Wireless surround speakers can be a great convenience and alternative to running wires along the walls or under rugs. But like everything else in this world, they're not perfect. This post will explain the ins and outs of going wireless, suggest alternatives, and at the end briefly comment on some products available today.
With wi-fi and bluetooth so widespread and inexpensive, it's natural to think about wireless surround sound systems. And expect that they're widely available and inexpensive, but that's not the case. Instead, they tend to use proprietary radio communications and good-quality options tend to be expensive. Lets consider why.
First, let's make sure we're talking about the same thing when we say “wireless surround sound.”
A few people might use that phrase with a wireless network connection for the receiver in mind. That is, being able to connect to the internet and home network to access streaming audio and audio files. I don't know of any receivers with this capabilities built-in. Nevertheless many a/v receivers from Denon and other manufacturers have networking capabilities as well as a USB port. In some cases you can use a USB wi-fi dongle to seamlessly (and wirelessly) tie into a huge variety of digital audio.
If the receiver supports AirPlay, you can also stream digital audio into your home theater system from your Apple mobile devices. They can also relay internet radio services such as Pandora. Why would you want to do that? To get the volume and sound quality of your main (and often expensive) audio system while keeping your iPhone with you or your iPad wherever you'd prefer. And also to save the expense of a separate AirPlay-compatible wireless speaker set.
But most people are talking about avoiding ugly cables running to their remote surround-sound speakers, or the expense of hiding those cables under the woodwork.
So why can't you find lots of inexpensive wi-fi or bluetooth adapters? They simply don't work well with home theaters. Good surround sound effects depend on carefully adjusting the volume and “phase” of the sound waves. Which means that the delays caused by digital protocols can really mess things up, especially for these standards. Although the delay is quite small, usually too small to hear, it's enough to mess up the phasing. Further the delays bounce around randomly so that they can't be processed out.
Wireless Surround Sound System Options
This leaves two options for wireless remote speakers. First, you can purchase speakers with build-in wireless receivers along with a transmitter that hooks directly up to your receiver. These can cost hundreds of dollars more than “regular” speakers, and tremendously reduce you selections. On the other hand, you can find nice packages that combine the two rear speakers as well as the subwoofer in one compact package. Just place it behind your couch and you're done.
The second option is to purchase a separate transmitter-receiver pair. Again, you hook the transmitter into your receiver then connect your remote speakers to the receiver. There's still some cabling to do, but you won't be running cables from one end of the room to the other. The advantage with this approach is that you can choose whatever speakers you want, as well as use any speakers you already have. (When upgrading I like to use my old front speakers as the rear pair for my new system).
With both these approaches you'll be limited to the power (and sound quality) of the radio receivers. Plus, even with these approaches many automatic-equalization processors don't work well with wireless speakers. It's necessary to measure and enter distances manually and it's possible you won't experience effects as well as with a wired system.
Are You Sure?
When I start looking for something, the first thing I ask is if I'm looking for the right thing. If you're looking into wireless surround sound systems, you probably care about the décor of the room your home theater is housed in and don't want a bunch of wires showing. The way I see it, there's 3 ways to accomplish that.
- hire a professional installer
- hide the cables yourself
- buy wireless speakers
The first option is way too expensive for most of us. Although you may be able to hire a local handyman, carpenter, or remodeler to do the carpentry and related work while you run the cables yourself. I was able to take the second approach, hiding the cables behind new wooden floor molding while remodeling the living room. But that does mean you'd have to be a bit of a handyman (or woman) yourself. So by the process of elimination you may end up looking into wireless speakers.
Which Speakers Should Go Wireless?
Your home theater cabinetry may be able to hide the wiring for the 3 to 5 front speakers (5.1 and 7.1 channel systems). Besides, with floor-standing speakers you're going to see some cable anyway and that doesn't really look bad. The two rear speakers and subwoofer are another matter. I almost went the wireless sound route myself.
