Which Wireless Audio Technology Is Right for You?

Comparing AirPlay, Bluetooth, DLNA, Play-Fi, Sonos, and More

In modern audio, wires can be considered as déclassé as dial-up modems. Most new compact systems – and a cornucopia of headphones, portable speakers, soundbars, receivers, and even adapters – now come with some sort of built-in wireless capability.

This wireless technology lets users eschew physical cables in order to transmit audio from a smartphone to a speaker. Or from an iPad to a soundbar. Or from a networked hard drive directly to a Blu-ray player, even if they are separated by a flight of stairs and a few walls.

Most of these products feature just one type of wireless technology, although some manufacturers have seen fit to include more. But before you start shopping, it's important to make sure that any new wireless audio system will work with your mobile devices, desktop and/or laptop computer, or whatever you've decided to keep music on. In addition to considering compatibility, it's also important to check that the technology is capable of addressing your specific needs.

Which one is best? It all depends on the individual situation, as each type has its own pros and cons.

1
AirPlay

The Cambridge Audio Minx Air 200 wireless speaker
The Cambridge Audio Minx Air 200 features both AirPlay as well as Bluetooth wireless. Brent Butterworth

Pros:
+ Works with multiple devices in multiple rooms
+ No loss of audio quality

Cons:
- Doesn't work with Android devices
- Doesn't work away from the home (with a few exceptions)
- No stereo pairing

If you have any Apple gear – or even a PC running iTunes – you have AirPlay. This technology streams audio from an iOS device (e.g. iPhone, iPad, iPod touch) and/or computer running iTunes to any AirPlay-equipped wireless speaker, soundbar, or A/V receiver, to name a few. It can also work with your non-wireless audio system if you add an Apple AirPort Express or Apple TV.

Audio enthusiasts like AirPlay because it doesn't degrade audio quality by adding data compression to your music files. AirPlay can also stream any audio file, internet radio station, or podcast from iTunes and/or other apps running on your iPhone or iPad.

With compatible equipment, it's pretty easy to learn how to use AirPlay. AirPlay requires a local WiFi network, which generally limits play at either home or work. A few AirPlay speakers, such as the Libratone Zipp, sport a built-in WiFi router so it can connect anywhere. 

In most cases, the synchronization in AirPlay isn't tight enough to allow use of two AirPlay speakers in a stereo pair. However, you can stream AirPlay from one or more devices to multiple speakers; simply use the AirPlay controls on your phone, tablet, or computer to choose the speakers to stream to. This can be perfect for those interested in multi-room audio, where different people can to listen to different music at the same time. It's also great for parties, where the same music can play throughout the entire house from multiple speakers.

Related Equipment, available on Amazon.com:
Buy the Cambridge Audio Minx Air 200 Wireless Music System
Buy a Libratone Zipp Speaker
Buy an Apple Airport Express Base Statio

2
Bluetooth

A trio of portable Bluetooth wireless speakers
Bluetooth speakers come in many shapes and sizes. Shown here are the Peachtree Audio deepblue (rear), the Cambridge SoundWorks Oonz (front left) and the AudioSource SoundPop (front right). Brent Butterworth

Pros:
+ Works with any modern smartphone, tablet, or computer
+ Works with lots of speakers and headphones
+ Can take it anywhere
+ Allows stereo pairing

Cons:
- Can reduce sound quality (with exception of devices supporting aptX)
- Tough to use for multiroom
- Short range

Bluetooth is the one wireless standard that's nearly ubiquitous, largely due to how simple it is to use. It's in most every Apple or Android phone or tablet around. If your laptop doesn't have it, you can get an adapter for US$15 or less. Bluetooth comes in countless wireless speakers, headphones, soundbars, and A/V receivers. If you want to add it to your current audio system, Bluetooth receivers cost $30 or less.

For audio enthusiasts, the downside of Bluetooth is that it almost always reduces audio quality to some degree. This is because it uses data compression to reduce the size of digital audio streams so they'll fit into Bluetooth's bandwidth. The standard codec (code/decode) technology in Bluetooth is called SBC. However, Bluetooth devices can optionally support other codecs, with aptX being the go-to for those who want no compression.

