The Best Bluetooth Speaker For Every Portable Need

The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

Your average cheap portable Bluetooth speaker is garbage — the crap to quality ratio in the category is absurd. But I've spent the last few months combing through loads of speakers under $US200 and found four that are actually good.

I'm a music nerd who loves playing with vintage stereo gear and beat-up live sound equipment. From the start, Bluetooth felt like betrayal. I remember rudely dismissing the original Jambox — sight unseen — because pushing music through the air didn't make sense to me. Bluetooth headsets have terrible sound quality, so why would a wireless speaker be any better?

That's not technically fair: the bandwidth of a Bluetooth connection is more than sufficient to push high-quality audio from place to place. But there are scores of speakers out there, and most of them aren't the best.

The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

I went looking for the features that made me embrace Bluetooth speakers over my lovely stereo in the first place. The ideal speaker should sound great, look good, be portable, and work without any glitches. It should also have a high sound-quality-to-size ratio. Some speakers are insanely tiny while others are beefier, and while you can't expect tiny speaker drivers to move a lot of air they still need to justify their existence.

I also shouldn't have to spend more than $US200 on a portable speaker, and I'll take a cheaper one if it's good value for the money. (There are plenty of $US300 speakers out there, but I'm a cheapskate.) And since the nicest thing about Bluetooth speakers is that they can travel with you, any good speaker should have solid battery life and build quality that's tough enough for a ride in my backpack. If it charges my handset or doubles as a speakerphone, that's just gravy.

So, plenty of reasons to disqualify the crap and let the cream rise to the top. Let's do this.

The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need
The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

The Best Overall: UE Boom

The $199 (available locally) Ultimate Ears Boom has gotten a lot of press since it launched a year ago, and that's because it's simply fantastic. It really raises the bar for what a Bluetooth speaker should offer. The cylindrical design has drivers that face in opposite directions, providing nearly flawless 360-degree coverage. It's got a great, full-bodied, clear sound, and if you're feeling spendy, it pairs easily with a second UE Boom for a stereo setup or a single-channel, multi-room arrangement.

The Boom's tightly fitted cloth skin isn't just attractive, it's also stain-resistant and contributes to the rugged, splash-resistant build. There are other speakers that are completely waterproof, but they don't deliver the best sound; the Boom is a good rugged option if that's what you're in the market for. The Boom is completely satisfying, well worth the money, and so much better than the competitors that you might as well stop reading now.

The Best for Cyclists: Boombotix Rex

The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

The $US52 Boombotix Rex is a one-trick pony, but it performs that one trick so well that I can't help but recommend it. It's basically a speaker for cycling, so you can clip it to your messenger bag and blast tunes while zooming down the street. I see messengers sporting these all the time. It might also double for situations when you don't want to place the speaker on the ground. Like the fence on an outdoor tennis or basketball court.

This tiny speaker packs a lot of power, but it doesn't sound as good as the UE Boom or the Sol Republic Punk.

The Best for Your Back Pocket: Sol Republic Punk

The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

If you're not carrying a bag, portable means it fits in your pocket. The $US70 Sol Republic Punk actually sounds very good for something that has the footprint of a coaster. Its not going to sound as something with multiple drivers and a larger enclosure, but it delivers very convincing bass for such a tiny package. Additionally, the design is water-resistant, and rugged enough so you won't destroy it when you accidentally sit on it.

The Best Sound for $100: JBL Flip 2

The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

If you want a speaker that sounds excellent but don't want to shell out for the UE Boom, the $98 Flip 2 (available locally) sounds pretty fantastic. It's not quite as rugged or good-looking as the UE Boom, but makes up for some of that with versatility: It's designed to work lying down, not just standing on end. It's also got a built-in microphone so that you can use the speaker to take conference calls, if that's your thing.

The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need
The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

Amazon Basics

Amazon Basics makes a good paper shredder and a great Lightning cable, but the retailer's dirt-cheap speakers aren't worth it. I tried the mid-sized one and the sound was thin and flat.


