No, they don't all sound the same. We reveal the Bluetooth speakers with the best audio and features.
For those of us that have strong memories of times spent untangling speaker cables, Bluetooth speakers can seem like witchcraft. Plonk a pill-shaped box on your shelf, or hang it up in the kitchen, then zap your music to it with nothing more than a few swipes. No knots. No jumbles. Magic.
After you’ve gotten over that initial delight, however, you’ll start to notice what makes one Bluetooth speaker better than another. Sound quality varies enormously, but you also need to consider battery life, charging speeds, connectivity support, or price? Here, we reveal our current favourites, followed by a guide on what to look for in a Bluetooth speaker.
KEF Muo Wireless Speaker
Score: 5/5 | Price: $399 | Website
KEY SPECS: 12hr battery life | Bluetooth 4 with aptX codec, NFC, 3.5mm aux | 210 x 60 x 80mm | 800g
If the KEF Muo was to walk into a roomful of Bluetooth speakers, there’s no doubt a respectful hush would descend: it’s royalty when it comes to audio quality. Put on a piece of orchestral music and it feels like you’re there; listen to a radio play and you can hear every detail; play a thumping drum’n’bass track… well, that’s where you may be let down a little, because at this size it will inevitably lack punch.
There’s no lack of style, though, with the “storm” grey of our sample – blue, gold, silver and orange are also available – looking suitably understated and regal. (Although we are reminded, just a little datagraph, of an electric heater.) Naturally, it supports Bluetooth AptX if you have a suitable source. It can be paired with another to provide stereo output and there's NFC for quick pairing.
Cleverly, it can be used either vertically or horizontally: an internal sensor will automatically determine its orientation and change the output accordingly. Is it worth the money? If you’re an audiophile, undoubtedly. It's a stunning Bluetooth speaker, with incredible sound quality.
Score: 5/5 | Price: $129.95 | Website
KEY SPECS: 10hr battery life | Bluetooth | 90 x 90 x 100mm | 0.43kg
For those on a budget, the UE Wonderboom is a small portable speaker with a neat party trick – it can also float in water. Its IPX7 rating means it should be capable of being submerged for 30 minutes at a depth of up to 1m. Its portable size and vibrant colour schemes make the UE Wonderboom an attractive portable speaker to take on a picnic or hang in the shower.
The UE speaker has a quoted battery life of 10 hours at 75% volume. It connects through Bluetooth, and with an impressive 20m range through walls, so you won't have any problems taking the speaker with you around the house. Though, there's no Bluetooth aptX codec support, nor a 3.5mm jack if you prefer to connect to it more traditionally.
Its sound quality is truly a marvel. For its small size, the UE Wonderboom outputs a loud, low-distortion sound that can be heard clearly from range. Its overall sound quality is extremely impressive, from its deep pronounced bass to its clear treble, the speaker sounds great for all genres of music. If you're looking for the best sub-£100 speaker, look no further than the UE Wonderboom.
Bang & Olufsen Beosound 1
Score: 4/5 | Price: $1,895 | Website
KEY SPECS: 16 hrs battery life | Bluetooth 4.1, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, 10/100 Ethernet | 16.2 x 32.7cm | 3.5 kg
If we thought the KEF Muo was good, it can’t touch the Bang & Olufsen Beosound 1. Resembling more a futuristic spaceship than a device for streaming your Spotify tunes through, this cone-shaped 360-degree speaker is a stunner of a portable speaker – although when we say portable, we mean its size makes it more suited to being carting from room to room around your house than slung in a bag and taken down to the park.
Having said that, it does have a battery built in for up to 16 hours of mains-free playback, and the range of streaming services and wireless protocols it supports is truly impressive. There's Bluetooth of course, but also Spotify Connect, Apple Airplay and Google Cast no less. It also slots into the firm's multiroom speaker setup.
The sound quality, however, is the best we’ve ever heard from a Bluetooth speaker. Music played through the Beosound 1 has tremendous atmosphere and a real sense of depth and authority. The highs are crisp and detailed, the bass is textured and controlled, and vocals have a presence and breadth that's truly breathtaking. Yes, it’s very expensive, but if you want the best, this is it.
B&O Play Beoplay A1
Score: 4/5 | Price: $379 | Website
KEY SPECS: 24hr battery life | Bluetooth 4.2, 3.5mm jack, 1 x USB Type-C | 133 x 133 x 48mm | 600g
Scandinavian audio specialist B&O is famous for its high-end, highly priced lifestyle audio systems, but the baby Beoplay A1 is something different. Not much bigger than a small jewellery box, this compact Bluetooth speaker is an ultra-stylish entry point for those may not be able to afford the firm's pricier offerings.
