You’ve got more choices than ever when it comes to building a home speaker setup. But the real question is: Should you buy wired speakers, Wi-Fi speakers, or Bluetooth speakers? What about a mix of the three? Here we’ll outline the different approaches these three standards take in terms of audio, and what the benefits and drawbacks of each one are.
When it comes to audio fidelity, an almost limitless number of words can be spilled arguing for one setup or another. We will mention sound quality here, but not in a huge amount of depth—just be aware that you can do a lot more research on that front, and pore over a lot more specifications, if that’s your highest priority.
We’ll outline the different scenarios where you might need wired, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi speakers, and explain what might be best for each one. Everyone is going to want something different from their home audio setup, but this guide will set you down the right path.
In general, wired speakers give you the best audio quality—if not always in terms of maximum audio fidelity, then in terms of consistency. The connection between audio source and audio output is fixed, fast, and stable, unaffected by dips in connectivity, walls, or people passing through the room. If audio fidelity is what matters most to you, then wired speakers are still well worth considering for your music and home theatre needs.
The downside is, of course, that they’re less convenient to use and more difficult to set up. Wired speakers need to be positioned in a place where the wires can physically reach, and then you either need to accept an untidy tangle of wiring, or put in some serious time and effort to get the wires concealed or somehow organised.
Listening to music from a computer on speakers in another room is obviously much, much easier with a wireless speaker—so much easier that you’re probably going to be tempted to forgive a little drop in sound quality. On the other hand, if you’re making a custom home cinema configuration and everything is in the same room, you might feel it’s worth using wired speakers and will get those wires properly tidied up.
When it comes to audio fidelity, a traditional wired system still gives you the most control over your components (like a separate amplifier, if you need one), and how sounds get from the source to the speaker. You’re not at the mercy of any wireless standard or its implementation, and you’re less restricted when it comes to choosing the components that the audio travels through.
It’s a question of what you’re trying to do as to which option (wired or wireless) is actually better. For a straightforward, multi-room setup, then a set of wireless smart speakers may well be preferable and cheaper. For a really high-end surround-sound system for your movies, wired equipment is more appealing.
Not too long ago, wired speaker systems would have easily won out for anyone interested in audio quality first and foremost. However, the quality gap is closing over time—Bluetooth and Wi-Fi standards are improving, and more equipment is appearing with these wireless technologies built in (even if that hardware has a more limited lifespan).
Bluetooth establishes a wireless device-to-device connection—in this case between the device playing the audio and your speaker—and that can make it faster to set up than Wi-Fi. Bonus: Your speaker system will still operate when your Wi-Fi is down (or when there’s no Wi-Fi network at all).
Another advantage of Bluetooth is that it doesn’t demand much in the way of power, which is why a lot of portable, battery-powered speakers use the standard. If you want a speaker without an input wire and without a power wire, then it makes sense to use Bluetooth.
The latest Bluetooth 5 standard is by no means ubiquitous yet, but it does offer the equivalent of CD-level audio quality across a limited range of around 100 feet (though walls and obstacles will reduce that). That’s probably enough for most non-audiophile needs. Some speakers include both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capabilities, so you can take your pick depending on each scenario.
What also matters with Bluetooth is the codec—the way the audio is compressed and decompressed—and this can vary depending on the sending and receiving devices. The best aptX HD codec supports 24-bit depth, a 576kbps bit rate, and a 48kHz sample rate, though hardware support for it can be patchy (the Amazon Echo Studio supports Bluetooth but not aptX HD for example).
It’s fair to say that audio fidelity is not the biggest priority for Bluetooth, and this is not the option to go for if you want the best possible sounds—podcasts, audiobooks and the occasional party mix, yes, but an immersive music and movie experience, not really. This has as much down to codecs and hardware support as the technical capabilities of Bluetooth, with more of a reliance on compression.
If you need high-quality Bluetooth audio, look for the aptX HD standard (or some other proprietary high-resolution equivalent) on both the source and the speaker. But the portability and the convenience of Bluetooth has its appeal: You’ll own speakers can go anywhere and connect in seconds without the need to log into Wi-Fi.
Wi-Fi speakers are something of a compromise between wired and wireless: Free from cabling, like Bluetooth, but typically with a higher fidelity than Bluetooth can offer. Wi-Fi can cover a greater range than Bluetooth, as well, so you can beam tunes all around the house without worrying about distances or line-of-sight. Anywhere your Wi-Fi reaches, you can use a Wi-Fi speaker.
Remember that wireless Wi-Fi speakers will usually (though not always) need a power connection, so you’re still going to be limited in terms of where you’re placing them. Removing the wire from the audio source doesn’t always mean you’re completely free when it comes to positioning your equipment around the room.
Besides the actual audio, Wi-Fi speakers have a direct connection to the internet, and that can be useful for getting software patches and accessing other features, including support for digital assistants. It also means it’s much easier to set up multiple Wi-Fi speakers around the home for multi-room audio—with Bluetooth, you’re usually restricted to one or perhaps two speakers at a time.
Sonos speakers, for example, which work over Wi-Fi networks, support audio up to 16-bit depth, 1,536kbps bitrate, and 48 KHz sample rate—that’s above CD-quality level. Sonos isn’t the only player in the Wi-Fi speaker game, but that gives you an idea of what to expect—you no longer necessarily have to accept a dip in quality if you switch from wired to Wi-Fi speakers.
The other advantages that Wi-Fi has over Bluetooth are latency and reliability: It’s a generalisations, and it depends on how good your home Wi-Fi is, but the response times and streaming stability of Wi-Fi speakers will usually be better.
The Wireless Speaker and Audio Association (WiSA) is comprised of more than 60 electronics companies working to promote standards and high-resolution audio across wireless speakers, which suggests there’ll be plenty of products arriving in the future too—even covering surround-sound, multi-speaker setups that all need to be kept in perfect sync.