The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

Beats Pill

When the Beats Pill arrived a few years ago it was a better than average option, but even back then I felt the speaker didn't sound amazing. It's far outstripped by some competitors today, and at $US200 it costs more than double what it's worth.


The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

Braven 705

Sounds terrific, and it's handsome and rugged too. Can top off my phone via USB. My quibble is that the ports are underneath a removable plastic door that protects them from the elements. Knowing my disorganized self, I'm probably going to lose it.


The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

Braven BRV-X

Waterproof and rugged! Doubles as an external battery to charge phones! But so ugly. The screw cap design which keeps the guts dry would be a sad thing to lose, too.


The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

Braven BRV-1

A smaller version of the beast above. Slightly more desirable for a camping trip because of its small size. But ultimately the design still feels too unrefined to wholeheartedly recommend.


The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

Bose SoundLink Mini

A good-looking little metal-encased speaker, but too expensive at $US200. It has the good old fashioned flat sound Bose is known for, but lacks impressive bass. It's also heavy and only charges using a proprietary cable.


The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

Bose SoundLink Colour

This speaker's design is unusual and sort of fun, especially if you get it in one of a plethora of available colours. The sound, however, isn't good enough for such a chunky beast.


The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

Cambridge G2

A small speaker from a well-regarded British audio company. Doesn't really matter how good it sounds because it uses a proprietary charger when others this size don't. Dealbreaker.


The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

Exogear Ecostone

Man, I love waterproof gadgets, but that's all this clunky hideous beast has going for it. It weights a bulky 2.5 pounds and doesn't sound very good underneath all of that protective plastic.


The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

Harman Kardon Esquire Mini

This thing looks like an old-school hard-shell clutch purse. The design didn't do much for me. Beyond the aesthetics, the kickstand on the back is a pain.


The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

Jabra Solemate

Kitchy design and generally disappointing audio performance weren't the worst part. The worst part is the annoying lounge beat that plays when the speaker is in pairing mode.


The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

Jawbone Mini Jambox

The more affordable, portable version of the speaker that started it all. The slim design is nice and practical and there are plenty of colours to choose from to make sure it fits your tastes, but the sound lacks clarity.


The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

JBL Pulse

The JBL Pulse has fun lights that illuminate with the music on the exterior. (You can turn them off if you're trying to sleep.) I quite like the lights. Unfortunately, the sound is a distorted mess. I expected much better from such a large speaker.


The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

Koss BTS1

Super portable and so so tiny! But it has a dumb kickstand that's annoying.


The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

Monster Superstar

This tiny little speaker from the designer behind the original Beats headphone has an interesting floating driver design. But it lost my interest as soon as I tried to play some msuic because the sound totally lacks any clarity. Very disappointing.


The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

Samsung Box

A speaker rectangle with a classier, more refined design. It's way too expensive for what it is, and I doubt the shiny design will look too good after rattling around in a backpack for a while.


The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

Sol Republic Deck

The Sol Republic Deck lies on its back and projects great sound in 360 degrees. It's got rugged design. I actually quite like this speaker, and admittedly, it's getting blown out online for less than $US100. It may not be long for this world.


The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

Sol Republic Deck Ultra

A louder, slightly larger version of the Deck, it has an impressive 22 hours of battery life but only charges using a proprietary cable. $US150 is a little much for this powerful beast methinks.


The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

Sony SRS-X3/SRS-X5

I'm generally fond of Sony audio products, but these bricks miss the mark. I tested the smaller X3, and at two pounds it was far heavier than speakers that sound far better. The X5 is even bigger.


The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

Soundfreaq Pocket Kick

This is a good-looking little speaker, which to its credit doesn't have annoying pairing noises. Unfortunately, it doesn't deliver the impressive audio you get from larger Soundfreaq speakers.


The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

Soundfreaq Sound Spot

A nice sounding, smaller version of the Soundkick, which won our hearts a few years ago. The design is regrettable and it uses a proprietary charger.