If both the source device (your phone, tablet or computer) and the destination device (the wireless receiver or speaker) support a certain codec, then material encoded using that codec does not have to have the extra layer of data compression added. Thus, if you're listening to, say, a 128 kbps MP3 file or audio stream, and your destination device accepts MP3, Bluetooth does not have to add an extra layer of compression, and ideally results in zero loss of quality. However, manufacturers explain that in almost every case, incoming audio is transcoded into SBC, or into aptX or AAC if the source device and the destination device are aptX or AAC compatible.

Is the reduction in quality that can occur with Bluetooth audible? On a high-quality audio system, yes. On a small wireless speaker, maybe not. Bluetooth speakers that offer AAC or aptX audio compression, both of which are generally considered to outperform standard Bluetooth, will probably deliver somewhat better results. But only certain phones and tablets are compatible with these formats. This online listening test lets you compare aptX vs. SBC.

Any app on your smartphone or tablet or computer will work fine with Bluetooth, and pairing Bluetooth devices is usually pretty simple.

Bluetooth doesn't require a WiFi network, so it works anywhere: on the beach, in a hotel room, even on the handlebars of a bike. However, the range is limited to a maximum of 30 feet in best-case situations.

Generally, Bluetooth doesn't allow streaming to multiple audio systems The one exception is products that can be run in pairs, with one wireless speaker playing the left channel and another playing the right channel. A few of these, such as Bluetooth speakers from Beats and Jawbone, can be run with mono signals in each speaker, so you can put one speaker in, say, the living room and another in an adjacent room. You're still subject to Bluetooth's range restrictions, though. Bottom line: If you want multi-room, Bluetooth shouldn't be the first choice.

3
DLNA

JBL L16 DLNA-compatible speaker
The JBL L16 is one of the few wireless speakers that supports wireless streaming through DLNA. JBL

Pros:
+ Works with many A/V devices, such as Blu-ray players, TVs and A/V receivers
+ No loss of audio quality

Cons:
- Doesn't work with Apple devices
- Can't stream to multiple devices
- Doesn't work away from the home
- Works only with stored music files, not streaming services

DLNA is a networking standard, not so much a wireless audio technology. But it does allow wireless playback of files stored on networked devices, so it has wireless audio applications. It's not available on Apple iOS phones and tablets, but DLNA is compatible with other operating systems like Android, Blackberry, and Windows. Likewise, DLNA works on Windows PCs but not with Apple Macs.

Only some wireless speakers support DLNA, but it's a common feature of traditional A/V devices such as Blu-ray players, TVs, and A/V receivers. It's useful if you want to stream music from your computer into your home theater system through your receiver or Blu-ray player. Or maybe stream music from your computer into your phone. (DLNA is also great for viewing photos from your computer or phone on your TV, but we're focusing on audio here.)

Because it's WiFi-based, DLNA doesn't work outside the range of your home network. Because it's a file transfer technology – not a streaming technology per se – it doesn't reduce audio quality. However, it won't work with Internet radio and streaming services, although many DLNA-compatible devices already have those features built in. DLNA delivers audio to just one device at a time, so it's not useful for whole-house audio.

Related Equipment, available on Amazon.com:
Buy a Samsung Smart Blu-ray Disc Player
Buy a GGMM M4 Portable Speaker
Buy iDea Multiroom Speaker

4
Sonos

The Sonos Play3 wireless speaker
The Play3 is one of the smallest of Sonos' wireless speaker models. Brent Butterworth

Pros:
+ Works with any smartphone, tablet or computer
+ Works with multiple devices in multiple rooms
+ No loss of audio quality
+ Allows stereo pairing

Cons:
- Available only in Sonos audio systems
- Doesn't work away from the home

Even though Sonos' wireless technology is exclusive to Sonos, I've been told by a couple of its competitors that Sonos remains the most successful company in wireless audio. The company offers wireless speakers, a soundbar, wireless amplifiers (use your own speakers), and a wireless adapter that connects to an existing stereo system. The Sonos app works with Android and iOS smartphones and tablets as well as with Windows and Apple Mac computers.

