There was a time when being an audio enthusiast meant living with wires. Lots and lots of wires. That was the price you had to pay for quality audio, especially if you wanted a home theater system with true surround sound. Well, if WiSA (Wireless Speaker & Audio Association) has its way—and considering how many industry heavyweights, including LG, Polk, and JBL are now on board, it likely will—your next audio system could be virtually wire free. Well, except for the wires in your power cables. I’ll get into that later.
First introduced way back in 2012, WiSA has largely been the province of all-in-one speaker/transmitter implementations from vendors such as Klipsh and Bang & Olufsen. WiSA is now concentrating on getting vendors of playback devices such as smart TVs and A/V receivers to support the standard—with great success.
Why you might want WiSA
For starters, WiSA systems supports up to eight channels of uncompressed 24-bit audio. It’s super-easy to set up, and it eliminates cable connections between components, leaving only the power cables to worry about. WiSA delivers super-low latency, too—latency being the time it takes for an audio signal to travel from a source to emanate from the speaker.
I’m not talking the 40-millisecond delay that’s considered low by the Bluetooth folks, but a mere 2.6ms at 96kHz sample rates (5.1ms at 48kHz), which is nearly imperceptible to humans. That means little to no compensation is required on the part of a TV or other audio device to keep audio in sync with dialog and on-screen action. That’s as great for watching movies as it is for playing video games on an Xbox or PlayStation.
What exactly is WiSA?
WiSA is an audio technology that establishes a discrete wireless local network exclusive to WiSA audio sources (TVs, receivers, video-game consoles, etc.) and destinations (speakers). It steers clear of with your Wi-Fi router and privately uses less-populated 5GHz frequency bands (with 24 RF channels available in the 5.1- to 5.8GHz spectrum) along with various techniques such as spread spectrum, error correction, and dynamic frequency hopping to avoid interference and maintain signal strength.
Earbuds, headsets, and portable speakers aren’t in the mix yet, simply because the current shipping module that Summit Wireless Technologies, Inc. showed me isn’t small enough for those form factors, and its power consumption is still too high. The specified power requirements, however, are stated to be about the same as that of Bluetooth. So according to WiSA, those types of products remain a distinct possibility.
WiSA has a 30-foot range and supports 24-bit resolution with sampling rates of 44.1-, 48- and 96kHz without any compression or conversion. It can handle other sample rates by up- or down-sampling the material if the playback device doesn’t handle that natively.
If you’re not familiar, the CD standard is 44,100, 16-bit samples per second, which delivers a noise floor that’s low enough that most users won’t hear digital noise, and a sampling rate that’s fast enough to capture and play back frequencies up to 22.05kHz—that’s well beyond the range humans can hear. Supporting 24 bits delivers an even lower noise floor, and a 48kHz sampling rate takes care of supposed golden ears.
A 96kHz sampling rate is overkill in terms of capturing or reproducing frequencies (it can represent up to 48kHz waves): There’s hardly any recording equipment that will capture frequencies above 20kHz, and no listening equipment—i.e., your ears—that can hear it. The higher sampling rate, however, does allow faster processing and gives you the lower 2.6ms latency I mentioned earlier. The 5.2ms latency associated with 48kHz transmissions is still barely noticeable, and hardly annoying. But it is distinguishable if you enjoy torturing yourself about such things.
If the WiSA standard is sample accurate in its timing between channels, as is claimed, synchronization between channels is also twice as tight at 96kHz. From what I’ve experienced, any synchronization issues that do occur are inaudible.
Easy setup, USB audio, and now THX
As WiSA is a closed Wi-Fi network, pairing devices devices should be no hassle at all. For the most part, it’s said to be auto-magical, with everything just connecting out of the box as you turn it on. The only time you might conceivably run into issues is when you change audio sources. At that point, a simple reset button should have you up and running with your new source in no time.
Obviously, there’s a lot of legacy audio equipment out there that’s near and dear to owners’ hearts. For WiSA to work with that, you’ll need a separate transmitter. There are a couple of USB audio transmitters appearing in the $80 to $120 price range that will work with anything that supports USB audio devices (that’s how LG supports WiSA), but I haven’t seen a standalone transmitter that offers legacy audio connections. The network-capable Aximm Q UHD Wireless Media Center ($1,199) has six HDMI inputs and supports up to 7.1-channel WiSA-based surround-sound speaker systems for home theater applications, but you won’t find anything that’s cheap.
The WiSA organization has an interoperability certification program that components must go through before they can display the WiSA logo, and the group has also formed a strategic partnership with THX. That effort is aimed at certifying the quality of WiSA-branded audio components. At some point, you’ll also see hardware bearing WiSA-ready logos, which will indicate that a device can output audio via a WiSA transmitter—you’d just need to pair it with WiSA-certified speakers.
There will still be wires
Wireless speakers must be self-powered, so they will require power cables (or batteries, although keeping the batteries in a multi-speaker array charged could be problematic). Yup, a WiSA setup will have you trade long, thin speaker wires for shorter, thicker power cables. If you have a lot of conveniently placed outlets, that will at least reduce your cable clutter. If you don’t, you might actually wind up with an uglier setup.
But at least WiSA gives you a choice, and perhaps revolutionary battery tech is just down the road. It might also be a better choice for high-end sound bars or simple stereo setups.
Look for WiSA
I’ve heard WiSA and it sounds very good. It’s transparent in the sense that it sounds pretty much like the same material transmitted over cables. By pretty much, I mean I could not tell the difference. My experience has been very limited, however, so if you’re blessed with particularly acute hearing, check out a demo or two at your favorite audio dealer.
WiSA doesn’t eliminate every wire, but at least you won’t need to run power cords the length and width of your room—that alone should render the wires you will have easier to hide. And perhaps it’s more important that the standard can delivery very low latency, very high resolution, multi-channel wireless audio without any sacrifice in quality.