A Beginner's Guide to Wireless Media Streaming at Home

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The era of setting up a home theater is changing: wired connections between speakers to a receiver and to an audio or video source is becoming hopelessly outdated. There are now so many easier ways to attain home theater sound and now even video, and none of them involve little white, red, and yellow cables, let alone speaker wire or HDMI cables...

But we’re living in a time of flux: the wireless media streaming options are varied, complex, and constantly evolving. It can be very difficult to stay on top of the latest standards and choose the best one for our home and family. Here’s a guide to the state of wireless media streaming as of mid-2013:

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Bluetooth
This is the one you think you already know. Examples include the stylish Jawbone Jambox, and of course the Beats By Dre Pill: audio streaming via Bluetooth has proliferated like crazy in the last year, though the first speaker actually showed up about five years ago. You know, of course, that photos can be shared via Bluetooth, but video streaming isn’t really an option. You can’t go too far from your audio source, either—Bluetooth is for smaller homes. Bluetooth adapters have become popular recently. You can turn an existing speaker system into a Bluetooth one with an adapter; Logitech, Aluratek, Auris, and Monster (this one even ups the audio quality) all offer adapters for this purpose.

The AptX codec is a new form of Bluetooth available on very high-end speakers that improves quality a great deal by eliminating nearly undetectable glitches in compressed music files often noticeable during wireless transmission. If you decide to pay a lot of money for a Bluetooth speaker in the next year, make sure it comes with AptX.

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AirPlay
AirPlay is an audio and video streaming technology that works only with licensed enabled speakers, Apple AirPort Express hubs, and 2nd-gen or newer Apple TVs paired with Apple iOS devices with iOS 5 or higher, Macs from 2011 or newer, or PCs running iTunes. The wireless technology operates on top of your home wireless network. Once the devices have been added to your home network, you activate AirPlay by tapping the AirPlay icon that appears on the screen from media apps—a dropdown list of devices shows up, and you choose the one you want to stream to. You can stream to multiple AirPlay speakers at once, in different rooms, making it ideal for larger homes.

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AirPlay Mirroring is what makes AirPlay a far more exciting technology than Bluetooth: you can send any video from your iOS device to your TV using Apple TV—it literally “mirrors” your other screen, up to 1080p resolution. This is great for those who have certain video apps like HBO Go on their iPads, but not on their Apple TVs (which in turn has Netflix and Hulu). It's an easy-to-use, possibly life-changing tech that exists almost exclusively inside the Apple ecosystem. For those on the inside, there are dozens of compatible devices on the market.

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PlayFi
Android device owners, listen up: PlayFi is very similar to AirPlay, but without the video screen mirroring. It works with Google Android OS 2.2 or higher, including devices like the Kindle Fire, Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 7, but audio receivers for the PlayFi stream are currently few and far between. We know of only two: the Wren V5PF, and the Phorus speaker and receiver system. Soon, Asus devices will feature it as well. Multi-room streaming is supported by PlayFi.

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Miracast, WiDi
Miracast and Intel’s WiDi are related wireless screen mirroring standards—though they can also be used for audio-only. They are the non-Apple world’s current best hope for an AirPlay competitor, and there aren’t too many devices on the market yet to support it. Google added Miracast support in Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, and we will see a few set-top boxes and televisions offer compatibility in the coming months (some are already ready: keep an eye on these lists. The Miracast video receiver shown here is available at Best Buy). Miracast, like AirPlay, has the potential to change gaming, too: why not use your phone or tablet to control a game taking place on the TV screen?

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Wi-Fi Direct
Wi-Fi Direct provides the underlying connectivity for Miracast—it lets devices communicate directly with each other without the need for a home wireless network. There are already computer mice that rely on Wi-Fi Direct, and of course, display mirroring technologies (Miracast and WiDi). The promise of these new technologies is that they’ll have rigorous certification processes in place, so vetted products should work well.

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Proprietary Wi-Fi Networks
Many high-end speaker systems claim to rely upon wi-fi to get the job of audio streaming accomplished. But what they’re really using are proprietary peer to peer networks on top of a home wireless hotspot network. In this way they can keep the wireless signal clear of interference.

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SonosNet
Sonos
is the most famous of these product lines (check out our recent review of the Sonos Playbar to see another way to integrate home audio into home theater). The SonosNet mesh network, pictured above, is created when a special device component connects to a wired network, creating a signal for all the other wireless audio devices to latch onto. The wireless protocol improves upon a standard wi-fi network by utilizing each Sonos component to extend wireless coverage, making their systems ideal for larger residences without many of the deficiencies of single stream wireless or even multi-unit playback via Airplay (where millisecond audio delays can be evident between speakers).

Another similar system is the one from Danish speaker company Dynaudio, but it costs several thousands of dollars for all the components on the private 2.4 GHz wireless network. A new, cheaper option from the UK is the colorful Pure Jongo line—it uses wi-fi, but the company hasn't yet made clear exactly how.

(Images: Sonos, Audyssey, McIntosh, Apple, Phorus, Rocketfish, Wi-Fi Alliance, Jongo)

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