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Rich-sounding wireless speakers let you ditch the dock

Rich-sounding wireless speakers let you ditch the dock

For a long time, wireless speakers meant having to trade satisfying sound for the convenience of untethered speakers. Not any more. In our first-ever comprehensive testing of both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi speaker systems, we found several models that delivered very good sound that can rival some home stereo speaker systems—and a few with designs that will appeal to your eyes as well as your ears.

Wireless stereo speaker systems are an alternative to wired docks—a way to get music from your computer to the speaker without a physical connection. They may also be a great option if you have an iPhone 5 or other Apple device that uses the new Lightning connector, which doesn’t work with docks and cables outfitted with the older connector unless you buy an adapter.

While the best systems don’t ask you to trade sound quality for the convenience of going wireless, you will pay a premium for the privilege: The tested models range in price from about $200 to $700. Two—from Bose and Monster—can run on battery power and are designed for portable use.

Bluetooth or Wi-Fi?
Most of the models in our Wireless Speaker Ratings—the Bose SoundLink, Edifier Spinnaker, JBL OnBeat Xtreme, and Monster Clarity HD Micro—use Bluetooth. Two others, the Altec Lansing inAir 5000 and the Klipsch Gallery G-17 Air, use Wi-Fi, specifically Apple’s AirPlay technology. The Sonos Play:3 uses Wi-Fi to create a proprietary mesh network, where each device acts as a repeater to extend the network’s range. And one model, from Samsung, covers all the bases with support for Bluetooth, AirPlay, and DLNA (which lets you share content among devices on a network).

Each has its advantages and drawbacks. Bluetooth is supported by many portable devices, including both Apple and Android phones and tablets. But you can stream from only one device at a time, within a 30-foot range, typically limiting it to the same room as the speaker.

Apple AirPlay has a significantly longer range, and you can stream from an iPod, iPhone, or iPad to one speaker in the same, or another, room. (A computer running iTunes can feed up to six speakers as long as they’re on the same network.) But AirPlay is Apple-centric, so you’ll need a special app to make it work with an Android device.

Sonos’ mesh network is more flexible; since every speaker acts as a transmitter, it can stream music from different sources to different rooms (up to 32) over a very wide range. But the Sonos network is computer-based, so you’ll need an accessory to use it with a mobile device.

Here’s what our tests showed:

Give up wires, not good sound. A few models in our test delivered full, rich sound that can rival home-theater-in-a-box and soundbar speakers systems, and all but one were at least good.

Some are very easy to use. In general, Bluetooth models were a bit easier to set up, because pairing took fewer steps than connecting via Wi-Fi. But a few had poorly marked controls, and two were tough to set up if you had to use the manual rather than an app.

They don’t have to be plain or boxy. While several models have conventional rectangular cabinets, others sport more striking designs, such as the horn-shaped Edifier Spinnaker (above) or the boom-box-style JBL, which has a unique X-shaped design that supports a rotating iPod/iPhone/iPad dock.

Features vary. The Sonos can wirelessly stream songs directly from dozens of online music services, such as Pandora and Spotify, The Samsung has a retractable “dual” dock that works with iPhones, iPads, and iPods with the old-style connector, as well as Samsung’s own Galaxy S II and III Android smart phones and its hybrid Galaxy Note tablet/phone. Others can be customized with optional colored covers or grills. A few have integrated iPod docks or built-in auxiliary inputs for connecting other gear.

To get the full Ratings and detailed test results, visit our new Wireless Speaker Ratings, which are available to subscribers. And if you currently own a set of wireless speakers, let us know which models you’re using and well you like them.

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