There’s a lot of choice when it comes to speakers, and it’s not always clear which will be the best for you. Here, we bring you our pick of the best Bluetooth speakers available and expert buying advice to help you choose from the selection.
There are dozens of speaker manufacturers fighting for a slice of the Apple pie, with speakers in all shapes and sizes, designed for both indoor and outdoor use. Many speakers talk the talk – but do they walk the walk?
In this article, we explain various features you should look out for when in the market for a new speaker for your device, including the compression technology used by the speaker, and ‘360-degree audio’. But if you’re looking for something simpler and less expensive, perhaps you should check out how to make a cheap iPhone speaker.
Bluetooth speaker buying advice
Here are some of the key speaker specs you should be checking.
By default, every Bluetooth audio-capable device must be able to use an agreed basic compression system, known as sub-band coding (SBC). This is a psychoacoustic lossy codec – that is, it discards music information deemed not so important to our ears, to greatly reduce the number of bits that must be sent in a digital music stream.
The quality of SBC varies and it runs at various bitrates. But SBC typically runs at around 200 kb/s, and has the subjective quality of MP3 at 128 kb/s – which is to say, not at all good.
Alternatives are now in use thankfully. Top dog is aptX, a British invention that forms the basis of DTS cinema sound. It’s still lossy and compressed sound but amazingly nearly transparent to CD resolution at its fixed bitrate of 350 kb/s. Samsung invested heavily in current aptX licence holder CSR plc and now fits aptX compatibility into most of its Android phones.
Sadly Apple does not include aptX in any of its iOS devices, although Macs since Snow Leopard can use aptX Bluetooth audio. Instead, the iPhone and iPad will try to beam out Bluetooth audio using the AAC codec, which is part of the MPEG-4 standard. Results are always better than SBC, but not quite as good as aptX.
The second hindrance to Bluetooth speaker sound is the current reliance on low-fidelity amplification technology. While natural sounding hi-fi amplifiers still use a linear system known as Class A or Class B (more typically both, to form Class AB), cheap and portable audio devices use Class D.
Class D is a clever way to make amplifiers far more efficient, turning mains or battery power into usable amp output power. That’s particularly noteworthy in a mobile age dependent on batteries.
Class D amps run cold so don’t require massive heatsinks to vent unwanted heat. A complete 20W amp module can be built around a small microchip, saving much space and cost. The technology has everything going for it – except sound quality, which is typically grainy, harsh, lifeless and stripped of the natural essence of music.
A popular feature of Bluetooth speakers is ‘360-degree audio’ – but what is 360-degree audio? Generally speaking, speakers that offer 360-degree audio are usually cylindrical or circular in design and feature drivers facing every direction, opposed to the traditional front-facing speaker setup.
This produces ‘room-filling audio’ which waves goodbye to the audio ‘sweet spot’ that you’ll find on traditional speakers, where audio will sound best when facing a certain direction. Though it’s not a deal breaker, it’s usually something we look for when in the market for a new speaker.
What about battery life? While not too long ago, the standard battery life for a Bluetooth speaker was a slightly disappointing five hours, we’ve come along way with regards to Bluetooth accessory battery life.
With many budget speakers offering upwards of 10 hours per charge, we wouldn’t recommend buying a speaker that offers anything dramatically less. Also, it’s worth keeping an eye out for speakers that double up as portable battery chargers, as it’ll probably come in handy when using your smartphone to play music.
Some Bluetooth speakers also offer Wi-Fi connectivity, so which connection should you opt for? Traditionally, using a Bluetooth connection gives you a 10m range (although this may vary between products), which means that you’ll only be able to play music from a speaker in the same room as you – any further and you’ll probably experience the audio cutting out.
Wi-Fi has a much wider reach, and could allow you to play music from anywhere in the house. With this being said, the Wi-Fi setup process can be quite stressful and require users to install a specific app on their smartphone in order to operate the speaker, whereas Bluetooth setup takes 30 seconds.
This is a feature where you buy more than one unit of the speaker and set them up in multiple rooms around your house. They can then all be controlled via a single app.
This is an area that Sonos has traditionally dominated, but there are plenty of options. (Even the HomePod will support multi-room once AirPlay 2 launches.) This is quite a niche area, and we cover it in a dedicated group test of the best multi-room speakers.
Acoustic Energy Aego 3
It’s almost a decade since the original Aego M speakers picked up a rave review on Macworld, but there’s finally been an update in the form of the new Aego 3.
In some ways, the Aego 3 does still look rather old-fashioned. It’s a 2.1 speaker system with two small stereo satellites that are designed to sit on either side of a computer monitor, along with a knee-high sub-woofer that can go down on the floor beside your desk.
However, the Aego 3 isn’t just for giving presentations on your Mac. There are aux-in and digital optical connectors, along with Bluetooth for mobile devices, so you can use the speakers in your front room or bedroom and connect them to other devices if you need to.
The 2.1 combo provides a total 65W output, so there’s plenty of power available, whether you’re giving a presentation to a large audience, or just playing some music for a dinner party. That power is combined with attractive clarity and detail on the higher frequencies, and a nice firm bass thud from the sub-woofer. We also like the inclusion of separate bass controls on the little remote control.
