Friday, 26 February 2016

Wireless Speakers Guide

Wireless Speakers Guide

Whether it’s wi-fi or Bluetooth, there are plenty of speakers that can help to free your house of wires…

Mobile devices might be improving all the time, but there’s at least one area where they never quite match up to their desk-bound equivalents: audio quality. Finding a laptop, tablet or smartphone with speakers that are truly worth using is virtually impossible, no matter what technology manufacturers claim they’re using. You don’t have to be the world’s most picky audiophile to be annoyed by the tinny, raspy sound most mobile hardware chucks out, and for the most part it’s not getting any better. The constraints aren’t cost so much as space, weight and power.

Of course, mobile devices do tend to have wireless compatibility – and that means you can always improve your situation with a pair of Bluetooth or even wi-fi networked speakers. Whether you want floor-shaking bass, fantastic portability or features not found in most wired speakers, there’s a speaker out there for you somewhere – and hopefully we’ve found it!

Features To Look For

When you’re looking to buy a wireless speaker, you don’t just have to think about sound quality. There’s a lot more to think about. Here’s our quick guide to what you might want to look for (or avoid).

Subwoofers: Some speaker systems build woofers into each speaker, whereas others put them in a separate unit that you can place on the ground to really shake the walls. What you prefer is up to you, but beware that while separate subwoofers offer much more powerful bass, they also take up a lot more space and require additional power and wires.

Bluetooth: You can expect most, if not all, wireless speakers to use Bluetooth simply because the technology is so common and cheap. It has its downsides: it doesn’t travel far, and the connection quality can be low (unless it uses aptX, which is ‘lossless equivalent’). But the simplicity and universality mean if your speakers don’t support it, there needs to be a very good reason for that.

Wi-fi: It’s a newer feature, but many high-end speakers and sound systems have their own wi-fi connection, so you don’t have to connect them to your PC or even control them from your PC to use them. Bluetooth connections are fine for short-range audio, but wi-fi streaming is higher bandwidth, which means higher quality, and they can work virtually anywhere in a house. All you need is a router that your devices can communicate through.

Best HTPC Speaker System: Creative Inspire T3150

Most Bluetooth speakers are configured for standard 2.0 stereo output, if that. But what are your options if you want something that can handle something a little more sophisticated? Luckily, there are 2.1 speaker systems available, so if you’re a gamer or movie-viewer who wants to get rid of cables without sacrificing the roomfilling, floor-juddering feeling only a full-size subwoofer can provide, the Creative Inspire T3150 is for you. For £49.99, the pack includes the complete system, with a dedicated down-firing subwoofer, two satellite speakers and Bluetooth capabilities, so you can give your HTPC or Bluetooth-compatible console the oomph it needs to impress viewers without cables limiting where and how you can position them in relation to the master device.

Of course, at this price you don’t get full wireless capabilities. That would require you to be buying in a completely different price bracket entirely. There are volume controls on the base unit, but the remote control is wired and the two satellite speakers are wired, so you’re still limited to some degree by cable length. But unless you want to pay several times this price, that’s the best you can do, and at least cabling ensures a simplicity of connectivity and guaranteed audio quality.

Beyond entertainment use, the Inspire T3150 also makes for a strong choice if you want to convert your tablet/smartphone into a full-size stereo without paying extra for something that’ll support a dock. It’s versatile and, while not objectively powerful, its 9W output is well beyond what any integrated speaker can offer. While there are things we might improve about its design and capabilities, the price ultimately belies its quality and convenience.

Best Mid-Price Sound: Beats Pill 2.0

If you want a set of speakers that can work as either a mid-price desktop or portable unit, then this may be what you’re looking for. The Beats Pill is personally endorsed by Dr Dre, who we can only assume is available to inspect every unit before it leaves the factory, but it’s also a modern yet stylish-looking Bluetooth speaker system that has all the pedigree of the much-loved Beats headphones. There’s a reason Apple bought the company, after all.

Originally far too expensive for its limited feature set and capabilities (it cost nearly £200 at launch), it’s now possible to pick up a Beats Pill at a considerably reduced price if you shop around, which makes it far more reasonable.

For the most part, everything about the Beats Pill is good. It’s portable, lightweight and comes with its own protective hard casing. The battery life is sevenhours, but it can draw power from a standard USB connection, so it’s easier to charge than those units that need a separate DC adaptor. But of all the Beats Pill’s features, it’s the sound quality that really sells it. It’s got four internal speakers with a 30W output, meaning great dynamic range and power.

If you want to treat yourself, the Beats Pill is available in seven different colour combinations and even an oversized (and more expensive) variety. Prices start from £99.99 at retail, and you can probably find it even cheaper than that. If you want the latest version, you can also buy the Beats Pill+, but at almost double the price, there’s not a lot that it offers, which we think is worth that price hike – so take a look, but don’t think the price hike implies anything other than a newer release date and design!

