Compare - Sonos Play, Other Proprietary WiFi Systems: Bluesound, Bose, Denon, LG, Samsung, Play Fi, Air Play

In audio, wires are as déclassé as dial-up modems. Most new compact systems -- and a lot of headphones, soundbars, and receivers -- now come with some sort of wireless capability built in.

This technology lets you transmit audio from your smartphone to a wireless speaker. Or from an iPad to a soundbar. Or from a networked hard drive to your Blu-ray player.

Most of these products include just one type of wireless technology. It's important to make sure that new wireless audio system you're buying will work with your smartphone, your laptop computer, or whatever you're keeping your music on. It's also important to make sure the technology has the capabilities you need.

In this article, I'll examine the most popular wireless audio technologies, and help you figure out which one will be best for you.

If you're using any of these technologies now, drop a note in the Comments section and tell us what you're using and what you like and don't like about it.

• AirPlay

+ Works with multiple devices in multiple rooms
+ No loss of audio quality

- Doesn't work with Android devices
- Doesn't work away from the home (with a few exceptions)

If you have any Apple gear, or even a PC running iTunes, you have AirPlay. This technology streams audio from any iOS device (iPhone, iPad, iPod touch) or any computer running iTunes. It sends audio to AirPlay-equipped wireless speakers, soundbars, and A/V receivers, and can also work with your current audio system if you add an Apple AirPort Express or Apple TV.

Audio enthusiasts like AirPlay because it doesn't degrade audio quality by adding data compression to your music files. It can stream any audio file that iTunes can play, and it also lets you play Internet radio and podcasts from iTunes or the apps running on your iPhone or iPad.

This site includes detailed instructions on using AirPlay.

AirPlay uses your home WiFi network, so it works only at home. A few AirPlay speakers, such as the Audio Pro AllRoom and Libratone Zipp, have a WiFi router built in so it doesn't need to connect to a WiFi network for AirPlay to work.

You can stream AirPlay from one or more devices to multiple speakers; just use the AirPlay controls on your phone, tablet, or computer to choose which speakers you want to stream to. Thus, it's perfect for families, where different people want to listen to different music at the same time, and for parties, where you want to play the same music throughout the house.

WiFi Multi-room HiFi Audio Systems, Control It By Your Tablet Or Phone!

Bluetooth speakers come in many shapes and sizes. Shown here are the Peachtree Audio deepblue (rear), the Cambridge SoundWorks Oonz (front left) and the AudioSource SoundPop (front right).
• Bluetooth

+ Works with any smartphone, tablet or computer
+ Works with lots of speakers and headphones
+ Take it anywhere

- Can reduce sound quality
- Tough to use for multiroom
- Short range

Bluetooth is the one wireless standard that's nearly ubiquitous. It's in Apple and Android phones and tablets, and if your laptop doesn't have it, you can get an adapter for $15 or less. It's included in countless wireless speakers, headphones, soundbars, and A/V receivers. If you want to add it to your current audio system, you can get a Bluetooth receiver for $30 or less.

For audio enthusiasts, the downside of Bluetooth is that it almost always reduces audio quality to some degree because it uses data compression to reduce the size of digital audio streams so they'll fit into Bluetooth's bandwidth. The standard codec (code/decode) technology in Bluetooth is called SBC. However, Bluetooth devices can optionally support other codecs, such as AAC, apt-X and the various MPEG codecs (including MP3).

If both the source device (your phone, tablet or computer) and the destination device (the wireless receiver or speaker) support a certain codec, then material encoded using that codec does not have to have the extra layer of data compression added. Thus, if you're listening to, say, a 128 kbps MP3 file or audio stream, and your destination device accepts MP3, Bluetooth does not have to add an extra layer of compression, and ideally results in zero loss of quality.

I say "does not have to" and "ideally" because we really have no way of knowing exactly how Bluetooth is implemented in any particular product. In most cases, the Bluetooth product is built not by the company whose brand it wears, but by an Asian ODM (original design manufacturer), often using a Bluetooth module purchased from yet another manufacturer. Given such a complex supply chain, it's tough to know if a Bluetooth receiver actually accepts MP3 signals as-is without forcing the source device to first transcode them into SBC.

Is the reduction in quality that can occur with Bluetooth audible? On a high-quality audio system, yes. On a small wireless speaker, maybe not. Bluetooth speakers that offer AAC or apt-X audio compression, both of which are generally considered to outperform standard Bluetooth, will probably deliver somewhat better results, but only certain phones and tablets are compatible with these formats.

Any app on your smartphone or tablet or computer will work fine with Bluetooth, and pairing Bluetooth devices is usually pretty simple.

Bluetooth doesn't require a WiFi network, so it works anywhere: on the beach, in a hotel room, even on the handlebars of a bike. However, the range is limited: usually 15 feet, maybe 30 feet best-case.

Generally, Bluetooth doesn't allow streaming to multiple audio systems The one exception is a few products that can be run in pairs, with one wireless speaker playing the left channel and another playing the right channel. A few of these, such as the Beats Pill and Pill XL, can be run with mono signals in each speaker, so you can put one speaker in, say, the living room and another in an adjacent room. You're still subject to Bluetooth's range restrictions, though. Bottom line: If you want multiroom, don't get Bluetooth.

+ Works with many A/V devices, such as Blu-ray players, TVs and A/V receivers
+ No loss of audio quality

- Doesn't work with Apple devices
- Can't stream to multiple devices
- Doesn't work away from the home
- Works only with stored music files, not streaming services

DLNA is a networking standard, not a wireless audio technology. But it does allow wireless playback of files stored on networked devices, so it has wireless audio applications. It's not available on Apple iOS phones and tablets, but DLNA-compatible apps such as Skifta are available for Android devices. Likewise, DLNA works on Windows PCs but not Apple Macs.

