You can have all the smart hubs, fancy kitchen gadgets, and 21st-century security systems you want. But you can’t claim you truly live in a smart home unless you have a wireless speaker system throughout your abode.
Nothing screams high-tech quite like pressing a button on your smartphone and instantly having five different songs playing in five different rooms. It’s got a “wow factor” that’s sure to impress any guest.
If you’re thinking of making an investment in a wireless speaker system, don’t. Well, at least not until you’ve read this article. There are some important things you need to consider before you part with your cash.
Wireless speakers offer an almost endless array of features, a list of which would be far too extensive to cover in this article.
Nonetheless, there are four common features some speakers will offer but that haven’t yet become industry standards. Make sure your purchase provides the ones you want:
- Voice control — Who wants to use their phone when they need to skip a track? It’s easier just to shout at your speaker!
- Ability to group speakers into zones — You can have a zone for the kitchen, a zone for the lounge, a zone for the entire downstairs of your home, and so on.
- Ability to pair two speakers together for stereo output — Most wireless speakers come in packs of one. Can you pair two speakers together for awesome stereo sound?
- Dual-band Wi-Fi support — if you live in an apartment block, there could be hundreds of nearby devices on the 2.4 GHz spectrum causing interference. Support for the 5 GHz spectrum could fix your problems.
2. Range of Products
If you’re new to the wireless speaker world, you’re probably only planning to buy one or two devices to get started. But what happens further down the line?
You might want to add more components. Perhaps you’d eventually like a sound bar for your TV, some bookshelf speakers for your office, or a waterproof speaker for your bathroom?
You don’t want to hit the shops for an upgrade, only to discover the product you want isn’t available in your chosen ecosystem. The difference between the Bose and Sonos product ranges (which both include several speaker sizes, sound bars, subs, and audio-in adaptors) and the Bluesound PULSE range (which only has three different speakers) is vast.
Research all the products your manufacturer offers before you buy anything.
How wireless is wireless? Does your speaker still need to be connected to a power source to operate? For Wi-Fi speakers, the answer is probably Yes — and that means you’ll need cables.
Or do you?
One of the most exciting new entries into the wireless speaker market in 2017 is the Denon HEOS 1. For an additional $99, you can purchase the HEOS Go package. It adds battery power, splash-proofing, and even Bluetooth compatibility. If you want a speaker you can carry around while you’re doing the gardening or cooking a barbecue, it’s well-worth considering.
It sounds obvious, but you need to consider your budget. When it comes to wireless speakers, the price point varies wildly, both between manufacturers and between models in the same product range.
A Chromecast audio will only set you back $40 per dongle and the Amazon Dot is a mere $49. For a bit more money, you can pick up mid-range Bluetooth speakers for around $100, while the Amazon Echo is $179.
In contrast, the cheapest Sonos and Bose Wi-Fi models cost $199, with the two companies’ top-of-the-range sound bars clocking in at $699.
Make sure you choose something that not only fits your budget today, but that will continue to be affordable as you look to add larger, more powerful components in the future.
5. Third-Party Services
As the world continues to move towards online music streaming rather than physical media, considering which third-party services your wireless speakers will work with is more important than ever.
For example, Sonos integrates with more than 50 third-party providers. Obviously, all the mainstream services such as Spotify, Google Play Music, and Apple Music are covered, but so are a whole host of niche apps. Want old-time radio shows? Install RUSC. Enjoy Indian music? Add Gaana. Need some ambient background music? Hearts of Space is your friend. The list goes on.
Contrast that diversity with some of Sonos’ competitors. The Chromecast Audio can play audio output from any app if you’ve got an Android device, but if you’re on iOS, your options are limited to the biggest names in the industry.
And what if there’s no mobile app for your service? Yes, you can cast directly from your desktop, but it means your computer will need to be running and you can’t control the music from anywhere in your home.
6. Integration With Other Devices
Can you use your wireless speakers in conjunction with existing devices in your home? If you’re hoping to have a genuine “whole house” experience, you need to consider this carefully.
To again use Sonos as an example, the company offers a sound bar that can hook into your TV, which is ideal for enjoying 4k movies on your TV. On the flipside, users often complain that the product doesn’t have a way to natively play audio directly from your computer. If you were hoping to stream gaming soundtracks throughout your home, you’ll be out of luck.
Meanwhile, Chromecasts can turn all your old “dumb” speakers into smart speakers, but you won’t be able to cast your TV’s audio throughout your home.
Perhaps the best “all-round” system is the Bose SoundTouch. It offers both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi streaming, giving you the best of both worlds.
7. Supporting Apps
You need to think about how well your system will work with a) its own proprietary app, and b) apps from music streaming services.
Sonos has its own proprietary app, but the company has also started opening its API to music streaming services. It’s now possible to cast audio from the Spotify or Google Play apps directly to the speakers. Given how widely the native Sonos app has been criticized, it’s a welcome update.
Like Sonos, Bose offers its own app as part of the SoundTouch range, and it can also stream music from directly within third-party apps.
At the other end of the scale, the Chromecast doesn’t have an app — you need to install each streaming services’ apps individually. If you only use one music service, it might not be a problem. However, if you like to pull your audio from multiple sources, all the chopping and changing between apps can quickly become annoying.
8. Connection Type
You can break down wireless speaker connections into two broad categories: Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It’s important to make the right decision; the kind of connection your system uses affects its both range and audio quality.
If you live in a large house and want to cover every room with audio, you almost certainly need a Wi-Fi system. The range of a single router can be as much as 150 feet in perfect conditions, and potentially even more if you get a new smart router.
And even if your home has dead spots, you don’t need to worry. More and more manufacturers are introducing technology that allows the speakers to create their own mesh network. SonosNet is one example: each individual speaker becomes a node, thus creating a large continuous network.
Wi-Fi also benefits from using a lossless codec: no audio fidelity will be lost when transmitting data. If you’re an audiophile, it’s the only option.
The biggest drawback of a Bluetooth system is its range. Manufacturers might advertise 30 or even 50 feet, but with interference from other devices and interior walls, you’ll be lucky to get half that amount.
You also need to ensure the Bluetooth device you’re streaming from supports A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile). It’s the only type of Bluetooth connection that supports audio in stereo.
On the positive side, most portable devices offer Bluetooth connectivity, so your system’s compatibility should increase.
9. Sound Quality
I’ve just told you how using Wi-Fi can give you better sound than using Bluetooth, but you also need to research the sound quality of your speaker. It doesn’t matter how flashy your speaker is if it doesn’t have the sound quality you need!
For example, critics have praised the Amazon Echo for being the first in a new generation of smart speakers thanks to its Alexa integration. While that may be true, the quality of the sound doesn’t come close to a Bose SoundTouch or LG Music Flow. Amazon itself realized the problem: it’s the primary reason it chose to let the Echo Dot work with any speaker or audio system in your home.
And, of course, if you’re planning to use the speakers with your TV a lot, you need to be sure they support 5.1-channel surround sound. If they don’t, you won’t get that famous movie theater experience.
Are You Going to Invest?
I hope this article has opened your eyes to some of the aspects you need to consider before you invest in a wireless speaker system for your home.
Have you considered all the pros and cons of a wireless speaker system? What features are most important to you? Which brand will you buy? Why?