Cutting the Umbilical Cord Behind Your Head
By Jim Bray
Whats the worst thing about surround sound speakers?
Thats a matter of opinion, of course. It could be the fact
that you have to mount them - or maybe hide them - or even that you have to buy
them in the first place (then add center rear channels and who knows what
But perhaps the worst thing about surround speakers is having to
string those long cables to them - and then hide them so the ankle biters or
the dog dont trip over them, or so they dont get in the way of your
Wouldnt it be nice if you could cut those wires, removing
any physical connection between the speakers and the amplifier thats
And why not? Everything else appears to be cutting the umbilical
cord these days. Wireless is the way of the world. And wireless speakers have
been around for years.
I remember the first pair of wireless speakers I ever tested. They
were from Koss and used infrared light to transmit the sound. This was
problematic, since IR is pretty well line of sight and its performance can be
hampered by the mere fact that someone had the audacity to walk between the
transmitter and the speaker.
And the speakers werent that great anyway.
Then there was a pair of RCAs I played with a few years
back. These transmitted via radio frequency (RF), which made them incredibly
more flexible than those IR Kosses. I put the transmitter by my home theatre
and piped sound to my bedroom, living room, and back deck. It worked well,
though while the speakers sounded fine for portable music use I
wouldnt have wanted them in my home theatre lest the rest of the system
walk out in protest.
Ah, but if you could do it right, wireless surround speakers might
be a wonderful tool.
And wouldnt you know, some major suppliers have introduced
home theatre in a box systems that incorporate wireless surround speakers.
These include Kenwood and Pioneer, whose systems use RF (radio frequency)
technology to eliminate the wires. Sony has chosen the infrared route.
Part of the reason for the move is advances in digital wireless
technology and improved amplification processes that allow for smaller size and
Of course, if its just home theatre in a box customers who
are going to be offered these surround speakers, it may not make a difference.
After all, he said snottily, these are people who are at least as interested in
convenience as they are in ultimate audio, so they may be willing to trade some
performance benefit for the convenience. And its a heck of a
How are they going to do it? Typically, different manufacturers
are marching to different drums. Kenwood, who will also offer their wireless
surrounds separately, is using noise reduction and zero-bit mute
circuitry to keep the speakers quiet when they should be, and has taken
the amplifiers right out of the boxes. Their digital amps are rated 50 watts
each with 10 percent total harmonic distortion, and sit with their power supply
in a little module that parks under your couch.
The rub is that the modules use speaker cables to connect to each
speaker, which kind of puts the lie to the wireless moniker. Still,
depending on where you mount the amplifier module, the wires can be a lot
shorter and less obtrusive than if they had to run all the way to the front of
Sonys return to IR technology, the DAV-LF1, sends the full
audio range of 20Hz-20kHz to a pair of tower speakers. Pioneers Home
theatre in a box uses 2.4GHz RF to deliver the same frequency range.
Sony says that it went digital IR instead of RF so it could avoid
the static and interference that could hamper the performance of RF technology.
The company claims its Digital Infrared Audio Transmission (DIAT) System
transmits uncompressed digital audio and relies on redundant systems to prevent
dropouts that could happen if the IR signal is blocked. I certainly hope so;
those old Koss IR speakers drove me nuts with their dropouts.
Sony gets the audio to the speakers by using a separate IR
transmitter on each of the front left and right tower speakers. This will
probably make them conversation pieces, too.
Is the world ready for wireless speakers? If the manufacturers can
deliver the goods, with acceptable quality and little or no premium for the
Im willing to bet there are a good many consumers whod
give their eye teeth not to string those darn wires that manufacturers never
seem to include enough of anyway.
Time, of course, will tell.
Tell us at TechnoFile what YOU think