Bluetooth speakers used to be like jelly beans: they were cheap, looked the same, and were still of questionable quality. My friends, times have changed. Today, every major audio manufacturer has at least one model, and most have many. You’ll even come across some amazing offers from companies you may have never heard of before.
You’re in for a wonderful surprise if you haven’t listened to a Bluetooth speaker recently.
Bluetooth speaker cheat sheet
However, just because the industry has progressed does not mean that any Bluetooth speaker, no matter how inexpensive, is justified in its price. There’s quite a lot of garbage out there. Don’t worry; we’re here to steer you clear of the nonsense and guide you to the best speakers in your price range.
To that end, we’ve chosen the best Bluetooth speakers (and some runners-up) in six categories: budget, mid-range (up to $300), outdoor, bookshelf, high-end (up to $750), and ultra-high-end Bluetooth speakers (yes, there are ultra-high-end Bluetooth speakers). Some of our picks can be used both inside and outside, but we’ve also called our favorites that are specifically made for outdoor use.
Best budget Bluetooth speaker
When you get to this price point, the Bluetooth speaker market becomes extremely competitive. The good news for music fans is that there are some excellent items available here. If $60 is out of your price range, the Aukey SK-S1 is a good alternative (see below). Aside from that, we can’t say enough good things about the Tronsmart Element Force SoundPulse, which comes with IPX7 weatherproofing, True Wireless Stereo support (so you can use two of them as a stereo pair), and absolutely fantastic sound (in Extra Bass EQ mode, that is). For just $60, that’s a tonne of the speaker.
The Aukey SK-S1 doesn’t have any of the features—or audio power—of our top choice in this category, but it is a well-designed near-field speaker that is mostly made of metal rather than ABS plastic. It also sounds great—at least before you push it to the limit. It’s not the best option for filling a space, and it’s not weatherproof, but it’s a great deal for the money.
These Bluetooth bookshelf speakers wowed us with their excellent performance for the price, outperforming a pair that cost nearly four times as much. Their frequency range and ability to dig deep into the low-frequency domain, all the way down to 35Hz, especially impressed us. If you’re looking for high-quality audio on a budget, this is a great option.
This is a wireless audio device that includes a pair of high-end self-powered speakers and a wireless hub that can accommodate any audio source. Bluetooth compatibility is probably the least interesting feature, and you might never use it, preferring instead to use its Wi-Fi networking or integrating it into a high-fidelity multi-room audio device with other speakers that support Google Chromecast or Apple AirPlay 2. It is definitely not cheap, but its high cost is justified.
Since Soundcast launched its Outcast speaker nearly ten years ago, this is the best powered outdoor speaker we’ve heard. It’s shaped like a tank, with splash resistance so you can use it in the pool or at the beach, and long battery life. However, the most significant aspect is that it sounds awesome. It’s pricey, but it’s well worth it.
The Tronsmart Mega Pro Bluetooth speaker, though not an audiophile device, blew us away with its power for the price. This IPX5-rated speaker can be used both indoors and outdoors, and thanks to True Wireless Stereo support, you can double the amplifier power and get stereo sound by adding a second Mega Pro. It’s a fantastic deal.
Of course, the Naim Mu-so 2nd Generation is more than just a Bluetooth speaker. It has a built-in dual-band Wi-Fi adapter, so you can use it in a multi-room audio system with other Naim components, any speaker that supports Apple’s AirPlay 2 technology, or any Chromecast-compatible device.
It will connect to any UPnP server on your network and play music from any wired USB storage device. It’s also Roon-ready. Finally, it works with Spotify Connect, allowing you to listen to music from Tidal without having to leave the Naim app. Oh, and it can decode high-resolution music encoded with up to 32 bits of resolution and 384kHz sampling frequencies. All of this, in addition to the fact that it sounds fantastic.
The Mu-so Bluetooth speaker from Naim has a soundbar-like style that isn’t for everybody. Shinola (and its design partner, studio-monitor builder Barefoot Sound) have what you’re looking for if you want elegantly built high-end speakers that you can attach to via Bluetooth (and a variety of wired connections, too). These loudspeakers, dubbed simply Shinola Bookshelf Speakers, sound as stunning as they look.
Features to look for in a Bluetooth speaker
Not sure that the options we’ve mentioned above are ideal for you? This guide will assist you in sorting through the facts, figures, and specifications in order to decide which speaker will better fit your requirements. The first decision you’ll have to make is whether to use mobile or stationary type factors. Since Bluetooth speakers are connected with smartphones, the majority of them are portable, but more and more manufacturers are producing models that are designed to be used in the home.
In certain ways, choosing a portable speaker gives you the best of all worlds, but a stationary speaker is more likely to fit in with your home’s decor. Although we’ve heard some pretty amazing portable Bluetooth speakers, if fidelity is your top priority, a plug-in model is more likely to provide the sound you want.
The following are the features to look for in a Bluetooth speaker:
Companion apps can offer a speaker a lot of extra features that wouldn’t be possible with only physical buttons on the speaker. The app could allow multiple people to act as DJs, queueing up songs to play on the speaker. You may be able to use an app to build custom EQ curves for various types of music, set wake-up alarms, or turn on and off the speaker remotely.
To stream over the airwaves, Bluetooth audio must be compressed, and the default codec uses lossy compression, which discards some of the musical data. The aptX codec from Qualcomm is lossless, so no musical information is lost in the process. However, aptX must be present in both the playback system and the speaker at both ends of the tube. aptX is supported by the majority of Android users, but not by Apple.
aptX HD Support
This version of Qualcomm’s codec can handle high-resolution audio files, but it’s hard to come by right now, even in the most expensive Bluetooth speakers. The codec, like its counterpart, requires support from both the audio source and the speaker to function.
The most important aspect of a portable speaker, aside from fidelity, is how long it can run without being plugged into the wall. A battery can last 10 to 20 hours, but keep in mind that the larger the battery, the heavier the speaker.
Your speaker would need to be charged if it has a battery. Speakers with USB charging ports are more convenient than those that need an AC adapter, but larger batteries do not have that option. Some speakers also allow you to charge your smartphone by plugging in a USB cable.
Some Bluetooth speakers come with built-in microphones, allowing you to use them as a speakerphone in conjunction with your smartphone. The sound quality will be much superior to that of your computer, and you’ll be able to crank up the volume significantly. This is particularly useful for conference calls.
Since portable Bluetooth speakers can be used both indoors and outdoors, the best models provide some weather protection. By having an IP (International Protection) marking, the manufacturer should be able to tell you how much protection you should expect. The first digit indicates how well the enclosure protects against particulate matter (such as dust) and the second indicates how well it protects against liquids.
For example, an IP64 code means the speaker is fully protected from dust (6) and water splashed on it (4). The higher the number, the more protection you’ll have. If any digit is replaced by an X—IPX4, for example—the code implies that the speaker isn’t rated for particle protection (this doesn’t mean it isn’t safe from stuff like dust; it just means the manufacturer hasn’t rated it).
Higher-end Bluetooth speakers also have the ability to link to your Wi-Fi network, allowing you to stream music from a NAS box. Even if the speaker supports the aptX codec, Wi-Fi streams would have better fidelity than Bluetooth. A speaker that can connect to a network through a hardwired link is even more flexible.
The range of a Bluetooth speaker is determined by the power class of its radio, which varies widely and is influenced by the setting in which it operates. A Class 1 radio has a range of around 100 metres, but the number of walls between the Bluetooth source and the speaker, as well as the type of materials in those walls, can affect range significantly. For example, radio waves move through drywall much more easily than masonry. Objects in the signal path, such as large metal appliances, will further reduce the range.