The battle between WiFi, Bluetooth, and wired connections
By Ricky Kovacs / Guides
It's like two forces colliding. Trying to maintain the purity and tradition of the way of the cable while coming to terms with the inevitable trend of wireless audio and the future - IS wireless audio the future?
There's no arguing that the emergence of wireless seems to be the latest trend in technology, and now that it is well established, it's fair to say that more and more devices will implement wireless tech moving forward. Despite this trend, why are audiophiles not embracing this technology like the rest of society? It's well known that audio quality deteriorates when you transmit audio wirelessly. But just what is the music quality like through wireless headphones or speakers? Is there a difference when listening to music via Bluetooth connection versus WiFi connection? We'll seek to answer these questions and more in this guide to wireless vs. wired connections.
With the emergence of wireless technology, wires have become the symbol of slavery to your audio equipment. Okay, maybe that's a bit extreme, but the idea that wires "hold you back" in a world that is always on the go is a powerful image. One that marketing teams for wireless products have capitalized on over the years. Wireless had become synonymous with "freedom." It's hard to market freedom as a bad thing, so wireless products have done well for themselves among the ordinary consumer masses. It's trendy. It's convenient. It's great in almost every single way except the one that matters most: sound. After all, that is the purpose of the device, isn't it?
But without using too many political comparisons, it's like choosing if you want to sacrifice a little freedom for more security. In this case, its choosing to sacrifice sound quality for convenience. It's up to you really. Chances are, if you're choosing convenience over sound quality you probably aren't a true audiophile. However, I like to think the more common trend is for people to have lots of tools in their metaphorical toolbox. There is a time and a place for everything, and at the end of the day, wireless headphones or speakers afford you the opportunity and peace of mind to be able to listen to music when you otherwise couldn't.
On vacation with the family at the beach? No worries - there's a Bluetooth speaker for that. Mowing the lawn? There's a headphone for that. In many ways wireless grants freedom and convenience to be able to listen to music when and how you want to. But convenience isn't the only argument we're fighting here. Or the most important one.
What about the simple argument of not wanting to run wires to everything in your sound system? There is a nice and clean aesthetic to having wire-free devices, and not all of us have the time or money to re-wire or run cables through the walls of our home. The thing is, technology today allows us to go without cables, but how does that affect the sound quality? After all, audiophiles and sound purists will say that without physical cables the sound quality will only be worse in comparison. With wireless technology changing ever so quickly, is this the case?
What options do I have if I want to use wireless audio?
Luckily you have some choices when it comes to setting up wireless audio. There are two primary ways: WiFi and Bluetooth. You might be asking yourself, "What's the difference?" Well, a lot in fact.
How It Works
WiFi Audio is simple in the way that it connects to your wireless network; hence the "WiFi" designation. However, it can be more complicated to set up than a Bluetooth connection. Typical WiFi audio setups start at the source: either a computer or media server which is then connected to the network. A music streaming device is then also connected via the wireless network and then connected to your output. Most streaming devices are controlled by tablet or mobile via a proprietary application (app).
The audio is transmitted through the internet, and is only limited by the speed of your network. This is why WiFi audio (in almost all cases) will be better quality than Bluetooth audio quality. The expanded bandwidth of the WiFi connection can allow for higher-resolution audio and larger files to be processed and faster than any Bluetooth connection. WiFi serves as the backbone for wireless, multi-room audio systems too. Sonos essentially invented the game of multi-room WiFi setups. Bluesound is a brand that specializes in wireless audio systems in which several devices can be configured to play different songs in different rooms if desired. Each "node" can act as its own end point or zone, and be configured to multiple profiles simultaneously. Controlling the system via your phone is a nice feature as well - controlling your devices, songs, and volume from anywhere in your home - just with the swipe of a finger.
Most wireless multi-room systems are usually closed, meaning that all the devices (nodes, speakers, etc.) must be from the same brand. This makes it easy to determine compatibility and make sure that the entire system will work in tandem with each other. Different brands sometimes use different wireless parameters, or make it so that their products only interact with other products from that manufacturer.