It makes a nice change to hear proper stereo speakers that provide good separation between the left and right channels – something that’s always lacking in more compact, all-in-one speakers and docks.
However, Acoustic Energy also make a version of the Aego 3 that includes a soundbar and sub-woofer combo, which might be a good option for use with the Apple TV or maybe a games console. Cliff Joseph
Bayan Audio SoundBook Go
Third in the series, the Bayan Audio SoundBook Go is a Bluetooth portable speaker worth reading about. (See what we did there?)
It’s an affordable little speaker that bucks the trend for many of its Bluetooth breed by being a delight to listen to. Plus, it’s a neat design that provides some protection to the front perforated grille if you should travel with it.
Inside the SoundBook Go is a pair of 35mm full-range drivers powered by a 7.5 watt stereo Class D chip amplifier. You’ll get reliable Bluetooth connection or the option of a 3.5mm minijack for improved sound performance.
Interested? Find out more in our Bayan Audio SoundBook Go review. And US readers should note that, at time of writing, you have to buy via third-party sellers on Amazon US, with the result that it’s less of an appealing deal on that side of the pond.
The Cowin Ark is unlike many other Bluetooth speakers in that it’s formed of two parts; a portable Bluetooth speaker/soundbar that sits on top, nicknamed Cruze, and the wired base, nicknamed Ark. The mixture of brushed-metal sides and a mirror finish on top makes for a space-age device.
Though the Cowin Ark comes as a two-piece Bluetooth speaker system, the Cruze can be taken to the beach or the park and be used by itself, thanks to its built-in rechargeable battery.
The Ark features Magnatec technology, which syncs the two parts of your system ready for playback, while also keeping the Cruze securely attached to the Ark whenever it’s placed on top – but that’s not its only functionality.
The Magnatec technology also provides wireless charging for the soundbar, which means the Cruze is fully charged and ready to go whenever you are. Oh, and the Ark can also be used to charge up your smartphone too, if it supports wireless charging.
We were really surprised by the audio quality of the Cowin Ark, especially with regards to its bass output. The levels of bass are nothing short of phenomenal and when paired with a soundbar that can produce 35W of room-filling audio, the result is a well-rounded sound perfect for a variety of tasks, from background audio when you’re relaxing to playing tunes full blast in your living room with your mates.
This is thanks to its two speaker drivers, two passive radiators and a 5in ported subwoofer.
Creative Sound Blaster Roar Pro
We really liked the original Roar from Creative Labs, and that first model has now given birth to an entire range of roaring speakers.
The Roar Pro is the latest addition to the range, although it sticks with the deceptively compact design of its predecessor and looks barely larger than a chunky paperback novel. It’ll fit easily into a backpack when you’re on the move, and the battery life for this model has been increased from eight to 10 hours, so it’ll last all night long if it needs to.
There’s no shortage of power squeezed into that compact case, though. The three drivers for mid-range and high frequencies are backed up by two bass radiators that help to produce a really firm, expansive sound – and that’s even before you press the special Roar button that kicks it into overdrive, or the TeraBass button that enhances bass output when listening at lower volumes.
There’s also a handy switch that lets you choose between ‘warm’, ‘neutral’ and ‘energetic’ presets, depending on the type of music that you want to play.
It’s versatile too, with a built-in microphone for taking voice calls, and a microSD slot so that you can play music stored on a memory card. You can also use the mic to store voice recordings on a memory card, which will be handy for lectures and speeches.
There’s also an optional wireless microphone – costing about £60 – that allows you to use the Roar Pro as a portable PA system, perhaps for giving presentations at work, or doing your DJ act at the weekend. Cliff Joseph
Denon Envaya Pocket
The Denon Envaya Pocket is an attractive, portable speaker at only 16.3cm in length and 390g. The frame is comprised of hardwearing fabric and sturdy polymer, making the Pocket robust enough to take a knock, and the IP67 water resistance means that the music doesn’t have to stop once it starts raining.
Like other speakers, you’ll find a built-in mic that offers the ability to make- and receive phone calls when connected to a smartphone. Once connected to an iOS device, you’ll also be able to summon and interact with Siri by holding the phone button. There are other buttons too, namely power, Bluetooth and media controls.
Another cool feature of the speaker is Envaya Link, which allows you to pair up an additional Pocket speaker for stereo playback.
Depending on the volume of playback, the Pocket usually lasts around 10hrs on a single charge. It’s fairly quick to recharge too, going from 0 to 100 percent battery in around 1hr30, or two hours max.
The Pocket features a two-speaker setup, meaning that the entire range isn’t produced by a single speaker, offering better clarity and an all-around better audio experience when compared to single-speaker speakers.
Overall the speaker sounds impressive, from the low- to the high-end, especially when considering the sub-£100 price-tag. It’s more focused on punchy, deep bass but it doesn’t overpower vocals or the treble, and there’s not even a slight hint of distortion.
Read Tech Advisor’s Denon Envaya Pocket review for more information.