The Sonos system doesn't reduce audio quality by adding compression. It does, however, operate through a WiFi network, so it won't work outside the range of that network. You can stream the same content to every Sonos speaker in the home, different content to every speaker, or whatever you want.

Sonos used to require that either one Sonos device have a wired Ethernet connection to your router, or that you purchase a $49 wireless Sonos bridge. As of September 2014, you can now set up a Sonos system without a bridge or a wired connection – but not if you're using Sonos gear in a 5.1 surround-sound configuration.

You have to access all of your audio through the Sonos app. It can stream music stored on your computer or on a networked hard drive, but not from your phone or tablet. The phone or tablet in this case controls the streaming process rather than actually streaming itself. Within the Sonos app, you can access more than 30 different streaming services, including such favorites as Pandora, Rhapsody, and Spotify, as well as Internet radio services such as iHeartRadio and TuneIn Radio.

Check out our more in-depth discussion of Sonos.

Related Equipment, available on Amazon.com:
Buy a SONOS PLAY:1 Compact Smart Speaker
Buy a SONOS PLAY:3 Smart Speaker
Buy a SONOS PLAYBAR TV Sound Bar

5
Play-Fi

The Phorus PS1 speaker sitting on a counter, next to a toaster oven
This PS1 speaker by Phorus uses DTS Play-Fi. Courtesy Phorus.com

Pros:
+ Works with any smartphone, tablet or computer
+ Works with multiple devices in multiple rooms
+ No loss in audio quality

Cons:
- Compatible with select wireless speakers
- Doesn't work away from the home
- Limited streaming options

Play-Fi is marketed as a "platform-agnostic" version of AirPlay – in other words, it's intended to work with just about anything. Compatible apps are available for Android, iOS, and Windows devices. Play-Fi launched in late 2012 and is licensed by DTS. If that sounds familiar, it's because DTS is known for the technology used in many DVDs.

Like AirPlay, Play-Fi doesn't degrade audio quality. It can be used to stream audio from one or more devices to multiple audio systems, so it's great whether you want to play the same music all through the house, or different family members want to listen to different music in different rooms. Play-Fi does operate through a local WiFi network, so you can't use it outside the range of that network.

What's great about using Play-Fi is the ability to mix and match to your heart's content. As long as speakers are Play-Fi compatible, they can work with each other no matter the brand. You can find Play-Fi speakers made by companies such as Definitive Technology, Polk, Wren, Phorus, and Paradigm, to name a few.

Related Equipment, available on Amazon.com:
Buy a Phorus PS5 Speaker
Buy a Wren Sound V5PF Rosewood Speaker
Buy a Phorus PS1 Speaker

6
Qualcomm AllPlay

The Monster S3 speaker in black
Monster's S3 is one of the first speakers to use Qualcomm AllPlay. Monster Products

Pros:
+ Works with any smartphone, tablet, or computer
+ Works with multiple devices in multiple rooms
+ No loss in audio quality
+ Supports high-resolution audio
+ Products from different manufacturers can work together

Cons:
- Products announced but not yet available
- Doesn't work away from the home
- Somewhat limited streaming options

AllPlay is a WiFi-based technology from chipmaker Qualcomm. It can play audio in as many as 10 zones (rooms) of a home, with each zone playing the same or different audio. Volume of all zones can be controlled simultaneously or individually. AllPlay offers access to streaming services such as Spotify, iHeartRadio, TuneInRadio, Rhapsody, Napster, and more. AllPlay is not controlled through an app as with Sonos, but within the app for the streaming service you're using. It also allows products from competing manufacturers to be used together, as long as they incorporate AllPlay.

AllPlay is a lossless technology that doesn't degrade audio quality. It supports many major codecs, including MP3, AAC, ALAC, FLAC and WAV, and can handle audio files with resolution up to 24/192. It also supports Bluetooth-to-WiFi re-streaming. This means that you can have a mobile device stream via Bluetooth to any Qualcomm AllPlay-enabled speaker, which can forward that stream to any and all other AllPlay speakers in range of your WiFi network.