DTS has a technology they call “Play-Fi” which lets you mix and match speakers - primarily from an ecosystem of brands that implement the technology. Play-Fi sends audio from mobile devices to speakers throughout the home using proprietary streaming, synchronization, and authentication technology. There are a myriad of streaming services that are also compatible with Play-Fi and there are more introduced all the time. So if you have one of these brands, you should be able to implement Play-Fi in your own home already.
Download the app and it will provide you with a list of all the available and compatible devices. You can select one or more of the devices and choose from a number of audio streaming services listed below. You can select different speakers to output the left and right for a separated stereo setup, or if you have up to six Play-Fi compatible products, you can create a 5.1 surround sound system.
Some multi-room systems also use Bluetooth, allowing you to stream music from your smartphone or tablet. In much the same way a WiFi system works, the receiving device transmits the Bluetooth audio to the other speakers in the system. Some of the manufacturers that do this are:
- Bose SoundTouch
- Yamaha MusicCast
- Denon HEO
There are also workarounds to convert your favorite speaker to wireless without having to do surgery on it. Standalone WiFi amplifiers allow for adequate power to your speakers without having to run cable or wires to your source. This is a good option for those wanting to add more ergonomic functionality to your existing system rather than buying new gear outright. All-in-one units like the Matrix Audio Element X allow you to power and stream your source from one box. Keep in mind that these don't magically make your speakers or headphones wireless - you'll still need to connect cables from the WiFi amp or streamer (like the Element X) to the output device. However, the source for that device has become the streamer or amp which is receiving the transmission of the audio, rather than the source directly in a traditional sound system setup.
WiFi audio is not just about multi-room streaming systems, but if you are wanting to cut the cord and have the best possible audio quality, then WiFi is the way to go. As we'll see with Bluetooth, there's just not enough frequency range or bandwidth to process larger and higher-resolution files like WiFi. But if you'll be able to tell the difference is another story.
WiFi Audio Recap
- More secure
- Can connect over longer distances than Bluetooth
- Faster transfer speeds
- Better audio quality than Bluetooth
- Extra hardware required (router, internet connection, applications, etc.)
- Not available for portable or public use - limited to home or work environments
- More equipment means more expensive
Recommended HiFi Devices
Why is it called Bluetooth?
Herald Bluetooth was king of Denmark in the late 900s. He managed to unite Denmark and part of Norway into a single kingdom and then introduced Christianity into Denmark. He left a large monument , the Jelling rune stone, in memory of his parents. He was killed in 986 during a battle with his son, Svend Forkbeard. Choosing this name for the standard indicates how important companies from the Nordic region (nations including Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland) are to the communications industry, even if it says little about the way the technology works.
Many electronic devices today utilize Bluetooth connections, and it may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s incredibly easy to connect Bluetooth-compatible devices together.
Bluetooth can be called a technology of convenience. Not only is it incredibly easy to use, it's also affordable and accessible on most consumer-budget devices. When it comes to audio, you have your choice of Bluetooth headphones or speakers. They come in all shapes and sizes. Bluetooth adapters even make it possible for your existing headphones or speakers to work wirelessly. It's the latest trend in the consumer audio market, and it's here to stay.
Whereas WiFi connected devices use a middle-man (the router) to transmit audio from source to device, Bluetooth takes out the middle-man and connects directly from the source to the device. Bluetooth is ideal for more consumer-friendly devices like portable speakers or headphones, and usually the audio source is from a device like your phone, computer, or tablet. Unlike WiFi in which each device has to connect separately to the network in order to be configured to work together, Bluetooth can handle many devices simultaneously, although there is conflicting information on the internet (that we will clarify of course).
Bluetooth works separately from your WiFi or data connection. Using its own connection protocol, Bluetooth allows you to connect device-to-device, without using data (LTE, etc.) from your mobile device or WiFi from your home, work or public network. Connecting to a device does not deactivate your WiFi or data connection, which means you can still connect your phone to a Bluetooth speaker and stream music off your subscribed service on WiFi (without using mobile data). Bluetooth does not compete with other connections in that respect.