The Bric from Edifier was a smart little portable speaker, but let down by its lack of rechargeable battery, which meant that you had to slap six AA batteries into it before you could leave home.
The newer Edifier MP700 corrects that weakness, with a rechargeable battery that can last for up to eight hours (depending on music volume). The aluminium casing looks nice and smart, and is sturdy enough to cope with the occasional bump when you’re travelling. We also like the adjustable carrying handle, which can double up as a stand if you need to prop the speaker up on an uneven surface.
Bluetooth is the main option for playing your music, and the Rave also includes the high-quality AptX codec for devices that support it.
There’s a line-in connector on the lefthand side of the unit, along with a connector for mains power, and a USB port that lets you charge up your mobile devices from the internal battery. Those ports are also covered by a little rubber flap to protect them from dust and splashing when you’re outdoors.
Sound quality is very good for a relatively compact speaker, with the Rave’s four drivers handling a wide range of musical styles with no trouble at all. The bass could be a little firmer, perhaps, but that’d be tough with a speaker of this size, and the 36W output is more than powerful enough to get the mood going when you’re out and about with friends. Cliff Joseph
Gear4 Stream 1
The Stream 1 has conventional Bluetooth for quickly pairing with your iPhone or other mobile devices, and its rechargeable battery should last for about eight hours so it’ll be ideal for listening to music at a BBQ or for a weekend in the great outdoors. There’s also a USB port that lets you charge up your iPhone if you need to, and a 3.5mm line-in as well.
Audio quality is really good, and despite its compact design the Stream 1 packs a real punch, with plenty of volume and good definition on the high and mid-frequencies.
The bass could be a little firmer, but it’s respectable for a speaker of this size and price, and the Stream 1 works well with everything from gentle acoustic ballads through to pumping dance music.
But the real advantage of the Stream 1 is that it also includes Wi-Fi networking as well. When you’re at home you can connect to your Wi-Fi network and use the Stream app to connect to a variety of internet radio stations, as well as services such as Spotify and Deezer.
There’s also a Party Mode that allows you to quickly set up a multi-room system by automatically connecting to other Stream speakers around your home.
Harman Kardon Go + Play
The Go + Play speaker has been around in various forms for several years, but this latest update is the best one yet. It retains the classy design of its predecessors, with the curved stainless steel carrying handle that gives it such a distinctive profile.
The old dock for an iPod or iPhone has gone, with the current model now providing Bluetooth for mobile devices. You can pair it with three separate devices so that you and your friends can all play your music together, and there’s a ‘dual sound’ option that allows you to pair two Harman speakers together for a more powerful sound.
Mind you, the Go + Play is pretty powerful all by itself, with its two woofers and two tweeters providing a total 100W output. It’s thunderously loud, yet still maintains clarity and detail even at high volumes. There’s no sub-woofer, but the Go + Play does include two bass radiators that add plenty of heft to dance tracks.
Throw in a microphone for taking voice calls, and a USB port for charging your iPhone, and you’ve got a truly powerful and versatile speaker system at a competitive price.
The only minor disadvantage of the Go + Play is that it’s a bit on the heavy side. Despite the carrying handle and eight-hour rechargeable battery, the Go + Play weighs in at around 3.4kg, which means that it probably needs to go on the back seat of a car if you’re travelling any great distance.
Even so, it’s a great choice if you need a powerful, high-quality speaker that you can take to a holiday apartment, or carry outside for a BBQ in the summer. Cliff Joseph
Jabra Solemate Max
Admittedly, a weight of almost 3kg means that you probably won’t be carrying the Solemate Max around in your backpack, but it does have its own carrying handle to help you out, and the extra size and weight means that it can include a big battery that lasts for up to 14 hours.
It produces a big sound too – the bass could be a bit stronger, but its 90W output is powerful enough to get the party going when you’re on holiday or out in the garden. The RRP is a bit steep, but it’s available for much cheaper now, and it’s dust-, dirt- and water-resistant, so it’ll earn its keep if you need a speaker system that can cope with the British weather.
In terms of design, the Libratone Zipp brings something a little different to the table. Why? As the name suggests, you can unzip the cover of the Zipp and swap it out with a different one, making the speaker more of a fashion statement than just a speaker.
Though at £19 a pop, we don’t think we’d have too many spares laying around – but it’s a nice option for those a little more fashion conscious than ourselves.
The Zipp goes above and beyond the functionality of a standard Bluetooth speaker in some aspects, offering the ability to charge your phone via the built-in USB port. That’s not all, though, as the Zipp boasts Wi-Fi capabilities alongside the standard Bluetooth offering, enabling Spotify Connect and AirPlay, along with the ability to stream internet radio.
The built-in AirPlay functionality works well with iOS most of the time, although we suffered from occasional stuttering despite having a fairly strong Wi-Fi signal. The Bluetooth connection offered no issues for us, though.
The speaker provides excellent 360-degree sound from five drivers which are tuned for boomy bass rather than crisp highs, and lasts around 10 hours per charge.
You can control things from the touch-sensitive panel on the top which is easy enough to get used to, but a little confusing to operate at first. Our only complaint is that at higher listening levels the poise and balance of the audio is lost.
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