Wi-Fi vs Bluetooth: Is There an Impact on Sound Quality?

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In the 10th century AD, Harald ‘Bluetooth’ Gormsson reached his prime, uniting Denmark and Norway. Just years later, however, the Scandinavian king was usurped, losing the throne to his own son. Fast forward a millennium, and a different Bluetooth has unified the phone and personal computer industries. This well-known technology has played a prominent role in society, but just like its namesake, we believe its time on the throne is limited.

Wireless audio—the basics

When it comes to listening to music, more and more consumers are moving to wireless audio.

Why? It’s simple—convenience.

You step into the house, or onto the yacht, and you want to stream music straight from your phone. We’ve come to expect this luxury—gone are the days of sitting down and pressing buttons on a stereo!

The wireless audio market offers two main options for listening: Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi. Here, we hope to look at these two options in detail, and provide our advice on the best choice moving forward.

Everything you need to know about Bluetooth

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last 20 years, you’ll know what Bluetooth is.

First rising to glory in the early 2000s, Bluetooth was the staple of business men—you remember, those guys in suits, rushing around looking like they were talking to themselves? Yeah, that was Bluetooth.

Though Bluetooth was originally created as a means of transmitting voice by connecting phones headsets with speakers, it eventually moved into music audio too. Nowadays, Bluetooth devices are near omnipresent, such has been the take up of the technology.

Getting into the nitty gritty, Bluetooth works by transmitting data through radio waves. Essentially, this means taking a file from your phone or device, compressing it, then sending it to your speaker through a narrow bandwidth. While this makes data transmission quick and simple, it’s also Bluetooth’s Achilles heel—as you’ll soon see.

Wi-Fi as an audio transmitter

Our second option when it comes to wireless audio, Wi-Fi, is nice and straight forward to explain.

All that happens is your speakers (or whichever device the audio sound will be coming from) access the audio you wish to play directly from the internet, or your computer connected to your Wi-Fi network. The digital decoders in the speakers will be identical to the ones sending the audio, meaning that the sound travels without being compressed.

The result of this is what’s called ‘lossless codec’—basically meaning that the audio doesn’t lose any of its original quality in the process of arriving at your speakers.

What’s best—Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth?

The choice is quite clear when it comes to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

If you want the best quality, choose Wi-Fi.

If you want cheap and easy, choose Bluetooth.

Simply put, the big differentiator is that Bluetooth is not capable of delivering the same level of quality as Wi-Fi. It never will be able to, because it’s a technology designed for something else—it can be likened to tipping a greater quantity of water down a sink, and expecting it to go down just as fast even though the pipe remains the same size. Inevitably, there’s only a certain amount that can go down, until some spillage occurs.

The devil is in the details

It’s all about the compression. The types of audio files that transmit through Bluetooth are typically already compressed to a degree (most digital files are), so to compress them even further is really going to detract from the quality for the end listener. If you take measures to prevent this—say, subscribing to Tidal Premium and gaining access to high-quality music online—that almost defeats the purpose of doing so. Why wouldn’t you go the extra step and ensure that the quality goes all the way down the chain, rather than falling at the last hurdle?

The same goes for audio systems. You can pay thousands to get your yacht or home set up with the best speaker system, only to undermine that quality by transmitting audio to them through Bluetooth. Better to invest in the right form of wireless audio, and preserve the quality.

This is nothing new to the audio industry. As Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak recently stated, “I would not use Bluetooth… [it] just sounds so flat for the same music.” Others such as Michael Greco from Sound United agree, saying “You don’t have to be an audiophile to hear the difference.”

Just like Harald Bluetooth, it seems the golden days of today’s Bluetooth are numbered. Listeners are catching on to the fact that there’s a better quality listening experience there for the taking, and Wi-Fi streaming is becoming the new norm.