Best Network Speaker: Sonos Play:1

If you want network functionality, it’s tough to find a system that’s both good and cheap. You have to be willing to spend north of £100, unfortunately, and if you’re doing that, you might as well go for the brand name that leads the field and pick the Sonos Play:1.

Despite costing around £150, it’s the smallest and most modest of the Sonos devices, but that doesn’t mean it’s a shrinking violet. Perhaps surprisingly, it eschews Bluetooth in favour of wi-fi networking only, but that makes some sense when you consider that its focus is on delivering key features at a low cost. Similarly, it’s not wireless in the sense that it’s battery powered; you’ll have to plug it into the mains. But beyond that point, it can get music from any compatible streaming source, anywhere in a house, and that’s what Sonos does best.

Available in black or white, the Sonos Play:1 is compact, but not to the detriment of its sound or capabilities. It may not be a particularly original look, but it doesn’t stand out in a bad way either. On the top of the speaker you’ll find simple controls: play/pause (which can be double-tapped to skip tracks) and a volume rocker too. Admittedly, the Sonos app you use with it will probably take care of those controls, but you have the option if you want it.

Networking support is very good, too. You no longer have to use Sonos’ bridge to connect wireless devices to a network (though you can if you want to), and if you don’t have good enough wireless coverage or bandwidth to stream music, there’s also an Ethernet port at the rear of the device.

Despite its single-speaker design, the Sonos Play:1 is also fairly strong in its output. While it’s only a mono speaker, it can fill a room with sound, and if you buy several, it’ll easily fill a house. The bass isn’t particularly brilliant, but it’s enough that you can get away without buying a separate Sonos Sub unless you like having your ribs rattled. We admit that it doesn’t look like you get a lot for the money, but ultimately the sheer simplicity and convenience is what you’re paying for here.

Best Freestanding Sound System: Tibo Nexus 400

The Tibo Nexus 400 is an elegantly designed and technically powerful loudspeaker system from Tibo, which does its best to cover every need you have for freestanding speakers, whether you want to use them for music or incorporate them into your home cinema setup.

As well as being compatible with optical audio-in, RF and 3.5mm, the Tibo Nexus 400 supports aptX Bluetooth with NFC pairing. There’s also USB input with a charge function so you can connect your phone or tablet and not worry about it spoiling the ambiance by running out of battery. The slimline, freestanding form is rare for devices with wireless support, so you can be sure you’re getting something unique for your money – and at £499, the money is definitely a major consideration.

You can see where the money’s gone, though. They look positively monolithic, and both left and right speakers are fully active, with built-in amplifiers and DSP control. There’s a cable-free RF connection between the speakers themselves, so you don’t have to worry about restrictions on where you can place them (within a reasonable distance) or tangled cables getting in the way.

Each speaker is capable of chucking out a frankly massive 200 watts of sound, so this is definitely a system aimed at dedicated home cinema enthusiasts or gaming fanatics, and in particular those living in detached houses. It’ll shake a room in exactly the way you’d hope a £500 speaker system would.

While we acknowledge that it’s aimed at a certain high end of the market and therefore not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, we can confidently say that if you’re after wire-free sound that can put a wired system to shame, it’s worth paying extra for. It’s always going to be more expensive, but we can’t imagine many people will buy a speaker of this kind and not be excited for the lack of wires too!

Best Overall Speakers: Yamaha NX-N500

If you want speakers that can act as either a hi-fi, TV sound system or computer sound system, we recommend a good pair of bookshelf speakers. They tend to be powerful without being oversized, and versatile without compromising on quality. And of the available models, it’s the Yamaha NX-N500 we liked the look of most.

Now before we go any further, we should point out that these units cost £599. But while you’re picking yourself up off the floor, let’s look at the feature set: they’re basically the last speakers you’ll ever need.

For a start, they’re fully networked, so you can use them to play music over aptX Bluetooth or over wi-fi based systems like Airplay. There’s an optical input, of course. But what really makes the speakers is the Bluetooth output. That’s right: they can connect to any Bluetooth capable device and steam sound to it from whatever input they’ve got. Superb stuff by any estimation, and a feature that can make them the absolute heart of your entertainment world. The MusicCast technology Yahama has included means it works even more easily with other MusicCast devices.

Setting up the speakers is easy to do, with a controller app for your smartphone and/or tablet that allows you to control every aspect, from volume to connectivity to sound balance. If you don’t have one, don’t worry; you can still use the traditional remote control, and a discreet LED display gives you colour-coded feedback about the speaker’s operating mode and source, so you don’t get stuck while troubleshooting.

The list of software connectivity is also near-endless. Juke, Napster, Spotify (and Spotify Connect), SiriusXM, Rhapsody, Pandora and more besides are all supported. It’s DLNA-certified for your media server or HTPC, and that’s in addition to its Bluetooth, Airplay and wi-fi support. The only way it isn’t better than literally everything else on this list is that it only has a 45W output for a total of 90W, which is less than half of the Tibo Nexus 400. Then again, that’s plenty, and these speakers take up considerably less space, so it’s not something we see as a deal-breaker.