10 best Bluetooth speakers to help you cut the wire for parties, vacations and home listening

Cut the wires without dropping sound quality with our round-up of the best Bluetooth speakers

Jochan Embley@jochanembley
Monday 17 December 2018 19:27

There’s no need for great audio to be confined to the boring old indoors. Portable speakers are more than a match for their heftier counterparts, providing powerful, detailed sound, all while remaining compact enough to join you on your adventures.

There are a number of things you need to consider before splashing the cash on a portable speaker, and the first is just how portable it is. Some of the devices on this list are small enough to be stuffed into your pocket, others are better suited to a backpack, while some might be best in the boot of a car until you need them at your final destination.

Also think about how many added bells and whistles you want. Just need something to play the tunes? There’s plenty of choice for you. Fancy a speaker that’s more tech heavy, allowing you to activate voice commands or with gesture activation? There’s something for that, too. When it comes to battery life, take alleged lifespans as a rough guide only, as they vary wildly depending on how many of the extra features are in use.

Although all of these speakers are designed for outdoor use, it’s important to take care of them. Keep an eye out for IP ratings, specifically to do with water resistance. These will tell you whether your device will be able to survive a few splashes, all the way up to full-on submersion. We’ve gone into more detail on that in each review.

All of these speakers connect easily to Bluetooth, and some have NFC (near field communication, which means you simply have to hold the device close to connect to the speaker. Check your music player’s specs to see if it supports this). We tested each of these in a variety of outdoor locations, testing for sound quality, design, durability and functionality.

1. JBL Flip 4: $74.95, JBL

A famous series of Bluetooth speakers is JBL’s Flip, with this the fourth in the dynasty. Unlike many of its water-resistant counterparts, this one has an IPX7 rating which means it is fully waterproof (to the extent that it can be submerged to a depth of 3 feet for up to 30 minutes at a time). Although of course, the sound is best above the waterline, with a strong, loud output that strikes a compelling, versatile balance between the highs and lows. The exposed bass radiators on each of the speaker, which allow you to see the bass visibly bouncing, is a nice touch. If you want to pump up the volume even further, you can (in theory at least) link up over 100 JBL Connect+ enabled speakers. The cylindrical build is sturdy, with its rigid, mesh-like exterior, and it's easy to grip. There’s also a string from which the speaker can be hung, off a tree branch, for example. A button on the top side allows you to launch Siri or Google Now, and you can expect around 12 hours of playback until the battery fades. Available in six bold colors. Doesn’t have NFC.

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2. Sony SRS-XB10: $39.99, Sony

This is one of the smallest speakers on our list– about the size and weight of a hearty apple – but don’t let that deceive you. It can still pack a punch, promising “extra bass”, and while the lows weren’t exactly booming, the sound was far from tinny. It avoids too much distortion when pumped up to top volume, too. As you’d expect, for a speaker this small, it might not be the best choice for a garden party of 20 or so people, for example, but if you buy another, the two speakers can link up to give you stereo sound. It’s simple and quick to connect over Bluetooth – and even more so with NFC – and it has an IPX5 rating which, technically, means it will survive water jets from any direction. So, it will survive the splashes around the pool, but don’t chuck it in. It’s functionality is simple and effective – just buttons for power, volume and track control – and there’s a silicone ring to hang it up, as well as an in-built speakerphone. Battery is impressive at up to 16 hours.

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3. Bose SoundLink Revolve: $175.95, Bose

We were instantly enamoured with the sleek design of this speaker, but its cylindrical shape is down to more than just aesthetics. It boasts omnidirectional sound – basically, wherever you stand in relation to the speaker, it sounds the same. And that’s a good thing, because the sound is beautifully balanced and sophisticated, not skimping on the lows and delivering good detail in the highs, even at the high volumes it’s capable of achieving. The Bose Connect app allows you to simply link two SoundLink Revolve speakers together, and it also makes sure your speaker’s software is up to date. A button on the top activates Siri or Google Voice, which could be helpful – although as the connection is only Bluetooth, you’ll never be that far away from your device. It has an IPX4 waterproof rating, meaning it will withstand a few splashes, but try to keep it dry where you can. Battery is around 12 hours, although there is a larger version available with longer battery life, and a handy carry handle. Supports NFC.

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4. UE Wonderboom: $99.99, Ultimate Ears

Simplicity and power define the range of Bluetooth speaker from Ultimate Ears, and this one is no different. Its interface is the most straightforward of all the speakers we tried, with those massive plus and minus buttons on the front for volume, track controls, a power button and not a lot else. The bass kick is massive for a speaker of this size, excelling with the hip hop and house tracks we tried out on it, and it is easily paired with another Wonderboom, further cranking up the volume – the 360-degree speaker obviously helps with this. The build quality is excellent, feeling sturdy and compact, and it has an IPX7 waterproofing rating, meaning it will stand up admirably to splashes and rain, and can even be submerged to a depth of 3 feet for half an hour. Battery life will last for around 10 hours, which isn’t the largest, and it is missing an aux port (a minor niggle). Comes in a range of summer-ready designs and colors. Doesn’t support NFC.

