Which Wireless Audio Technology Is Right for You?

Comparing AirPlay, Bluetooth, DLNA, Play-Fi, Sonos, and more.

More and more audio and entertainment systems are being fitted with wireless capabilities. That includes headphones, portable speakers, soundbars, and receivers. Convenience and sound quality may vary, but the interest in being able to control speakers remotely through a mobile device is self-evident.

In shopping for an audio or speaker system, it's important to consider wireless options, as well as the various tech specs and features associated with each device. Consider the pros and cons of these wireless platforms and standards when deciding which one is right for you.

AirPlay

The Cambridge Audio Minx Air 200 wireless speaker
The Cambridge Audio Minx Air 200 wireless speaker.

 Cambridge Audio

What We Like
  • Works with multiple devices in multiple rooms.

  • No loss of audio quality.

What We Don't Like
  • 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 you have AirPlay. This technology streams audio from an iOS device (e.g. iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) or a computer running iTunes to any AirPlay-equipped wireless speaker, soundbar, or A/V receiver. 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 sound quality by compressing music files. AirPlay can also stream any audio file, internet radio station, or podcast from apps running on your iPhone or iPad.

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

In most cases, the synchronization in AirPlay isn't tight enough to allow the 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 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.

Bluetooth

An unusual portable bluetooth speaker
An unusual portable bluetooth speaker.

 Pixabay

What We Like
  • Works with any modern smartphone, tablet, or computer.

  • Works with lots of speakers and headphones.

  • You can take it anywhere.

  • Allows stereo pairing.

What We Don't Like
  • May reduce sound quality (except devices that support aptX).

  • Tough to use for multi-room setups.

  • Short range.

Bluetooth is the one wireless standard that's nearly ubiquitous, largely due to how simple it is to use. It's in pretty much every mobile device—be it a phone or tablet—and if your laptop doesn't have it, you can get an adapter for $15 or less.

Bluetooth comes in countless wireless speakers, headphones, soundbars, and A/V receivers. Any app on your smartphone or tablet will work fine with Bluetooth, and pairing Bluetooth devices is pretty simple.

There's no need to connect to a WiFi network, so Bluetooth can work almost anywhere: on the beach, in a hotel room, a car, or on the handlebars of a bike. But the range is limited to 30 feet at the most.

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, but some devices can support other codecs. For those, aptX is the preferred way to avoid Bluetooth audio compression.

If both the audio player device and the Bluetooth speaker support a certain codec, then material encoded using that codec does not have to have the extra layer of data compression added. So, if you're listening to, say, a 128 kbps MP3 file or audio stream, and your destination device accepts MP3, then Bluetooth does not have to compress the file. This, at least theoretically, results in zero loss of audio 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.

But is loss in sound quality noticeable to most people? On a high-quality audio system, yes. On a small wireless speaker, probably 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.

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 to 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 a multi-room speaker arrangement, Bluetooth is not ideal.

DLNA

JBL L16 DLNA-compatible speaker
The JBL L16 is one of the few wireless speakers that supports wireless streaming through DLNA. JBL
What We Like
  • Works with many A/V devices, such as Blu-ray players, TVs and A/V receivers.

  • No loss of audio quality.

What We Don't Like
  • 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, rather than a wireless audio technology, but it allows wireless playback of files stored on connected devices. It is not available on Apple iOS phones and tablets, but it is compatible with other operating systems like Android, Blackberry, and Windows. Likewise, DLNA works on PCs but not Macs.

Only some wireless speakers support DLNA, but it's a common feature on traditional A/V devices like Blu-ray players, TVs, and A/V receivers. DLNA is useful if you want to stream music from your computer on a home theater system, Blu-ray player, or mobile device.

Because it's WiFi-based, DLNA does not work outside the range of your home network. While DLNA does not reduce audio quality, it does not work with internet radio and streaming services. DLNA delivers audio to just one device at a time, so it's not useful for whole-home audio.

Sonos

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

Photo from Amazon

What We Like
  • Works with any smartphone, tablet, or computer.

  • Works with multiple devices in multiple rooms.

  • No loss of audio quality.

  • Allows stereo pairing.

What We Don't Like
  • Available only in Sonos audio systems.

  • Doesn't work away from the home.

Even though Sonos' wireless technology is exclusive to Sonos, the brand remains one of the most successful in wireless audio.

The company offers wireless speakers, a soundbar, wireless amplifiers, and a wireless adapter that connects to an existing stereo system. The Sonos app works with Android and iOS smartphones and tablets, Windows and Mac computers, and Apple TV.

The Sonos system doesn't reduce audio quality through compression. It does, however, operate over a Wi-Fi 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, or different content to individual speakers.

Within the Sonos app, you can access more than 30 different streaming services, including Spotify, Pandora, and Napster, as well as internet radio services like iHeartRadio.

Play-Fi

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

Phorus.com

What We Like
  • Works with any smartphone, tablet, or computer.

  • Works with multiple devices in multiple rooms.

  • No loss in audio quality.

What We Don't Like
  • 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.

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 to individual speakers in individual rooms. Play-Fi does operate through Wi-Fi, so you can't use it outside the range of the local network.

What's great about 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.

Qualcomm AllPlay

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

What We Don't Like
  • Doesn't work away from the home.

  • Somewhat limited streaming options.

AllPlay is a Wi-Fi-based technology from chipmaker Qualcomm. It can play audio in as many as 10 different zones or rooms, with each zone playing the same or different audio. Volumes can be controlled simultaneously or individually. AllPlay offers access to streaming services such as Spotify, iHeartRadio, TuneInRadio, Rhapsody, Napster, and more. It's controlled via existing streaming services and apps, rather than a dedicated app like Sonos. 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 most major codecs, including MP3, AAC, ALAC, FLAC, and WAV, and can handle audio files with a resolution up to 24/192. It also supports Bluetooth-to-Wi-Fi re-streaming. This means you can have a mobile device stream via Bluetooth to any AllPlay-enabled speaker, which can forward that stream to any and all other AllPlay speakers within range of your Wi-Fi network.

WiSA

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

 Bang & Olufsen

What We Like
  • Compatible with 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.

What We Don't Like
  • Requires a separate transmitter.

  • Doesn't work away from the home.

  • Limited availability of compatible products.

The WiSA (Wireless Speaker and Audio Association) standard was originally developed for use in home theater systems, but has since been expanded to include multi-room applications. It differs from most of the other technologies listed here in that it doesn't rely on a Wi-Fi network. Instead, you use a WiSA transmitter to send audio to WiSA-enabled speakers and soundbars. WiSA's technology is designed to allow transmission of high resolution, uncompressed audio at distances up to 40 meters, and it can achieve synchronization within 1 microsecond. The biggest draw to WiSA is that it allows true 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound from separate speakers. You can find products featuring WiSA from companies like Enclave Audio, Klipsch, and Bang & Olufsen.

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
What We Like
  • 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

What We Don't Like
  • Limited availability of compatible products.

  • Doesn't work away from the home

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

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

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

 Bluesound

What We Like
  • Offer select features that AirPlay and Sonos don't.

  • No loss of audio quality.

What We Don't Like
  • No interoperability among brands.

  • Doesn't work away from the home.

Several companies have come out with proprietary Wi-Fi-based wireless audio systems to compete with Sonos. To some extent they all work like Sonos by allowing full-fidelity, digital audio over Wi-Fi. Control is offered via Android and iOS devices as well as computers. While these systems have yet to gain a large following, some offer unique 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 a growing number of products, including a Blu-ray player and soundbar.