Music in the Air
Wireless sound systems provide a new dimension of portability for your digital music
The digital music era puts an incredible wealth of choices a quick click away, but more often than not listening is a solitary experience, through earbuds, headphones or computer speakers. Why not enjoy this audible bounty more freely, in every room of your home, with nothing stuck in your ears or clamped on top of your head? Why not make listening a social experience, so your ornery side can enjoy it when your kids sneer at your choices and your wife complains that it’s too loud?
Why not indeed.
Wireless audio solutions come in two basic forms. A whole-home system lets you position speakers in the rooms you choose and select which songs play where using a handheld controller. On a less ambitious scale, you can place stand-alone speakers in one or more rooms and link to them individually using wireless technologies. I brought in several options in both categories and put them through their paces, bombarding wife and dog with everything from Foo Fighters and Elvis Costello to Gershwin and Bach. You’ll find a wide range of recommendations below.
Your Home Is Alive with the Sound of MusicWhole-home audio used to be a rich man’s toy, requiring lots of expensive equipment, cables pulled through walls and the services of a pricey custom installer. All that changed with the development of high-quality, multi-room, wireless audio systems. You can play the same music in every room or group speakers to play different sources in different places. And, thanks to wireless control through your home network, you won’t have to schlep back to a central unit to change what’s playing.
Sonos, the clear leader in whole-home wireless, defined the standards in 2005: a rock-solid wireless network, easy installation, perfect synchronization between devices in different rooms and excellent sound. Since that time the Sonos system has evolved, now offering two different speaker sizes, a chunky subwoofer for extended bass response and recently a sound bar to provide enhanced TV audio.
A Sonos system can support up to 32 zones with 16 simultaneous music feeds, which should certainly be enough to service your personal mansion. What’s available for your listening pleasure? All the music stored on any of your computers or servers along with a wide variety of free (Pandora, MOG, iHeart Radio, Last.fm, etc.) and paid (Rhapsody, SiriusXM Radio) music services, plus 10,000 Internet radio stations and podcasts. That ought to keep your ears busy for awhile.
There is one small fly in the set-up ointment—you need to have at least one Sonos component connected directly to your wireless network router with an Ethernet cable (beyond that, everything can be wireless). This can be a speaker, if you want a speaker near your router. If not, you’ll have to pick up an additional $50 component called a bridge, which lets you place all your speakers wirelessly anywhere in the house.
Sonos offers a product that pumps wireless audio directly to your existing audio receiver (Connect, $350) and another that connects directly to standard stereo speakers (Connect: Amp, $500), but the key to the company’s popularity is its powered wireless speakers, which let you simply plug in wherever and start listening. The Play: 5 ($400, 8.5 x 14.4 x 4.8 inches) is the larger, louder, beefier of the two, with five drivers and five separate amps, including substantial bass reproduction. The Play: 3 ($300, 5.2 x 10.6 x 6.3 inches) is significantly smaller, but still delivers impressive sound quality, minimal distortion and plenty of volume in a compact package.
The newest addition to the family is the Playbar ($700)—you may have seen the TV ads with the “Wayne’s World” guys enjoying “Bohemian Rhapsody” bliss. This is an audio solution designed to deliver high-quality audio from your TV, one that makes the built-in speakers seem like an old transistor radio by comparison. You also have access to the full complement of Sonos music sources. There’s no way to simply connect an audio source via cable to the Playbar through auxiliary input (the two speaker models both include this feature), but that’s probably not a deal breaker.
Your TV needs an optical out connection to work with the Playbar— this is a standard feature on recent flat-screen TVs, but it’s not universal, so it pays to check before considering a purchase. Since you’re picking up the sound directly from the TV, all the audio from connected DVD players, Blu-ray players, game consoles and so on will be piped through the Playbar automatically.
Set-up is simple, and the audio quality made me smile. Audiophile purists may be uncomfortable with the effect of the system’s digital sound processing, but to my ears it sounded just fine, delivering a dramatic TV soundtrack and pleasing music reproduction. In fact, the “virtual surround sound” feature that makes it seem like you have multiple speakers in the room was more effective than most standard sound bars I’ve heard. And if you want actual surround sound rather than virtual, you can pair the Playbar with a pair of Sonos’ stand-alone speakers.
For those who live for the big bass boom, you can add the large Sonos subwoofer ($700) to any of the company’s systems. In my home listening environment, I was satisfied with the level of bass provided by the Play speakers without assistance, but the subwoofer does add a lot of ooomph to action-movie scenes.
