Other technical considerations when choosing a wireless audio system
This is the fifth 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.
As we discussed in our last post, the choice between Bluetooth or WiFi is fundamental. But if you opt for the benefits of a WiFi audio system—better sound, greater range, and the ability to play more than one speaker at a time—there are several other points to consider. One important consideration is whether a system is “open” or “closed.” Some software environments such as Android and Apple iOS are open to many developers; this spurs innovation and gives you, the consumer, more choices. Other software environments are proprietary; they are off limits to other developers and you can only purchase devices and software from one company. This may limit innovation and consumer choice.
A wireless audio system should be more than just a speaker without wires. It should offer new ways to listen to music in your house. Foremost, the system should allow multiple speakers under integrated control. This means you can place wireless speakers throughout your house (range permitting). Using a common network, a source can send an audio stream to one device, or many. For example, you could play the same music throughout the entire house, with each speaker in sync with the other. You could control the volume of each speaker individually, or all together. Or, multiple devices could send different streams to speakers in different rooms. If you want to listen to music by the pool, simply carry a speaker there. The flexibility of such “whole house” playback is one of the great features of a wireless audio system.
From a software standpoint, aside from easy setup, the system should provide a way to efficiently organize your music library and find the songs you want to hear. Also, make sure the software allows access to internet radio stations; this is one of the great pleasures of an audio system with internet connectivity—there are literally thousands of radio stations available for free listening.
A wireless speaker should also have a 3.5-mm jack; this can be used to connect a wired source. Also, some speakers have a USB port that can be used to charge a device.
Importantly, let’s not forget the fidelity side of the equation. All the traditional audio concerns still apply. A system with excellent WiFi connectivity and apps isn’t much good if the amplifier and speakers are poor. In other words, to be good, a wireless product needs to be well engineered both in terms of connectivity and audio playback. If you are unable to listen to a wireless speaker before buying it—or if the listening environment is less than optimal—read the published reviews by audio critics; they will help you to determine the quality of the audio playback. And make sure the company guarantees you a trial period with the right to return a product at no charge in the event you find the audio sub-par.
A final note: One purchasing consideration isn’t a feature or a specification, and it’s difficult to pin down, but it’s very important. That is the extent to which a system is “future proof.” No one likes to buy a product that quickly becomes obsolete or is soon replaced by a newer and better version. We prefer products that will stay relevant and useful for a long time, and ideally can even be updated. When shopping for a wireless audio system, ask questions, and try to determine if the manufacturer has a clear upgrade path. In particular, will the product accept software updates to improve capability? Can those updates actually increase the value of the product long after you have purchased it?
As with any kind of product, no two wireless systems are alike. By considering how you will use the system, the wireless range you will need, and the fidelity you expect, you can choose the right system. Above all, make sure that the amplifier and speaker provide good sound quality; if their performance is mediocre, then all the wireless technology in the world won’t help. In that respect, the most modern wireless speaker is no different from any traditional audio component.