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What makes a good Bluetooth speaker?
Whether you’re an ardent party host or laid-back college student in a shoebox dorm room, a Bluetooth speaker is a simple way to improve your soundscape. Sometimes you don’t have the want (or funds) to make the leap into the world of high-end stereo or home theater audio systems, but a good Bluetooth speaker can keep you company in and out of the home. This article covers what features to look out for when searching for the best product for your needs.
Editor’s note: this article was updated on September 20, 2021, for minor wording modifications and to update links and recommendations.
What type of Bluetooth speaker do you want?
There are many different kinds of Bluetooth speakers, intended for different applications. Let’s break down popular use cases for Bluetooth speakers and figure out what makes the most sense for you.
Start here: Ultimate Bluetooth speaker buying guide
Adventurers should get durable Bluetooth speakers
If your summer days consist of hikes, camping, or hours on your bike, get a durable speaker. At the very least, this means a speaker with an IP rating, which indicates water resistance. Anyone who’s particularly clumsy should also get a speaker with some degree of drop protection, even if it only covers one meter.
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Portability is another thing to consider if you plan to have a speaker on your person at all times. No one wants to lug around a Sonos Move. Fortunately, there are great portable options from UE and JBL—not to mention the plethora of small-name speakers available online. If you go with the UE WONDERBOOM 2 or JBL GO 3, you get an integrated carrying system.
Host a get together with party speakers
Gather around the campfire, and plop your speaker right next to everyone to get the party going. Whether you fancy yourself a party host or party-goer, you can always add music to improve the social atmosphere. You have quite a few options when it comes to party speakers, all of which range in size and price. Party speakers generally use multiple driver units that can be portable, but to a much lesser degree than adventure speakers.
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Anyone who intends to use a speaker outside should seek out a product with an IP rating. Even if it’s not actively raining, moisture buildup can corrode the electrical components of your favorite speaker. Some IP-rated devices also offer dust resistance, which is important for the campfire or backyard gathering.
Other features you want to look out for include the ability to sync multiple speakers together. This is more important for small speakers, as it increases both the potential loudness and sound dispersion. If you keep something like the JBL PartyBox 300 around, you don’t have to worry about volume levels as this vertical monster gets plenty loud. You could even go all out with the SOUNDBOKS (Gen. 3), a compact PA system that you can use to connect a microphone for karaoke, should you feel the urge.
Those who prefer smaller gatherings and want the music to remain in the background should consider something like the UE HYPERBOOM or the solar-powered Monster Solara. You can carry either of these speakers from one part of the house to another with little issue, though they’re still pretty clunky relative to your daily Bluetooth speaker options.
Don’t have any special uses? Get a jack-of-all-trades Bluetooth speaker
If you don’t intend to use your speaker in extreme conditions or to entertain guests, we recommend a versatile speaker and a budget of around $100-150 USD. This is the sweet spot for portable Bluetooth speakers, and you can get plenty of bang for your buck, especially if you feel comfortable buying a used or renewed product.
One of the most successful Bluetooth speaker lines is the JBL Flip, with the current flagship being the JBL Flip 5. This cylindrical speaker fits into nearly any cupholder or backpack holster and features anything you could want for daily listening. It has an IPX7 build, solid battery life, USB-C charging, and is a great all ‘rounder. JBL includes a lanyard with its Flip 5, so you can easily clip it onto a hiking bag or tent. The JBL Flip 6 will hit the US market in December 2021.
Related: Best Bluetooth speakers
Another popular line of speakers is the UE BOOM series. It’s no coincidence that we’re citing JBL and UE again; these companies dominate the speaker market because their products work well and their warranties are quite good. The UE BOOM 3 is the latest BOOM speaker, and it’s great for beachgoers because it has an IP67 rating (resistant to both dust and water). You can connect up to 150 UE speakers at once from the mobile app, and it gets incredibly loud for its size.
Smart speakers can be Bluetooth speakers too
Last but not least, we have smart speakers. Although most smart speakers rely on Wi-Fi for their wireless connections, a handful of them also support Bluetooth connectivity. If you already own plenty of Google hardware, get the Google Nest Audio. It’s a great speaker that sounds good and has some cool software tricks to adjust the frequency response and volume output in real time.
If your home is full of Amazon products, the Amazon Echo (4th Gen) is more your speed. This supports Bluetooth streaming and has a headphone jack for analog playback, something the Nest Audio lacks. The two smart speakers are very similar in our comparison, so the hardware you already own should dictate which is best for you.
Related: What makes a great smart speaker?
We can’t forget Apple fanboys: Apple discontinued the bulbous HomePod and replaced it with the Apple HomePod mini, a smaller more feature-packed smart speaker. You can use its intercom feature to cast an audio message out to other HomePod mini speakers in your house, and even to other Apple devices. It supports AirPlay 2 multi-room audio and you can stream directly from all of your favorite music services like Apple Music, Spotify, and more.
Bluetooth speaker guide: What features should you look out for?