Like all technologies that get upgraded, newer Bluetooth generations provide expanded functionality all while remaining backwards compatible with previous iterations. The latest version is Bluetooth 5.0.
The difference between Bluetooth 4.0 and 5.0
The latest version of Bluetooth brings about some notable improvements to overall functionality, but not necessarily to audio quality when it pertains to transmitting music. Perhaps the biggest improvement from Bluetooth 4.0 to 5.0 is the range for devices; theoretically increasing the range from 10 meters on average to 243 meters. However, it is unlikely that real-world scenarios will reach that maximum range. There are effectively indoor and outdoor estimates, due to the number of obstacles the signal has to travel through, such as walls and furniture in your house. The update to Bluetooth 5.0 will drastically help indoor ranges as the bandwidth is also improved, but 5.0 doesn't include a standard for audio transmission. This means that headphones, speakers and other Bluetooth enabled devices will have to use the older 4.0 audio protocols until this too is updated.
Unfortunately, Bluetooth 5.0 does not improve audio quality - at least not right now anyway. The fact remains that audio data transmission is up to the codec, and until a new codec is developed to work with the range and speed updates of Bluetooth 5.0, your audio isn't going to sound any better.
(Note that various Bluetooth versions will default to the earliest version due to compatibility protocols. For instance, if your phone has Bluetooth 4.0 but your speaker has version 2.0, data and audio will be transmitted via Bluetooth 2.0 settings.)
Not all codecs are created equal. A codec determines how the Bluetooth signal is transmitted from the source to your audio output, whether it be headphones or speakers. It encodes the data into a specific format, allowing the receiving Bluetooth device to then decode the data or audio signal. There are a number of codecs that process the data differently, resulting in various sizes and audio qualities. Some are better, some are worse, but the devices themselves also play a role in how the data gets processed (mostly in the form of latency).
SBC, The Universal Donor
SBC, or low-complexity sub-band codec, is the baseline of all Bluetooth codecs. It's certainly not the best one out there, but it's also mandatory for all A2DP-enabled devices, making it the "universal" Bluetooth codec among most devices on the market. So if there are any codec mismatches, your device will default to using SBC since it's compatible with all Bluetooth devices.
Later codecs implement higher bit rates, bit depths and frequency responses. Qualcomm, Sony, HWA Alliance, and now even Samsung have developed their own proprietary Bluetooth codecs with varying qualities. These greater rates help to preserve the data being transferred, and in the case of audio files, it transfers to higher-fidelity sound through wireless transmission.
Qualcomm was the first on the scene to develop their series of aptX codecs to offer greater quality than SBC. Though both are lossy format, aptX sounds miles better than SBC due to its higher bit rate, and in the case of aptX HD, support and compatibility with high-resolution audio files. AAC came out which allows for higher-resolution playback if you have an Apple device, as they utilize the codec as their standard. Non-apple users will find AAC to be unreliable, as most Android-based devices do not efficiently support the codec. Sony has the claim-to-fame lately with their LDAC codec, which is capable (at least on paper) of transferring high-resolution audio files. In our comparison review of the Best Noise-Canceling Headphones, the LDAC codec is one of the factors that set the Sony WH-1000XM3 apart from the rest. It produced audio quality and fidelity that far surpassed the competition.
As the technology continues to improve, and as audio files start becoming larger, we'll continue to see advancements in Bluetooth data transmission as time goes on. You can see the current specs on existing Bluetooth codecs below.
420 kbps (dynamic)
16 / 24 bit
LLAC / LHDC LL
400 / 600 kbps
SSC (Samsung Scalable Codec)
So with all this talk of codecs and Bluetooth 4.0 vs. 5.0, how does this translate into real-world usage?
