So many speaker brands claim to be wireless—but what does that really mean? And which wireless audio technology is best for you? Let's dive into Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and WiSA, and find out. Quick note: If you run across terms you're not familiar with, check out the glossary at the bottom of the page.
When it comes to audio, wireless means the audio signal is transmitted to the speaker without speaker wires. Gone are the days of stringing speaker wires across the room—wireless technology makes speaker placement much easier.
Uses Bluetooth technology
Up to two channels of compressed audio (stereo)
Ideal for headphones, earbuds, and portable speakers
Uses a standard Wi-Fi network
Up to two channels of high-definition audio (stereo)
Ideal for smart speakers, multiroom speakers, and speakers that expand soundbar-based systems
Creates a dedicated wireless network, specifically for the sound system
Up to eight channels of ultra high-definition uncompressed audio; supports Dolby Atmos®
Highest globally-recognized standard for wireless speaker systems
Ideal for true cinema surround-sound systems
Using the 2.4 GHz ISM spectrum band, Bluetooth technology enables devices to exchange data without cables or wires. Often used in headphones, earbuds, portable speakers, and speakers designed for smaller spaces, Bluetooth sends and receives data effectively, within a specific range. For example, Bluetooth 5.0 has a range of up to 100 feet of open area; however, walls, solid objects, and devices that use the same band (such as your microwave) may impact connection stability and sound quality.
Bluetooth data files are compressed to make the file size smaller for quicker transmission. As you learned above, data is lost during compression, impacting audio quality—the audio you hear may not sound as crisp and clear as the original recording. In addition, Bluetooth latency can exceed acceptable standards for audio-video sync, creating a less-than-desirable experience when watching a movie or show.
Using either the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz band, Wi-Fi technology is used to send data from a wireless router to a device and from the device back to the router (connected to the Internet by a wire or cable).
Wi-Fi technology makes it easy to expand an all-in-one audio system, such as a soundbar, by adding wireless speakers. Wi-Fi is also ideal for an audio system that spans rooms—play the same song throughout your home, for example. Typically, Wi-Fi-enabled audio delivers two channels of high-definition audio (stereo); however, spatial audio and Dolby Atmos® Music require more channels. When it comes to home entertainment, today's movies, series, sports, and games are produced with multiple channels of audio. Finally, like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi is subject to perceptible latency.
WiSA is the highest globally-recognized standard for wireless speaker systems. The technology can be found in audio systems that cost only a few hundred dollars to those that exceed $100,000. Here's why. Using the U-NII 5 GHz spectrum, WiSA Home Theater (HT) technology transmits and receives up to eight channels of high-definition, uncompressed 24-bit 48/96 kHz sound over a dedicated wireless network it creates—no speaker wires or Wi-Fi network connection required. Due to the quality and capability of WiSA-enabled speakers, they use power cords, and not batteries, for operation.
WiSA HT delivers uncompressed, 24-bit audio at a sample rate of 48/96 kHz (CDs are 16-bit, 44.1 kHz, for comparison). Because a higher bit rate supports a wider dynamic range, sound systems with WiSA technology deliver remarkably rich sound. When it comes to latency, WiSA boasts an audio delay rate of only 2.6 ms at 96 kHz and 5.2 ms at 48 kHz—so minuscule, it's undetectable. Best of all, the delay is fixed and cannot be impacted by the number of audio channels transmitted, the distance between the audio transmitter and speakers, or by RF interference.
Specifically designed to deliver multiple channels of audio at the highest quality, WiSA HT supports the surround sound formats today's content provides. For example, when you watch a program that has 5.1 channels of audio, WiSA HT delivers specific audio channels to specific speakers, located in specific parts of the room—a true cinematic surround-sound experience. Hear rain drops fall all around you, a door slam behind you, and with height channels, a spaceship fly overhead. To learn more about speaker placement, read How to Make a Sound Investment: Step 1: Think Location, Location, Location.
Digital audio is compressed in one of two ways: lossy and lossless. Lossy compression discards some data, making the file smaller, but reducing quality. Lossless compression makes the file smaller for transmission, but once received, is decoded and returned to its original state—quality is not compromised.
The amount of time (usually measured in milliseconds) it takes for an audio signal to be transmitted to—and received by—a speaker. The elapsed time is referred to as latency. The longer the latency period, the more likely listeners will hear the audio delay. When assessing wireless speakers, look for low latency.