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Buyers Guides > Wireless Speakers Buyers' Guide

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Introduction

The concept of truly "wireless" loudspeakers – at least as far as home entertainment systems are concerned – has yet to be fully realised. Most wireless home entertainment speakers are indeed wireless in the sense that they do not need to be connected to an audio source -- but they do still need to be connected to a mains power outlet. There are of course some very high quality professional level loudspeakers which employ integral high performance lead-gel batteries and provide truly wireless operation for up to 20 hours. These are very much in the minority however and with price tags in excess of £1000 or even £2000 are beyond the means – and the needs – of most domestic consumers. Equally some battery powered models – operating typically on 6 or 8 standard AA batteries – are available but these are perhaps better suited to PC or MP3 player use than as full-blown home entertainment loudspeakers. Loudspeakers tend to drain batteries very quickly and speakers of this type are often equipped with a 9 volt or 12 volt transformer for mains operation.

Wireless Speaker Considerations

Wireless speaker technology is advancing at a rate of knots and this has led to the availability of some wireless loudspeakers that are capable of more than adequate operation on rechargeable batteries and are much more economically priced than their "high tech" predecessors. Voyager VYWSS wireless stereo speakers, for example, are capable of up to 5 hours operation on a single charge and include an "auto mute" function which automatically switches the speaker off if no signal is being received preserving the life of the battery still further. Even if you choose speakers that require mains power you can avoid the necessity of masses of unsightly cables – which may also be difficult to troubleshoot in the event of problems – without the cost of a professional wiring installation.

A wireless speaker system requires naturally enough a transmitter – which in a home entertainment system may be built into an amplifier or tuner – and a receiver. Receivers may be built into a speaker enclosure itself or a separate receiver – and transmitter – may be provided. Transmission to remote speakers is usually made on the 900MHz or 2.4 GHz RF ("Radio Frequency") bands although some wireless speaker systems do operate in the 5.8GHz band. These systems are less susceptible to interference from domestic electrical appliances – such as mobile phones – but may have a limited range when compared to 2.4GHz systems. Range is typically somewhere between 150 and 300 feet from a transmitter and transmissions do not require "line of sight". Do bear in mind however that walls ceilings and other obstructions – depending on their number and physical construction – may weaken the radio signal at the receiver and reduce the operational range of the system. AQ Deluxe wireless speakers, for example, which are supplied in sets of two plus a transmitter, have a maximum range of 300 feet or so in an open area. This particular model is available in a choice of black white pink or beech finishes to match your existing décor.

Most music is broadcast in traditional two channel stereo but the soundtrack of DVD films and HDTV broadcasting is often recorded in Dolby Digital – an industry standard 5.1 channel digital surround sound format – and extended 6.1 or 7.1 channel formats may also be a possibility. A typical home entertainment speaker configuration therefore consists of a centre channel speaker, left and right front speakers, left and right rear speakers and a dedicated subwoofer for low frequency bass effects. In the absence of a wireless solution this inevitably involves running six loudspeaker cables to different locations around the listening space and for this reason rear speakers – which would otherwise require the longest runs of cable – are often wireless. Bipolar speakers – those in which the drivers fire in two directions – cause reflection from the rear wall of a listening space so that sound appears to be emanating from a wide area and are generally considered to the best type of speaker for this application. Unipolar front-ported speakers also work well however. The ability to route bass from all five main sound channels to a subwoofer means that rear surround sound speakers can be relatively small.

You do of course need to consider the size of your listening space and the size of your "soundstage" – the area between loudspeakers that you want to fill with sound – and this should be reflected in the power output and other characteristics of the wireless speakers that you choose. Generally speaking the larger the size of your listening space the more output power you will require to adequately fill that space.

Loudspeakers are rated by output power measured in watts (W) but this does not necessarily tell you the whole story. Output power may for example be quoted as PMPO or "Peak Momentary Power Output"; this is the theoretical maximum output that can be achieved instantaneously under perfect conditions and as such may have no bearing whatsoever on the normal everyday operation of a speaker. RMS or "Root Mean Square" output is a better – although again not perfect – way of comparing one speaker with another. It is also important to ascertain the output per channel or per speaker of your chosen system. Some manufacturers insist on quoting "total" power output for a system and this may in fact disguise underpowered speakers. Underpowered speakers are the most common cause of distortion and in the worst cases damage to the speakers themselves, as users invariably increase volume levels to compensate for their deficiencies. Voyager VYWSS wireless stereo speakers, for example, offer transmission on three selectable channels in the 2.4GHz frequency band and feature an output power of 15 watts RMS per channel.

The "impedance" of a loudspeaker measured in ohms is a measure of how much it will resist the flow of power from an amplifier. The higher the impedance the less amplifier power is required. If the impedance of a speaker is too low an amplifier may be driven into overload conditions and overheat fail or shut down. An impedance of 8 ohms is adequate for most loudspeaker applications. Similarly the frequency response of a speaker measured in Hertz (Hz) describes the range of frequencies that it can accurately reproduce. The range of human hearing is between 20Hz and 20000Hz (or 20KHz) so it stands to reason that a loudspeaker capable of reproducing this full range of frequencies – subject to consistency of volume throughout the range – will sound the most realistic. Another feature to look for in wireless loudspeakers is "digital modulation" which attempts to compensate for the interference sometimes associated with RF transmissions.

If you want to listen to music play video games or watch DVD content on your PC, you may be pleased to note that wireless PC speakers too have evolved and are now available in standard 2.1 channel configurations – with two 2 way speakers reproducing high and mid range frequencies and a separate subwoofer – and larger 5.1 channel configurations and beyond. It is unreasonable to expect huge volume and bass capability from small speakers but they do nevertheless add an extra lifelike dimension to many video games for example. The Rimax UHF wireless speaker system, for example, is suitable for use with a PC or laptop computer or indeed with many other domestic audio sources such as a TV HiFi or CD player. The system includes two 3 watt RMS speakers with frequency response between 80Hz and 12kHz and has a maximum range of over 150 feet.

Wireless speaker systems are similarly available for MP3 players and other portable media devices – not least the ubiquitous "iPod" from Apple in all its different "flavours" – and some are specifically designed to cater for the functionality of these devices. A transmitter "dock" for an MP3 player may for example double as a charger for the player itself and speaker units may feature controls – pause play volume etc. – for the player so that it can be effectively operated remotely.

Your enjoyment of wireless speakers is not of course limited to indoor use. The range of most wireless speaker systems is sufficient that you can position loudspeakers themselves outdoors – in a patio or barbeque area for example – without having to drag your entire audio system out into the garden. Indeed many splash proof or weatherproof wireless speakers are available and while this does not mean that they are waterproof and can be left outdoors for 100% of the time, they are certainly suitable for use near swimming or garden pools for example where an occasional splash is to be expected.