Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Libratone’s headquarters are in California. The company’s headquarters are in Copenhagen. Its U.S. offices are in San Jose. It also incorrectly stated that Sonos had dropped Bluetooth capabilities in favor of WiFi. Sonos never used Bluetooth. The story has been updated.
Home speakers used to be big, blocky, and more or less an eyesore. Hanging on the wall or sitting in the corner of a room, they were accompanied by a tethered music player and a hodgepodge of vinyl, eight-tracks, cassettes and CDs.
Over the past few decades, music formats have gotten smaller. The days of having a large CD collection or an iPod with 10,000 MP3s are just about history thanks to streaming services such as Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music. For 10 bucks a month, you can access more than 30 million songs on your phone or tablet instantly.
Audio brands are catching up. The latest home speakers — by brands such as Sony, Bose, Master & Dynamic, Samsung, Bang & Olufsen, and Libratone — have WiFi and Bluetooth capabilities built in, plus smartphone apps that control your music from anywhere in the house. “People are listening to more music, more often and in more rooms in the house than ever before,” says Mike Culver, president of Copenhagen-based audio company Libratone.
It wasn’t until streaming became king that audio brands switched their attention from wired models to wireless speakers for the home. Home speakers have been redesigned inside and out; they’re more polished, compact and feature-rich — many at accessible prices. Samsung’s Radiant360 collection starts at $179.99 and doesn’t skimp on powerful features that used to typically be seen only on larger, more expensive speakers.
Audio brands have looked to the architecture and design world for inspiration. For example, architect David Adjaye, the lead designer of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in the District, crafted Master & Dynamic’s new wireless speaker from sculptural concrete, giving it an artisanal character. Bang & Olufsen collaborated with renowned Danish textile company Kvadrat to design its speaker’s swappable fabric covers that are meant to match the mood of a room.
Aesthetics are far from an afterthought, but the tech underneath is the real story.
While at home, a WiFi network lets you connect your smartphone, streaming app and voice-controlled assistant to your speaker. Once you’re connected, your smartphone — along with the Amazon Echo or Google Home virtual assistants, if you have one — can control the speaker. (Amazon.com founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Some speakers can even be paired and played together over the network. Bose’s SoundTouch 10 wireless speakers let you stream the same music in different rooms or create zones to play whatever you want wherever you choose.
If WiFi isn’t around, some speakers allow you to use Bluetooth as well. Bluetooth lets you easily connect your phone, tablet or computer to a Bluetooth-
enabled speaker and stream anything you want. With Bluetooth, however, “you don’t get the same sound quality or range as with WiFi,” says Jonathan Levine, chief executive of Master & Dynamic. “Likewise, with WiFi, the speaker operates as its own WiFi device, avoiding the disruption often caused by incoming texts and calls,” he added.
Because of those advantages, some audio companies predict that WiFi will take over Bluetooth, at least in the home. For its new Playbase speaker system, U.S. electronics brand Sonos has created a WiFi-only experience that is designed for both TV audio and music streaming at home.
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