Bluetooth is much easier to set up than WiFi devices. Usually two compatible Bluetooth devices, for example a phone and a portable Bluetooth speaker, are able to be connected directly through the phone's Bluetooth menu. Bluetooth devices are split into two categories: host and client devices. Host devices can support up to 7 simultaneous connected devices and up to an unlimited number of paired devices. Think of host devices like a wireless router - you can connect a number of devices to the router and have them communicate with it. Host devices are typically PCs, mobile phones, tablets, etc, that can have a number of paired and connected devices (such as keyboards, mice, and speakers - all connected and transmitting data simultaneously).
Client devices can support a smaller number of pairings, but only one connected device at a time. Client devices can be considered to be those connected keyboards, mice, headphones,and speakers. They can be paired with a limited number of devices, but can only communicate and send data to one host device at a time. There are only a few services that allow multiple outputs from one source, and they are typically proprietary to that specific brand. One example is Bose's Connect application, which allows you to send your source audio to two connected Bose headphones. Typically a host device can transmit audio to one client at a time.
Some other things to keep in mind are location and proximity. Since Bluetooth has a relatively weaker signal compared to WiFi, the proximity of your devices should be considered when in use. This means that you probably don't want to try and transmit audio to someone 3 houses over, but if you're connecting to a speaker in the same room or in the backyard with the host device, it will be fine. Also note that audio quality deteriorates when being transmitted through walls and other obstacles. A clear line of sight from the host to the client is always preferred to minimize interference.
When it comes down to it, Bluetooth headphones are only as good as their circuitry. Pretty much everything inside the headphones in regards to the driver is completely the same as a wired headphone. The only difference is that instead of terminating in an analog audio jack, Bluetooth headphones are routed into the Bluetooth circuit which allows them to be wireless. The circuit itself is what process and transmits/receives the data, so if that hardware specifically is lackluster, then it will likewise translate into the overall audio quality.
HIFIMAN Ananda has a Bluetooth variant that we highly recommended for those looking for true audiophile sound in a wireless headphone. In our review, we called them the best wireless headphones in regards to audio quality. From a build perspective, there is nothing really on the exterior of the headphone that indicates the difference, other than wires connecting the ear cups to the headband in the BT model. The absence of headphone jacks at the bottom of the ear cup is another indication, but otherwise the two headphones look identical. From a sound quality perspective, HIFIMAN did a great job making sure that the quality of sound also carried over from the wired version of the Ananda. Using some of the high-resolution-friendly codecs that Bluetooth offers, the quality and fidelity are surprisingly impressive considering the power required for open-back planar magnetic driver. It doesn't compare to a wired connection, but it's pretty darn nice sounding for a Bluetooth headphone. You can read more about the Ananda-BT in our review:
Bluetooth Audio Recap
- Extremely wide application - working with a number of devices and operating systems
- More accessible outside the home - no need for WiFi connection
- Capable of sounding good - depends on codecs being used and device matching
- Close proximity necessary
- Streams in lossy compression
- Walls and objects can cause interference
- Can only control volume of the host device remotely
- Headphones are only as good as their circuitry
Recommended Bluetooth Devices
Bluetooth Versus WiFi
2.4 - 5 GHz
Low (800 kbps)
High (11 Mbps)
Mobile phones, mouse, keyboards, office technologies, fitness devices and activity trackers, portable speakers and more
Computers, servers, televisions, streaming media devices, mobile phones and more
Bluetooth adapter, Bluetooth-enabled and compatible devices you are connecting.
Wireless-enabled devices (WiFi card or adapter), Computer/tablet/phone for configuration and setup, wireless router and/or wireless access points
5 - 30 meters (optimal real world scenario: 10m)
With 802.11 b/g the typical range is 32 meters indoors and 95 meters (300 ft) outdoors. 802.11n has greater range. 2.5GHz WiFi has greater range than 5GHz. Antennas and signal repeaters can also extend/increase range.
Ease of Use
Simple to use and switch between devices
More difficult and complex - requires configuration for all devices and software. More devices = more configuration.