If you like the concept of whole-home audio but not the Sonos price tag, I have another option to suggest. Phorus offers two wireless devices based on technology created by DTS, one of the two key players (along with Dolby Labs) in surround-sound audio for movies. One Phorus unit (the PR1 Receiver, $150) connects directly to your audio receiver; the PS1 ($200) is a stand-alone, powered speaker that you can plug in anywhere. In addition to the music you own, you can play Internet radio stations through the Phorus system, though unfortunately the only online music service available so far is Pandora. You can mix and match up to 16 units in your system.
These units play music using free downloadable software for Android cell-phones and tablets connected to your home network. Direct Windows computer and iPod/iPhone/iPad support is reportedly in the works. In the meantime, Phorus can also play music stored on any Bluetooth-equipped device, a capability the more upscale Sonos system has yet to master, and there’s also an auxiliary input jack on each device for direct connection via standard audio cables.
The Phorus PS1 speaker has a particularly ingenious design, with a rubberized shelf in front to hold your phone or tablet either horizontally or vertically, and a USB plug in the back that can charge up your portable device during playback. Noticeable distortion kicks in if you try playing at full volume, but it’s all sweet and satisfying to about two-thirds of the way up the sliding scale, and surprisingly loud for such a compact device (it’s just 5.5 x 8.3 x 6.2 inches). One software annoyance is the delay in responding to volume adjustments until you’ve let go of the on-screen control, which can produce jarring level jumps. Overall, though, the Phorus system represents outstanding value for the money.
Finally there’s the NuVo wireless whole-home audio system, which has many similarities to Sonos, but takes a different approach in a few key areas. Like Sonos, you can stream different music to individual speakers spread around your house (up to 16 zones are supported), or group them as you like to play the same music simultaneously, and both systems are controlled using free downloadable software for Android or Apple handhelds. Where Sonos incorporates speakers in its Play units, NuVo takes a bring-your-own speakers approach with both its wireless receivers, the P100 ($480) and P200 ($600). To operate wirelessly (assuming you don’t have an Ethernet cable everywhere you want to place a speaker) you’ll also need the Gateway, which attaches to your wireless router and runs an additional $200.
As readers who passed elementary school math will realize, this makes the NuVo solution considerably more expensive than Sonos. What competitive advantages does it offer? For one, you’re free to choose whatever kind of speakers you like. Both players include built-in amps—the P100 has a 20-watt amp that will drive bookshelf-sized speakers efficiently, while the 60-watt P200 can handle a pair of large floor-standing speakers without straining. Both incorporate Audyssey Dynamic Volume software to even out sound levels of different tracks for consistent playback, and a USB port that lets you listen to music stored on a USB drive by plugging it directly into the player. The P200 also supports Bluetooth wireless music playback from your phone, tablet, laptop or other Bluetooth-equipped portable device, a trick not in the Sonos playbook. On the other hand, when it comes to online sources, Sonos has the edge, with support for 19 varied music services versus four (SiriusXM, TuneIn Internet radio, Pandora and Rhapsody) for NuVo. Sonos also offers computer-based control software for Windows and Mac computers in addition to its handheld versions, and the ability to steer with a big screen and mouse or touchpad is a worthwhile alternative (particularly if you’re not already on Team Android or iOS).
Bluetooth SpeakersSimply put, audio snobbery and Bluetooth technology are not compatible. The reason: the Bluetooth wireless connection doesn’t have enough bandwidth to support a full-frequency stereo signal, so the audio has to be compressed before sending, inevitably leading to lower sound quality. Engineers have sweated bullets making compression as nondestructive as possible, but if you have golden ears, you can detect the loss of fidelity, even with a high-quality Bluetooth speaker.
And yet... I confess to being a frequent user of Bluetooth speakers myself, despite their limitations. For years now I’ve listened to MP3s rather than pulling out the original CDs I used to create the MP3 files, and except on rare occasion I download digital tracks rather than purchasing CDs—clear triumphs of convenience over audio fidelity. Then again, I listened to AM radio growing up, so I’ve been trained in the art of audio compromise from an early age, and I suspect I’m not alone.
Especially when more and more of us carry our music libraries around on our cell phones, subscribe to music services that stream audio to our phones and computers and watch video on handheld mobile devices, Bluetooth speakers fill a unique niche as the easy-peasy way to enjoy your audio without earphones, and share it with friends and family.
And if you buy high-quality Bluetooth speakers like those featured here and avoid bargain-basement brands, I’ll wager you’ll have a perfectly satisfying, if technically imperfect, listening experience. (Note that, with the exception of the Audyssey desktop model, all the Bluetooth speakers below include rechargeable batteries for portable power.)
