Should my wireless audio system use Bluetooth or WiFi?
This is the fourth 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.
When shopping for a wireless audio system, a number of key criteria will determine if a particular system is the right one for you. That may sound intimidating, and your choices are important for your satisfaction with your system; but the choices are relatively straightforward. For example, we need to determine whether the system will be compatible with your other devices and whether it has sufficient range to satisfy your needs. Let’s consider those and other factors.
Perhaps the most important factor to consider is the method with which the audio source communicates with the wireless speaker. This determines the compatibility of the system, as well as its range of operation. You might choose Bluetooth or WiFi. But which one is best for you?
Most wireless audio systems communicate with either Bluetooth or WiFi. (Some wireless subwoofers use another method). Each has advantages. Bluetooth is an almost ubiquitous technology and universally compatible; a wide variety of devices employ it. In fact, it’s possible that many of your devices (and your car) have Bluetooth wireless technology, and you may not even know it. For example, most phones, tablets and laptops have Bluetooth capability, though you usually have to find a menu to enable the feature.
On the downside, Bluetooth transmissions have a limited range; a manufacturer might claim 30 feet, but the real-world range might be 15 feet. This range is adequate for a room or maybe a small apartment, but would not cover an entire house. A “line of sight” between transmitter and receiver is not needed, but be aware that walls and partitions will decrease the range.
Not all Bluetooth hardware is equal. Some chips can provide significantly more range than others, and are less sensitive to interference from devices such as microwave ovens, cordless phones, baby monitors, etc. It’s also important to note that Bluetooth has evolved over the years and not all versions will support the transmission of stereo music. The key technology to look for is A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile); this is a type of Bluetooth that permits streaming of stereo audio. Although the sound quality of audio conveyed via Bluetooth can be very good, it may not attain audiophile status. In particular, to accommodate stereo audio, data compression is used to reduce the bit rate of the audio signal. This may slightly degrade audio fidelity.
WiFi is almost as ubiquitous as Bluetooth, but not quite. WiFi is sometimes referred to by its technical label, IEEE 802.11. Most smartphones, tablets and laptops have WiFi onboard. WiFi has a greater range than Bluetooth – perhaps as much as 120 feet indoors, but the actual range may be less. With some planning, WiFi can cover an entire house.
One way to assure maximum coverage is to locate the WiFi router in the center of a house, or where its coverage is most useful. For example, if you want to use wireless speakers mainly in a bedroom and on a patio, place the router central to those locations. If needed, a WiFi bridge can be added to further extend the range. Although a “line of sight” is not needed, walls and partitions will decrease the range. As with Bluetooth, there are differences in WiFi hardware. Some chips can provide more range than others, and are less sensitive to interference. However, WiFi signals can experience interference from devices such as microwave ovens. As with Bluetooth, WiFi has evolved. Version “n” is currently the fastest and has the greatest range, but all types of WiFi can convey audio signals.
Importantly, audio signals can be conveyed via WiFi using a lossless codec; with this method, there is absolutely no loss of audio fidelity as the data signal travels across the WiFi network. The digital bits at the receiver are identical to the bits at the source. One downside is that different wireless systems, while they may all use WiFi, use incompatible data formatting. So, the systems are incompatible; for example, Apple and Android run into this problem. We’ll discuss this in a later installment.
Setting up a WiFi based system can sometimes be tricky. For example, you might need to enter a security password. Some WiFi routers have a WPS (WiFi Protected Setup) feature; this allows secure connection without needing a password. One of the most important considerations when buying a WiFi-based wireless system is to make sure that setup and operation is clearly defined.
The choice of Bluetooth or WiFi is clear. Bluetooth is a universal standard and easy to use. But, its range is quite limited and sound quality is restricted. WiFi systems have a wider range and can offer excellent fidelity. But, different systems that use WiFi are incompatible, and setup may be difficult.
There are several additional technical issues to consider while evaluating wireless speaker options. We’ll take those up in our next installment.