Bluetooth and WiFi are both standards used with radio waves at ultra-high frequencies, capable of transmitting information over short distances with no need for a physical connection. They are very similar technologies, when it comes down to the physics, however their uses vary.
Bluetooth is most often used when portability and simplicity is important. These uses include mobile phones, earphones, hands-free devices, etc. The technology isn’t very battery-hungry so it can be packed into small electronic devices. It is the go-to connectivity method where being able to connect and disconnect in a couple of seconds is desired. Bluetooth is usually only capable of connecting two devices together at a time, therefore we use the term ‘pairing’. Once a pair has been established, they can connect and disconnect in seconds.
Bluetooth has limitations however, as you would expect from a lightweight and portable technology. The speed at which data can be transferred is far lower than that of WiFi. Most of the time, the slower speed isn’t something we need to worry about, however. Bluetooth isn’t usually used to send large amounts of data – possibly due to the portable nature, high speed isn’t necessary. There are ways around slow transfer speeds of course. For that, you have data compression. This is the use of clever algorithms to reduce the size of the file before its sent.
We use WiFi all day, every day. It’s the wireless umbilical we all use to connect to the web. There’s a good chance you used a WiFi connection to load this web page! WiFi is more suited to ‘permanent’ uses, such as a home internet router, or a set of speakers, or a video game console. Portability isn’t as vital for most of these cases, however you’ll also find WiFi in every mobile phone and laptop on the market. Connecting devices together can be as simple as Bluetooth’s paring, but because WiFi devices are also usually connected to the internet and security is important, passwords are used. Once your devices have been connected however, usually they’ll remember each other.
WiFi is fast; really fast. Bluetooth’s speed is beaten by WiFi by more than 20 times in most cases. You can send a lot of data in a short amount of time with WiFi. You’re welcome to compress your data, like you would with Bluetooth, but you won’t often need to.
What does this mean for my music?
The only way your music will be affected when sent from your phone/tablet/etc. wirelessly to your speaker is by compression. Depending on the quality of the speaker/headphones you’re listening to, this may be detrimental to your enjoyment.
There are a few methods of audio compression, the most popular being MP3. MP3 compression is ‘lossy’, meaning information is removed to make the size of the file smaller. The less data we need to send, the quicker it can be sent – this is really helpful when your transfer speed is slow! Because music is ‘streamed’, meaning the data is transferred ‘live’ to the speaker, having to send less data per second is easier to pull off.
The ‘lossy’ nature of MP3 will affect the way your music sounds. MP3 files can be created with varying degrees of compression, the lowest possible being 32 kbps (kilobytes per second) and the highest, 320 kbps. Most music you download online will either be encoded at 128, 192, or 256 kbps.
NPR put together an interesting test to see if you can hear the difference between compressed and uncompressed audio. You have to pick the highest quality sound file from three samples. Your options will be 128 kbps mp3, 320 kbps mp3, and an uncompressed WAV file. Hopefully, you’ll be able to dismiss the 128 kbps mp3 right away after listening to all three options. The decision between the remaining two may be a challenge.
A high quality MP3 file at 320 kbps is good enough quality for most purposes, but for some people it simply isn’t enough. For those who prefer not to compromise on quality, there is uncompressed audio. Uncompressed audio is what your MP3 file started off as before being squashed down to a smaller size. Full quality, raw audio – no information lost. This means the size of the audio file is far larger than a compressed one and sending it from source to speaker with no wires demands a faster transfer speed.
This is where WiFi shines. A WiFi connection is capable of streaming full quality uncompressed audio without breaking a sweat. In fact, it’s possible to stream audio in higher quality that the human ear is capable of perceiving. This super high quality audio is known as ‘HD Audio’ and is popular in the audiophile community; although we expect it will become more commonplace for the regular music listener soon so we’re making sure that our future products are ‘HD Audio ready’.
What should you choose?
That really depends on what you’re looking for. We’ll take a look at some of our products here at Bayan for example.
The Soundbook GO, our go-to (ahem) little portable speaker, is powered by Bluetooth. The speaker is designed to be your travelling companion on trips to the park or to the beach so things need to be quick and easy. Bluetooth works wonderfully here. You can pair your phone or mp3 player in seconds, jam to your favourite tunes, then pack up with no hassle and disconnect when you’re done. The speaker contains a rechargeable battery that benefits from the low energy consumption of Bluetooth. This means the speaker will continue to rock for hours and hours with no interruptions!
On the other hand, you have the SilverPoint speaker family. These are almost the polar opposite to the Soundbook GO. They are wireless HiFi style speakers, designed to be installed in your lounge or study and perform exceptionally well – suitable even for an audiophile. While they do have a Bluetooth connection available, we expect them to primarily be used for WiFi streaming. SilverPoint speakers can play HD audio – that super high quality stuff. This is a demanding feat and is something that would tire a battery powered speaker out in no time at all. Because they are connected to a WiFi network, they can be grouped together, able to play music throughout the house as one giant sound system. This isn’t feasible with Bluetooth.
You can see that the application of either Bluetooth or WiFi depends hugely on the product you’re designing and what you want to get out of it. Generally speaking, Bluetooth is good for small size, portability, and simplicity; WiFi is good for quality, connectivity, and power.