Guide To Wireless Speakers For Home Theater

The Truth About Wireless Speakers

Bang & Olfusen BeoLab Wireless Speaker Line - 2013
Photo of Bang & Olufsen's Wireless Speaker Line. Photo provided by Bang & Olufsen

The Wireless Home Theater Speaker Quest

Although there is a large selection of portable and compact wireless powered Bluetooth and WiFi speakers designed for personal music listening, there are 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 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, and the different types used for both music and movie listening, refer to our article: Woofers, Tweeters, Crossovers - Understanding Loudspeaker Tech

Wireless Home Theater Speaker Requirements

In a traditional 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.

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", is they simply 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 "wireless" speaker to its own power source, and, in most cases, a secondary 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.

One 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 as of early 2017 (Buy From Amazon.)

Another example is systems, such as the Vizio SB4551-D5 (Buy From Amazon) 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 System. The PLAYBAR is a three channel self-amplified sound bar. 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 or as independent wireless streaming speakers for music streaming.

The components for the Sonos PlayBar System can be purchased individually (which allows for system expansion at the consumer's discretion) or is available as a complete system bundle.

Sonos PlayBar (Buy From Amazon)

Sonos Sub (Buy From Amazon)

Sonos System Bundle (Buy From Amazon)

The Play-Fi Wireless Surround Speaker Solution

Another approach to wireless surround speakers is being offered by DTS Play-Fi. Similar to Sonos, Play-Fi provides the ability for licensed companies to incorporate wireless surround sound speaker options in a sound bar system using compatible wireless speakers. Control is provided via compatible smartphones.

The first Play-Fi wireless-surround sound speaker-enabled sound bar (released in late 2016) is the Polk Audio SB-1 Plus

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 sound bar 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 sound bar 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 (Buy From Amazon)

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 a home theater application have been demonstrated and have been made available to consumers or are on-the-way, dependent on consumer acceptance.

As of 2017, the selection is still sparse, but three excellent examples of WiSA-compliant Wireless Home Theater Speaker options that have been introduced so far are:

Since this is a new product category, as of 2017 there still aren't a lot of options available yet, but more are on the way and will be added to this discussion as they become available.

More Info

As you can see, when considering wireless speakers, there are several things to take into consideration. 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. Also, for home theater application, check for official WiSA-labeled products, as that will provide further guidance, with regards to standards and capability.

For more on wireless speakers and wireless home theater connectivity, read my article: 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, refers to Introduction to Wireless Speakers and Which Wireless Technology is Right For You?.


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