Hi-fi and wireless have something of a speckled history, with many purists believing that the only way to achieve real hi-fi, is through fully wired units. Up until recent years those purists were probably right. But will the arrival of AtpX – the new generation of Bluetooth – do enough to herald a new age of fully wireless hi-fi with the sound you’d expect? Let’s find out.
So… where did it start?
It began, of course, with radio frequencies. This has been a way of transmitting audio completely wirelessly… well, since the invention of the radio. The radios improved, as did the technology, but the basic use of radio frequencies remained virtually unchanged until the last decade.
From the start of the 20th Century onwards, any wireless radio, speaker or headphone would use the same radio frequencies. Devices would transmit them, and the receiving speakers (etc.) would have to ‘tune in’ to receive. The result wasn’t always bad as such, but the hiss was a hard thing to shake. DAB was still a long way off, so wireless technology remained stunted and simply didn’t offer the quality required to be considered h-fi.
And then, with the rise of mobile technology (and the eventual dominance of smartphones) came Bluetooth, an invention of the Swedish mobile technology company Ericsson in 1994. Ericsson joined forces with Intel, Nokia, Toshiba and IBM to form SIG a Special Interest Group who would all benefit from this shared advance in wireless technology. The word was first coined by SIG in 1998, but it wasn’t until 2000 that this unique technology was implemented, in the form of a PC Card, a USB dongle and its first appearance in a mobile phone. Over the next decade, it began to creep into every corner of technology as a means of communicating (the sending and receiving) of data between devices. Fully enabled PCs and laptops, hands-free kits for mobile phones, printers, digital picture frames, keyboards and mice (mouses?) GPS, watches… all sorts. It made it’s hi-fi debut in 2003 with an enabled MP3 player, but it wasn’t until 2012 that Bluetooth Smart technology was implemented as standard into smart phones, tablets and the like.
But… what is Bluetooth?
It’s a hybrid of both hardware and technology that has a much smaller range than its predecessor of. While traditional radio can transmit over miles and miles, Bluetooth’s range is – and always will be – short, up to 100 feet. It still uses radio waves, but it uses them in a refined way. Shorter distances means a greater quality of reception, operates in the unlicensed industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) band at 2.4 to 2.485 GHz, using a spread spectrum, frequency hopping, full-duplex signal at a nominal rate of 1600 hops/sec. It can communicate any type of data and thus has a wide variety of applications. One of the most prominent, of course, is that of audio streaming.
Bluetooth & Audio
Of course, the introduction of Bluetooth into the music realm was revolutionary, just as it was when it was introduced elsewhere. For the first time wireless listening – be it through speakers or headphones – could be achieved without that deathly hiss, opening the possibilities up wide. But there was a catch.
Digital audio is a collection of samples of what a sound wave looks like at a specific moment in time, broken down into pieces. With enough of these pieces a playback device will convert them back into a sound wave, which it will then play. The quality of the playback is determined by how many of these ‘pieces’ are successfully transmitted to the playback device.
As the Bluetooth device is a low-power wireless transmission method designed to allow two devices to easily transfer data over short range, it has limited bandwidth. In order for a wave to be broken down and communicated, it needs to be compressed. It uses a method known as ‘psychoacoustic modelling’ to achieve this, discarding any information regarded as unimportant. The result is SBC (Low Complexity Subband Coding). As Bluetooth was not exactly designed with high-quality audio in mind, its compressed audio missed detail, depth and richness required for real hi-fi.
Considering MP3 is the most common format of digital audio, there is the risk of a double compression on any audio files. MP3s come pre-compressed, so even more of that all important detail is discarded.
And you can hear the difference. Even on a low-end system. Read the full expose on the strife between Bluetooth and audio streaming here.
Bluetooth’s shortcomings in the sound department have been recognised and answered. And their answer is AptX, an algorithm of audio codec compression which allows for less compression on audio files. There is still some compression involved – but it’s a different kind. In essence, AptX uses a new type of modelling (as opposed to psychoacoustic modelling) called ‘time domain ADPCM’ which uses fewer bits per sample. Smaller files mean less has to be discarded, so loss of sound and detail is no longer quite so obvious.
The result? Less compressed audio. Which makes a huge difference when it comes to streaming music wirelessly and maintaining a quality worth listening to. Bluetooth themselves herald AptX as a way of communicating lossless audio and in essence this is true. What is lost, cannot be heard. Therefore you will be hearing that file in HD – almost as it was intended to be heard.
