Wireless rear speakers in 5.1 surround sound

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by Todd L'Herrou

An important part of the home theater experience is surround sound. Surround sound is the use of multiple speakers to create a 3D ambiance of sound - so that does that mean? Well, simply put, surround sound is what makes it sound like the bad guy's bullet is whizzing past your left ear while the choppers are flying in from somewhere to the right and behind you. Typically this is accomplished with, at a minimum, a 5.1 system. 5.1 refers to a layout with three front speaker channels (left, center, right), two rear speaker channels (left, right) and a low frequency channel (often called the "subwoofer" channel).

In this setup, you typically need a minimum of 5 speakers (the .1 is the low frequency channel, which may be handled by a dedicated subwoofer or by those speakers in the system capable of handling low frequency sound). And, usually these speakers need to be set up around the room, three in the front and two in the back of the room, to accomplish a true "surround" experience. And, most of that time that means running wires to each of the speakers.

For the last 10 years, I've lived in a house with tile floors and a cement slab between floors. Running wires along the edge of the wall under the carpet isn't an option when you have no carpet! Running them inside the walls would have been exceptionally tricky, since they would have had to go around a doorway and a bay window. And, my wife objected to wires running along the baseboards and around the doorframe. I experimented with some wireless speakers from JVC about 8 years ago, with less than positive results - lots of humming and buzzing, and interference from cordless phones. So, until this spring I used a simulated surround option, with speakers positioned to bounce sound off walls and ceiling to get the best results I could. However, this spring we added a BluRay player, new amp/receiver, and a 42" LCD TV, and I decided it was time to try again. Surely the technology would be there by now?

The good news:
There are a LOT more options on the market for wireless surround speakers now than there were in 2003-2004. Possibilities ranged from player/amp + speaker systems to dedicated wireless speakers to wireless bridges. Since I already had a system with a carefully selected Yahama amp/receiver (and other components), I was looking only at dedicated speakers and wireless bridges. What's the difference? Well, the dedicated wireless speakers contain the wireless receiver within the speaker housing, where the wireless bridge is a means to transport the signal from the front of the room to the back of the room wirelessly, then connect by wires to the speakers of your choice.
Wireless speakers VS wireless bridge system
The bad news:
Careful scrutiny of the reviews and other information available didn't make most of the options sound all that great. I kept thinking "there must be lots of other people who want to do this, maybe I'm missing something." After a lot of evaluation, I decided I only wanted a wireless bridge system, since one of the criticisms of the dedicated wireless speakers is that a lot of the actual speakers themselves are not of the greatest audio quality. I wanted to pick my own speakers (in the end, a pair of Sony bookshelf speakers), and be able to change them and/or run wires if this didn't work out.

Wireless Bridges:
There are several options for wireless bridges. The ones I looked at included: The Sony S-Air system, Rocketfish by Best Buy, JBL's WEM-1, Panasonic's SH-FX71, Bose's SL-2, and Soundcast's SCS100. All of these work basically the same way - you connect speaker wire from your amp's rear speaker connections to the bridge transmitter unit in the front of the room, then connect speaker wire from the bridge receiver/amplifier unit to the rear speakers.

After playing with as many of these as I could find in local stores, and reading every review I could find, I noted that the Rocketfish system seemed to have a lot of negative reviews based on manufacturing quality. The Sony system seemed ok, but I couldn't find a kit, only single components. Also, the reviews I read indicated that you had to use Sony connectors on the units, not a standard speaker wire connection. Panasonic's system appears to only work with Panasonic receiver/amplifiers. That left JBL, Bose, and Soundcast. Some of the reviews on the Bose system seemed to indicate it would only work with Bose systems. I don't know if that's true, but.... I also could not actually lay my hands on a Bose system locally without ordering it online.

When it came to a choice between JBL and Soundcast, they both had decent reviews. I was going to go with the JBL, but saw a price on Amazon for the Soundcast system that was $100 cheaper.

Installation is pretty much as promised for all of these. You connect the rear speaker outs on your receiver/amplifier to the transmitter of the bridge system. You connect your rear speakers to the receiver unit of the bridge system. Power them up (in some cases make sure you have the correct channel set on both), and you should be good to go. In my case, that mean moving the couch forward, setting the receiver on the floor behind the couch and plugging into the outlet back there, hooking up the speakers, and sliding the couch back. Pretty soon the bullets were whizzing past my ears, and the car sounds came from behind and swept past me as the car passed on the screen.

While I am still surprised at the relatively few options on the market, it has improved considerably in recent years. There are some nice choices, and they work fairly well (and are simple to install). Your cost for skipping wires is likely to be $200-300 (compared to $20 in speaker wire and the energy in placing the wires), but it may be worth it depending on your needs.

In the fall of 2015, the rear bridge component failed (after 4 1/2 years of fairly regular use, and standby mode when not in use). I researched options again, and the same Soundcast SCS100 system remained the best option, based on all the original factors. The great news when I went to replace it was that I found the kit for about $70 less than I originally paid on Amazon.

1) If you want a wireless subwoofer, some of these kits will transmitted the .1 channel as well for connection to a powered subwoofer (great for a couch-mounted buttkicker). Others need additional components. Know what you need when planning and pricing your system.
2) Surround Sound only works when your source has surround signals and/or your receiver/amplifier has a mock Surround capability. Don't expect the rear speakers to play music from your CDs, the standard CD Redbook specifications are for 2-channel sound.
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