Are you thinking about getting some wireless portable speakers? Think twice and don’t choose Bluetooth. "Low cost, high fidelity Bluetooth speakers" are as rare as unicorns. Below, I’ll offer a much better alternative that avoids the fatal audio downside of Bluetooth technology and delivers stunning, uncompromising, wireless Hi-Fi audio affordably.
A gang of chic portable speakers showed at CES 2014 in Las Vegas. But does it make sense to buy speakers because they are cute, cool looking, cheap, or come in several blazing colors? Or because some friend or enemy covets them? We’re not talking about shoes. The right way to pick speakers is by sound, mainly, with a glance toward looks. After all, their purpose is to make music faithfully, with great-to-stunning audio performance, depending on your budget.
This tidal wave of Bluetooth speakers is an over-trendy generation that replaces those absurd little plastic desktop speakers we formerly used on our computers. Recall how awful they sounded? Tinny, flat, and lifeless, and they had to connect with wires. Is Bluetooth really much of a step up? Let's explore that question.
Bluetooth portable powered speakers are being designed to serve mostly mobile devices like laptops, Mp3 players, tablets and mobile phones. A previous generation of mobile speaker designs had docks for the source devices but the latest trend is to connect wirelessly. That’s a step in the right direction. However, Bluetooth seriously compromises sound quality by design. So it's the wrong way to connect speakers to anything if you want natural-sounding music.
Bluetooth wireless protocol was invented to interconnect mobile devices but not for Hi-Fi playback. Bluetooth is for sending small data short distances -- voice audio from phones to earpieces for hands-free voice applications, or data between keyboards, mice, or printers, and computers. Since Bluetooth is built into all our source devices now, manufacturers are defaulting to it simply because it’s there and because it helps their profits even though it doesn’t deliver Hi-Fi quality sound. They are gambling that enough listeners won't care how their music sounds if they make speakers cheap enough. For some listeners, that may be true but there's also a whole new generation of audio lovers rediscovering the beauty of music that is real and natural. They are willing to pay a bit more to get high quality, great sounding music.
Every marketing trick is being trotted out to sell Bluetooth speakers. Marketing introduces distractions because great sound quality and superior wireless performance are absent. Many people believe these fakey speakers are worthy because of the media “echo chamber effect.” The public begins to believe they sound OK because they are highly visible when many companies run ads to compete for sales. A trend follows regardless of how artificial the demand spike or unworthy the gear. The Bluetooth speaker craze is more about the desperation of a stagnant audio industry than about serving real needs and wants of customers.
Bluetooth was not meant to be used for music. The widespread Bluetooth versions use a compressed and lossy format. What that means is – the bottom and top ranges of the audible frequency band (bass and treble) are discarded because they are not required for voice or data transmission. Then this technology squashes the digitized remainder into a smaller size file or stream (hence “compressed.”) No effort is made to rehab this surgically altered digital music.
All that audio processing is great for conserving network bandwidth but it's deadly to musical fidelity. The result tends to sound like that pirate cassette tape copy of John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” song that circled the globe, being re-taped hundreds of times. It eventually made it back to the USA. You might recognize the melody but the words and instruments? Not so much. It sounds like it’s coming through a long, skinny pipe stuffed with gym socks.
Bluetooth technology has appropriate applications – to save memory space, time, network bandwidth, and battery power, which are all critical to mobile devices and networks. When voice comprehension (midrange sound) is all that matters, this rough treatment works out OK because we can still get the conversation. But such over-processing is fatal to musical fidelity. People who have never heard genuine high fidelity might say “it sounds good.” A trained ear will reject such music with disgust in a matter of seconds.
“What about Bluetooth 4.0?” you might say, hopefully. That’s a new, even lower-power, even shorter-range version designed to gather data from sensors like heart rate monitors and status reporters for processes and machinery. It handles short bursts of data infrequently. It’s meant to run very intermittently on extremely low power. At very short range, it works for the intended tasks. But it sounds no better with music than the original Bluetooth did. It’s still lossy and compressed.
In all fairness, there was a special version of Bluetooth specifically intended to carry music and preserve sound quality – the aptX CODEC playing through the A2DP protocol. Theoretically, this technology may “sound good” in the lab but only if the transmitting and receiving device both have it. It has not been widely accepted so it's doubtful your music sender has it.
Even if aptX Bluetooth were on your device, it still over-processes sound. So don't expect much from it. The vast majority of mobile and computing source devices in circulation, and also those being currently manufactured, do not implement the “high fidelity” Bluetooth version. No matter what new speakers supposedly “can do,” it still takes two to tango. What version of Bluetooth does your source device have? Most probably 2.0. It should be listed in the device specs.
