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Wi-Fi & Bluetooth speaker systems

Wi-Fi & Bluetooth speaker system buying guide

Last updated: November 2014
Getting started

Getting started

Wireless speaker systems let you play music stored on a phone, tablet, media player, or computer that's across the room or even elsewhere in the house without fiddling around with cables and connections. Our tests showed that you don't have to trade sound quality for convenience, but you will pay a premium--several models we tested cost $400 or more.

Most portable models use Bluetooth wireless technology, which works with a wide range of mobile devices, including the Apple iPhone 5 and Android smart phones. But Bluetooth's reach is limited to about 30 feet, fine when the music source and the speaker are in the same room. Wi-Fi has a longer range, and with some sources you can stream music to multiple speakers in different rooms. Typically Apple devices use AirPlay to connect to your Wi-Fi network; Android and Windows devices generally use DLNA technology. (See Wi-Fi vs. Bluetooth.)

Depending on the speaker model, you may also get an iPod dock or the ability to connect an iPhone, iPod, or other device via USB. And almost all of the tested wireless speaker models have auxiliary audio inputs for connecting other gear, such as a portable audio player or TV.

Making setup easier

In general, setting up Bluetooth speakers is a bit easier and takes fewer steps than connecting by Wi-Fi. Some Bluetooth models now include NFC technology, which enables pairing simply by tapping an NFC-equipped device to the NFC tag on the speaker. Still, some Wi-Fi models can be among the easiest to use overall. That's especially true of those that use WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup), a feature designed to connect the speaker to your home network simply by pushing WPS buttons on the speaker and the WPS-enabled router. In general, poorly marked controls on the console or confusing owner's manuals and setup guides can be frustrating if you're not familiar with wireless network setups.

Styles differ

Several models we tested are plain and boxy, but others have striking designs. More than just aesthetics, some speaker system designs are functional, too. One model's integrated stand, for example, doubles as a fold-over book-style cover for traveling.

Features vary

Wireless speaker systems can be an integral part of your home entertainment gear--provided they have the proper connections.

Some systems have outputs for adding an additional subwoofer or to send video from a docked Apple iPad, iPhone, or iPod to a TV. Other models may offer an optical digital audio input for connecting other gear, such as a home CD player, to the wireless system.

Some have connectors or docks that accept the old-style 30-pin connections found on iPads, iPods, and older iPhones. (The latest 9-pin Lightning connector on the Apple iPhone 5 requires a separate $30 adapter from Apple.) Some have connections for specific Android devices: The Samsung speaker's dual dock will also mate with the company's Galaxy S II, Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note smart phones, for example.

In addition to streaming digital audio from your computer, several of the Wi-Fi models can access dozens of online music services, such as Pandora and Spotify.

Some wireless speaker sets come with remote controls or voice recognition in attempts to simplify use, but they can be hit or miss.

Wi-Fi vs. Bluetooth

Bluetooth is widely supported by portable devices, including smart phones and tablets. But you can stream to just one device at a time, usually within a 30-foot range.

Apple AirPlay uses Wi-Fi, which has a longer range, and you can stream from a mobile device with Apple's iOS software to one speaker or from a computer running iTunes to speakers in up to six rooms. Android and Windows-powered devices use DLNA to connect to your home network.

Sonos' wireless mesh network is very flexible. Each Sonos device acts as a Wi-Fi signal repeater to extend the wireless range of the system. This system can stream music from different sources in up to 32 different locations in your home. Samsung's Shape M7 is also quite flexible, and has both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and the Bose SoundTouch 20 is AirPlay-compatible.

   

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