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Why your Bluetooth speaker sucks

I’ve seen you: with your $15 Kmart Bluetooth speaker; with your UE Boom; with your Beats Pill; even you with your fancy KEF MUO. You say you love music. But do you really? Look at what you’re listening through. Please excuse the directness but there’s no getting around it: your Bluetooth speaker, it sucks. Even more of a worry if it’s the only way you listen to music.

The intent here isn’t to stick it one brand but to highlight how the broader category known as ‘Bluetooth speakers’ has allowed the end user to take hardware shortcuts that ultimately rob the listening experience of its potency. As a ‘main system’, Bluetooth speakers don’t cut it.

Answering the ‘why’ isn’t the usual anti-Bluetooth, anti-MP3 polemic you might expect. This isn’t audiophile snobbery at work but basic physics.

Your Bluetooth speaker sucks not because of Bluetooth itself. Bluetooth can sound surprisingly decent, even in high/er end audio systems. Perhaps your speaker of choice does direct web streaming or AirPlay as well.

Your Bluetooth speaker doesn’t suck because you stream music from Spotify or Apple Music; two streaming services that use lossy compression to keep the bitrate as low as possible for your (possibly flakey) internet connection. Streaming services like these can also sound very good on high/er-end hifi gear.

Your Bluetooth speaker doesn’t suck because its drivers are small and bass extension is limited either. A small box or tune will only ever produce a small sound. And that’s fine. Fine for the beach or a hotel room.

The Devialet Phantom is far more than a Bluetooth speaker. It can make a big, BIG sound. And yet it still sounds fundamentally compromised. So too do Naim’s Mu-so and Mu-so Qb.

No – your Bluetooth speaker sucks because it’s a single device. If it is all you ever use to listen to music, you are skipping out on a major component of the listening experience: stereo imaging / channel separation. What should be a wall of sound is a column. To borrow from modern day parlance, you are not hearing music as it was heard in the studio.

More fundamentally, Bluetooth speakers have caused their owners to (perhaps unwittingly) forego any concerns about stereo’s possibilities.

Think of stereo as a sound painting that can give the illusion of a band playing directly in front of you. With two loudspeakers, one for the left channel and one for the right, properly separated, sounds don’t just spill from the speakers themselves but appear to emanate from between the speakers. Vocal dead centre. Guitar just off to the left. Snare off to the right. This is what some audiophiles refer to as imaging. Elsewhere it’s known as stereophony.

Proper stereophony from a single Bluetooth speaker just isn’t possible, no matter how hard manufacturers exploit DSP for a pseudo stereo (that isn’t) or their marketing departments to tell you otherwise. Even owners of a single Sonos Play:1 will find themselves similarly hamstrung. The left and right channels travel to the ear from the same point in the room.

Take note of the plural: you need not one but a pair of loudspeakers, placed a short distance apart, for the stereo illusion to come to life; for you to hear the sound image as intended by the artist and recording engineer.

If you love music as much as you claim, you’ll need a pair of Sonos Play:1 or a pair of Bluetooth speakers. The better models ship with a software app that can assign one speaker to each of the two channels. Sit them a meter and a half apart and you have proper stereo – just as the artist intended.

Two times the Devialet Phantom will sound more than twice as good as one. So too will two times the KEF MUO. Ditto twice the UE Boom.

With two speakers in the mix, your Bluetooth speaker no longer sucks. (Larger listening spaces will demand larger speakers but that’s a story for another day.) One could further argue, albeit without concrete evidence, that the presence of stereo is more engaging and that ongoing exposure to proper imaging/stereophony makes us better listeners.

As it stands, proper stereo imaging is absent from any loudspeaker available for purchase as a single device. Better to run a stereo pair of ‘lesser’ loudspeakers than a single ‘better’ one. My advice: buy the best speaker you can afford as a pair.

Case in point: Emotiva’s AirMotiv 4S will offer a more satisfying listening experience than a single Devialet Phantom (US$2000) or Naim Mu-so (US$1500). Why? Because the Emotiva will give you full stereo separation whilst the Devialet or Naim running solo will not. And at US$399/pair, the AirMotiv 4S sell for the same price as 2 x UE MegaBoom but are streets ahead when it comes to sound quality.

Furthermore, a pair of KEF MUO will see you relinquish US$700. If go-anywhere portability isn’t a requirement, the iFi iONE DAC adds Bluetooth connectivity to the AirMotiv 4S, after which you’d come out way ahead on sound quality and budget.

Lasso a Fiio D3 DAC and a Lepy (Lepai) 2020A amplifier to a pair of (the incredible) Andrew Jones-designed Pioneer SP-BS22-LR loudspeakers and you’ve got a kick ass system for well under the cost of two UE Boom: US$200. A little internet digging can go a long way and your money will go a lot further if you don’t need to take your audio system out of the house.

Portability is where Bluetooth speakers maintain their competitive edge – but at what cost? The loss of proper stereo separation should not be lightly ignored.

The majority of modern recordings are created in stereo and have been for fifty or so years. To use playback hardware that ignores these studio-based efforts is akin to taking a fine Scotch whisky and mixing it with Coca-Cola. What a waste.

