with DLNA.  In fact, if you have a DLNA “server” (software program) on your computer or on a network-attached hard drive or other storage device, Play-Fi enables you to stream all of the music stored on that server directly from your smartphone or tablet to Play-Fi equipped speakers!  Click here to learn more about DLNA servers.

If you’re considering using Play-Fi’s multi-zone capability, you’ll want to make certain you have the right WiFi router for the job.  Several types of WiFi are currently in use; they are differentiated, for example, as “b,” “g,” and “n” versions. Currently, version “n” is the fastest, but older versions such as “g” work well. Most newer WiFi devices are compatible with “g” and “n.” Some wireless speakers will work with a “b” router, but features will be limited as the transmission speed tops out at 11Mb/sec. vs. 54Mb/sec with “b” and a blazing 600 Mb/sec with “n.”  For Play-Fi’s multi-zone capability, you’ll need a router with “g” or “n.”  Click here for a fuller explanation of wireless routers.

In this discussion, we’ve touched on the topic of lossless coding and claimed (rightfully) that an audio signal can be conveyed to a wireless speaker without any loss in quality from the coding process. But how is that possible? In the next installment, we’ll discuss lossless coding and the reality of audiophile sound quality in wireless audio systems.

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