Related Equipment, available on Amazon.com:
Buy a Panasonic SC-ALL2-K Wireless Speaker
Buy a Hitachi W100 Smart Wi-Fi Speaker

7
WiSA

Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 17 speaker
Bang & Olufsen's BeoLab 17 is one of the first speakers with WiSA wireless capability. Bang & Olufsen

Pros:
+ Allows interoperability of devices from different brands
+ Works with multiple devices in multiple rooms
+ No loss of audio quality
+ Allows stereo pairing and multichannel (5.1, 7.1) systems

Cons:
- Requires a separate transmitter
- Doesn't work away from the home
- No WiSA multiroom products yet available

The WiSA (Wireless Speaker and Audio Association) standard was developed primarily for use in home theater systems, but as of September 2014 has been expanded into multi-room audio applications. It differs from most of the other technologies listed here in that it doesn't rely on a WiFi network. Instead, you use a WiSA transmitter to send audio to WiSA-equipped powered speakers, soundbars, etc

WiSA's technology is designed to allow transmission of high resolution, uncompressed audio at distances up to 20 to 40 m through walls. And it can achieve synchronization within 1 µs. But the biggest draw to WiSA is how it allows true 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound from separate speakers. You can find products featuring WiSA from companies such as Enclave Audio, Klipsch, Bang & Olufsen, 

8
AVB (Audio Video Bridging)

Biamp equipment featuring AVB technology
AVB has yet to find its way into consumer audio, but it's already well-established in pro audio products, such as Biamp's Tesira line of digital signal processors. Biamp

Pros:
+ Works with multiple devices in multiple rooms
+ Allows different brands of products to work together
+ Does not affect audio quality, compatible with all formats
+ Achieves nearly perfect (1 µs) sync, so allows stereo pairing
+ Industry standard, not subject to control by one company

Cons:
- Not yet available in consumer audio products, few network products currently AVB-compatible
- Doesn't work away from the home

AVB – also known as 802.11as – is an industry standard that basically allows all devices on a network to share a common clock, which is resynchronized about every second. Audio (and video) data packets are tagged with a timing instruction, which basically says "Play this data packet at 11:32:43.304652." The synchronization is thought of as being as close as one might get using plain speaker cables.

Right now, AVB capability is included in a few networking products, computers, and in some pro audio products. But we've yet to see it break into the consumer audio market.

An interesting side note is that AVB doesn't necessarily replace existing technologies such as AirPlay, Play-Fi, or Sonos. In fact, it can be added to those technologies without much issue.

9
Other Proprietary WiFi Systems: Bluesound, Bose, Denon, Samsung, Etc.

Bluesound branded speakers
Bluesound components are among the few wireless audio products that currently support high-resolution audio. Brent Butterworth

Pros:
+ Offer select features that AirPlay and Sonos don't
+ No loss of audio quality

Cons:
- No interoperability among brands
- Doesn't work away from the home

Several companies have come out with proprietary WiFi-based wireless audio systems to compete with Sonos. And to some extent they all work like Sonos by being able to stream full-fidelity, digital audio through WiFi. Control is offered via Android and iOS devices as well as computers. Some examples include Bluesound (shown here), Bose SoundTouch, Denon HEOS, NuVo Gateway, Pure Audio Jongo, Samsung Shape, and LG's NP8740.

While these systems have yet to gain a large following, some offer certain advantages.

Bluesound gear, offered by the same parent company that produces the respected NAD audio electronics and PSB speaker lines, can stream high-resolution audio files and is built to a higher performance standard than most wireless audio products. It also includes Bluetooth.

Samsung includes Bluetooth in its Shape products, which makes it easy to connect any Bluetooth-compatible device without having to install an app. Samsung also offers Shape wireless compatibility in an expanding variety of products, including a Blu-ray player and a soundbar.

Related Equipment, available on Amazon.com:
Buy a Denon HEOS HomeCinema Soundbar & Subwoofer
Buy a Bose SoundTouch 10 Wireless Music System
Buy a NuVo Wireless Audio System Gateway
Buy a Pure Jongo A2 Wireless Hi-Fi Adapter
Buy a Samsung Shape M5 Wireless Audio Speaker
Buy a LG Electronics Music Flow H7 Wireless Speaker

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