Comparing Sound Quality Between Wireless and Wired Speakers

Comparing Sound Quality Between Wireless and Wired Speakers
The accepted knowledge, ever since wireless speakers first became available, was that wired speakers simply offered better sound quality.

The reasoning for this was quite simple. It was much, much easier to transmit greater amounts of electrical data down a physical wire than it was to send it on a wireless signal. More data equals a higher fidelity, and so for a long time, wireless speakers just couldn’t cut it. Thus it was. Thus it was ever supposed to be.

Well, that was a while ago. And while you could still make a pretty convincing argument that wired speakers deliver better audio fidelity, especially when extremely high-quality components are involved, you look a bit foolish if you denied that wireless systems weren't starting to sound pretty incredible themselves.

The gap is a lot narrower than it used to be. The difference between a high quality wireless signal and that transmitted over a wire is starting to get to the point where you have to work quite hard to find the difference. Oh, we’ve no doubt but that last sentence has enraged the hard-core audiophile crowd, but for most of us, it’s true.

A couple of things have made this possible. Firstly, we are now able to transmit sound over WiFi, which means that we can handle a lot of data, which will improve the quality of the sound. Secondly, Bluetooth standards have been creeping higher and higher – the latest protocols, like Bluetooth 4.1, can handle a truly staggering amount of data, all of which results in more depth and detail to the sound. Thirdly, speaker design has improved, and continues to do so. Enhanced driver technology, better power management and the like allow wireless speaker makers to more than match their wired counterparts.

None of which actually answers the question you are probably desperate to know the answer to: which is better? Wireless, or wired? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t that simple. There are many, many things to take into account – from room acoustics to additional components to the type of material to the quality of the cables. Don’t worry: by the end of this guide, you’ll have more than enough information to make a decision, but we just need to say from the outset that it’s not going to be as cut and dried as you’ probably like. Sorry!

However, just because it’s not simple doesn’t mean we can’t test this kind of thing, using closely matched speakers. This won’t answer the question in its entirety, but it will take us some of the way there.

Conducting a side-by-side, blind test can be tricky – not because it’s impossible to set up multiple speakers, but because there are so many differences between wired and wireless speakers, in terms of construction. But while we were putting together this guide, it occurred to us that we should backup our arguments with a little bit of a test. So although we don’t delve deep into scientific measurements on this site (as valuable as they are, we don’t think you need that much detail to buy a speaker or a pair of headphones), we did put together a relatively scientific test, using products from a company named Audioengine, who make both wired and wireless speakers.

For our test, we lined up their HDP6 wired bookshelf speakers, against their HD6 wireless speakers. It’s a little hard to compare them in absolutely scientific conditions, because obviously we have to select an amplifier for the wired speakers that will differ from the wireless (we used an old Yamaha receiver, the HTR-2067, which doubles just fine as a stereo amp, and has a sound we are intimately familiar with). But we controlled what we could, relying on the same sound source, positioning them in the same place in our testing room, and playing identical tracks. We also did a blind test, getting the friend who leant us their HD6s to play the material. In addition, the speakers have very similar construction - both are roughly the same size, are constructed from the same material, and both have 5.5" Kevlar woofers and 1" silk dome tweeters. They also have an identical frequency response.

While there were subtle differences in the sound, we were very hard-pressed to name either set of speakers ‘better’ or ‘worse’, and we couldn’t tell which was which in our blind test. One speaker set - later revealed to be the HD6 wireless pair - had a little bit more low-end presence, while the passive bookshelf speakers delivered a touch more detail. In both cases, the sound was perfectly acceptable. We’d have to do extensive testing with other sets of speakers to be sure, but we’re pretty confident that wireless audio, at the very least, has the potential to be the equal of wired.

Wired Pros And Cons - And When You Should Buy Them
The biggest advantage of wired speakers actually has nothing to do with sound quality, whatever audiophiles may say. No, the biggest advantage is about control. Put simply, wired speakers offer you a level of control over the finer aspects of the sound than wireless speakers do.

