How Does Wireless Surround Sound Work?

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We all love and enjoy music and good sound. It can be a movie, a video game, some specific video content, or a full symphonic orchestra playing. You might not be aware of it, you will be annoyed by the bad sound and like the content more if the sound is good. It’s just how our brain works. It is programmed by previous experiences to have some level of expectations and it reacts if the sound it gets to process does not meet them. If there is too much bass where it shouldn’t be or no bass at all, you will feel somewhat uncomfortable hearing that sound. Like something is wrong or missing. So, you must experience the best possible sound from any system you are using.

Sound is a wave. It is a vibration of air being picked up by your hearing and interpreted by your brain. People commonly hear those vibrations in frequencies between 20 and 20 000 Hz. So, it is best when your speakers can produce that entire frequency range to keep your brain happy and without objections.

For the speakers to create those frequencies, they need electricity from the amplifier to start those air vibrations we hear as sound. That electricity travels through a cable in a conventional setup. But, it is 2021. and many people don’t want to mess with the cables anymore. To be honest, running and hiding cables all over the place, in an aesthetically pleasing way, has become an art form of its own.

So, let’s say you don’t want to think about running speaker cables across the room anymore. What are your options to get the full surround sound?

First of all, you need to know that those speakers still need to get their electricity from somewhere. Therefore, even if you choose to go wireless, you will need a power cord and a power outlet for each wireless speaker to make it work.

When you get the power to your speakers, you can use one of the options below to get the signal from the sound source to them. Every one of those technologies has its good and bad sides so make sure you know them all before you choose the right option for yourself.

Infrared Light

Infrared light is used to transfer data through streams of light outside the spectrum visible to the human eye. It is commonly used in remote controllers. You use IR to operate your TV, your AC unit, AVR, Garage doors, etc. Technology is mature, reliable, and cheap but it has some major downsides.

  • To transfer data through a beam of light, an infrared transmitter and infrared receiver need to be in the line of sight to each other. Any obstacle between them can cause distortion, delay, or loss of signal. If you, for instance, walk around the room while playing music and your body cuts the beam to one or more speakers, they will lose signal. So, people tend to install those speakers above heads, as well as transmitters. This can cause some other issues because you can’t do that in every room and space and still have a relatively equal distance from the listener.
  • Another downside of this technology is signal pollution. There are so many sources that use IR nowadays that it can become very confusing for the sensors built into the speakers to differentiate what is what. Therefore, listening to that kind of messed-up sound can become a very tiring experience unless you are in some room and space that is fairly isolated from any other Infrared signals and sources.

However, there are other ways to send a signal wirelessly, and it doesn’t require line of sight to operate:

Radio waves

Radio waves

Radio waves are a very good way to transmit a signal between the amplifier and the speakers. You need a transmitter to convert the amplifier’s signal into the radio waves, then a receiver to convert it back to electrical when it gets picked up by the speaker. A lot of communication devices use different radio frequencies to speak to each other and there are many standards to regulate different frequency spans for different devices and uses. Let’s talk about some of the most popular and newest options in 2021.

Bluetooth

Bluetooth

From its humble beginnings back in the late nineties to the current Bluetooth 5 versions, this standard has come a long way regarding range and the amount of data it can transfer.

All Bluetooth devices operate in a frequency range of 2.402 GHz to 2.480 GHz. The latest iterations can transmit to two separate devices from one source. Knowing this, you can get your signal to the rear surround speakers and your subwoofer using Bluetooth. However, there are some downsides to this technology as well.

  1. Bluetooth can transfer only stereo signal (two channels), This means you can use it to get the signal to the rear speakers and subwoofer but you would still need to connect your front and center speakers with a wire.
  2. To work, Bluetooth compresses your signal to transmit it. This causes significant sound losses due to bandwidth restrictions.
  3.  Since the sound needs to be compressed then transferred on-the-fly you may experience some latency issues.

Wi-FI

Wi-FI

Wi-Fi is a common name for the family of wireless network protocols, used to connect devices into the local network and internet access. If you use Wi-Fi to connect your speakers and your sound source, you are adding all of them to your network as separate devices. It allows you to play and transfer hi-res audio files and use a full frequency range and much better sound quality than you could with Bluetooth.

 But, your connection is as good as your Wi-Fi network and it can suffer from the same issues.  

  1. Latency can become a problem because the speed of communication between your speakers and your sound source depends on the speed of your Wi-Fi network. If you put a lot of traffic into it, it may cause a “traffic jam” and latency issues.
  2. If your Wi-Fi goes down, for whatever reason, your sound system goes down as well until you fix or replace your Wi-Fi network.

WISA

WISA

WISA stands for Wireless Speakers and Audio. It is a new standard developed by 60 different brands to improve existing wireless solutions. It is offering a lot while avoiding or nullifying all the issues other standards have

  1. It creates and uses a separate Wi-Fi network to operate. This means you won’t have to put any additional burden on your existing Wi-Fi network, or to set-up one just so you can connect your speakers.
  2. No latency. WISA certified devices have latency that is 1/10 of the Bluetooth devices.
  3. It supports 8 channels. This means you will not only get a surround sound but full 3D sound with separate channels for the speakers above, where supported.
  4. Scalability of the system. It automatically recognizes audio configurations from 2.0 to 7.1 or 5.1.2.

The only downside is the price because this system is not a cheap one and the fact that, at this point, there are not many systems on the market using WISA as standard.

SUMMARY

If you want to have a wireless surround system, you need to keep in mind that you will still need cables for the power. This is because battery-operated speakers are not practical or very strong.

After that, it is all up to your budget and desired level of satisfaction. The most common options are infrared, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and a promising newcomer – WISA. Each of them has some good sides and some downsides so make sure you understand them before choosing the right option for yourself.

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