Supports a limited number of users
Supports a large number of users
Why do audiophiles prefer wired connection then? In short: no loss in data. Cables allow all for the data to be transferred without any loss or degradation from the source. Typically in standard audio system setup, cable is run from the source, to other components, and ultimately to the output. This is how the audio signal is transferred in most audiophile setups.
When talking about wireless on the other hand, depending on factors such as overall file size, format, WiFi bandwidth or Bluetooth codec, the overall quality of what comes out is likely not going to vary from how it started. It's like a game of telephone: some information is lost in the process. The compromise you make in removing wires comes at the expense of overall sound quality and fidelity. If it's a larger file, you require more bandwidth to transfer most of the data; if you reduce the file size by compression, then you leave out fidelity and details from the original file and quality. You can't have it both ways.
With cabled solutions you simply don't have to worry about any of that and can be assured that what is coming out of your speakers or headphones is the digital file or analog signal in its entirety. No compromises. Just pure, unadulterated audiophile-grade sound.
An interesting study by Soundguys.com shows that cabled audio is still superior to Bluetooth even today with the latest and greatest codecs and speeds available. However, they note that Bluetooth fidelity (or rather, lack thereof compared to wired connections) won't matter to people older than 24. Their theory is that those 25 and up have accumulated noise-induced hearing loss, and the details and and minutia will be relatively undetectable.
Of course, as we've said many times before, everyone hears differently. Personally, everyone in the office here at Moon Audio is over 25, and I would argue we can all hear noticeable differences between wireless and wired audio. But we're also not the average consumer when it comes to audio electronics. So for the sake of this article, I'm going to assume that you're reading this because you want the best possible audio quality when you listen to your music. If you're like us, then you'll probably be able to hear differences in quality and overall fidelity from wireless to wired connections. You are not the average consumer.
That being said, although cables are the best you can get, not all cables are created equal either.
Audio companies put their time and effort into their products: headphones, speakers, DACs, whatever it may be. Here's the thing: cables are typically an afterthought. Cables are usually not treated with the same time and care that other products are. So, wouldn't it be nice to have a company that treats their cables like they do a high-end headphone?
Why not use the best and purest materials in your products you possibly can?
The Silver Dragon Headphone Cable is our top of the line headphone cable. It is a silver conductor based cable and uses 4 x 99.99998% UP-OCC Stranded Silver 24AWG Teflon insulated stranded conductors. It can improve the listening enjoyment of most -high-end headphones and it has a lot of detail, great energy, and a fantastic soundstage with lots of air.
For the Black Dragon, we use 4 x 21.5AWG Teflon insulated stranded conductors using pure single crystallized UP-OCC pure copper with 7N purity 99.99998%. This means more music, clarity and sound quality gets to your ears as purity in cable construction, cable design and quality of materials make a noticeable difference in the sound quality of your headphones.
The Bronze Dragon headphone cables have 8 x 99.99998% UP-OCC Stranded Copper conductors per cable, surpassing our Black Dragon headphone cable count. Used in just the right ways and proportions, copper helps to warm, expand and strengthen sound from bass guitars, cellos, and deep vocalists.
The Blue Dragon Headphone Cable has been designed to match the Silver Dragon Headphone Cable, but with a high purity copper conductor using the Ohno Continuous Casting Process. The Blue Dragon has the same geometry structure as the Silver Dragon, only it uses UP-OCC copper. It is also the best bang for the buck custom headphone cable on the market today. Each conductor of the Blue Dragon is made up of a special varying size stranding geometry. The copper stranding is mixed with Kevlar stranding to reinforce the conductor. This makes it stronger overall and less prone to failure due to the harsh constant flexing and headphone cable receives. The conductors are then surrounded by cotton and then a layer of Teflon tape. The most recent version is now also shielded and placed in a polyethylene jacket for further protection. The newer version is also quieter than the previous version with no microphonics.
