These days wireless Bluetooth speakers are everywhere from high-end stores to the supermarket and they run the gamut in price. The sheer quantity and options out there are dizzying. They come in all kinds of colors, some have lights, and certainly, many don’t look like traditional speakers. Let’s go through the lowdown on what you really need to look at when choosing a Bluetooth speaker, and some tricks to get the most out of it.
Frequency response is important for all speakers
Before we tackle Bluetooth speakers, we need to talk about something integral to all speakers (including headphones): frequency response. How much accurate audio reproduction matters depends on where you plan to use your Bluetooth speaker. When you host an outdoor party, you won’t achieve an ideal sound, but probably just want to cut through environmental noise anyway. If you’re at home with your speaker, you can afford to be picky about the subtle nuances.
While a speaker’s frequency response chart gives you an idea of how a speaker will sound before you hear it, know that Bluetooth only transmits audio from 20Hz-20kHz. Don’t be alarmed: anything above or below that range is not audible to most ears anyway. Generally, bass frequencies land between 20Hz-300Hz. Mids are 300Hz-4kHz, and treble is 4kHz and higher.
The importance of EQ
If you’re looking for a versatile Bluetooth speaker that works for music and movies in your home, prioritize one that lets you adjust EQ. Some speakers sound great for music, but not for dialogue. Go ahead and play with EQ settings to bring clarity to muffled speech, or extra oomph to music by raising the bass. Because the frequency responses for clear dialogue don’t always play well with folks who also like bass-heavy music (at 20Hz-300Hz), having the ability to adjust for different uses is important.
If you’re outside, you probably want louder bass notes, which can be weak on small woofers; worse yet, these are also the first frequencies to disappear in outdoor spaces. Look for speakers with apps (or buttons) that let you change EQ for different environments. If your speaker lacks EQ settings altogether, or any accompanying app, check if your device has its own. For example, navigating through the Settings menu and then Sounds & Vibration menu on my Huawei P30 smartphone reveals a Dolby Atmos setting with limited EQ adjustment. Many smartphones, TVs, tablets, and computers have a degree of EQ control built-in. There even exist phone apps that can adjust EQ for you and many are free.
IP ratings are the difference between making a splash and ruining the party
Ingress Protection! Feel free to forget that “ingress” means to enter, as in water. An Ingress Protection (IP) rating is a standard for determining a product’s level of environmental resistance. You might’ve seen IPX8 for instance. The X is because that rating has no dust resistance, while the 8 means the object will survive and work after being submerged for 30 minutes in 3 meters of water. IP6X, as another example, is dust-resistant but has no water protection.
|IPX1||✓||Dripping water (1 mm/min)
Limit: vertical drips only
|IPX2||✓||Dripping water (3 mm/min)
Limit: Device max tilt of 15° from drips
Limit: Device max tilt of 60° from sprays
|IPX5||✓||Water jets (12.5 L/min)
Example: Squirt guns
|IPX6||✓||Strong water jets (100 L/min)
Example: Powerful water guns
Limit: 1 m. for 30 min
Limit: 3 m. for 30 min
It’s superfluous if you just want a soundbar for your living room, but if you plan to take your speaker outdoors or into the shower, you will want an appropriate IP rating. IPX7 and IPX8 are considered waterproof, which means you can feel safe having them near (or frankly, in) a pool or the shower. Just remember, no electronic is truly waterproof: with enough time or depth, the product will fail. The term is really just a shorthand for a degree of resistance. Dustproofing is less common, but important if you’re in a workshop with tons of sawdust. These days more and more Bluetooth speakers have a dustproof rating of IP6X (plus waterproofing), because wireless speakers let us listen to audio in places that were once inconvenient or virtually impossible with wires.
Battery life to stay wireless longer
Bigger is pretty much always better when it comes to batteries. It’s an engineering challenge for manufacturers to create a super portable speaker that sounds good, has loads of connectivity options, is waterproof, and has a long-lasting battery. You can have some of these things, but you’re unlikely to find them all. Gone are the days of D cell batteries for your block party—mercifully, we can recharge our lithium batteries. With that said, not all Bluetooth speakers are wireless. Many are made just to be used around the home, plugged into an outlet.
Using the measurement of milliampere/hour (mAh) you can get a sense of the battery capacity, but it does not always translate linearly to predictable battery life. Some speakers are simply more efficient than others. Other speakers have a higher output and require more power. For instance, the UE HYPERBOOM can give an impressive 24 hours of constant playback at 50% volume, sufficient for all your dance-a-thon needs, but it’s also really large and can fit that big battery. The JBL Clip 4 has a comparatively short battery life of 10 hours, but the speaker is tiny and houses a little battery, making it a more portable option.
Generally speaking, battery life ranges from about 8 hours to upwards of 25 hours on a single charge. Your battery life will be influenced by how loud the volume is cranked, and some peripherals are optimized to pair using less energy with specific devices. Apple has this with its own and Beats products. Samsung has this with its own branded accessories. Part of this efficiency is influenced by which codec you choose to use. If you choose a lower quality codec it can directly improve your speaker’s battery life. The tradeoff is worse quality audio, but in some environments, you can’t hear the difference anyway. It’s also difficult to quantify that difference in battery drainage because various devices play nicer than others.
Quick charge is your best friend for Bluetooth
You can offset a lower battery life with quick charging. Not all speakers have this feature, but it’s extremely useful, because it can take a dead battery and revive it for a suitable period in a half-hour or less. You can also plug in a battery pack (maybe even a solar one) if you’re away from an outlet, but that’s just another battery ultimately. However, without some kind of help, it can begin to feel like an illusion of wirelessness. The freedom of Bluetooth is always temporary—speakers and their batteries will always need plugging in at some point, so cutting down how often that is or how long it takes is key.
