Long gone are the days where you'd have to lug about a boombox complete with tape player to make sure the party goes anywhere it needs to.
Not only have speakers shrunk but they’ve also become even more powerful and better quality too. Plus you don’t need to replace batteries all the time thanks to charging smarts. The age of the Bluetooth speaker is here and we are reaching peak quality right now.
Bluetooth speakers: what to consider
Having a Bluetooth speaker means you’re able to connect your phone, tablet, laptop, or anything else that has music, for wireless playback. Bluetooth Low Energy doesn’t use a lot of phone battery and the speakers themselves are now more efficient than ever, often offering all day listening on a single charge. The idea being you can lob one in a bag and have booming audio anywhere you go, or place it in different areas at home without worry of wires.
Recent generations of Bluetooth speakers are now waterproof and rugged to withstand the strains of wherever they’re taken. From pool parties to barbeques in the park these speakers can handle rain, shine, spilled beer and in many cases even a dip in the pool.
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Lots of Bluetooth speakers now do more than just play music, they talk too. Plenty of speakers come packing microphones to allow for conference calling with a connected phone. As a result some of these have also been updated to also support smart assistants, meaning you can press a button to talk to the speaker and have your smart assistant of choice reply. From Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri to Amazon Alexa, you can access information without touching your smartphone. In some cases that even means far-field Echo-style smart home control for things like heating and lighting.
Of course, sound quality is always going to be an important part of these speakers. But do you need to give that up to be more mobile? And does a better battery life mean less power and quality? Does spending more always mean a better end result? We’ve delved deep into the Bluetooth speaker world to test some of the best offerings around right now to answers all these questions and more. So if you’re considering buying a Bluetooth speaker read on to find out exactly the right one for you.
UE Boom 2
The UE Boom 2 is a fun, friendly no-nonsense speaker with a couple of tricks up its sleeve - specifically IPX7 water resistance which means you can get it wet for up to half an hour in up to a metre of water. And a really good battery life of around eleven hours at a decent volume - sure, that's less than the 15 hours Ultimate Ears are claiming but it's still more than enough for a day out or around the house.
Otherwise it's slim and fairly light, in a range of cool colour finishes. As for the sound, aside from a crisp mid range and deep bass, the big selling point of the 360-degree speaker here is that the UE Boom 2 sounds good loud. We mean really, really loud. Once you've downloaded the app, you can also hook up a couple of Boom speakers together and let your friends or family pick the tunes. Plus there's an equaliser if you want to tweak the audio precisely to your liking.
In terms of extras, we quite like the alarm feature. Head back into the app and you can set an alarm so you can wake up to music.
The real addition, though, comes in the form of an update to bring voice assistants to the speaker - the UE Boom 2 has a built-in microphone. Annoyingly you can't just say the wake word - like "Alexa" - you have to press the small Bluetooth button on the top of the speaker, itself not designed to be pressed on a regular basis. There's more niggles in use too - press the button for Alexa mid-song and it pauses the music and doesn't automatically restart when the request is complete.
Alexa is getting the headlines but we found that Google Assistant and Siri - all set up in the UE Boom app - actually work better. You can tell Google and Siri to play music from Spotify (and less importantly TuneIn) though Alexa voice controls doesn't support either of these streaming services yet.
- Sounds great loud
- Battery life won't let you down
- Water resistant
- Alexa experience is limited
- Press for voice controls
- Quite expensive
JBL Charge 3
The clue to what’s special about the JBL Charge 3 is in the name. This burly looking boom tube not only offers plenty of sound grunt but packs in literal power too, doubling it as a charger. The hefty 6,000mAh battery in this speaker means you can actually use it all day (20 hours max) with your phone being charged at the same time so you don’t have to worry about power. And it’s that, combined with IPX7 water resistance, which make this a true outdoors speaker that you can take anywhere. Seriously, we tried drowning this thing in a hot tub and it just kept going, you could even hear it underwater.
While underwater audio isn’t so impressive sounding, this speaker does offer decent audio. By descent we mean loud, really loud. The passive radiators at either end pulsate as music throbs through this chunk. The result is really punchy audio with powerful bass and crisp definition of vocals. If you’re looking for something more subtle than going the way of Bose might be a better move. But if you want loud, rugged and resistant outdoor music that just keeps on giving, the Charge 3 is for you.
All that grunt means the JBL Charge 3 tips the scales a little further than the competition at a heavier 800g. But that’s a reassuring weight that explains a lot of the control in that powerful audio.
This isn’t just a music speaker though as JBL has included a microphone which allows for noise cancelling speakerphone functionality. On test this sounds great to use but for the person at the other end on the phone it’s clear they’re on a speakerphone.
The microphone also means an update gets you smart assistant voice access to both Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri onboard. But, being a Bluetooth speaker, you’ll need to tap a button to get the assistant up and running which can defy the point a little. The fact this uses the Play/Pause button means you need to set that to either control music or to access the voice assistant - you can’t have both.
The JBL Charge app lets you connect up multiple speakers for a party mode or have a left and right channel for stereo mode. Nice additions that are appearing across these manufacturer’s apps now but in reality likely not used often.
- True outdoors speaker
- Big battery charges phone too
- Punchy audio
- Bit of a beast
- Speakerphone only OK quality
- Button for voice
Bose SoundLink Revolve
As you’d expect from Bose the design of the SoundLink Revolve is very attractive with a metallic drilled frame and soft top finish. It’s reassuringly weighty thanks to the full-range down-firing driver and diffuser plate combo plus dual passive radiators placed opposite each other to cancel out vibrations. The result is a great sound no matter where the speaker is placed, something that is also thanks to the 360-degree delivery.
