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Thursday, September 30, 2004  

Technology: The advent of wireless speakers

Tech writer David Pogue has been checking out innovations in the wireless world. In this week's Circuits column in the New York Times, he considers wireless speakers. As I previously wrote, Bose also has a new speaker system for the iPod, the SoundDock, coming to the market. Though it is not wireless per se, the use of a remote control makes it virtually so. The products Pogue is considering all function in the 900-meghertz range, as do many cordless phones. Not one to ignore the onions while praising the orchids, Pogue weighs both. His honesty may not sit well with some manufacturers, who I believe provided devices for him to test.

These speakers transmit FM signals on the 900-megahertz band. The manufacturers say that you can position the speakers up to 150 or 300 feet away from the base station (depending on the model you buy), even through walls, ceilings and floors.

Unfortunately, all FM-based wireless sound systems, whether headphones, speakers or iPod-to-car-stereo adapters, are notoriously susceptible to interference. The range and reception you'll get from these systems depend on the wiring of your house, the configuration of your neighborhood and whether or not you sacrificed poultry during the last full moon. (This quirk explains the bipolar online ratings given to wireless speakers by people who've bought them: they're all either one-star or five-star reviews.)

Still, if you are a neat freak or just tired of wires dangling from just about every appliance, wireless speakers are worth considering. (Face it, interior design magazines erase cables and cords from their photographs because wires are ugly.)

Pogue reviews four speaker systems: the Sony RF90RK, RCA WSP150, Acoustic Research AW871, and Advent ADVW801. The Sony scores high for flavor, but fails in functionality. Its attractive design is undercut by limited range and poor sound quality. The RCA WSP150 irritated Pogue. It requires complicated 'tuning' of each speaker and the base unit. Apparently, despite developing an overly intimate relationship with the device, one may not be rewarded with a frequency that works. But, at $40 online, these speakers are thrifty. Their big brother, the RCA WSP250, functions without the fuss of tuning, according to Pogue. He also credits this model with having the best sound. Want to listen to music outside, even in the drizzly Pacific Northwest? The Advent ADVW801 is waterproof. It is also so unattractive, Pogue nicknamed it Mr. Mushroom. If you consider the Jolly Green Giant a handsome fellow, you will love Mr. Mushroom, though.

Pogue reserves most of his praise for another contestant.

But what if you want wireless speakers that don't have any of the gotchas that plague its rivals? The Acoustic Research AW871 speakers ($120) are practically disappointment-free.

The range is just as good as Mr. Mushroom's, and the power (15 watts) and frequency response trump the other speakers in this batch. A simple three-position switch lets you change channels if your baby monitor is interfering, and a clever L/R/Mono switch lets you change the stereo identity of each speaker. (You'd use the Mono position when, for example, using each speaker in a different room of the house rather than as a stereo pair.)

Wired technology tends to be superior to wireless. Ethernet is still the 800-pound gorilla of connectivity, despite WiFi (802.11) and Bluetooth. Power adapters trump batteries. As handy as cell phones are, most of us have kept our home phones. Wireless speakers are inherently inferior to their wired peers. However, the best of them will be adequate for us non-audiophiles who prefer convenience. The advent of wireless speakers will make it possible for us to have music in the air wherever we want, without a welter of wires.

What's the art?

A picture of the Sony RF90RK.

Reasonably related

•Though expensive, Bose's SoundDock makes the iPod virtually wireless. Read about it here.

•What's on my iPod? "Wake Up Everybody" by the Wake Up Everybody Artists Collective, "Trynna Find a Way" by Nellie Furtado and "Accidentally in Love" by Counting Crows

6:30 PM