The promise is that listening to music will get easier. Hit Play on your wireless device and the audio comes out of your speakers — no cables or docks. Yeah, right. As is often the case, the simple solution has only added to the complexity, as tech behemoths and bit players square off in yet another format war.
|What wireless speaker you choose |
can depend on your music files.
Photo: Jens Mortensen
At its most basic, the conflict breaks down into two camps: uncompressed and compressed — the former ostensibly delivering uncorrupted streams of music, the latter downsizing files to make them easier to move around.
Unfortunately, the definitions get terribly muddled. Terms like lossless, which would suggest raw audio, are often applied to formats that do indeed compress their streams (just not all that much). And some speakers built for uncompressed protocols like DLNA and Kleer have hardware limitations that don't deliver on the full potential of those formats; it's sort of like pulling onto the Autobahn on a moped.
In the end, it's a three-part equation: Source file + streaming protocol + receiving unit = what you hear. We can't do anything about what's in your music library, but we can help you with the rest.
If you're dealing with puny 128-bit MP3s, which have already been so chopped up and reassembled there's no saving them, a fast-and-dirty streaming standard like Bluetooth will be fine. AirPlay transmits at CD quality, so as long as your source files don't exceed 16-bit/44.1-kHz, they won't get compressed. But if you're starting with high-bit files like WAV and AIFF and want to preserve that quality, you'll need devices built for DLNA or Kleer. But you've also got to consider where you'll be streaming. Bluetooth and Kleer, which beam directly between device and speaker, struggle with distance and walls. AirPlay and DLNA units communicate over Wi-Fi networks, which makes them better choices for larger homes.
24-bit/96-kHz: A high-end method for encoding digital audio. Payoff for the larger file sizes—a single song can be 100 MB—is added clarity and dynamic range.
16-bit/44.1-kHz: A step down from 24-bit in terms of dynamic range. Often referred to as "CD quality."
How We Tested
We selected one unit for each of the four formats we've discussed—AirPlay, DLNA, Bluetooth, Kleer—and set them up in a 950-square-foot apartment streaming rock, jazz, electronica, and hip hop from an MSI laptop, an Acer HTPC, an iPod Touch, and a Droid X.
|The Zeppelin looks elegant and |
sounds crisp, though it
occasionally drops connections.
Photo courtesy of Bowers & Wilkins
1. Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air (AirPlay)
The Zeppelin is everything you'd expect from an Apple-anointed speaker: elegantly minimalist, reasonably powerful, and a tad pricey. In action, though, it's a bit more modest. After we waded through a few minutes of browser-based setup and wireless handshakes, the speaker was filling the apartment with the splashy hi-hats of Buddy Rich. But while the Zeppelin's 24-bit upscaling of AirPlay's 16-bit streams produced the crispest overall sound, it had a habit of dropping off the network every couple of days.
Wired: Clean audio and simple setup. Roomy 30-pin dock.
Tired: Drops connections. Skipping ahead in a song means a party-killing two-second pause.
Speaker: 7 out of 10
Airplay: 7 out of 10
2. Sony SA-NS400 HomeShare Network Speaker (DLNA)
This thumper is the epitome of no-frills pragmatism. Tedious network pairing did it no favors, but it's solid as a wireless streamer. Shooting audio from a Windows 7 machine and Droid X was easy, though laggy startups and rebuffering discouraged DJing. The Sony can't handle WAV files, however. Windows Media Player downscaled our WAVs into compatible formats, but that noticeably stunted the dramatic swells of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir."
Wired: 3.5-mm input for wired playback. Single-button switching between audio sources.
Tired: Attention-grabbing in its homeliness. Middling mids and sloppy bass from the integrated sub.
Speaker: 5 out of 10
DLNA: 5 out of 10
3. Creative ZiiSound T6 (Bluetooth)
For a wireless system, the T6 sure is a cord-addled mess, with a set of thick wires connecting the satellites to the sub. Pairing and streaming at even 50 feet was mostly smooth, though walls between speaker and source caused hiccups. The shockingly powerful tweeters and sub rattled windows during Kanye West's "All of the Lights." But thanks to Bluetooth's tinny downscaling—which sacrifices some audio quality to work with less bandwidth — the song's brassy trumpets and swooning French horns rang hollow.
Wired: Dead-simple. Stable connectivity in close quarters.
Tired: Lacks the range and fidelity of other streamers. Overpowered low end.
Speaker: 6 out of 10
Bluetooth: 5 out of 10
4. Arcam rCube (Kleer)
Kleer streaming offers easy device connections and CD-quality audio, but with a hitch: Wireless streaming requires an additional 30-pin transmitter for our iPod Touch and a USB dongle for our PC ($100 each). The splurge is mostly worth it, though. Pairing was easy, and audio quality rivaled the Zeppelin. Even when loud enough to upset the neighbors, the relentless horn blasts of Portishead's "All Mine" never crossed over into shrill. Even better, the rCube was the most portable speaker in our test.
Wired: Handsome looks. Room-filling audio with negligible lag. iPod dock doubles as handle.
Tired: Way expensive. Transmitters not included. Proprietary streaming tech = dongles 4 life.
Speaker: 8 out of 10
Kleer: 6 out of 10
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