All this being said, the point is that Dragon Cables only use the best materials available, so that you can be sure you are getting every drop of your music the way it was meant to be heard. The other nice element about premium cables is that you can counter an adverse headphone sound signature. Are your current headphones a little too bright and harsh? Warm them up and roll off the highs with a Black Dragon. Add detail and resolution with a Silver Dragon. The possibilities are endless. There's a cable for every headphone.
The Black Dragon is warm and smooth with a musical presentation. Copper strands enhance the body, shape and immediacy of the music. The detail and expansiveness make it a flexible fit for a broad range of genres. It can also improve bass frequencies on a bass-light headphone. The smooth, musical quality makes it a perfect fit for headphones that tend to sound a bit edgy or bright.
The Silver Dragon is the original cable. Silver strands clarify instrument separation, increase soundstage, and find previously lost high and mid-frequency sounds. Transients appear more cohesive and the bass tighter for a more controlled sound. The detail and clarity of the Silver Dragon make it a perfect match for classical music and other genres with many nuanced instruments.
With a warm presentation, Bronze Dragon strengthens the bottom end without becoming bloated. Bass guitar and cello are full and immersive, creating a musical sound that's not too lush. The warmth and fullness of the Bronze Dragon creates the muscle needed to round out a flat signature. Our wire is void of impurities and crystalline boundaries, leaving nothing between you and your music.
The Blue Dragon is Moon Audio's value full-size headphone cable. Using copper strands, the Blue Dragon combines the neutrality of the Black Dragon with the clarity of the Silver Dragon at a lower price point. The Blue Dragon is a good fit for improving dynamics without adding coloration. Its calm and neutral sound make it a great place to start with premium cables.
For more information on finding your signature sound, visit our Sound Signature Guide.
Is wired sound better than wireless?
Wired sound will always sound better than wireless. Wireless transmission of audio requires compression and many times
Is Bluetooth better than WiFi?
It depends on what you mean by "better." If you are referring to sound quality, then no, Bluetooth is not better than WiFi. WiFi audio will always be superior to Bluetooth as long as the bandwidth, bit rate, and frequency remains higher. Bluetooth is a better portable solution for a lot of consumers, since they are easier to connect and do not have the same requirements to set up that WiFi has. They connect directly to the source device for audio and are much more affordable consumer devices.
Can you use Bluetooth without WiFi?
Yes, you can use Bluetooth without WiFi. Bluetooth connection protocols are separate from WiFi and mobile data connections.
Does Bluetooth use data on mobile devices?
No, Bluetooth does not use mobile data on devices. Bluetooth is a separate connection for compatible devices that works independently from WiFi and data.
Is Bluetooth or WiFi more secure?
WiFi connections are more secure since you can configure them for your specific privacy needs. Bluetooth does not have the same levels of configuration that WiFi requires, thus allowing it to be more susceptible to unwarranted activity.
Is Bluetooth faster than wireless (WiFi)?
Bluetooth is slower than WiFi. WiFi has higher bandwidth, larger frequency range and bit rate and lower latency.
Should I choose a WiFi or a Bluetooth speaker?
It depends on your ergonomic scenario. If you are wanting something portable that you can take with you and connect to your phone whenever you want to, then a Bluetooth speaker will be the best option. There are plenty of decent sounding small and portable Bluetooth speakers on the market that are perfect for travel. If you are looking for something more permanent and higher-fidelity, then a WiFi compatible speaker should be considered.
Will Bluetooth sound quality ever be as good as a wired connection for music?
Unless wireless technology develops a way to transmit completely lossless audio for higher-resolution music, which is unlikely in the near future, then no. Wired audio will always have superior fidelity to wireless. That is to say that one day the technology might allow for it, but it will not be in the foreseeable future.
Do wireless headphones sound better than wired headphones?
Wireless headphones do not sound better than wired ones, but Bluetooth technology is finally allowing for "perceptibly" high-resolution audio to be transmitted. Perceptibly in the sense that by the numbers the data is not quite transmitting high-resolution audio, but it will be hard to notice except by the most trained ears or picky listeners.