The Bluetooth Advantage
It’s no secret smartphone and tablet speakers are bad. You just can’t get very good sound out of a small, flat object designed to fit in your pocket. Fortunately, you don’t have to rely on your smartphone or tablet to put out sound when you’re on the go. Portable Bluetooth speakers are the best way to bust out the jams wirelessly when you can’t carry around your entire sound system, which is pretty much all the time.
Thanks to integrated Bluetooth, the speakers here work with Android, iOS, and, well, any Bluetooth-enabled device, including most laptops and desktops. Also, they don’t require a Wi-Fi network, making them much more flexible than Apple-only AirPlay speakers. Still, there are a few things to consider when picking a Bluetooth speaker.
Bluetooth speakers are usually portable, but they don’t have to be. Some speaker systems are built for connecting to your PC or HDTV, and Bluetooth connectivity is a secondary function, like the excellent Audioengine HD3. These types of speakers are great if you want wireless audio at home, but you can’t easily haul either of them around, unlike many of the smaller, more bag-friendly speakers on this list. For more options, including wired, check out The Best Computer Speakers.
Most, but not all, Bluetooth speakers use rechargeable batteries, so you can take them anywhere and use them without a power outlet. Some larger speakers, especially those intended for home theater or PC use, need a dedicated power supply to run, even though you can connect your devices to them wirelessly. Size is often a trade-off for power; the smaller a speaker, the less powerful it will likely sound.
Not all portable speakers are built to be carried around outdoors, or used by the pool. Rugged speakers can handle splashes, dunks, drops, and gunk and keep running. If you try that with the non-rugged speakers on this list, however, you’ll find yourself with a brick instead of an audio device. Look for speakers with IPX ratings and guarantees of water and shock resistance if you want to carry them around to the beach, the lake, the slopes, or the sewers.
Unless portability is at the top of your priority list, sound quality is paramount. Plenty of speakers don’t offer much in the way of features, but produce top-notch audio. Big bass isn’t for everyone, but unless your speaker is downright tiny, it should be able to reproduce low frequencies accurately without distorting at high volumes. Clarity is more important than sheer power, and a balanced, clean sound should be your goal when shopping for a speaker. If you want a sound system that can drive a whole party instead of just fill a small room, keep the size of the speaker in mind; generally, the bigger a speaker is, the louder it can get while still sounding good.
Beyond an auxiliary input (so you can connect your smartphone or tablet with a wire, if you wish), you’d be lucky to find much else in the way of connectivity on most Bluetooth speaker systems. Even a 3.5mm aux input isn’t a certainty if you’re getting a particularly small or inexpensive speaker. However, some speakers can serve multiple purposes, and even use multiple wireless standards.
Apple’s AirPlay used to be completely separate from Bluetooth and other Android-friendly wireless systems, but now there’s plenty of overlap. Many speakers are Bluetooth-only, but ones that includes Wi-Fi can feature multiple standards, like manufacturers’ own Wi-Fi ecosystems, AirPlay, and Google Cast. Other speakers, like the JLab Block Party, can be paired together (in its case over a 5.8GHz channel) for multi-room audio from a pure Bluetooth connection.
Then there are smart speakers with voice assistants, like Amazon Alexa on the Echo and other models. These are useful additions that not only let you play music simply by asking for it, but give you helpful information like weather and traffic, read your calendar, and even control smart home devices. Voice assistants require an internet connection to work, so you can’t talk to these speakers without a home network or Wi-Fi hotspot. Fortunately, Bluetooth speakers with voice assistants can still play music from your phone or tablet even if they aren’t online.
Bluetooth speakers come in a wide range of prices. Don’t assume, however, that the most money always buys the best overall product. Generally speaking, higher-end models do sound better, but sometimes they lack the features you might expect for the price. The trick is to get the best sound, along with the features you want, at a price you can afford.
The easiest way to get the best price: Shop around online. You’ll often find prices well below list if you do a little bargain hunting on the web. Don’t be afraid to look for similar speakers to the ones on this list, either; a number of the options included here have solid predecessors that you can now find for much less since they’ve been replaced. We’ve also rounded up our favorite Bluetooth speakers under $100.