Wireless Surround Sound Systems
When you're talking about wireless surround sound speakers, you're actually talking about a lot more. First, you'll need transmitters to hook up to your AV receiver. These usually come with the speaker purchase. The speakers themselves of course include a wireless receiver, but also need to include a good-quality power amplifier. In planning out your system, don't forget that the remote speakers will need power from a nearby outlet, and that might also be wiring you'd rather stay hidden.
Now you're starting to see why they're so expensive you just might be better off hiring a local carpenter or electrician to hide the wiring for a regular system. Nevertheless, here's one area where wireless speakers really shine: whenever you use the additional pair of a 7.1 channel systems as stereo in a separate “zone.” To pipe music into my home office, I'd have to have cables running from downstairs to upstairs, and across half the house.
Keep in mind that you're now dealing with two amplifiers – one in the AV receiver and one in the wireless speaker. Either one can be the limiting factor in audio quality. And the amp in the remote speaker will determine the maximum sound wattage.
You need to be careful when looking around for a wireless system. My own online searches for “wireless speakers” turned up mostly regular wired speakers. And some wireless speakers use proprietary standards and only work with certain brands of AV receivers.
You can find lots of inexpensive wireless speaker pairs in the under-$100 price bracket. These might be fine for your 2nd zone in another room for casual listening, but I certainly wouldn't recommend them for your main home cinema room. Leading brands include Logitech and Creative Inspire.
Stepping up, there's a pretty big jump. On the low end you can expect to pay $250 to $300 for a combination of wireless receiver and rear speakers, on up to about that same price just for the wireless link that you use with your own speakers. So far I've looked into the following.
Bose SL2 --Wireless link (no speakers) designed for 5.1 systems. May be limited to Bose Lifestyle and Acoustimass systems.
Creative ZiiSound -- Combination speakers and receiver, requires Bluetooth so it's really for mobile devices.
Polk Audio F/X (photo left) -- Combination of transmitter, receiver and speaker (including sub-woofer). This an excellent solution for anyone looking for an easy solution for those rear speakers. It's also one of the lowest cost options. It boasts "phased and amplitude tapering" for an usuallyspacious sound and localization while the ported enclosure boosts the bass response. The included transmitter can connect directly to speaker outputs on your receiver. It's small and unobtrusive, and people really like the sound. Some people do, however, report it has a bad habit of going into sleep mode at low volumes.
Soundcast SCS100 -- Transmitter and receiver pair (no speakers). A great swireless olution if you already have a pair of speakers you want to use wirelessly. Like the Polk Audio F/X it's compatible with any surround sound system, and can drive a total of 60 watts. That's only 30 watts per channel, so you may be dissappointed with volume if you have inefficient speakers. Don't forget you'll need to run wires from the one soundcast receiver to your two rear speakers. You may also have to try several locations for the soundcast unit to get a good "connection." This can sometimes be a problem, but to avoid this you're likely to have to pay 2 to 4 times as much.
Before you choose, think back on all the options and alternatives we discussed. Even with a wireless link having a cost that's starting to approach that of your A/V receiver you might be giving up a little of sound quality and volume. Also, as mentioned, automatic equalization (such as Audyssey on Denon receivers) can't properly judge distance do to the small delay introduced by the radio link. So you'll either have to skip EQ (not recommended!) or make distance measurements and enter them manually)
Additionally, nearly all of these solutions use the 2.4 GHz frequency band, the same as many mobile devices, cordless phones, wi-fi, etc. Current units have a protocol that keeps them from intefering with one another. But if you have some older devices you may run into a problem. So, as always, be sure to buy from someone that has a good return policy.
Comming to a Good Conclusion
So wireless surround isn't without some drawbacks even beyond it's added cost. But if you simply can't tolerate the sight of exposed wiring and rent or can't afford custom installation, or just want a quick and easy way to add surround sound to your home theater, wireless speakers can be a great way to go. If you have golden ears you'll miss out on audiophile quality, but for most of they're great for the home-theater experience you just can't get without surround sound. I suppose the trade-off between a wired a wireless surround sound system is: can you get wiring put in for under $150-$300.
References: Wireless speakers technical info.