The SoundLink Revolve offers impressive bass, but not too much as its predecessors were guilty of doing. The audio is top-end quality and really only potentially beaten by the much larger and louder UE Megaboom. That speaker is also cheaper and offers full IPX7 waterproofing.
The SoundLink Revolve tops out at an IPX4 rating meaning it can handle a splash and the rain but really isn’t rugged enough for rough and tumble outdoors by a pool. That said it is portable enough to sit in a bag comfortably and loud enough to offer outdoor music at a great quality. Although, again losing out to the Megaboom, battery tops out at about 12 hours at best - plenty for most uses though.
Read this: The best multi-room speaker systems tested
The Bose Connect app is excellent with a well planned layout and useful functions like Party Mode for connecting other speakers to get louder or Stereo Mode for using multiple speakers for a more immersive sound.
That said the speaker itself does have the Bose multi-function button for easy play, pause and skip functions, minus the app. This lets you access the Google Assistant or Siri on your phone even when that is in another room - there's also now an official Bose Alexa skill but this is having some teething problems. And, yes, the smart assistant won’t work without a button tap to activate it. All that said, the finish on the top gets mucky from hands pretty quickly so be warned this isn’t an ideal way to use a smart assistant if you’re cooking.
The microphone that makes smart controls possible also lets you use the Revolve as a speakerphone. This is crystal clear for voice audio that fires out in 360-degrees to everyone in the room, if that's what you need.
The SoundLink Revolve features a connector plate on the bottom which might baffle anyone who has bought it as there is no base in sight. That’s because you need to shell out more money to buy this as an optional extra.
- Top-end audio
- Stylish metallic finish
- Crystal clear speakerphone
- Only splashproof
- Top gets dirty quickly
- Pay extra for base
The Libratone Zipp is pricier than the other speakers in this list because it offers a lot more. Not only is this a Bluetooth speaker you can take out and about but it’s also a fully featured at-home Wi-Fi connected smart speaker too.
This is large, so don’t expect to throw this into a small bag for out and about use. But wherever you place it this minimalist beauty looks great with its material finish, brushed metal top and glass touch control panel. Yup, it’s not only great 360-degree sound that sings out here but Scandinavian design brilliance too. But it’s not just looks, that minimalism works for functions too with circular movements of the glass control panel for volume and taps to jump between five preset radio stations of your choice so you can get playing without a phone.
Sound is big, house party big. It’s also really well balanced with excellent bass, clear vocals and and punchy mid-range even when turned up to full, which is ear-thumping loud. The accompanying app lets you pick equaliser levels for music types as well as locations like on a shelf versus outdoors while the Zipp does the tuning for you. It’s even got a setting for TV - which is great for laptop sound enhancement when using Netflix.
The Wi-Fi connectivity is excellent here as you can connect up to six speakers for proper multi-room support that lets you walk about the house with your song seamlessly following you. This connectivity also means support for Apple AirPlay, Spotify Connect and the Zipp is compatible with Alexa if you already have an Echo. Thanks to a built-in, near-field microphone, an update due in 2018 will offer wider controls via the speaker itself including sending and reading messages, making calls and providing information. It'll require a tap of the top of the Zipp, though, no wake word.
When it comes to taking this beast out and about you do have a handy leathery strap to carry or hang it, but it’s far from light or small so you’ll struggle to get this in many bags. The battery life is also limited with up to 10 hours but in reality that equates nearer to sub eight hours with the volume up even when only working over Bluetooth. The Zipp also isn’t waterproof and has that material finish so it’s one to be taken carefully if used outside - perhaps more for the back garden than a park.
- Wi-Fi for AirPlay, Spotify Connect
- Alexa features coming
- Big sound, big style points
- Too large to carry around
- Best kept indoors
- Battery life could be better
This is the smallest and most portable speaker of the bunch covered here at 425g, it’s also the most affordable. As a result it’s not going to stand up to the rest by direct comparison on most counts. However it still manages to offer a lot for the price tag.
Design, for a start, is great with a small rounded, material covered finish plus large easily accessed buttons. That circular design isn’t just for the look though as this offers 360-degree sound. Plonk this down anywhere and the audio fills the room in a well balanced way that makes it easy to hear wherever you are. And on the matter of that sound, it’s plenty powerful for hanging out with mates. You’re not going to use this for a really loud party as the top end volume starts to get less clear especially with the bass. Although you can pair two together if you want. The speaker could have a bit more bass, despite being a step up from the UE Roll 2 predecessor, and offer clearer midrange sound. But at the price it does the job and will turn a quiet park picnic into a party well enough.
On that volume subject, you usually have this thing turned up pretty loud to get impact so as a result that 10 hour battery life is a little hopeful, you’ll likely get closer to eight or nine in real world use.
A nice battery check option is available by pressing the plus and minus volume button together where you get a tone of one beep for low, two for medium and three for high charge. So you don’t need to worry about this too much. Nor do you need to worry about dropping it or getting wet as it’s IPX7 rated for ruggedness. The material loop on the speaker makes it easy to hang this out of the way to avoid damage and offer wider sound - although we found despite it being stretchy it’s not quite thick enough for decent tree branches when listening in a park.
There is no app support for Wonderboom, so while you can control music from your phone within the music app’s play and pause controls, there is no dedicated app additions. That also means no voice assistants in sight and a lack of updates for the speaker so you get what you pay for and that’s that.
- Small and portable design
- Good value
- No app extras
- Not perfect at loud volumes
- No voice controls