Understanding Whether Bluetooth Receivers Really Sound Different

Young woman of South Asian ethnicity using cell phone and Bluetooth headphones in Scanlon Creek Conservation Area
Jim Craigmyle / Design Pics / Getty Images

How big are the sonic differences between Bluetooth devices? We put this question to the test using these five devices: 

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Can Bluetooth Receivers Really Sound Different?

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Clockwise from upper left: Audioengine B1, Arcam rBlink, Mass Fidelity Relay, Arcam miniBlink & DBPower BMA0069. Brent Butterworth

If you have a smartphone, a tablet, or a recent-model laptop computer, you have a Bluetooth device. Chances are you have some music stored on it, and you can certainly stream music and talk programs through the Internet.

High-end audio gear is starting to incorporate Bluetooth receivers. It's no wonder some companies are now making what they refer to as audiophile-grade Bluetooth receivers.

Except for the DBPower unit, all of these receivers have upgraded digital-to-analog converter chips. Three of the units (all but the DBPower and miniLink) have relatively heavy aluminum enclosures, as well as external antennas that should improve Bluetooth reception and range. All of them except the DBPower have aptX decoding.

The music source used was 256 kbps MP3 files from a Samsung Galaxy S III Android phone (which is aptX-equipped). The system was a Revel F206 speakers plus a Krell Illusion II preamp and two Krell Solo 375 monoblock amps.

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Bluetooth Receivers: Sound Quality Tests

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Clockwise from upper left: Audioengine B1, Arcam rBlink, Mass Fidelity Relay, Arcam miniBlink & DBPower BMA0069. Brent Butterworth

The differences among these units are very minor. Unless you're a serious audio enthusiast, you probably won't notice them and you probably won't care even if you do. However, there were subtle differences.

Probably the best of the bunch was the Arcam rBlink—but with a caveat. It was the only model that received a lot of listening notes, and the only one that truly distinguished itself from the pack. The treble—especially the lower treble, which has a huge effect on the sound of voices and percussion instruments—sounds a little more lively and detailed. This is the kind of thing audiophiles care about.

But the rBlink stereo image seemed to pull to the left. For example, James Taylor's voice on the live version of "Shower the People" went from dead center to one or two feet to the left of center. Measured with a Neutrik Minilyzer NT1 audio analyzer, the rBlink had a channel level mismatch, but only by 0.2 dB. (The others ranged from 0.009 dB for the Audioengine to 0.18 dB for the DBPower.)

It didn't seem that 0.2 dB would create a readily audible channel imbalance, but it was detected by the ear and could be measured. The difference between the rBlink, the other units, and a Panasonic Blu-ray player connected digitally to the Krell preamp showed itself every time.

The channel imbalance might be responsible for the perception of the rBlink having better lower-treble detail.

The Mass Fidelity Relay and Audioengine B1 tied for sound quality. The B1  sounded marginally smoothest overall; the Relay actually sounded smoother in the mids but a little more sibilant in the treble. Again, these differences were very subtle;

The Arcam miniBlink and the DBPower unit sounded a little more sibilant than the others.

High-end Offers Subtle Improvements

Is there a good reason to spend more on a higher-end Bluetooth receiver? Yes, in one situation: if your audio system has a high-quality digital-to-analog converter or a digital preamp with a high-quality DAC built in.

Both the Arcam rBlink and the Audioengine B1 have digital outputs (coaxial for the rBlink, optical for the B1) that let you bypass their internal DACs. These units were compared by connecting both their analog and digital outputs to the Krell preamp; with the digital connections, that meant going through the Illusion II preamp's internal DAC.

The difference was easy to hear. Using the units' digital outputs, the treble was smoother, voices had less sibilance, percussion instruments sounded less sizzly, and the subtle high-frequency details were more present and more delicate at the same time. However, the channel imbalance heard with the rBlink remained even with the digital connection. Strange.

Don't Have High-end Equipment?

If you don't have a DAC or a digital preamp, it's hard to make the case for buying a high-end Bluetooth receiver, unless you're willing to pay a lot for a subtle improvement in sound quality (which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do if you have the bucks and will appreciate the small improvement). You might also go high-end if you prefer a nice, solid aluminum enclosure instead of some little plasticky puck like the DBPower BMA0069.

The Best Deal If You Have a DAC or Preamp

But if you do have a good DAC or a high-end digital preamp, you'll probably get noticeably better sound by using a Bluetooth receiver with a digital output. Because of its comparatively low cost and optical digital output, the Audioengine B1 looks like the best deal going here.

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