Only a few wireless speakers support DLNA, but it's a common feature of traditional A/V devices such as Blu-ray players, TVs, and A/V receivers. It's useful if you want to, say, stream music from your computer into your home theater system through your receiver or Blu-ray player. Or maybe stream music from your computer into your phone. (DLNA is also great for viewing photos from your computer or phone on your TV, but we're focusing on audio here.)

Because it's WiFi-based, DLNA doesn't work outside the range of your home network. Because it's a file transfer technology, not a streaming technology per se, it doesn't reduce audio quality. However, it won't work with Internet radio and streaming services-although a lot of DLNA-compatible devices already have those features built in. DLNA delivers audio to just one device at a time, so it's not useful for whole-house audio.

Phorus PS1 Speaker with Multi-Room Wireless Audio Streaming

    Fill a room. Rock the House: Add link and control multiple PS1 Speakers at once, and the same song can boom in every room with perfect timing. Or, play different songs on different speakers from multiple devices all at the same time.
    Like Bluetooth, but a million times better: Get the ease of streaming music from your phone, but with the range, quality and reliability of Wi-Fi. No pesky notification tones and zero drop outs. Works everywhere your Wi-Fi does, and set up is a breeze.
    Loads of music choices, tons of control: Stream directly from your local music library, Pandora, DLNA servers, AM/FM/Internet Radio, your favorite podcasts, and more! Plus, control of the entire speaker network is at your fingertips.
    Massive Sound, Inside and out: Music streams as pure, lossless audio for uncompromised quality, and the PS1's custom 360 degree acoustic design pours out rich, mind-blowing sound.
    Bluetooth compatible too! Want to stream any audio on your device? Connect over Bluetooth and you're good to go. Windows devices can also use Bluetooth to stream to the PS1. Note: multi-room functionality is not available for Bluetooth streams.

This PS1 speaker by Phorus uses DTS Play-Fi.

• Play-Fi

+ Works with any smartphone, tablet or computer
+ Works with multiple devices in multiple rooms
+ No loss in audio quality

- Works (for now) with only a few wireless speakers
- Doesn't work away from the home
- Limited streaming options (for now)

Play-Fi is marketed as a "platform-agnostic" version of AirPlay-in other words, it's intended to work with just about anything. There's a Play-Fi app for Android devices, and apps for Apple iOS devices and Windows PCs are said to be in development. Play-Fi launched in late 2012, and at the time of this writing, there are only two Play-Fi devices available. Play-Fi is licensed by DTS, a respected audio technology company known for technology used in many DVDs, so it seems likely the universe of Play-Fi devices will expand.

Like AirPlay, Play-Fi doesn't degrade audio quality. It can be used to stream audio from one or more devices to multiple audio systems, so it's great whether you want to play the same music all through the house, or different family members want to listen to different music in different rooms.

Play-Fi operates through a WiFi network, so you can't use it outside the range of that network. The Play-Fi Android app currently includes an Internet radio feature and music streaming through Pandora, Deezer and Songza, but the only other streaming options for now are two Asian-market-only services.

The Play3 is the smallest of Sonos' wireless speaker models.
  • The most versatile Sonos speaker with 3 custom drivers and dedicated amps for rich, room-filling sound at any volume
  • Wireless speaker streams music directly from your iTunes library, online music services and free Internet radio
  • Powerful wireless network delivers HiFi sound without dropouts
  • Start with one, then wirelessly expand with more to any room in your home
  • Sonos App on your smartphone, tablet or PC gives you control of all your music in one place

• Sonos

+ Works with any smartphone, tablet or computer
+ Works with multiple devices in multiple rooms
+ No loss of audio quality

- Available only in Sonos audio systems
- Doesn't work away from the home

Even though Sonos' wireless technology is exclusive to Sonos, I've been told by a couple of its competitors that Sonos remains the most successful company in wireless audio. The company currently offers two wireless speakers, a soundbar, a wireless amplifier (use your own speakers), and a wireless adapter that connects to an existing stereo. The Sonos app runs on Android and Apple iOS smartphones and tablets, and on Windows and Apple Mac computers.

The Sonos system doesn't reduce audio quality by adding compression. It does, however, operate through a WiFi network, so it won't work outside the range of that network. You can stream the same content to every Sonos speaker in the home, different content to every speaker, or whatever you want.

You have to access all of your audio through the Sonos app. It can stream music stored on your computer or on a networked hard drive, but not from your phone or tablet. The phone or tablet in this case controls the streaming process rather than actually streaming itself. Within the Sonos app, you can access more than 30 different streaming services, including such favorites as Pandora, Rhapsody, and Spotify, as well as Internet radio services such as iHeartRadio and TuneIn Radio.

• Other Proprietary WiFi Systems: Bluesound, Bose, Denon, LG, Samsung

+ Offer select features that AirPlay and Sonos don't
+ No loss of audio quality

- No interoperability among brands
- Doesn't work away from the home

Several companies have come out with proprietary WiFi-based wireless audio systems to compete with Sonos. These include Bluesound (shown here), Bose SoundTouch, Denon HEOS, Samsung Shape and LG's NP8740. All work to some extent like Sonos: They stream full-fidelity digital audio through WiFi, and are controlled via Android and iOS devices as well as computers.

While none of these systems has yet to gain a large following, some offer certain advantages.

Bluesound gear, offered by the same parent company that produces the respected NAD audio electronics and PSB speaker lines, can stream high-resolution audio files and is built to a higher performance standard than most wireless audio products. It also includes Bluetooth.

Samsung includes Bluetooth in its Shape products, which makes it easy to connect any Bluetooth-compatible device without having to install an app. Samsung also offers Shape wireless compatibility in an expanding variety of products, including a Blu-ray player and a soundbar.

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