Aside from planning out how you intend to use a Bluetooth speaker, you should take certain features into consideration. Let’s run through some frequently overlooked, but useful, features to consider when you’re shopping around.
A speaker is only as good as its battery life
If you can’t power up your Bluetooth speaker, it’s really just a big, overpriced paperweight. Battery life matters more to some than others, and if you plan to bring your speaker to the pool, you may need it to last longer than something you’ll only use between classes.
Another feature to consider is if the speaker can charge your devices. You won’t find this option from dinky speakers like the JBL Clip series, but you can definitely use the JBL Charge 5 to top up your smartphone. Of course, using a speaker to charge your phone is cool, but it drains battery life from the speaker, shortening playtime.
Not all Bluetooth speakers have microphones for phone calls
When people think of taking hands-free phone calls, they probably think of their favorite Bluetooth headphones or the speakerphone button on their smartphones, but a few Bluetooth speakers include microphones so you can take calls. The sound quality won’t be nearly as good as a dedicated headset, and we certainly don’t recommend using a Bluetooth speaker for conference calls, but it will do in a pinch.
All the household brands offer speakers with microphones, and one of our favorites is the Bose SoundLink Micro. Its quality is good enough for casual calls, and its attractive form factor makes it a good option for anyone. If you want something a little bigger and a little louder, consider the vibrant Bose SoundLink Color II instead.
Bose SoundLink Micro microphone demo:
How does the microphone sound to you?
Do Bluetooth codecs matter when you pick out a Bluetooth speaker?
Bluetooth codecs are among the many specifications you find for wireless products. Put simply, they let your source device communicate and transfer audio to and from a headset.
It’s hard to find (affordable) Bluetooth speakers with high-quality Bluetooth codec support—most only support the default SBC option, because manufacturers don’t market them for critical listening. Instead, this kind of speaker is for casual use, so lag-free premium audio takes a backseat to portability and ease of use.
Related: Understanding Bluetooth codecs
Still, if you have an Android smartphone and want the best audio quality, look for something with aptX support. Better yet, assuming your phone has a headphone jack, look for a speaker with a 3.5mm input for wired listening. That way, you can plug in your smartphone for lossless playback. iPhone owners should get a speaker that supports the AAC Bluetooth codec for consistent, high-quality audio. You’ll more easily find a Bluetooth speaker that supports AAC than aptX.
Does your Bluetooth speaker come with a mobile app?
Just like headphones, wireless speakers often come with companion apps to augment the experience. Most apps include things like the ability to wirelessly daisy-chain speakers together, find your speaker, and more. The most important thing these apps provide is access to firmware updates. This extends the longevity of your product, and can even add important features down the line.
What’s your budget?
The quickest way to narrow down your options is to set a budget. Sure, spending more money often gets you more features, but there’s a point of diminishing returns here. Also, we don’t want you to pay for features you won’t use, so it’s important to take your needs and finances into account when making a decision. Most people won’t want to spend more than $50-100 USD, and that’s perfectly fine. You can get quite a few good Bluetooth speakers on a tight budget. However, if you’re willing to stretch your wallet a bit, you’ll get better sound quality and battery life.
What is frequency response?
We’ve already covered plenty in this Bluetooth speakers guide, but there’s still a bit more to learn. To get the best speaker for your needs it’s important to understand what frequency response is, and what kind of sound profile you prefer. Remember, a single-unit Bluetooth speaker has its limitations, and it will never sound as good as a multi-unit home setup. You can learn even more about the technical ins and outs of speakers from our in-depth article here.
Ideally, a loudspeaker should produce an output between 20Hz-20kHz, which makes sense since that’s also the range of human hearing. The auditory platonic ideal is a neutral, or flat, response, which means there’s no deviation in loudness from one frequency to another. This is virtually impossible to achieve, particularly in an imperfect environment. Plus, very few casual listeners actually seek out this kind of sound profile; instead, many of us prefer something with a bit more bass and treble.
If you demand accurate audio quality, you will have a hard time finding it from a single speaker unit, rather than something with a dedicated subwoofer. Standalone speakers struggle to reproduce loud, accurate bass notes due to physical constraints, but there are some hardware tricks to getting around this. Many companies use passive radiators, which rely on the active driver to produce enough power to move the passive ones and create that familiar oomph in the lows.
If a speaker amplifies upper-bass and low-midrange notes too much, you may find it hard to identify instrumental detail in some of your favorite songs. This phenomenon is called spectral (aka auditory) masking, which is when a loud sound makes it difficult to hear a relatively quiet sound. We experience spectral masking all the time—think of the last time you tried to hold a conversation with a friend on the train platform. You probably had to pause when the train pulled in because you couldn’t hear what the other person was saying. That is spectral masking.
This article should act as a fine springboard for you to pick out an appropriate Bluetooth speaker for your lifestyle. There’s plenty more you can read to learn about sound quality or audio myths, but for now, get out and go enjoy your music.