Bluetooth speakers vs. component stereo systems (Week 25, 2023)

Sound Advice
By Don Lindich

Week 25, 2023

Q. I have a question regarding Bluetooth speakers and wired speakers. Wired speakers are connected to a stereo receiver. I assume the receiver converts the digital version of the music to an analog signal using high quality electronics, and amplifies the signal with an analog amplifier. This results in a high quality analog signal sent to the speakers for reproduction.

If a device is connected to a Bluetooth speaker, I assume it simply sends the digital version of the music to the speaker. The Bluetooth speaker then converts the digital signal to analog music using electronics and amplifiers of much lower quality than a receiver.

My main question: what are the trade-offs between a Bluetooth speaker sound system and a receiver with wired speakers? Second question, can the average listener tell the difference in sound quality?

-C.B., Minneapolis, MN

A. You are largely correct when you describe the sound reproduction chains of a component system with wired speakers and a Bluetooth speaker. Something to add to the component system description is that some sources such as turntables produce analog signals, as does a CD player if you use the analog outputs. If the receiver has a digital input and the CD player does as well then you can use a digital connection between the components. You can also send an analog signal to a Bluetooth speaker if it has an auxiliary input. Most of them do.

The main advantage to a Bluetooth speaker is it is self-contained and usually portable. This is also one of the drawbacks as this makes them limited in terms of expansion and overall system capability. If you have a receiver-based component system with wired speakers it is easy to add source components (like turntables, CD players, network players and Bluetooth receivers) or to change speakers to upgrade your system or adjust the sound to your room or your sonic tastes. With a Bluetooth speaker, what you have is what you get.

Not all Bluetooth speakers have poor quality electronics. Some of them have quite good signal processing and amplification and deliver excellent sound, often at very affordable prices. Many modern receivers and amplifiers, especially home theater receivers and stereo receivers at the lower end of the price range, may have analog amplifiers but they are quite weak compared to the amplifiers of years past. They are still going to have more power and likely better sound quality than a typical Bluetooth speaker, but they sure don’t make them like they used to. Many receivers and amplifiers now have digital amplifiers, which also vary in power output and sound quality compared to each other and to analog amplifiers. Many audiophiles prefer old-school analog amplifiers over the digital designs, but that is a another discussion. For the record, I myself am in the old school camp though I can respect a good digital amplifier.

Pretty much anyone can tell the difference between a Bluetooth speaker and a component system with wired speakers. The speakers will likely be larger and have physical separation between them, usually 6 feet or more, and this allows for more spacious sound and effective stereo imaging than you can achieve with a Bluetooth speaker. If the components comprising the system are even halfway decent the comparison won’t even be close. A very good Bluetooth speaker might have better tonal quality than an entry-level component system, but if you are spending over $500 then dollar-for-dollar the component system is going to come out ahead 99% of the time if you choose your components wisely. In the weeks to come will have some system recommendations to help you do just that.