Guide to Wireless Speakers For Home Theater

The quest for wireless home theater speakers

The Wireless Connection
The Wireless Connection
Introduction

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

Bang & Olfusen BeoLab Wireless Speaker Line
Bang & Olufsen

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, the sound signals 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 send the needed audio signals, and a wireless receiver needs to used to receive the transmitted audio signals.

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

The transmitter has to be physically connected to preamp outputs on a receiver, or, a packaged home theater system may incorporate a built-in or plug-in wireless transmitter.

The transmitter 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.

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 an AC power source.

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.

This means that 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. You haven't eliminated any wires, you've just relocated where they go. Of course, the second amplifier still needs to be connected to an AC power outlet, which means another "cable".

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 or a second amplifier module. This can limit speaker placement as the distance from an available AC power outlet 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.

There are also systems such as the Vizio SB4451-CO, SB46514-F6, and Nakamichi Shockwafe Pro that come packaged with a sound bar for the front channels, and a wireless subwoofer for the bass and reception of the surround sound signals. The subwoofer sends surround sound signals to two surround sound speakers via physical speaker wire connections.

Vizio SB46514-F6 Sound Bar with Wireless Surrounds
Vizio/Amazon

The Sonos Option For Wireless Surround Speakers

One option for wireless surround speakers that is a little more practical, is the solution offered by Sonos with its Playbar, Playbase, or Beam Systems. These products provide built-in amplification and speakers for the left, center, and right channels which are housed in a soundbar or sound base.

In addition, Sonos offers an option 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, PLAY:3, or Sonos One wireless speakers. These speakers can do double duty as wireless surround speakers for the Playbar, Playbase, or Beam or service as independent wireless speakers for music streaming.

Sonos Beam and pair of Sonos One Speakers both with Alexa Built-in
Image provided by Sonos

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.

Polk Audio SB-1 Plus with Play-Fi Wireless Surrounds
Polk Audio

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.

Sonos, Play-Fi, Heos, and MusicCast are all closed systems. This means that their wireless speaker products can't be mixed across platforms.

Wireless Subwoofers

Wireless speaker technology is gaining a lot of popularity in a growing number of powered subwoofers. Making subwoofers wireless makes a lot of sense as they are self-powered already with 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.

Since subwoofers are sometimes located far from a home theater receiver incorporating a wireless transmitter to send signals to the subwoofer that is either built-in or that can be plugged into a Home Theater Receiver or Preamp and a wireless receiver housed inside the subwoofer is a very practical idea.

The home theater receiver, through a wireless transmitter, sends the low-frequency impulses to the wireless subwoofer. 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-10SWI.

Klipsch R-10SWI Wireless Subwoofer with Transmitter
Klipsch

The WiSA Solution

Although wireless technology has been popularly embraced 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 serious home theater use.

To address this need, 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 sound formats, as well as developing and marketing audio and speaker products that are compatible across different manufacturers. This makes 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 have been made available to consumers with more on the way.

Here are some examples.

Enclave Audio CineHome 5.1 Wire-Free Home Theater System Package
Enclave Audio

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 practical 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). Damson employs the JetStreamNet wireless network/transmission platform for the speakers and the main module provides connectivity for compatible sources devices.

Damson S-Series Wireless Home Cinema System
Damson

Roku TV and Wireless Speakers

Although not a full home theater solution, if you have a Roku TV, you can use Roku Wireless Speakers to get better sound for your viewing experience. The speakers provide a two-channel experience (no subwoofer) but are a starting point that Roku can build on if they are successful. The speakers pair with a Roku TV over a secure wireless network. They can't be used with other branded TVs, audio systems, or Roku boxes/streaming sticks. However, they provide a convenient wireless speaker option for improving the sound for Roku TVs. Just keep in mind that the speakers need to be plugged into power. 

Roku TV Wirless Speakers
Roku

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, one of the wireless speaker options discussed above may be viable 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, Wi-Fi, and other wireless transmission platforms, refer to our companion articles: 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.