Wired or wireless, create a plan that will bring music to your ears
Kevin Sawler is explaining the advantages of wired-in sound systems when my cellphone drops the call. I phone him back and apologize.
“See?” Sawler says. “Wireless.”
According to Sawler, who owns Glubes Audio Video in Dartmouth, “There are brands that do a great job of bringing wireless streaming into your house, but if you want a theatre-like performance, you’re not going to do it with a wireless speaker.”
For years, convenience — streaming services, smartphones and cheap Bluetooth speakers — has tended to trump quality when it comes to home audio. But Mike Merrigan, owner of Halifax’s Peak Audio, says that’s changing. “It’s starting to come full circle. With wireless speakers and streaming music throughout a home, all of the conveniences are starting to merge with quality now.”
Wireless speakers can be great, but if you want sound in multiple rooms, their costs can quickly add up, says Barry Hirtle of Hirtles Sound Solutions in Charlottetown.
“Say we’re doing a house with sound in six rooms,” says Hirtle. “The cost to put in Sonos would far exceed the cost to hardwire, and hardwired is always more reliable.” Hirtle is a fan of in-ceiling speakers, which can be relatively inexpensive, visually unobtrusive and create a better sound environment. “When we deal with interior designers, they don’t like speaker boxes sitting around on shelves or on walls. If we can make the system as invisible as possible, that makes the designers happy.”
He adds, “If we can’t do wired, then we’ll go wireless. But if we can do wired, we would do it every time, because your sound distribution is better.”
David Smith, who works in wealth management for RBC Dominion Securities, is a client of Hirtle’s, and in the process of renovating an older Charlottetown home.
“A gut job,” says Smith. He built a house eight years ago and wired it with “ceiling speakers everywhere.” Despite the huge advances in wireless audio since then, he’s still sticking with wired for the reno. “I won’t consider wireless, because it’s not as good as wired. Why have something that can fail, when you can wire instead while the walls are down?”
If you are building a new home or undertaking a major renovation, audio experts say you should start thinking about sound at the design stage — and certainly before the electrical work is done.
“In some cases, the architects or designers don’t want these speakers seen, but they still have to perform,” says Merrigan. “So, there are considerations we’ll have to make in order to have speakers concealed. It’s very important to come see us during the overall design phase… Aesthetics are so, so important nowadays.”
Good planning means realistic budgeting. Residential designer Faye Cowie and her partner built a house 20 years ago and “put in all the wiring, but by the time the house was built, there wasn’t any money left for the sound system. And then wireless came along,” she says. She adds it’s important not only to think about design early on, but also “how you’re going to implement it. We planned ahead but had no follow-through.”
It’s worth spending money on good components, but Hirtle says “there’s a law of diminishing returns” as the price goes up. “The difference between an $80 speaker and $150 speaker is striking. But the difference between a $150 speaker and a $400 speaker is significantly less.”
He notes, “A typical four-room system with eight-inch two-way ceiling speakers, 12-channel amplifier, one media player, including design, wiring labour and material, installation, programming and training would run approximately $3,500 to $4,000.”
Running wires doesn’t mean ignoring the wireless side of things though. Even if sound travels to your speakers through wires, home audio and video systems rely heavily on streaming for content. “If you wire speakers, there’s still the wireless component, which is the transmission of music to the amplifier,” says Merrigan.
Audio and video technology consultant and photographer Matt Corkum is a fan of mixing and matching components and technologies — and of wiring.
“If you can afford it up front, then wiring in the wall is a great idea,” says Corkum. “Those setups are going to be cheaper and last longer, and you will have more options. You can go pick different speakers for different reasons, upgrade stuff, and it’s still going to work.”
Corkum has an older amp and 22-year-old wired-in speakers that “sound phenomenal.” And it all costs a fraction of what a wireless system “this loud and this good” would be.
But that doesn’t mean he’s had to give up the convenience of wireless control. “My amp is old, but I can play music on it from my phone with AirPlay, and it sounds amazing.”
There’s no such thing as truly wireless
“There’s no such thing as true wireless,” says Barry Hirtle. Wireless speakers use home networks to stream music, but “if you buy a Sonos speaker, it’s got to be plugged in.” And if you don’t plan on where those speakers will go early enough in the design process, you could wind up with ugly wires running down the wall.
Seamlessly streaming high-quality audio and video requires a robust Wi-Fi network. The best way to ensure that? Wires.
“The foundation of every system is the Wi-Fi network,” says Mike Merrigan. “We wire for Wi-Fi access points — amplified access points. So, whether you’re using wired-in ceiling speakers or Sonos-type speakers becomes less important, because you have a robust network either way.”
The trouble with Bluetooth
Bluetooth is convenient, but it has its problems, including poor music quality and distance limitations.
“It’s extremely compressed, and the range is extremely limited,” says Barry Hirtle. “If you’re streaming from your phone to a device, you’ll get 30 feet line-of-sight. But if that device happens to be in another room, it may not even work, or it’ll cut out. And the other problem is when you walk away with your phone, the music’s gone.” Instead, Hirtle recommends controlling your sound system with your phone or tablet over Wi-Fi.