Guide to Wireless Speakers For Home Theater

The quest for wireless home theater speakers

Bang & Olfusen BeoLab Wireless Speaker Line
Photo of Bang & Olufsen's Wireless Speaker Line. Photo provided by Bang & Olufsen

Although there is a large selection of portable and compact wireless powered Bluetooth and Wi-Fi speakers designed for personal music listening, there is an increasing number of inquiries regarding the availability of wireless speakers that are designed specifically for home theater use.

Running those long, unsightly speaker wires required to connect speakers for a surround sound setup can be quite annoying. As a result, consumers are attracted by the increasingly promoted home theater system options that tout wireless speakers as a way to solve this problem. However, don't get sucked in by the term 'wireless.' Those speakers might not be as wireless as you expect.

What a Loudspeaker Needs to Create Sound

A loudspeaker needs two types of signals in order to work.

  • First, speakers need to access the music or movie soundtrack. This is provided in the form of electrical impulses (the audio signal).
  • Second, in order for the speaker to take the electrical sound impulses and convert those impulses into an actual sound that you can hear, the speaker needs to be physically connected to an amplifier, which can be powered either by a battery (most applicable for portable devices) or AC power.

For a full rundown on how loudspeakers work, how to safely keep them clean, and the different types used for both music and movie listening, refer to Woofers, Tweeters, Crossovers: Understanding Loudspeaker Tech.

Wireless Home Theater Speaker Requirements

In a traditionally wired speaker setup, both the soundtrack impulses and the power needed to make the loudspeaker work are passed through speaker wire connections from an amplifier.

However, in a wireless speaker setup, a transmitter is required to transmit the needed audio signals, and a receiver needs to used to receive the wirelessly transmitted audio signals.

An illustration of the requirements for a wireless home theater system.
Vin Ganapathy ©Lifewire 

In this type of setup, the transmitter has to be physically connected to preamp outputs on a receiver, or, in the case where you have a packaged home theater system that incorporates a built-in or plug-in wireless transmitter. This transmitter then sends the music/movie soundtrack information to a speaker or secondary amplifier that has a built-in wireless receiver.

However, another connection is needed to complete the process – power. Since power cannot be transmitted wirelessly, in order to produce the audio signal that is wirelessly transmitted so you can actually hear it, the speaker needs additional power in order to work.

What this means that the speaker still has to be physically attached to a power source and an amplifier. The amplifier may be built right into the speaker housing or, in some cases, the speakers are physically attached with speaker wire to an external amplifier that is powered by batteries or plugged into the house AC power source. Obviously, the battery option severely limits the ability of a wireless speaker to output adequate power over a long period of time.

When Wireless Is Not Really Wireless

One way that so-called wireless speakers are applied in some Home-Theater-in-a-Box Systems that tout wireless surround speakers have a separate amplifier module for the surround speakers.

In other words, the main receiver unit has a built-in amplifier that physically connects to the left, center, and right front speakers, but has a transmitter that sends the surround sound signals to another amplifier module that is placed in the back of the room. The surround speakers are then connected by wire to the second amplifier module in the back of the room. In other words, you have not eliminated any wires, you have just relocated where they go. Of course, the second amplifier still needs to be connected to an AC power outlet, so you have actually added that.

So, in a wireless speaker setup, you may have eliminated the long wires that typically go from the signal source, such as a stereo or home theater receiver, but you still need to connect the so-called wireless speaker to its own power source, and, in most cases, a second amplifier module, in order for it to actually produce sound. This can also limit speaker placement as the distance from an available AC power outlet then becomes a major concern. You may still need a rather long AC power cord if a convenient AC outlet is not nearby.

An example of a home-theater-in-a-box system that includes wireless surround speakers (as well as a built-in Blu-ray Disc Player) is the Samsung HT-J5500W which was originally released in 2015 but is still available.  

Other examples of home-theater-in-a-box systems (minus a built-in Blu-ray Disc player) that provide the option for wireless surround speakers are the Bose Lifestyle 600 and 650.

On the other hand, there are systems such as the Vizio SB4551-D5 and Nakamichi Shockwafe Pro that come packaged with a sound bar for the front channels, a wireless subwoofer for the bass, and reception of the surround sound signals. The subwoofer then sends surround sound signals to two surround sound speakers via physical speaker wire connections.

The Sonos Option For Wireless Surround Speakers

One option for wireless surround speakers that makes things a little more practical, is the option offered by the Sonos Playbar, Playbase, or Beam Systems. These products provide built-in amplification and speakers for the left, center, and right channels. However, Sonos offers a platform that allows users to add an optional Wireless Subwoofer, as well as having the ability to expand into a full 5.1 channel surround sound system by syncing up with two, independently amplified, Sonos Play:1 or PLAY:3 wireless speakers. These speakers can do double duty as wireless surround speakers for the Playbar, Playbase, or Beam or as independent wireless streaming speakers for music streaming.