How do I get AptX?
The only way to experience AptX is by having two devices which are enabled, much like the only way to receive Bluetooth comminucated data is by having two Bluetooth enabled devices. This… can be a bit of a headache. Well, at least it was. AptX has taken off amongst the purveyors of audio technology and is creeping in, slowly but surely.
If streaming music is the name of the game, you’ll first need a device capable of such. For the definitive list, look no further than the one Bluetooth themselves have provided. Your device may well already be capable – many of the new generation of smartphones – for instance – already are, so you could be already be halfway there!
And as for the other half…
How can we help?
We think that the future of music may well be wireless. At least, partially. The level of freedom and convenience it offers is mind-blowing, so the arrival of AptX is incredibly exciting. Hi-fidelity sound can indeed now go hand-in-hand with wireless, and so we’ve stocked up on the latest – and the best – AptX enabled speakers, soundbars and home cinema devices knowing that this is where part of the future of hi-fidelity sound is. Is your device enabled? Then lets get you something to pair it with.
All of the prices stated below were correct at the time of publishing and may be subject to change.
Speakers. You know what they are, you know what they do. The set up is just the same as Bluetooth, just communicate and play.
Starting from only £149 for the Wharfedale DS-1! Our range of AptX enabled speakers is pretty vast, but includes the award winning Ruark MR1 (£299), Q Acoustics BT3 (£349) and extends up to the luxury Naim Muso System (£895), Dali Kubik Free (£899), and our flagship floorstanding wireless speakers, the Focal EasyA (£1850) and if you fancy something a little retro, how about the Ruark R7 (£2000).
AptX Soundbars & Soundbases
Sound bars are primarily home cinema products designed to be a space-saving substitute for surround sound. But they double as excellent streamers too, and there’s one for every budget. Surround sound streaming… with AptX? Yes please!
We have, starting from only £134.95 for the Roth Subzero Soundbar and then there is the Q Acoustics M4 (£399), Yamaha YAS-203 (£399) and the latest and hugely popular replacement to the YSP-2200, we have the YSP-2500 (£799), our favourite soundbar yet.
Soundbases are the new kid on the block in the hi-fi world. They serve the same purpose as their soundbar brothers, but act as a base for your TV to stand on. And yes, the surround sound/streaming technology is the same. It’s a no-brainer!
If you think a soudbase may well be the way forward, Tannoy Basestation One Soundbase (£349), Yamaha SRT-1000 (£499) and at the very top of the soundbase tree, we have the Focal Dimension available on its own at £800 or with a matching subwoofer at £1100 for that extra depth and richness.
AptX Portable Speakers
For a life lived outdoors (or just the restless indoors) a portable speaker is a great solution to listening to high quality music, wherever and whenever you want. There are dozens of excellent options out there, but our favourite is the Yamaha NX-P100 a bargain at £179!
Don’t worry, we haven’t let the digital audio waves mess with our heads (well… not like that anyway!) there are now portable speakers dressed as lamps which fill; the room with both hi-fidelity sound and ambient light. They’re really nifty, and quite romantic! We sell several of these, all with Bluetooth AtpX built in. Our favourites? The gorgeous Yamaha LSX-7 (299.95) and its bigger brother the LSX-700 (£499).
There’s plenty more where they came from too. Check out our full range of AptX soundbars, speakers and soundbases here!
AptX Wireless Adapters
Is the purchase of an entire unit isn’t necessary – say you already have a full hi-fi system, or you’re already very happy with your active/powered speakers and don’t want to replace them – don’t worry, we have you covered there too.
These wireless adapters enable you to add Bluetooth AptX capabilities to your existing system. Plug them into your system or active/powered speakers and with a Bluetooth AptX device in the usual way. It’s that easy! Our favourite is the Arcam MiniBlink at £90. We also have the Arcam rBlink or £160 and the QED uPlay Plus at £99.95. These adapters are a great way of bringing AptX streaming into your life without breaking the bank, and the sound is just as good.
So, can AptX offer the sound that audiophiles yearn for, in their streaming? Is this really the next level in wireless? In our opinion, yes. Are we saying there isn’t room for improvement? Of course not – but that’s the beauty of hi-fi, it just keeps getting better and better, and it will continue to do so. And now wireless can catch up with its wired rivals, we expect even bigger and better things to come. But for now AptX is just the ticket to a seamless streaming experience.