The last few years have seen a seismic shift in listening habits, and it’s all due to wireless speakers and streaming services. GARY STEEL declares his admiration for the non-audiophile option.
For anybody keen to get decent-quality sound into their homes, 2017 has reached a peak of confusion. Almost daily I’m being asked for advice from hapless non-audiophile friends who are boggled by the choice, confused by the price differentiation, and technically challenged when it comes to understanding what they can actually achieve with the different options.
And most of the time, the questions are around Bluetooth wireless speakers.
The last three or four years has seen small wireless speakers come into their own, and in many cases, they’ve replaced the traditional two-channel audio system in a home.
This represents nothing less than a seismic shift in how people consume music, and of course, it goes hand-in-hand with the rise of streaming music services.
When I was editing Tone magazine back in the first decade of the 21st Century, wireless speakers still seemed like science fiction. Surround sound (or home theatre) systems were all the rage, and the only company really promoting throughout-the-home (or smart home) audio solutions was the ahead-of-the-bell-curve Sonos. And hardly anyone was listening.
Shoot forward to 2017, however, and even the ‘red shed’ – which traditionally services a lower socio-economic clientele – has a range of cheap, portable, wireless speakers for well under a hundred dollars.
This is a genuine revolution, because it gives power back to the people. All within a few years, those on tight budgets and perhaps unstable living arrangements who would never have had the right circumstances to invest in a conventional stereo system have been able to grab a wireless speaker, pair it with their smartphone, and for free, broadcast Spotify or one of the other streaming services.
And you know what? Despite the fact that those streaming services are mostly fairly lo-res, the sound quality coming out of many of the current batch of wireless speakers is about a thousand times better than my generation ever heard from the previously ubiquitous transistor radio or ‘3-in-one’ budget stereo.
Portable wireless speakers break any number of taboos for genuine audiophiles, but who cares? Their popularity means that they’re creating a new paradigm: one where music fans aren’t tied to the sweet spot between their two speakers, but instead can rove about as they want. The new paradigm is much more social, and easily enables the sharing of music, because any wireless speaker can be paired to a friend’s smartphone.
But just like anything, if you’re expecting to get a sound out of your wireless speaker that impresses, you will need to spend several hundred dollars. While there are many esoteric wireless speaker brands available, some of which rival entry level two-channel set-ups, the most commonly available premium brand is Logitech’s Ultimate Ears, which have been my go-to wireless speakers for several years.
Logitech proved its worth with their range of excellent iPod dock speakers many years back, and its Ultimate Ears range of all-weather portable wireless speakers really do pack a punch. If you don’t believe me, walk into a whiteware shop like 100% Electrical and ask them to demo several different brands.
Earlier this year, Logitech released its Ultimate Ears Wonderboom, a tiny blob of a thing that I really didn’t expect much of. If you want to see people’s jaws drop to the floor, demo this thing. I don’t know how they do it, and in a way, I don’t want to, because I like the idea of magic. When I pump this up a little, the bass thump is so remarkable that I can even hear it from downstairs in the garage. Like most of the Ultimate Ears range, it’s cylindrical and the sound gives the remarkable impression that it’s coming from nowhere in particular. It drifts around a room rather than seeming like it’s coming from one point, and it has remarkable clarity and definition for its size.
When you really put it to the test, however, the Wonderboom does have limitations. If you crank it up and listen close-up to the speakers, there’s a certain shrillness and a sense that while some clever processing is going on in there and the tiny speakers are capable of a lot of punishment, there’s a definite ‘edge’. Step away from the speakers, however, and with the benefit of air drift, the sound softens up, becomes less strained and brittle.
The Wonderboom (at $169.95) is indeed a wonder, but I would recommend it primarily for those who either have very little space to place a speaker or a small room to place it in, or those who are constrained by budget.
Those who can afford the premium Ultimate Ears wireless speaker, the Megaboom ($349, but a number of stores offer a substantial discount), should invest in one of these. While the Wonderboom is short and squat and looks like a flattened-down grenade, the Megaboom is long and cylindrical and roughly three times the size, and the sound it emits will surprise even the most sceptical critic.
I use mine almost exclusively for Spotify playback (set at premium sound quality) in the lounge and find that it does a spectacular job – considering its dimensions – of reproducing music. Again, the way the sound drifts through the air, creating the impression that the music is somehow just ‘there’, rather than directional/coming-at-you, makes for pleasant background, and a surprising amount of the sound spectrum is present and correct.
What I found amazing was that some ‘bass’ sounds (like the depth-charge electrified double bass hits on Talk Talk’s ‘Happiness Is Easy’, for instance) come through loud and clear. Of course, they’re really deep on a genuine full spectrum hi-fi rig, but the fact that they can still be detected and enjoyed on a small wireless speaker playing back 320kbps bit streamed files is kind of awe-inspiring.
With the UE speakers there’s also the fact that they’re weather resistant, but I’m not going to get into that, because I’d rather hear the birds when I’m out in the garden.
The upshot of all this is that it’s pretty obvious why there’s such a spectacular uptake of wireless speakers amongst the citizenry, and why the average music consumer is often defecting from entry level conventional stereo system to smartphone-plus-wireless speaker. Convenience is a big part of it, but also the seamlessness and ease of the whole experience, and the sheer mobility of it all.
But there is some confusion, and it’s easy to see why. Most wireless speakers will only operate wirelessly and can’t be plugged in as subsidiary television speakers, for instance. Try playing your turntable through wireless speakers. There are certain limitations, and many options to consider. Do you – like me – just want one or two wireless speakers dotted around the house, or do you need a whole connected system, like the Sonos, to work together in different rooms in the house?
There’s one more thing to consider, and it’s a major consideration for anyone who really loves music. For me, if I was traveling I would be quite happy taking my Megaboom and a pair of decent headphones, but I would really miss all the extra goodness that my full-frequency stereo speakers bring me when I’m listening the traditional way.
I know hardcore music fans who have only ever owned shitty non-systems, and I guess there’s a whole aesthetic behind that. “I love music, not sound,” can sound like a fairly compelling argument. But the joy my real stereo system brings me can’t be measured, and while wireless speakers are convenient and useful, they don’t compare. It’s a bit like comparing watching a big motion picture on a smartphone versus a giant screen: on the big screen there’s not only a sense of scale and a pictorial depth (not to mention explosive sound) but you get dragged right into the action because it seems so real.
Creators, manufacturers, distributors and importers of audiophile products will have to come to terms with what is an increasingly challenging market, and it’s inevitable that a lot of casual music fans will consider that having a wireless speaker is all they need. But there’s an opportunity here too, because there are always ears waiting to hear an experience, and that’s something you can only get on a full spectrum hi-fidelity system, where you can sit in that sweet spot and close your eyes and it really feels like you’re in a room with those musicians.
But it’s horses for courses, and realistically, even audio buffs are buying wireless speakers for practical reasons where the listening required is more of a background thing. My advice is, as ever: decide what you need, fix your price point, do your research, audition where possible. With wireless speakers, there are lots of options, and some of them have add-ons like voice instruction, so it’s important to figure out what’s most important to you.