Bluetooth blues: Wired speakers sound better than the best BT speakers

The Audiophiliac checked out four of the best BT speakers, and found that their sound can't come close to matching wired speakers.

Back row, from left, Peachtree Audio Deepblue, Klipsch KMC3, Cambridge Minx Air 200; front Bowers & Wilkins Z2 Steve Guttenberg/CNET

The continuing popularity of Bluetooth speakers mystifies me. The under $50 ones sound pretty weak, but they have a good excuse: they're cheap! Sadly, the $100 models aren't much better: they sound undernourished next to my $52 Dayton Audio B652 stereo speakers , powered by my $25 Lepai LP-2020A+ stereo amplifier. Before we go any further let's put aside for a second the question of how BT sounds; the biggest problem with BT speakers is that it's just one speaker, and can't fill a room as well as two speakers, spread five or more feet apart. Then consider that each B652 has a 6.5-inch woofer and a 5/8-inch dome tweeter; I've never heard a BT speaker, even a $500 one, that has two 6.5-inch woofers; some don't even have tweeters! Yes, the Lepai/Dayton system takes up more room and has wires, but if you want decent sound for a rock-bottom price, there's absolutely no comparison. Plug in a phone or iPod, and you're good to go for $77.

Obviously, more upscale BT speakers sound better than cheap ones, so for this blog I listened to four higher-end models, the $400 Peachtree Audio Deepblue , $400 Bowers & Wilkins Z2 , $599 Cambridge Minx Air 200 , and the $400 Klipsch KMC3 . The Deepblue was my favorite; it made the deepest and most powerful bass and sounded fairly clear in the midrange, but I found the treble grating and harsh. The Minx Air 200 was easier on the ears, it was the most refined-sounding of the four BT models. The Z2 was a lot smaller than the others, and still sounded OK.

My iPod Classic, with the left Audioengine A5+ speaker Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Some are quick to blame BT compression technology for BT speakers' less than stellar sound quality. They're right; the speakers sounded a little better when I didn't use BT and ran a $5.30 cable between my iPod Classic and the speakers. With the wire inline, sound quality improved, but the BT speakers still left me cold, especially because there are better-sounding alternatives for the same or fewer dollars. I hooked up a pair of $399 Audioengine A5+ speakers, placed six feet apart, plugged my iPod into the left A5+ with the 25-foot cable, sat on the couch, and enjoyed my tunes. The Audioengine speakers have built-in amplifiers, 5-inch woofers, and 1-inch tweeters. One by one I compared the A5+s with the BT speakers. Technically, the BTs are stereo speakers -- they have two sets of drivers -- but since they are 12 inches or so apart, the sound was essentially mono. So they can't fill a room as well as a pair of speakers. That's a very significant limitation that even the highest-priced BT or AirPlay speaker can't overcome.

The BT speakers play loudly, no problem, but the Audioeninge A5+s sound better playing loud. The Peachtree Audio Deepblue made more bass than the A5+s, but the Deepblue's bass sounded muddier than the A5+s. Frankly, the best BT speakers sound like powerful table radios; the A5+ is closer to the sound of a decent hi-fi system.

Now sure, if you don't have the space for two speakers, or need the wireless connection, go BT. But if you care about what your music sounds like, consider Audioengine, Emotiva, or Adam Audio speakers.

Would you consider buying small powered speakers instead of a BT speaker? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below. The Audioengine A2 speakers run $199 a pair, and will sound better than equivalently priced BT systems.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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