Every digital sound system - by which we mean one where the source is digital file, streaming audio or a CD, rather than, say, vinyl records – needs two things between the source and the output device. It needs a digital-to-analogue converter (DAC), to convert digital 1s and 0s into an analogue signal that we can actually hear, and it needs an amplifier, to boost that analogue signal to acceptable levels. This sounds tricky, but it really isn’t: even your phone has a DAC and amp inside it, which is why you’re able to plug a pair of headphones in and start listening immediately.

These two components have a huge impact on the sound you will eventually hear, and in a set of wireless speakers, you don’t get any control over them at all. They are housed within the speaker itself – they have to be. But with a set of wired speakers, that’s not the case at all. With a set of wired speakers, you have full control over these. While it does mean, of course, that you will need to buy a separate amp and DAC (although there are plenty of solutions that contain both in a single box), you also get to control the ones you buy. You may decide to go for a tube amp, to fatten up the bass on your soul and hip-hop collection, or you might opt for a solid-state amp if you want clean, digital clarity to make sure that the guitars in your rock tracks bite hard. You get to choose. With wireless speakers, that choice has been made for you.

The other advantage is that wired speakers are very easy-to-use. All you need to do is connect them to an amplifier with a length of speaker wire, which a moderately intelligent chimp could probably figure out how to do.

That doesn't mean they don't have downsides. Chief among these is that you will have to deal with wires – obviously. For some, a collection of snaking cables can be a real annoyance, an annoyance which can be multiplied if you happen to be setting up are full surround sound system. We’ll talk about the difference that expensive cables can make below.

The second major downside is that you will need to do a little bit of calculation when making your purchase, to ensure that the speakers are correctly matched to the power level of your amplifier. You don’t need to stress too much about this – you have to work quite hard to blow your speakers – but it is something that you need to do. Fortunately, we have a comprehensive guide to doing just this, and you’ll be surprised at how straightforward it is.

So, to sum up: you should buy wired speakers if you want precise control over your sound, if you want to be able to swap out components in the future, and if you’re okay with having a few wires lying around

Wireless Pros And Cons - And When You Should Buy Them
Again, we’re going to steer clear of the sound quality debate here. We are more interested in the advantages and disadvantages of wireless speakers, and when you’d actually spring for them.

The chief advantage, you will be absolutely stunned to hear, is that there aren’t any wires. All you need to do is plug in your speaker, connecting it to a wall outlet (or not, if it’s battery driven), then hook it up to your sound source via WiFi or Bluetooth, and you’re away. For us, this is absolutely the best reason to own a wireless speaker. It is so unbelievably easy.

The other advantage is that a wireless system can be incredibly versatile. You can have a single speaker, or multiple speakers dotted around the house, all talking to each other. You can, with clever software innovations like PlayFi, get speakers from different manufacturers talking to each other – something that is possible with wired speakers, where you could use two different sets of speakers on a single system, but not advised due to sound mismatching issues.

Of course, the main disadvantage is as we alluded to above: you get zero control over the amplification and conversion. Once you commit to a wireless speaker, it can be very difficult – though not impossible – to connect external equipment to it. This is by design. Admittedly, many manufacturers (like SONOS and Paradigm) have comprehensive sound tweaking apps available, which largely dispel this disadvantage. That being said, the quality of external amps is generally far greater than the ones used in wireless speakers. Wherever you come down on the sound quality debate, we think you’d have trouble arguing against this

So where does that leave you? When would you buy a wireless speaker? Well, you go for one (or several) if you want an easy, efficient sound system that will fit seamlessly into your existing gadget ecosystem, without any hassle or additional equipment. They are ideal for multiple rooms, too, even in small homes.
Previous article Room Calibration Explained
Next article Room Size And Acoustics Explained