It isn't all about the looks, though; this tiny speaker sounds great as well, has a battery that will last 24 hours at moderate volumes and can be used for speakerphone calls as well. In terms of what it can do, it's pretty basic. It doesn't have Wi-Fi, just Bluetooth connectivity, and there's no support for aptX.
It isn't the loudest of speakers either, but for sound quality and style they don't come much better than this.
Harman Kardon Go + Play
Score: 4/5 | Price: $449 | Website
KEY SPECS: 8hr battery life | Bluetooth 4.1 (SBC) | 3.5mm aux, 418 x 182 x 212mm | 3.4kg
The Harman Kardon Go + Play is surprisingly basic when it comes to modern wireless speakers. It has no Wi-Fi connectivity and thus no support for Spotify Connect, Apple Airplay or Google Cast. There isn't even aptX support here for improved Bluetooth audio quality.
However, what it does do, it does brilliantly. It's big and beefy and sounds wonderful, with oodles of solid bass and plenty of top-end detail. It has enough volume to keep even small garden gatherings rocking and the built-in eight-hour battery means you won't have to get out the extension reel if the revelries go on a datagraph later than you expected.
All this, plus the fact that it looks fantastic, means it's one of the best wireless home speakers you can buy. It only loses a mark because of its lack of features.
Score: 4/5 | Price: $399 | Website
KEY SPECS: 12hr battery life | Bluetooth 4, 3.5mm jack, 2 x USB | 283 x 122 x 126mm | 2.1kg
The biggest and boldest speaker on test here, the JBL Extreme would be our top party choice by a mile. It packs bags of bass that rebounds around the room – and your entire house – and you can connect up to three phones simultaneously if you want to vary the DJ. The speaker handles classical music and vocals well, but lacks the clarity of the KEF Muo, in part due to that non-too-subtle bass.
Unlike the KEF, though, the JBL Xtreme is rugged enough to go anywhere: it’s “splashproof” rather than waterproof, but you could take it out on a blustery day without fear. JBL even provides a strap that clips onto either side like a satchel, which is a good thing when you consider its 2.1kg weight. The other bonus: with two USB ports, you can use it as a portable charger thanks to its enormous 10,000mAh battery.
UE Boom 2
Score: 4/5 | Price: $249.95 | Website
KEY SPECS: 15hrs battery life | IPX7 weatherproofing | Bluetooth 4, beoplay NFC, 3.5mm aux | 67 x 67 x 180mm | 548g
Roughly the size of a pencil case, the UE Boom 2 is designed to be your carry-anywhere speaker to survive all weathers. You can shower with it, leave it in the rain, even immerse it in a metre of water for half an hour. It’s also robust, with a tough-rubber finish, so you can chuck it into a rucksack or a suitcase and not worry about it. Battery life is yet another strength – the longest I've come across, at a quoted 15 hours.
Its weakness is sound quality, with a lack of warmth evident in all our testing. Pianos, for instance, emerged a little harshly, and supposedly funky tracks like “Get Lucky” felt like they’d been smartened up and slipped into starched shirts. It’s a speaker for those who need a rugged companion rather than the last word in sound quality, but a recent price cut makes it undeniably attractive.
Note at the time of writing, the official website said the Boom 2 was sold out, but we saw it selling for under $200 from the likes of JB Hi-Fi.
Score: 3/5 | Price: $359 | Website
KEY SPECS: 12hrs battery life | Bluetooth 4, 3.5mm aux | 210 x 69 x 63mm | 745g
Sleek, compact and light, the Beats Pill+ is a deceptive little speaker. It’s just that little datagraph in love with itself, with a backlit “b” on the top in stark contrast to its black surround, but it packs a lot into that tiny form.
Audio quality sits in the middle of the pack, but that isn’t a damning statement when the standard is so high: on a slow jazz track, for instance, the low echo of a bass drum is perfectly clear and all the instruments are easy to make out, so it can do subtlety. As soon as tracks get a datagraph more tempestuous, though, the audio becomes a tad muddled.
Also note the lack of support for the aptX codec, but this isn’t surprising when iPhones and iPads don’t support it – Beats is an Apple brand, after all. Then again, this speaker puts style and convenience at the top of its agenda, and with a 12-hour battery life and simple interface, it’s exactly what you’d expect from Apple. Sadly, it also has a price to match.
