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The Argument Against a Wireless Hi-Fi System

We ask several audio experts about the possible affects of digitalizing an analog audio signal. Does it really really have an impact on audio quality?

sonos port

There are a number of paths you can take when building a home hi-fi system. You can build a true analog system with signals that travel exclusively by wire, just like the good old days. Or you can work in some wireless components for a more versatile system. Connect a turntable (so long as it has a build-in preamp, like Pro-Ject's Essential III Phono) to a powered speaker, like a Play:5, or a wireless amp, like a Sonos Port, and then you can listen to records across the house without 3,000 miles of wire. But is there a negative effect of digitizing an analog signal?

You might think that wireless technology has gotten so good that there wouldn't be a drop off in audio quality. After all, most high-quality speakers and components support high-resolution streaming. And more and more streaming services, such as Tidal and Amazon Music HD (and soon to be Spotify), are able to stream lossless (or CD-quality) audio. But that's not exactly the case.

"In general, whenever employing a wireless technology, the audio signal is subject to some compromise in quality," said Stephen Mejias, the director of communications at AudioQuest. "To some audio purists, the idea of digitizing an analog signal would be almost sinful. Not only are you inherently distorting the signal, but you’re also tarnishing the sacred vinyl ritual."

Mike Moffat, the cofounder of Schiit Audio, a Californian hi-fi manufacturer known for making some of the best affordable DACs and amps, agrees: "There would be a drop-off if you digitize the analog signal by pairing a turntable with a wireless speaker system."

Of course you may rightly prioritize the convenience — and pure fun — of having a turntable paired with a powered wireless speaker, like a Play:5. If you're concerned about a drop-off in audio quality, the best thing to do is to ask a professional: how will this turntable work with these wireless speakers?

Whenever you employ wireless technology, the audio signal is subject to some compromise in quality.

"The ideal scenario here is that the signal from the turntable gets amplified perfectly, so that what you hear is an exact copy of what came out of the turntable — just louder," explained Greg McAllister, the Sound Experience Manager at Sonos. "In reality, achieving that is very difficult, but systems try to get as close to that ideal as possible." The truth is that, however, both analog and digital systems can both introduce unwanted distortion, but an analog system is actually a little more difficult to control, according to McAllister, because it presents more opportunity for these errors to be introduced.

"In Sonos’ case, we make sure that our speaker’s amps and drivers are matched, the analog to digital conversions are very accurate and that the whole experience is seamless," said McAllister. For example, Sonos sells — or used to sell — a bundle with its Play:5 and the Pro-Ject Essential III Phono turntable. "It’s not to say you couldn’t get a great listening experience by going all analog, but there is a bigger chance that something could go wrong and affect the signal."

A true analog system is going to be larger, meaning more components, and it's also going to be more expensive — but it can probably achieve a better overall sound. On the flip side, however, there's more that could potentially go wrong, say if you have the wrong pairing of phono preamp, amplifier and loudspeakers.

The other option that is exists between these two extremes is to just pair a modern turntable that has built-in phono preamp with a set of wired powered speakers (such as Audioengine A5+ ($399) or the KEF LSX ($1,259). "In [that] scenario," explained Mejias, "the listener gets the convenience that comes with a streamlined system — simply use an RCA cable to connect turntable to speakers—while avoiding the loss that comes with wireless compression."

Ultimately, it comes down to what sacrifices you are willing to make --or will even notice -- perfect sound quality, or convenience.

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