21 May SKAA: Better Than AirPlay and Bluetooth for Premium Wireless Audio?
Wireless audio speakers and headphones are growing as a consumer category. Best Buy has 192 different “wireless speakers” on their website, Amazon, 400. The growth in wireless audio was helped by the growth of the premium music headphone phenomenon, started by Beats Audio. Of these wireless speakers, the clear majority utilize either Bluetooth or AirPlay to connect the device to the speaker or headphone. The problem is that both of those standards fall short on premium audio quality, openness or ease of use. Skaa, an emerging audio standard with roots in pro wireless could solve most of today’s problems inherent in today’s wireless solutions.
Let me begin with Bluetooth. Most wireless audio products on the market today use stereo Bluetooth, A2DP. It’s on all modern smartphones, tablets and on many but not all computers. Bluetooth’s primary use is very straigh-forward: connecting one phone to one headset or earpiece from Plantronics or Jawbone so drivers can talk and drive. But as we have all experienced at some point, Bluetooth is an absolute nightmare to pair and maintain a reliable pairing. To add to the pairing nightmare, Bluetooth-based speakers also face a contention problem. Wireless audio contention occurs when people, in my case family members, have paired to the same wireless speaker, allowing anyone to take control. In my house, we share a wireless Bose Soundlink II system across 4 people. We have taken it everywhere inside our house, to parties, and when we travel. If my wife is connected, even if she’s not using it, I have to ask her or my two daughters to turn off Bluetooth on their phones to let me in. The other issue is distance. I cannot take my phone too far from my speaker or else the audio starts degrading. The speaker starts hissing and popping. I personally don’t use the Bose wireless speakers anymore because it is such a hassle. The final challenge for Bluetooth is bit rate. I interviewed a few audiophiles for this piece and they literally said they do not buy any wireless Bluetooth devices because of its “less than MP3 quality” nature. I wrote a more technical note here, which provides a technical comparison. Let me switch to Apple’s AirPlay.
Another wireless audio alternative is Apple’s AirPlay. I think AirPlay is an awesome feature to mirror my Mac and iPad displays and share photos with a group of people, but it comes with its own set of major issues for a premium audio experience. First, you need a WiFi network to use it, at least until WiFi direct is enables. The network requirement eliminates the option of taking AirPlay-based set of wireless speakers to the park, unless you’re a mega-geek and bring a router with you. Secondly, AirPlay is limited to Apple host devices, the iPhone, iPod, iPad, and the Mac. I recently switched from an iPhone 4S to an HTC One X and my tablet to a Nexus 7, therefore limiting my AirPlay investment. Staying inside the premium walled garden of AirPlay is great if you or the family is all-Apple, but not for the other 75% of smartphone owners out there.
AirPlay also limits my ability to enjoy certain audio usage models. First, there are no AirPlay headphones. You can still do wireless headphones on Apple devices via Bluetooth, but AirPlay uses too much power as its basis is WiFi. Secondly, if I want to play a game or watch a movie directly on my iPad, I cannot send the audio to a wireless speaker as it will be out of sync with the video over AirPlay and for any other WiFi-based wireless speaker solution. This is because AirPlay uses the unreliable home WiFi network with higher latency. If the home network is 2.4Ghz., it is susceptible to interference from Bluetooth, the neighbor’s WiFI, microwave ovens and cordless phones.
There is a developing standard for wireless audio called Skaa, which eliminates many of the premium audio challenges inherent with Bluetooth and AirPlay.
SKAA comes from the professional and pro-sumer music world. The basis for SKAA is a standard called PAW, or Pro Audio Wireless, and powered the wireless gear for artists like Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Keith Urban, Kanye West, Eminem Band, and Justin Timberlake. These bands used PAW in concerts for wireless guitars and speakers because of its high quality with a high bit rate, long range, and because wasn’t susceptible to interference from other 2.4 GHz devices like smartphones and WiFi. SKAA, simply put, is the consumer flavor of PAW, designed for consumer phones, tablets, computers, TVs, and game consoles.
With SKAA, users can connect up to 4 speakers from one device, and because it has long range and multi-point capabilities, consumers could have four speakers in the kitchen, living room, dining room, and bed room all broadcasting the same, synchronized audio. The pairing nightmare goes away as it uses small, mobile-friendly, wireless transmitters that immediately start playing the music after pressing one button the first time you get a speaker. These small, wireless transmitters are currently available for Apple’s 30-pin devices and USB for all computers, Mac, PC, and even Linux. Apple’s Lightning devices, micro-USB for Android devices, and other wireless transmitters are coming soon. So am I saying that Bluetooth and AirPlay are going away? Absolutely not as these are two pervasive and flexible standards that will be here for a long, long time. For audio, particularly premium audio, I do believe that SKAA-based speaker and headphone companies will start adopting the new standard and challenge AirPlay in the premium audio space.
If you want a more technical dive, I have written a short note here.