Written by John H. Darko

John H. Darko

John is the editor/publisher of DAR from which he derives an income from its ad revenues. John is also an occasional contributor to 6moons and AudioStream and lives in Berlin, Germany.

Twitter: DarkoAudio
Instagram: DarkoAudio
Facebook: DAR

23 Comments

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  1. Take a look @ cassianetworks.com and their consumer Bluetooth networking device. I have two Peachtree Audio Deepblue 2 Bluetooth speakers and the cassia network. I can play multiple sources in stereo with the speaker set. For Bluetooth speakers that do not have the app ability to create a stereo pair the Cassia Network is an excellent work around. Yes it adds 150.00 to your cost but if you already have one high end Bluetooth speaker it might make more sense to add a second than springing for a new pair of Bluetooth speakers that allow stereo pairing.

  2. My father had a dual turntable in the sixties with one speaker attached to it. The old radios also had one speaker. Mono all the way. Growing up in the eighties and nineties we used to have big radios with two speakers on each side. Stereo if you will. The sound from ,mostly philips radios, was amazing. They played loud. And that’s all they had to do. And then we saved for a small hifi all-in-one tower. And the a jvc receiver and a seperate cd player. Real hifi.

    So going back to mono is indeed very strange. Millions of people will never hear music in stereo.
    That said, never have more people listened to music through headphones. So that’s a good thing in my book. It’s not the same but it is stereo. Others have a 5.1 or a 7.1 system for movies. Does that count as stereo? I don’t have a single friend with any kind of stereo equipment. They all have bose, sonos, soundbars,.. Some really love music but don’t care one iota about the way it is reproduced. Oh well. Their loss.

    Now where was i. Ah yes, plaid with angry dolphin. Beautiful through my new audiovectors!

  3. It gets even worse. I have friends (well, maybe not for much longer at this rate!) who actually pan stereo effects (pun intended) because they listen with one earphone in and they lose parts of the song. My generation has become a generation of hearers rather than listeners. Big difference between the two, and that’s even become prevalent with those of my friends who are fellow musicians.

    Stereo imaging is a phenomenal effect, in my opinion. The ability to position sounds within the soundstage adds to the sense of scale. The first track that got me hooked was The Prize Fighter Inferno’s The Going Price Of Home. This electronic blip just flitting around, not just hard and left and right, but inbetween and up and down. Blew my hifi virgin mind. And then The Downward Spiral on 5.1 SACD – Mr. Self Destruct, with part of the vocals coming in just over the right shoulder. Albeit, I was in a lucky position to experience that, having started work in a hifi shop. Very much links in to your other piece about music selection at hifi shows, with the further issue that “the yoof” just don’t relate to hifi, unfortunately.

  4. My Riva S sounds great. I bought it for road trips. Does what it says on the tin. It’s a speaker solution for a particular environment. I have a Play 1 and a Play 3 in the house albeit in different room and they always impress. Do they sound better thank my main rig? No. They are not meant to either.

    • As you say, you get to hear proper stereo from your main rig and the Riva is for traveling. A little like how I use my KEF Muo. But if the Muo was my only audio gear, I’d not experience stereo.

  5. Hey there,
    I just bought a second Riva Turbo X for 117€, shipping and PayPal fees included from here:

    https://m.alternate.de/mobile/details.xhtml?p=1314636&page=1&q=Turbo+x

    I will build / have build custom cables to use them in real stereo mode driven from Mojo… maybe soon Hugo 2 🙂

    John I urge you to give a pair of these a try, they dig down to around 35hz! but for real stereo you have to use a workaround, like using Mojo with custom cables… or maybe cassian would work, too.

    Cheers

  6. Why do we need stereo imaging? I understand sound as a set of graded sound characteristics…a basic system should aim for balanced sound with acceptable clarity & bass with low noise. A second tier would comprise of good timing, emotional expression, acceptable timbre & musicality. And so on…
    Imaging is just woo-woo.

    • I believe stereo to be a fundamental of music playback. And also enjoyment. Without it, I believe our ability to enjoy – and listen – is severely hindered. For me, it’s a baseline requirement. For others, like you, it’s a balanced sound. 🙂

  7. I grudgingly have to agree after my own trial and error experiences.
    Hope my wife never reads this….

  8. John, I know that trying to gauge the sound of anything from a YT vid is a fool’s errand, but I was surprised by how good the Aiwa speaker sounded in this (fanatical BT collector’s) vid:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGMMGkSJNYY

    I know – you cant beat stereo separation – but for something from a name that hasnt exactly wowed audiophiles or music lovers for a very long time, it surprised me. Whether they built it or had an OEM slap it together, that gadget seems to hold promise for a balcony BBQ / casual use scenario.

    https://www.amazon.com/Aiwa-Exos-9-Portable-Bluetooth-Speaker

    McLovin, easily impressed by boomboxen

  9. I totally agree.
    I have two Fugoo Style S speakers that I paired for stereo Bluetooth. What I got was that invisible center speaker effect and it was amazing. Granted, the sound quality isn’t up there with “proper” stereo speakers, but it is quite impressive and a bit eerie.

  10. Yeah, the mono issue with these BT speakers has always irritated me. I have to bite my tongue when friends spend tons of money on Bose, UE, Sonos, etc. (although many of these can be used in pairs for stereo).

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