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Speakers That Cut The Cables


Speakers That Cut The Cables

Published: September 30, 2004

FALL is in the air!

Actually, fall isn't all. Along with the usual stuff (love, excitement, politics), the air is increasingly filled with wireless signals. The radio spectrum bursts with invisible waves from cellphones, cordless phones, computer networks, satellite dishes, radios and so on. There's so much wireless traffic in the air these days, it's a wonder you can even breathe.

But electronics companies haven't finished going wireless just yet. They're still looking for other wires to eliminate, like the ones that connect to your stereo to your speakers.

As it turns out, four companies -- Sony, RCA, Advent and Acoustic Research -- make at least five different wireless speaker kits. (All right, Advent and Acoustic Research are only brand names marketed by RCA, whose parent, Thomson Electronics, inherited these product lines from Recoton, which went bankrupt this year -- don't worry, none of this will be on the final exam. The point is that in fact, these speaker sets actually come from only two companies, not four. But play along, will you?)

If you've used a cordless phone, you get the concept. Into a small base station, you plug a sound source: a music player, a stereo, your TV, your computer or whatever. The base station transmits the music wirelessly to the speakers, which, because they can run either on batteries or from an electrical outlet, you can park anywhere.

Suddenly you've got music at your patio parties without having to hire an electrician. Now you can work in places that ordinarily lack a music system, like the garage, the bathroom or the sock drawer. Wireless speakers also come in handy any time you want to put them on, say, a bookshelf, without having to trail wires across the room to the CD player or computer; dorm rooms, bedrooms and home libraries come to mind.

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.)

For example, although you won't get interference from microwave ovens, wireless computer networks and Bluetooth gadgets (these all use a different frequency), you may get static from baby monitors and older, 900-megahertz cordless phones. In any case, you've been warned: your yardage may vary.

Sony's SRS-RF90RK (about $95), supposedly capable of picking up its base station's signal from ''up to 150 feet away,'' begins crackling at only 35 feet. Nor is range the extent of this speaker's humble ambitions; it's also among the weakest models (4 watts) and the feeblest-sounding (it has a 80-to-20,000-hertz frequency response, meaning there's no bass to speak of). A math teacher might express the Sony's sound quality like this: Clock radio < Sony RF90RK < nice boom box.

That's too bad, because the Sony is the easiest speaker to set up. It's also the only one with built-in rechargeable batteries (they can play for about three hours per charge). And above all, the speaker itself (a single tower containing two tweeters and a woofer) is a work of art, especially compared with its ugly rivals, which you'll be tempted to hide behind some fake foliage.

A curved wall of crystal-clear plexiglass hovers in space a couple of inches away from the cylinder, bouncing the sound back toward you and offering a modicum of stereo-channel separation. At your option, the tower can also pass a cool blue light invisibly through the curved plexiglass and, visibly, out its edges.

It's just too bad the Sony doesn't sound as good as it looks.

Although they have only a tweeter (and only 50-to-12,000-hertz frequency response), the RCA WSP150 speakers sound far richer and more powerful than the Sony, probably thanks to the resonance of two traditional speaker cabinets.

Nonetheless, this model is equally disappointing in its own way: the speakers don't work unless you tune them to the base station's frequency, using a fussy tuning knob on each speaker. Three things make this process about as much fun as herding cats: First, you don't hear the result until a second after you turn the knob, so it's a game of nudge-wait, nudge-wait. Second, the knob position that tunes one speaker often doesn't work for the other.

Finally, if you can't get a clean signal, you have to go to the base station, tune it to a different frequency, and then return to the speakers and start all over.

Clearly, somebody in the chain of RCA command realized that having to play Ham Radio Operator diminishes the speakers' value, because they're priced online at $40 for the set. In that light, dismissing these speakers -- cranky and sometimes hissy though they may be -- may be premature. After all, money is time.

The WSP250, RCA's step-up model, eliminates that fussy tuning business. These are even larger, better-sounding speakers whose 8 watts per channel are powerful enough to pump out tunes to an entire backyard (assuming it's not the size yard you have to hire someone else to mow).

Unfortunately, the range isn't very good, at least at my house; the box may say ''up to 300 feet,'' but it exaggerates by a factor of six. Note, too, that you can't power these with standard batteries. You must either plug them into electric outlets or buy RCA's optional rechargeable battery packs. These are the best-sounding speakers, but at $150, they're also the most expensive.

Only one contender is equally comfortable outdoors, even in a drizzle: the Advent ADVW801. In fact, to blend with your shrubbery, it's dark green and designed to look like a giant alien mushroom. (Actually, outdoors is probably the only place you'd put it. You really, really don't want this grotesque-looking thing inside your home.)

The Advent has unbelievable range; the base station was still pumping out a strong signal 120 feet away from the speakers. (That's down two stories, through walls and floors -- as far away from the speakers as I could get without breaking into my next-door neighbor's bedroom.) In fact, once during testing the Advent's base station started pumping sound to the Sony speaker, which was still plugged in over 100 feet away.

If you desperately need a mist-proof speaker -- the company recommends that you don't leave it outside permanently -- the price is fair ($70) and the power is good (10 watts). But the weatherproofing doesn't do much for the sound, which is a tad muffled, and you don't get stereo sound unless you buy a pair.

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.)

It's important to understand that no wireless speakers can match the sound quality of a wired speaker at similar price and size. The Acoustic Research set, however, comes very close. Consider it if you need wireless speakers and there's room for one more thing in the air at your house: a little bit of music.

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