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Mardi, 06 Septembre 2011 20:48

Roundup: Wireless Streaming Speakers Tested and Rated

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The promise is that listening to music will get easier. Hit Play on your wireless device and the audio comes out of your speakers—no cables or docks. Yeah, right. As is often the case, the simple solution has only added to the complexity, as tech behemoths and bit players square off in yet another format war.

At its most basic, the conflict breaks down into two camps: uncompressed and compressed—the former ostensibly delivering uncorrupted streams of music, the latter downsizing files to make them easier to move around.

Unfortunately, the definitions get terribly muddled. Terms like lossless, which would suggest raw audio, are often applied to formats that do indeed compress their streams (just not all that much). And some speakers built for uncompressed protocols like DLNA and Kleer have hardware limitations that don't deliver on the full potential of those formats; it's sort of like pulling onto the Autobahn on a moped.

In the end, it's a three-part equation: Source file + streaming protocol + receiving unit = what you hear. We can't do anything about what's in your music library, but we can help you with the rest.

Buying Advice
If you're dealing with puny 128-bit MP3s, which have already been so chopped up and reassembled there's no saving them, a fast-and-dirty streaming standard like Bluetooth will be fine. AirPlay transmits at CD quality, so as long as your source files don't exceed 16-bit/44.1-kHz, they won't get compressed. But if you're starting with high-bit files like WAV and AIFF and want to preserve that quality, you'll need devices built for DLNA or Kleer. But you've also got to consider where you'll be streaming. Bluetooth and Kleer, which beam directly between device and speaker, struggle with distance and walls. AirPlay and DLNA units communicate over Wi-Fi networks, which makes them better choices for larger homes.

Glossary
2.4 GHz: The radio frequency most commonly used in wireless consumer electronics like cordless phones, routers, and Bluetooth devices.

24-bit/96-kHz: A high-end method for encoding digital audio. Payoff for the larger file sizes—a single song can be 100 MB—is added clarity and dynamic range.

16-bit/44.1-kHz: A step down from 24-bit in terms of dynamic range. Often referred to as "CD quality."

How We Tested
We selected one unit for each of the four formats we've discussed—AirPlay, DLNA, Bluetooth, Kleer—and set them up in a 950-square-foot apartment streaming rock, jazz, electronica, and hip hop from an MSI laptop, an Acer HTPC, an iPod Touch, and a Droid X.

Authors:

French (Fr)English (United Kingdom)

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