The DTS Play-Fi, Denon HEOS, and Yamaha MusicCast Wireless Surround Speaker Solutions

Similar to Sonos, DTS Play-Fi provides the ability for licensed companies to incorporate wireless surround sound speaker options in a soundbar system using compatible wireless speakers. Control is provided via compatible smartphones. One Play-Fi wireless-surround sound speaker-enabled soundbar is the Polk Audio SB-1 Plus.

Denon has added a wireless surround sound speaker option to its HEOS wireless multiroom audio system. One Denon standalone home theater receiver to include the option of using either wired or wireless surround channel speakers is the HEOS AVR.

Following in the steps of DTS and Denon, Yamaha has added wireless surround and wireless subwoofer capability to its MusicCast wireless multiroom audio system. MusicCast Wireless Surround is available on select Yamaha home theater receivers.

Wireless Subwoofers

A more practical application of wireless speaker technology that is gaining a lot of popularity, is in a growing number of powered subwoofers. The reason that wireless subwoofers make a lot of sense is that they are typically self-powered already and, thus, have both a built-in amplifier and the required connection to AC power. Adding a wireless receiver to a subwoofer does not require a major redesign cost.

Subwoofers are sometimes located far from the receiver they need to receive the audio signal from, incorporating a wireless transmitter for the subwoofer either built-in or added to a Home Theater Receiver or Preamp and a wireless receiver into the subwoofer is a very practical idea. The Receiver transmits the low-frequency impulses to the wireless subwoofer, and then the subwoofer's built-in amplifier produces the power required to allow you to hear the sound.

This is becoming very popular on soundbar systems, where there are only two components: the main sound bar and a separate subwoofer. Although the wireless subwoofer arrangement eliminates the long cable usually needed and allows more flexible room placement of the subwoofer, both the soundbar and subwoofer still need to be plugged into an AC wall outlet or power strip. However, it is a lot more convenient to find a power outlet for one speaker (the powered subwoofer) than two, five, or seven speakers that make up a typical home theater system setup.

One example of a wireless subwoofer is the Klipsch R-12SWI.

The WiSA Factor

Although wireless technology has been popularly embraced by both the CE industry and consumers for internet connectivity and audio/video streaming in the home theater environment, the elusiveness of quality products and transmission standards have hampered the implementation of wireless speaker technology that is applicable for the needs of serious home theater use.

To address wireless application in the home theater environment the Wireless Speaker and Audio Association (WiSA) was formed in 2011 to develop and coordinate standards, development, sales training, and promotion for wireless home audio products, such as speakers, A/V receivers, and source devices.

Supported by several major speaker (Bang & Olufsen, Polk, Klipsch), audio component (Pioneer, Sharp), and chip makers (Silicon Image, Summit Semiconductor), the goal of this trade group is to standardize audio wireless transmission standards that are compatible with uncompressed audio, Hi-res Audio, and surround surround formats, well as developing and marketing end-user audio and speaker products that are compatible across different manufacturers, making it easier for consumers to purchase and use wireless component and speaker products that are suitable for home theater applications.

As a result of WiSA's efforts, several Wireless Speaker product options for home theater applications have been made available to consumers with more on the way.

Here are some examples.

Beginning with the 2019 model year, select LG OLED and UHD TVs are WiSA-ready. This means that LG WiSA-certified TVs, with the addition of a plug-in WiSA USB Transmitter, can bypass the need for a home theater receiver and send full surround sound audio in a variety of Dolby and DTS formats wirelessly to any WiSA certified home theater speaker system, such as ones offered by Klipsch, Bang & Olufsen, Axiim, and Enclave Audio listed above.

The Damson Option

Although WISA-based products provide a viable wireless home theater speaker setup option another choice to consider is the Damson S-Series modular wireless speaker system. What makes the Damson system unique is that its modular design not only makes it expandable, with support for traditional two-channel stereo, surround, and wireless multi-room audio, but it also incorporates Dolby Atmos decoding (in addition to Dolby Digital and TrueHD) - A first in a wireless home theater speaker system. Damson employs the JetStreamNet wireless network/transmission platform for the speakers and the main module provides connectivity for compatible sources devices.

The Bottom Line

When considering wireless speakers for a home theater setup, there are several things to consider. The fact that "wireless" doesn't always really mean wireless is certainly one issue, but, depending on your room layout and the location of your AC power outlets, some sort of wireless speaker option may be perfectly viable and desirable for your setup. Just keep in mind what speakers require to produce sound when you shop for wireless speaker options.

For more on wireless speakers and wireless home theater connectivity, read What is Wireless Home Theater? 

For information on wireless speakers, and technology, for non-home theater personal (indoor/outdoor), or multi-room listening applications, which include Bluetooth, WiFi, and other wireless transmission platforms, refer to Introduction to Wireless Speakers and Which Wireless Technology is Right For You?.

Also, there are ways you can incorporate your old or current wired speakers into a wireless audio or home theater setup. Check out some options.