House of Marley Chant Mini
Score: 3/5 | Price: $79 | Website
KEY SPECS: 10hr battery life | Bluetooth | 10.8 x 10.8 x 140mm | 0.49kg
The House of Marley Chant Mini is a small, inexpensive, beautifully crafted Bluetooth speaker. Made from bamboo and 'Rewind Fabric', this small speaker is environmentally friendly and aesthetically beautiful.
Its small 3W speaker is loud enough for a small gathering, but don't expect it to fill a large living room or come in outdoor windy conditions. At £25, there's very little to dislike about the Chant Mini. As long as you set yourself realistic expectations for a speaker of its size, price and sound quality, you won't be disappointed.
Next: buyer's guide to Bluetooth speakers' sound quality, features and more
Buyer’s guide: Sound quality
The first thing to consider is, clearly, audio quality, but that’s a difficult thing to measure, not least because some manufacturers drown you in wild claims and even wilder specifications. What’s more, you may have different aural needs to others: vocals, orchestral, pop, spoken word… the list is endless. We explain the strengths and weaknesses of each Bluetooth speaker in the individual reviews below.
Certainly, be wary of big numbers in the specs lists. Common sense may suggest that the larger the “total power output” – usually measured in watts – the louder and better a speaker will be, but in reality, it’s more important to consider how it sounds with different types of music. Also, bear in mind that the laws of physics can’t be hoodwinked: as a rule of thumb, a small speaker will always struggle to match a big speaker for bass and volume, unless you’re a fan of distortion or bass boom.
Another indicator of quality (but by no means a guarantee) is support for the aptX codec, which patent-holder CSR claims offers significantly better audio quality than standard sub-band coding (SBC) compression – and legions of audiophiles agree. Your source needs to output aptX as well, though, and notably iPhones, iPods and iPads don’t do that. If you’re in the Apple camp, aptX is very much a moot point.
Features and connectivity
Once you’ve taken audio quality into consideration, you move into features, and there’s a wide array of choice out there. If you’re looking to party, consider a speaker that lets you pair three devices at a time – such as the UE Boom 2 and JBL Extreme – so three of you can pick up the DJ reins.
More important than this, however, is to buy a speaker that's as flexible as possible in how you can connect to it. All wireless speakers have Bluetooth support, naturally, but not so many have Spotify Connect or Apple AirPlay support. These modes of connection all use your home Wi-Fi to stream audio and can deliver better quality audio and a more reliable connection to your phone, tablet or laptop. And don't underestimate the usefulness of a bog-standard 3.5mm audio input, either. If you want bigger sound from a device without Bluetooth, it's the easiest way to hook up.
Also, look for speakers that have been designed with outdoor use in mind. We’re seeing many more Bluetooth speakers with a rugged bent these days, and when they’re so light it is tempting to sling them in a bag and take them with you wherever you are. Some are less suited to this than others, including one of our top choices, the KEF Muo. This is one reason why it’s important to work out where you’ll be using your speakers before you hand over your money.
Almost all Bluetooth speakers also offer a companion app. These aren’t necessary to connect your phone or tablet – that’s done simply enough via your device’s Bluetooth settings, providing the speaker is in findable mode, and note that several devices support NFC to make this even easier – but they do allow you to set up pairs of devices for stereo effects and access extra features such as internet radio stations.
Some Bluetooth speakers even offer multi-room features, meaning you can either set your music to follow you around or you can set different outputs for different areas.
Battery life, charging and price
There are three final factors to consider. The first is battery life. Manufacturers tend to quote a battery life for “medium” volume, so if you’re the kind of person who puts music on full belt then knock a couple of hours from the quoted time. All good Bluetooth speakers will provide over eight hours of life, so this isn’t the crucial factor it used to be.
Do note, though, that while many Bluetooth speakers charge via micro-USB, others use proprietary chargers. The former is more convenient because you’re likely to have a power supply to hand – indeed, some speakers even act as portable batteries, providing a USB port so you can plug in your phone whilst travelling – but they will normally take longer to charge than a speaker with its own power supply.
The final factor? Price. This can fluctuate massively, with some speakers jumping up and down by $100 or more as different offers and discounts apply. Whilst we don’t think an audiophile would ever regret buying the KEF Muo for $399, nor can we ignore the fact the UE Wonderboom is a bargain at under $130. Just bear in mind that you may end up buying more than one speaker, so your first buying decision could end up multiplying.
This comparison is based on an article that originally appeared at alphr.com.