There’s a reason why Bluetooth has become ubiquitous. In some ways, along with wi-fi, Bluetooth is the ultimate cord-cutting protocol.
Bluetooth has been around long enough to outgrow its teething problems, pairing has become ever-easier, and wireless technology applications keep inspiring more and more useful products—for cars, the home, and all the way up to pro audio and contracting.
For us, one of Bluetooth’s big advantages is being able to stream stereo audio wirelessly from one device to another. Of course, to receive Bluetooth audio, you need something that transmits Bluetooth audio. Smart phones and tablets are obvious choices, especially now that many people store everything from pre-show music, to music sets, to personal music collections, to podcasts on smart devices. Computers and laptops can also generate Bluetooth audio, and more Bluetooth-capable gear is appearing all the time.
The problem is getting the audio from your personal device to a public-facing device, but that’s where Bluetooth comes into play. The wireless range can be up to 100 feet (depending on the device, and whether physical objects like walls interfere with the signal), with 60 feet being typical and 30 feet more or less guaranteed. So now that you’re ready to cut the cord, let’s get started.
Bluetooth Portable PA Systems
Whether for events, meetings, parties, or gigs at small-to-medium size venues, portable PAs pack punch in a small package—and being able to stream Bluetooth to them makes them even more useful. Many of the following systems are battery-powered, and they’re affordable—the ones listed here range from $300 to $700.
JBL’s EON208P (Fig. 1) is an all-in-one portable PA system that includes an 8-channel, detachable mixer. Essentially, streaming Bluetooth audio becomes another audio source for the mixer.
For a super-portable solution that goes into the “look ma, no wires” category, Samson’s XP106W (Fig. 2) features an internal, rechargeable battery but also includes a wireless mic with matching receiver—between that and streaming Bluetooth, you have a totally wireless system. It’s a good choice for outdoor situations (like competitions and school events) where you need something more powerful than a megaphone, but almost as compact.
.Performers aren’t left out of the Bluetooth revolution, either. Bose’s S1 Pro system (Fig. 3), which can also serve as a floor monitor, is ideal for solo acts and DJs thanks to its mic- and guitar-friendly inputs. The physical aux in, or wireless Bluetooth streaming, are convenient for pre-show music, backing tracks, or break music.
In a similar vein, but at a lower price point, the Mackie Freeplay-Live also offers an internal rechargeable battery, but includes some unique features—like an app (Fig. 4) for control over levels, EQ, and reverb, and the ability to link to an optional, second FreePlay speaker for more coverage.
More Power, But Still Portable: Bluetooth Powered Speakers
When you need a more powerful speaker that can stream Bluetooth audio to larger crowds and in large venues, powered speakers with Bluetooth are the answer. They’re not battery-powered and are both larger and heavier than the systems mentioned above, but there’s a reason why—they can get loud.
Electro-Voice has two suitable offerings, the ZLX-15BT 15″ and ZLX-12BT 12″ powered speakers with two mic/line inputs, physical aux input, and Bluetooth (Fig. 5). Both have titanium high-frequency drivers and can generate up to 1000 watts.
The 15″ version is somewhat more expensive, due to its larger size and extended bass range. But both models, being designed for larger venues, have useful convenience features like onboard DSP with four EQ presets for different types of applications, overload protection if they’re pushed too hard, the ability to daisy-chain multiple speakers, and two mic/line combo inputs (as well as a 1/8″ physical aux in jack). For DJs who want to stream a set via Bluetooth and need floor-shaking bass, either speaker is designed to work with the ELX-118P powered subwoofer. And if you really want to pour on the power, as well as maximize dispersion, there’s a cost-saving bundle with a pair of ZLX-12P speakers and the ELX118P, as well as another bundle with a pair of ZLX-15P speakers and the ELX118P.
Both have some compelling features, like wireless linking for more coverage or power, an iOS/Android control app, color LCD for parameter adjustments, and six speaker-voicing modes. There are two physical mic/line/instrument combo inputs; Bluetooth streaming provides an aux input. Similarly to the subwoofer-friendly Electro-Voice models, the Thump speakers work with Mackie’s 18″ Thump 18S powered subwoofer.
Bluetooth Distribution to Existing Systems
Listen up, sports bars, hotels, conferences, and schools: if you already have a complete PA or sound system in place, you can still take advantage of Bluetooth streaming—thanks to dedicated Bluetooth receivers that accept a streaming input, then distribute pro-level audio outputs to your system.
As one example of a simple, compact Bluetooth receiver, Radial Engineering’s BT-Pro (Fig. 7) accepts a stereo Bluetooth stream, and converts it to balanced, stereo XLR outputs suitable for patching into a PA system, mixer, or other analog amplification system.
Under ideal conditions, the reception distance is 60 feet. A cool safety feature is that the BT-Pro requires a passcode to initialize the connection, which prevents nearby Bluetooth devices from hijacking the system. Note that power comes from a USB power adapter (not included), or laptop/computer USB port.
For a lower-priced alternative that’s a similarly compact, unobtrusive box, the Denon DN-200BR (Fig. 8) translates a Bluetooth stereo stream to balanced XLR or unbalanced ¼” outputs.
Thanks to a separate, wired antenna that can be placed for optimum reception, the claimed range is 100 feet under unobstructed conditions. The unit includes an external AC adapter.
For rack-based systems, Denon’s DN-300BR offers a single-rack space solution (Fig. 9). Like the DN-200BR, the antenna is separate to allow for optimum placement, and the unit works up to 100 feet away from the Bluetooth transmitter.
Unlike the DN-200BR, there’s an output level control, and RCA jacks provide the unbalanced output (the balanced outputs are still XLR-type connectors). And because being in a rack may make the DN-300BR less accessible, a rear-panel Euroblock connector provides terminals for remote pairing connections.
So What’s Not to Like?
As long as you can verify that the signal strength is sufficient (you can almost always count on Bluetooth if the transmitter and receiver are line of sight within a reasonable distance), that the devices you want to pair are designed to connect to one another, that there aren’t too many sources of interference, and are aware that different devices may have different pairing protocols, you’ll find that today’s Bluetooth devices are much more advanced than older designs. Sometimes simply re-orienting a device solves any Bluetooth issues.
What’s more, the technology continues to get better, easier to use, and more reliable as companies continue to scale the learning curve. Do note that with computers, it’s important to keep any Bluetooth drivers up to date—especially given the rising popularity of BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy), which requires so little power that devices like Bluetooth earbuds can run for hours (and sometimes lots of hours!) without recharging.
Although wi-fi remains more robust in terms of signal strength, its downside is that it lacks the seamless pairing that Bluetooth offers, opting instead for manual entry of a user name and/or password, or a manufacturer-specific solution. However, remember that Bluetooth usually pairs well only with single devices. That’s changing (for example, Apple laptops have a multiple output option that can drive two Bluetooth headphones), but we’re not in multiple Bluetooth pairing nirvana yet.
Overall, though, Bluetooth is a solution to a number of needs for performances, conferences, events, and much more—and fortunately, there’s never been a better time to get on board.