Make sure you turn off your speaker when you’re not using it. It always takes power to keep your speaker on and connected via Bluetooth to your device. Helpfully, some speakers have automatic sleep settings when left unused for a time, but failing that, just turn it off. There’s nothing more annoying than turning on a speaker and finding it dead because you left it on with nothing playing.
The right speaker for the right job
For decades we’ve all been accustomed to stereo sound as a bare minimum. We often demand more from our home theaters. Despite that, we’re often content with enduring mono sound from many wireless speakers—it can be nice to just throw it in your backpack for camping.
Bluetooth speakers come in a range of tiers, they rarely cover every use case. If you’re focused on a speaker for home use (excluding the shower), you probably don’t need an IP rating. In that case, you might want to look for surround sound and want something with Dolby Atmos, or similar cinematic features to emphasize an immersive experience. Taking that same speaker outdoors (if it’s wireless) means you’re going to lose out on the surround experience, and without an IP rating, you risk getting caught in rainfall and ruining the speaker anyhow.
Related: What makes a good Bluetooth speaker?
While a boombox style speaker can offer stereo, it is a pretty narrow version of stereo, which could be why so many manufacturers have opted to make mono speakers for the outdoors. Mono speakers use less power by virtue of having only one woofer and tweeter, so it’s an easy way to prolong battery life, too. If you want surround or stereo, you’ll have to buy a second speaker and space it apart, which immediately ups your budget.
Wi-Fi is not the same as Bluetooth
Some Wi-Fi speakers are also Bluetooth speakers, but not all Bluetooth speakers are Wi-Fi speakers. A Wi-Fi speaker connects to your internet network and communicates to other devices and services through the internet, and it’s usually not wireless. A Bluetooth speaker connects to other devices via Bluetooth, not the internet, and it’s frequently wireless. Your device may be getting its audio from the internet (say, streaming music or video), but that doesn’t mean the speaker itself is connected to the internet.
Think of Bluetooth like an invisible cable connecting different devices directly.Wi-Fi speakers are more like a part of a smart home web, which interlinks devices, your router, and the greater internet at large; it makes sense then that like your computer you want it constantly connected to Wi-Fi and therefore, always plugged into an outlet.
Smart assistants are the latest and greatest thing, and generally speaking, if you want to jump on that you want a Wi-Fi speaker, and maybe one with Bluetooth capability. While some of us want to keep Alexa out of the home, others prefer the convenience of turning on and off lights with just our voices, or making a phone call hands-free. If you want your speaker to integrate seamlessly into your smart home, these are a must. Just make sure the one you pick is compatible with your preferred service, and that it has an internal microphone. Remember, they aren’t necessarily the same as a straight-up Bluetooth speaker.
Many Bluetooth speakers have apps
Like most tech these days, your Bluetooth speaker probably has an accompanying app. Downloading the manufacturer’s app means updating firmware for the best performance, as speakers don’t always ship with the latest version. While many speakers look quite sparse, they hide much of their capabilities in apps, such as EQ adjustments and linking other Bluetooth speakers (JBL calls it “PartyBoost“) to create surround sound. Often these apps are the only place to tweak your preferences regarding which codec you want to use, or reset any functions.
It’s best to pair multiple identical speakers for predictable results
To get surround sound, you have to make sure your speakers play nice with each other. This means checking things like Bluetooth versions, app compatibility, and generally speaking, staying with the same model. It’s more complicated to pair different models from different companies, though it’s possible.
Even attempting connections between model upgrades in the same line can result in disappointment. For instance, JBL does not have compatible pairing capability between the seemingly similar Flip 4 and Flip 5. Companies like Sonos and Bose have more extensive integration for pairing different speakers, but that’s because they assume you’re going to be building a home theatre. JBL assumes you’re blasting music by the pool, so maybe you’re not prioritizing surround sound. In any case, check before you buy.
Related: Best outdoor speakers of 2021
Other features you should consider in a Bluetooth speaker
Don’t forget about auxiliary inputs! You may feel tricked that an article on wireless speakers says get one you can plug your device into, but it’s pretty useful. If you’re using a soundbar, Bluetooth is useful, but a hardwired signal guarantees no latency with video. Plus, you get better audio quality with a hardwired connection to your smartphone.
Not all Bluetooth codecs are created equal
If you insist on using your new wireless speaker wirelessly, know that not all Bluetooth codecs are created equal. While Apple announced lossless music streaming, we don’t have all the details on implementation, and you won’t be able to take advantage of lossless audio quality over Bluetooth anyway. For now, Apple devices transmit audio using the lossy AAC codec, which is totally acceptable if you’re not an audiophile. Android users can optimize their audio experience and look for aptX, aptX HD, aptX LL (good for video syncing), and LDAC. SBC is the lowest common denominator, and it works everywhere, but it’s not going to give the best quality audio.
When picking up a Bluetooth speaker pay attention to what version it is. The newest Bluetooth is 5.2. With each iteration of Bluetooth comes a bevy of new features. This includes multipoint connection, more stable connections, and greater stability over physical distances between connected devices. With that said, there are certainly excellent wireless speakers with slightly older versions of Bluetooth. As always check reviews!
Related: Best Bluetooth speakers under $100
You don’t need to do everything from your phone
Don’t underestimate the utility of tactile buttons. Sure, you can use your phone to turn down the music, but if you’re reaching from the poolside, you want to avoid getting water on it. Having buttons on the speaker makes a difference. The immediacy of hitting “skip” or “pause” is convenient. On a home Bluetooth speaker, remote controls are still handy.
With that said, if you’re having a problem with the speaker the first thing to do is try turning it off and then on again.