SKAA: Better Than AirPlay and Bluetooth for Premium Wireless Audio?

by Patrick Moorhead   |   May 21st, 2013

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.

Patrick Moorhead

Patrick Moorhead was ranked the #1 technology industry analyst by Apollo Research for the U.S. and EMEA in May, 2013.. He is President and Principal Analyst of Moor Insights & Strategy, a high tech analyst firm focused on the ecosystem intersections of the phone, tablet, PC, TV, datacenter and cloud. Moorhead departed AMD in 2011 where he served as Corporate Vice President and Corporate Fellow in the strategy group. There, he developed long-term strategies for mobile computing devices and personal computers. In his 11 years at AMD he also led product management, business planning, product marketing, regional marketing, channel marketing, and corporate marketing. Moorhead worked at Compaq Computer Corp. during their run to the #1 market share leader position in personal computers. Moorhead also served as an executive at AltaVista E-commerce during their peak and pioneered cost per click e-commerce models.
  • capnbob67

    Tumbleweeds…
    I’m sure SKAA is awesome but it’s a 5% solution to solve problems that the vast majority of users don’t have.
    Keep us posted…

    • http://twitter.com/SKAA_Wireless SKAA

      Last year, over 50% of the apps sold on both the Google App Store and the iTunes App Store were games. One of the things we wanted to accomplish with SKAA was to enable everyone to be able to enjoy wireless audio from video and games without the delay problems—the sound effects from the game you’re playing NEED to sync up with the action on the screen, right? Same goes for lip sync when you’re watching TV and movies. So, with SKAA-based headphones and speakers, all 3 critical types of media are supported: music, video and games. I think that’s a benefit most of us can get excited about.

      • benbajarin

        How does 60gig fit into this scenario? I’ve seen very compelling demo’s from all the vendors in this area doing screen casting of audio and video with nearly zero latency.

        Thoughts?

        • http://twitter.com/SKAA_Wireless SKAA

          60 GHz is good for moving complete video streams over short distances – for example from your Blu-ray player to your wall mounted TV wirelessly. SKAA addresses the portable market – the audio sources are smart phones, tablets, etc.. So two different needs – each with an appropriate tech to serve it. :)

          • benbajarin

            agreed but I have seen this embedded into tablets and smart devices. Thus allowing me to play my tablet or smartphone connected to my TV, audio, video, game, etc, with zero latency.

            Silicon Image has a chip as do many others that are being built into mobile devices as we speak.

          • http://twitter.com/SKAA_Wireless SKAA

            Cool – I think that’ll be great for tuning say Netflix on your tablet and then sending it across the room to your TV. I want one. When you employ 60 GHz to move a full video (with audio) stream, it’s good for a few meters and hits your battery life considerably harder than SKAA (3 or 4 x more mW typically). We tested SKAA running continuously for 20 hours on an iPhone 4 — it’s really efficient with power. SKAA is good up to 50m (range varies depending on transmitter type) but SKAA moves ONLY audio – not video. So if you need to move full video (including its audio) over a short distance and battery life is not a concern – 60 GHz is great. If you want to move audio only (but keep that audio in really good sync with the video you’re watching on your tablet/smart phone) while keeping your battery life high and/or you want whole house range, go for SKAA.

          • benbajarin

            Cool, thanks for clarifying that.

      • capnbob67

        It’s still a marginal use case – low latency audio sync’d to some kind of on-mobile video. I’m sure it’s great for that but most people do not play their casual games on a big screen or watch video on a small screen with off-device audio.

        Otherwise the vast majority of people are fine with bluetooth quality or airplay latency in most high volume use cases.

        There will be minimal consumer pull on this tech no matter how many favors Patrick does for SKAA. Success will only happen with OEM push. If you can get Apple or Samsung to adopt or integrate SKAA for its benefits over or integrated into their current technologies it has a hope. Otherwise, it’s Betamax.

        • Ben Fruend

          @capnbob67:disqus

          Booyah!!!!

          Core Brands is trying to push this to consumer with their KORUS line. Another faceplant for the NORTEK/CORE Brands conglomerate is in the works.

  • capnbob67

    I wish I’d never left a comment. It appears that it was an excuse for the vendor and Ben to have a chat while shilling the putative SKAA products.

    Was this article paid advertorial or just accidentally completely looks like it?

    • benbajarin

      HA! I was actually trying to be combative because I am a big fan of 60g and it seems more comprehensive. They clarified it works for longer range audio only and that makes sense. Although, I agree with you its limited in application. Perhaps something like Sonos or other audio specific whole home solutions. Wifi seems to suffice but I suppose is sync is an issue this is a solution.

      We of course do not accept advertorials or paid posts and never will.

      • capnbob67

        I’ve got no inherent problem with it. As I said, I’m sure it’s great if it can do live stage rig monitor jobs etc. But I don’t buy the FUD around BT and Airplay deficiencies. The vast majority of uses of Airplay are video-audio or audio-only and calling in the audiophiles does not approximate a market where most BT music tracks are MP3′s played through crappy headphones, cheap docks or car stereos.

        PS I didn’t really think it was paid advertorial – I should have put a winkie after that…

        • benbajarin

          No worries.

          I agree that I don’t buy the issues for a2dp or airplay for mass market use cases.

          But IMO if Apple TV had 60 gig it would be that much better. These solutions should roll out soon.

    • Ben Fruend

      You can find 1/2 dozen or so almost identical articles on different sites by Patrick. Forbes for one. This product is so lame. And sync isn’t an issue with WiFi. KOSS is doing WiFi with two individual ear buds, each receiving it’s own stream. You can get away with a little sync drift in a room. Not directly in your ears.

  • Joachim Wülbeck

    I use AUDIOFLY implementation of SKAA for my living room and “home cinema”.
    The wires disapear and my speakers are ‘mobile’ now.

    I can use it with my Laptop and all other Audio-Sources even visitors smartphones.

    Even if only 5% of all users will make use of SKAA – this technology hopefully become the global wireless audio standard. It’s perfect.
    I use it for some month now and I’m still impressed every day.

    I’m not payed for this and totaly independent.
    Joachim Wülbeck, Product Manager Europe, WIZnet.eu

  • kretkris

    … but I use Monster Clarity HD Bluetooth speaker. Excellent audio quality, very long battery life. Fantastic product worth every penny.

    • Cscamp20

      you obviously haven’t heard of real speakers if you think Monster bluetooth speakers sounds good. GO listen to B&W speakers, Martin logan, vienna Acoustics and more and let me know if you still think your monster speakers still sound good

  • bradpdx

    With all due respect to SKAA, which I will assume is a technically capable product, the challenge with consumer audio is that for many people, the “good enough” bar is pretty darn low with respect to audio quality. If Bluetooth A2DP is “good enough” and readily available in a consistent way, then that is where the market is likely to go. Marginal improvements in audio quality may delight those who listen closely, but are lost on the mass market. This is in some respects similar to efforts to create higher-fidelity CDs (like SACD); because the initial product is already quite “good enough”, most consumers cannot hear a difference and don’t care.

    There are certainly many problems in wireless audio. One of them is convincing large numbers of people that their current solution isn’t adequate. The CD did this handily against the vastly inferior LP and cassette formats; we’ll see how it shakes out in device-driven audio.

  • Bob Fruend

    Patrick, How much are you getting paid by SKAA?? I see you have written a number of almost identical articles about how great SKAA is. Core Brands just released their Korus speakers using SKAA. Core brands hasn’t come out with anything in how many years. Now the best they can do is deliver a rebranded Korean speaker that needs a dongle to work. Why would I want to pay money for something that needs a dongle attached to my iPhone to stream music.