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A home entertainment system in the true sense of the term, offering vibrant, high resolution pictures and immersive, multiple channel sound is, nowadays, within the reach of the typical domestic consumer in the United Kingdom. Pictures, delivered by a flat panel, LCD (“Liquid Crystal Display”), or Plasma, or even a projector, are usually straightforward to accommodate, but sound, digital surround sound, to be precise, may present more of a problem.
A typical 5.1 channel, digital surround system requires 5 main loudspeakers arranged as centre, front left and right, and rear left and right, plus a subwoofer for low frequency, bass effects. Wired rear speakers inevitably involve long runs of speaker wire, and an increasingly popular option is the use of wireless rear speakers.
“Wireless”, here, means that the speakers require no physical connection to an A/V receiver, and instead receive signals from a small transmitter attached to that receiver (or, indeed, any other compatible audio device). In a home entertainment context, even “wireless” rear speakers do in fact require a mains power wire; battery operated speakers are available, but these are better suited in terms of output power, to receiving signals from a PC or an MP3 or other media player.
Music lovers can of course, transmit signals from a stereo HiFi, CD, or MP3, player to wireless speakers throughout, and beyond, the home (including outdoors, at a range of up to 150′ in some cases) without the need for wires, extenders, etc., and without having to lug a boom box from place to place. A similar comment is true of PC users, who can transmit signals to a 5.1, 6.1, or 7.1 channel, wireless, digital surround sound system, for realistic, 360° sound from DVD films, CD, or MP3, music, or video games.
Wireless Home Entertainment Speakers
Truly wireless audio is the Holy Grail of consumer electronics, not only because of the mains power requirements, but also because lost or jumbled data packets result in a loss of audio quality. Wireless technology nevertheless makes sense in the context of home entertainment systems, because it is both convenient, and affordable.
Wireless speakers usually operate via IR (“Infrared”) or RF (“Radio Frequency”). Infrared requires direct “line of sight” between a transmitter and a receiver, and may therefore be susceptible to interference, and signal drop-out, caused by intervening objects, or people walking between devices. Radio frequency signals, on the other hand, are able to permeate walls, floors, etc., and the latest RF wireless speaker systems typically employ higher quality transmitters, and receivers, than their IR counterparts. RF wireless speakers do, however, run the risk of interference from, from mobile ‘phones, and other electronic devices, so it is worth considering exactly which devices you have, in your household, before opting for wireless speakers of this type.
Wireless home entertainment speakers as a whole, operate either in the 900MHz or the 2.4GHz frequency bands, with a range typically between 100′ and 300′, and allow data to be transferred between transmitter and receiver at up to 1.5Mbps (“Megabits per second”) in line with the latest IEEE (“Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers”) 802.11 wireless networking standards, which is a significant improvement on the low transmission rates, and poor quality, of some earlier models. Indeed, one of the major advantages of wireless speakers is that no speaker wires, or Ethernet cable, needs to be pulled through walls; a costly and troublesome operation, at the best of times, and they can be accessed from different locations, by different devices, so do not become obsolete as technology elsewhere evolves.
Wireless home entertainment speakers may be supplied as part of an HTiB “Home Theatre in a Box” solution, which should therefore include a set of speakers, matched for tone or “timbre”, throughout, together with configuration and control features for wireless rear channels, and speakers. With regard to the placement of wireless rear speakers, the ideal position is slightly behind (but not directly behind) the listening position, at just above ear height, and directed out across the listening space, rather than down towards the listener(s). Many film soundtracks are optimised for the placement of surround speakers in just this position. Alternatively, you can choose separate wireless speakers, of an appropriate size; “bookshelf” speakers, which, as the name suggests can be positioned on shelving or furniture, are popular to complete your digital surround sound system, or to be located in a kitchen, bedroom, or elsewhere, to play music.
It is however, worth exploring the options available, with regard to speaker configuration, on your A/V receiver. This should allow you to select whether your wireless rear speakers are large; typically 6″, or more, in diameter, for the largest driver, or small, and to input the distance from the speakers to the listener. This latter figure may be the actual distance, in feet, or the time required for sound to travel that distance, in milliseconds (ms). Sound travels at just over 1,100 feet per second, at sea level and therefore, as a rule of thumb, requires roughly 1ms to travel 1 foot.
You can, of course, also enjoy the benefits of a wireless speaker system in a garage, or a garden if it is within range of a transmitter, and some speakers nowadays, are solar powered, and so can be operated without mains power per se, during fine weather. Most wireless speakers will work well outdoors, provided that the weather is not too inclement, but if you are intending to use them outdoors often, or say near a swimming pool, a water-resistant design is a wise choice.
Wireless Computer Speakers
Another popular application of wireless speakers is in combination with a PC, or laptop computer, where they can add an extra dimension to video gaming, with sound reproduced on 5, 6 or 7 main loudspeakers, plus a subwoofer, situated around the listener. The same is true if a PC or a laptop is used for watching DVD films and at a slightly lower level of sophistication, even a stereo, or 2.1 channel, wireless speaker system can be used to convey music, complete with clear, distortion-free bass, from your computer to the location in your home where you want to listen.
Wireless computer speakers nowadays, lack nothing in functionality or performance, when compared to the wired equivalent and of course, do not add any further wiring to your desktop. This can be extremely economical in terms of space, since a typical wired surround sound system requires not only a wired connection between a computer and each speaker, but additional connections for a subwoofer and power, which can result in an unsightly mass of “spaghetti” dangling from the back of your computer if you’re not careful.
If you’re planning to use wireless computer speakers in a home office, or other small space, remember that the “soundstage”; the space, akin to a real stage, that you are trying to fill with sound, is also small or “tight”, so that the output from each speaker does not need to be very high. Too high an output may simply overwhelm a small listening space, as sound will bounce around the room, especially off the ceiling, frightening the cat, or more importantly annoying your neighbours, whereas too low an output in a larger space, may result in sound dissipating very quickly, and being “lost”.
Speakers may well require less output power than you would immediately think; 10 watts is sufficient for listening at a reasonable, but not extreme, volume level in a typical 15′ x 15′ room, for example, and the smaller the room, the less output power is required. Nevertheless, it is the output per speaker not the output of the system as a whole, which some manufacturers are fond of quoting in which you should be interested.
Bear in mind, too that the RMS, or “Root Mean Square” power rating of any speaker should be at least equal to the RMS power rating of the amplifier driving that speaker. Don’t confuse this with the “peak” power rating of a speaker, as this is a measure of the power that is can withstand, instantaneously, without failure. Subjecting a speaker to more than its RMS power rating for a period of time will, ultimately, cause it to fail mechanically.