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5. Braven BRV-XXL: $399.99, Amazon

While this 24lb beast may be pushing the definition of portability somewhat, it’s designed for the outdoor exploits and makes a great option if you want something with serious power – it also scores points for nostalgia, its size reminding us of boomboxes of old. There’s also a handle (complete with bottle opener, because why the hell not?), so you won’t be lugging it around too uncomfortably, although for any great distances we’d recommend chucking it into the boot of a car. It has four audio drivers and a subwoofer, delivering seriously impressive bass and volume, shooting out sound in most directions. Bass and treble levels are adjustable via the built-in controls, and can make a real difference to the sound. The battery lasts for around 14 hours, so you can keep the party going for quite some time. The water-resistance is rated at IPX5, so will deal with splashes and light rain showers, but don’t leave it out for too long. Supports NFC.

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6. Creative iRoar Go: $99.99, Creative

Creative has long been known in the Bluetooth speaker market thanks to its evolving Roar series, and this is the latest addition. Its main selling point is the so-called SuperWide tech it employs, which is meant to deliver a massive soundscape. And it certainly delivers – it can be slightly overwhelming at first, with so much going in so many different places at once, but you do get used to it rather quickly. It’s designed to either stand up on its side, or to be laid flat, with each position slightly changing the output and levels between high and low, although it’s not hugely noticeable. The “Roar” boost mode, however, is noticeable, making the most of the in-built subwoofer to kick up the power – it’s best suited to dance and hip hop, we found. And if you want to further customise your sound, you can mess around with the EQ through the Sound Blaster Connect app. There’s an impressive array of connectivity here, too. Aside from the obvious Bluetooth, there’s also an SD card slot, a USB slot and an aux port. It’s got a IPX6 rating, which means it is safe from “powerful water jets” – just don’t fully submerge it. Gives around 12 hours of play time. Supports NFC.

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7. B&O Beoplay P2: from $169, Bang and Olufsen

b&O play

Minimalist design and Bluetooth speakers are hardly strangers to each other, but this latest speaker from Bang & Olufsen takes that a few steps further. In fact, at first look, it seems that apart from the power button, there aren’t any controls at all. They are in fact hidden, and it takes a bit of time to get to grips with where they are, but that’s because the Beoplay P2 places more emphasis on gesture and voice controls. For example, to play or pause the music, you double tap the front of the speaker, with a similar gesture able to launch your device’s digital assistant, with which you can switch playlists and so on. The voice activation doesn’t have a 100 per cent success rate, as you might expect, but is still highly functional. The sound itself is excellent for such a small, light and slim speaker. It dealt better than expected with some dub-heavy reggae, and also handled more treble-lead songs with style. There’s a string from which to hang the speaker, although if you’re going to do this, make sure you nail the positioning of the speaker, as putting it in the sweet spot makes the world of difference. We’d recommend downloading the app, which can help with set-up, along with added sweeteners, such as turning the speaker into an alarm. No NFC.

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8. Libratone One Style: $223.99, BigMart

libratone

We’re big fans of the beautiful look and feel of this speaker by Libratone – it flaunts the kind of design smarts you’d expect from a Danish brand, with muted colors and a soft-to-the-touch speaker covering. The biggest stand-out in terms of design is the multi-functional touchscreen. At about 5cm diameter and sitting at the top right of the speaker, it lights up and is used to link your Bluetooth device, tapped to pause and play tracks, and spun round to change the volume. It’s a pleasure to use. With so much work going into the aesthetics – and with so much paying off with regards to that – the sound does suffer slightly, although not to any severe extent. It does falter slightly when challenged with something abrasive like raucous rock music, but with something more refined and nuanced, like jazz or R’n’B, the sound is fulsome and textured. The soundscape is impressive too, if not entirely 360-degree but wide nonetheless. You can link two speakers together using the simple Libratone app (although you have to do this over wi-fi). With an IPX4 rating – protecting it from splashes – we’d save this one for chilled-out garden parties. Doesn’t support NFC.

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9. Philips BT3900A: $38.99, Groupon

This is part of a new three-speaker series from Philips. It’s the smallest speaker of the lot, but at just shy of $40, we think it makes for a great value buy. It’s very light and slim enough to slip into a coat pocket, or imperceptibly into a backpack, and has a solid build for the price, with an IPX5 rating that will save it from those water jets (but not submersion). Its front-facing sound means it’s best lying down or hanging from the strap, which also doubles up as a USB. Functionality elsewhere is simple, with a row of buttons across the front for power, volume, track controls and Bluetooth. The sound is strong for its size – again, it’s best suited for dance or hip-hop – but if you want something with a bit more power to it, fork out more for one of its larger siblings. Expect around eight hours of battery life from this one. No NFC.

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10. AmazonBasics Bluetooth Speaker: $76.90, newegg

This is by far the cheapest speaker on our list, and in many senses you get what you pay for. Functionality is limited to the essentials, with buttons across the top for power and volume, and rather unembellished design does leave a bit to be desired. That said, if you are looking for a sturdy, small, truly portable speaker that you can throw around without worrying too much, and delivers perfectly satisfactory sound for a low price, then this is the one to go for. It’s certainly loud enough to cater for a picnic, with slight distortion at the very highest volumes. It has an IPX6 rating, so it will survive in your shower but not chucked into the bath, for example. Will give you around 12 hours’ battery life. No NFC.

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The Verdict

We love the JBL Flip 4, with its excellent sound, rugged design and full waterproofing. For a budget buy, the Sony SRS-XB10 is great value.

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