Read all about aptX in this article in Wikipedia but be careful what you believe because this article is largely a propaganda piece for proprietary aptX technology from the CSR company (formerly Cambridge Silicon Radio.) Besides, aptX is a redundant solution for an issue that was already handled far better in a different wireless technology. It was preceded by a versatile and user-friendly high fidelity wireless technology without mass marketing fanfare or bursts of wild and whimsical industrial design. More on that below.
If the the source device and the speaker amplification both use aptX correctly, it might have a chance. Out of the teeming multitude of mobile devices, less than 2 dozen are reported to implement aptX. Some of that number may be on the receiving side only, not where your music will be sourced. To get good audio with aptX, you’d need to buy a new phone or music player device or stereo that specifically has aptX, not just new speakers. But who really wants to go down such a blind alley? Besides, with no tube buffer in the signal path, the over-processed raw aptX output probably sounds far too "digital."
The great alternative to Bluetooth for music transmission is 100% lossless, uncompressed, and much longer-range – good old Wi-Fi 802.11(x) wireless protocol but with one critical stipulation. It must be implemented in peer-to-peer mode so it does not need any other Wi-Fi network or router. Then it will work wherever USB power is available from a computer, or battery, or AC USB power supply. This solution is available right here, right now on iHi-Fi.com. Ironically, all these compromised Bluetooth speaker designs could have used 802.11 peer network connectivity instead to achieve real Hi-Fi performance.
Audioengine’s W3 16-bit Wireless Audio Adapter uses a Wi-Fi-like peer network to provide wireless Hi-Fi music transmission. It delivers the original recordings’ fidelity at true CD quality, from either analog (Line Out jack) or USB digital sources. It is not plagued by pairing difficulties, noise, gaps, or dropouts. It’s wireless that just works, plug and play. You may not even need to push the pair button.
Consider the W3 ($149 on iHi-Fi.com.) It transforms ANY typical powered speakers into wireless speakers. Get small powered speakers and you have portability as well. It connects any source device with an audio output (analog or digital) to any device that plays music. It has a standard input (USB digital, RCA or 3.5mm jack analog.) For those audio geeks who may be wondering – yes, it has both ADC and DAC chips inside. Your source can be analog Line Out or even a headphone jack. Or it can be USB digital.
Although Bluetooth is good for a only a few yards, The W3 reaches out to a 100 foot radius. You can start with just one Sender / Receiver pair and expand the network. With two W3 transmitters, you can drive up to six receivers (3 each,) so you can build a multi-zone computer audio or analog stereo rig that would satisfy even larger home and commercial installation requirements – to 200 feet diameter. The W3 peer network is completely independent. It does not use or need any other Wi-Fi network. It will work anywhere.
An example – configure a pair of the new Audioengine A2+ Powered Speakers ($249 on iHi-Fi.com) with the W3. Then listen to your stereo, device, or computer from across the room, out on the patio, or upstairs. Or at a party across town, if you also bring a source device or use one that's there – all without running wires and with no loss of 16-bit true CD fidelity. The A2+ Powered Speakers are small and light enough to lug around easily. They look like proper mini studio monitor speakers rather than a woman’s purse or a plastic beer can with a daisy on top or a unicorn.
If it fits your budget, consider the superb 24-bit D2 Wireless DAC ($499 on iHi-Fi.com.) It works with the same radio network technology but it has up to 24-bit/192 KHz music quality from a legendary Burr Brown chip. This device offers USB input or PCM optical (Toslink) input/output and analog RCA output. This is not as portable as the W3 but when you want full audiophile quality music at a distance from the source, with up to 6 zones, it’s the bomb.
I personally use both the 16-bit W3 and 24-bit D2 in my audio lab and home. The best thing about them? They are invisible. It’s just like having a wire carrying the signal. No fidelity loss, noise, dropouts, gaps, interference, pops, cracks, or static. The signal goes right through three re-bar reinforced concrete walls and floors here. The D2 and W3 truly provide wireless that just works.
Forget Bluetooth speakers. They're so consumer-grade and Low-Fi. With either the W3 or D2 you can make any real Hi-Fi powered speakers wireless using reliable, peer-networked Wi-Fi. So pick the best sounding powered speakers that fit your budget. Then use a W3 or the D2 (depending on desired fidelity and budget) to “wireless them.”
This way you’ll get audio to die for with rock-solid wireless performance and unparalleled value. If you upgrade, your range of Hi-Fi speaker choices will still span the entire speaker market and you won’t need to pay for the wireless feature ever again. The W3 and D2 will work with all present and future amps and speakers.
This, my friends, is what the Smart Money gets.
As usual, at iHi-Fi.com no tax is collected, shipping is always free in the Lower 48 States, and you get the manufacturer’s warranty. Also, you can hear how it all sounds in your own home, connected to your own gear, for 30 days. If you want to send something back, just do it within 30 days, in new condition, with all the packaging, and I’ll refund the full purchase price.