Audyssey Wireless Speakers $300
Most Bluetooth speakers come in portable packages suitable for carrying on your travels, or at least from room to room. Audyssey, though, has gone the desktop route, with two separate speakers. The obvious advantage is the ability to position them freely to create the distinct two-channel stereo separation we expect in home audio systems. Of course, that wouldn’t be worth much if the sound quality were subpar, but these compact units are solidly built inside and out, with top-notch audio performance and an auxiliary input jack for plugging in sources directly, particularly useful if you’re going to use them as computer speakers.
Bose SoundLink II $300
Bose made its mark by delivering full, warm sound from smaller-than-expected speakers, and the SoundLink II maintains this family tradition in fine style. The unit is portable, but not really practical for backpack or briefcase at 5.1 x 9.6 x 1.9 inches and nearly three pounds. The cover, of all things, which flips down from its protective role over the speaker to provide a handy stand, is a particularly well-designed feature, and handsome to boot (especially if you spring for the leather version, for an extra $50). As for audio, the volume can fill a room without noticeable distortion, and the sound combines rich bass tones with a crisp, precise reproduction in the highs and mid-range. I found it particularly striking when listening to a vocalist finger-picking a guitar—the SoundLink II provided striking clarity without the harshness that sometimes afflicts compact speakers playing this type of music.
Tivoli Audio PAL BT Portable Radio $300
In the past, I’ve praised Tivoli for the superb radio tuners they’ve developed, providing noise-free reception on both the AM and FM bands, even with signals from distant stations. The original PAL radio was a fine example of this technology, a clean rectangular design with an appealing retro flair thanks to the large analog tuning dial. The Audio PAL BT Portable Radio maintains the look and fine sound quality of its predecessors while adding Bluetooth to the mix for compatibility with cell phones and Bluetooth-equipped laptops. Again, this is not a design you’ll take on the road very often, at 3.9 x 3.7 x 6.2 inches and 1.9 pounds, but it’s a perfect handful to carry out to the porch or patio, and the battery life is an exceptional 16 hours.
Jawbone Big Jambox $300, Jawbone Jambox $180
Moving down the size scale (and, at least in the case of the smaller Jambox, arriving at a more attractive price point), we come to the Jawbone doubleheader. The two units are nearly identical except for size—the tale of the tape for the Big Jambox is 10 x 3.1 x 3.6 inches and 2.7 pounds, the standard Jambox a relatively petite 5.9 x 1.6 x 2.2 inches and 12 ounces. The striking industrial design, with its distinctive textured metal exterior and clean rectangular lines, is clearly a key selling point, but there’s much more here than meets the eye. The Jawbone products are famed for delivering big, high-quality sound from deceptively small packages. The standard Jawbone excels in this area, and the Big Jambox is a real eye-opener, pumping out the tunes with enough volume and low-end power to fill a large room and provide high-octane audio fuel for an outdoor party. What’s more, both can serve as hands-free speakerphones when paired with your cell phone. And a recent software update for the Big Jambox raised battery life to about 17 hours, so you won’t have a music meltdown as an excuse to kick those lingering guests out of the house anymore.
Beats Pill $200
Another step down the size scale takes us to the very portable, uniquely styled Pill, which is shaped precisely like its namesake, albeit considerably bigger (7.5 x 1.8 inches, at 10.9 ounces), available in black, white, bright red and god-awful pink. The hip-hop-happy Beats headphones are prized by enthusiasts for their overwhelming bass boom. The portable Pill doesn’t reproduce this low-end sonic assault and, in my humble opinion, it’s all for the better—while a little more bottom wouldn’t have been out of place on some of my favorite rock tracks, the sound here is lively, clear and surprisingly loud from such a small package. And like the Jawbone models, you can use the Pill to make speakerphone calls.
Definitive Technology Sound Cylinder $200
This lightweight speaker (7.5 x 1.9 x 1.9 inches, 12 ounces) from a noted high-end speaker manufacturer provides respectable if not soul-stirring sound quality, but its clever design makes it literally stand out from the pack. This cylindrical speaker features a foldout kickstand on one side and a multipurpose clamp on the other. Tablet owners can use the Sound Cylinder as a tabletop stand with the kickstand extended and the adjustable clamp holding the tablet upright, in either a portrait or landscape orientation. This is a fine system for improving audio output from a teeny-speakered tablet, and particularly welcome when watching small-screen video. Alternatively, you can retract the kickstand and mount the speaker directly to the top of your open laptop, connecting either via Bluetooth or the standard auxiliary input jack.
Making the Dongle Connection
Admittedly, the solutions I’ve suggested so far aren’t for spendthrifts. When it comes to Bluetooth speakers, you do get what you pay for. However, if you already own an AV receiver, or an available set of powered speakers, there is a less expensive approach: use a wireless dongle to send audio from your portable devices to your sound system.