The Best Bluetooth Speaker for Every Portable Need

UE Boom Mini

Decent sounding little speaker from the same folks who make my favourite one. But I don't like the uni-directional sound design, which has a narrow field compared to most others.


Cambridge Go

A hefty brick from the aforementioned British audio company. Too heavy to really be portable.

Braven 570

A cheaper version of the 705, which I almost recommend above.

Jawbone Jambox

The speaker that started it all never sounded very good for my taste, and by today's standards a $US150 speaker should be downright amazing.

Monoprice

Monoprice is the perpetual purveyor of unbelievably cheap alternatives to name brand products. Sometimes they're perfectly fine, but Monoprice's speakers are so poorly reviewed I didn't bother with them.

Soundfreaq Soundkick

When I rounded up speakers a few years ago, this was my favourite. It still sounds great, but the design looks even worse today than it did two years ago.

TDK Trek A33/A34

These speakers sport impressive specs and the distinction of being waterproof, but at 3.8 and 2.7 pounds respectively, they're more than twice as heavy as the UE Boom.

Photos by Nick Stango


Comments

    I wanted to like the ue boom as the features on it are awesome. Unfornately I thought the sound quality wasn't there so paid a few bucks extra and went with the Bose mini that a plethora of other reviews have stated is the best sound quality for the compact category.

    Glad I did. It sounds pretty decent and have since heard a mates ue boom that confirmed my original opinion.

      Sorry but you are way off the mark. The Bose is all bass and nothing else. I went into JB to buy the Bose Mini but after I tested it side-by-side with the UE Boom and JBL Flip, it was obvious the Boom had easily the best balanced sound.

      The Bose sounded like the Boom would if you wrapped it in a towel or a blanket or something, there was no balance to the sound at all. And the louder you go, the worse it gets. While the Boom maintains an impressively consistent sound, the Bose rolls off the highs as it gets louder in its desperate (and impressive) effort to keep the bass pumping.

      I've also seen plenty of comparison reviews that rate the Boom ahead of the Bose Mini but none that go the other way. Don't get me wrong, the Bose Mini is amazing, it's just not quite as amazing as the UE Boom. And neither of them are in the same league as the Harman Kardon Onyx Studio I got a few months ago, which could easily work for my everyday listening. That thing is a battery operated hi-fi.

        Well maybe the two UE Booms I tested were defective as the sound was atrocious, barely better than a Galaxy Note speaker, very distorted and the sound broke up when getting it to any decent volume.

        I read many reviews that all state the SL Mini having superior sound to UE boom and just did a quick search then which confirmed it, so not sure what internet you're looking on lol, the Boom rates higher for all of its features except the important one, sound.

        If you listen to any of these speakers up close you wont get a good sound you need to sit them a few meters from you all they sound awful. The bose is best near a wall or with something behind it. Fairly balanced sound and not over bass heavy.

        I have high end audio equipment at home from B&W, AGK headphones, tube preamps, various marshall, orange amps etc so I understand sound quality. I would usually not be a Bose fan at all but the sound of these for the price definitely outdid the Boom by a considerable margin.

          Well I'd say your ability to use your credit card is better than your ability to appreciate good sound. Every UE Boom I have ever heard (a few given their popularity) beats the Bose unless you want to replicate club dance music.

            I'm not saying either are fantastic but I definitely found the UE Boom to be substandard, which is fairly usual for Logitech speakers that have a rich history of producing really shitty PC speakers. Maybe they need some tweaking to remove the distortion.

            And I listen to prog rock so definitely not trying to replicate the club scene.

            I haven't owned the Boom personally so it could be the source material, I play lossless audio so maybe they need something better than MP3 to push them, but going off every source other than a few guest accounts on here most seem to agree that the Boom is a feature rich device let down by average sound quality.

              Who cares what Logitech's past record is, this is an Ultimate Ears (UE) product and I sincerely doubt they stopped making amazing sound come from small speakers just because Logitech bought them. And the Boom is anything but feature-rich - it won't act as a speakerphone and it can't charge your gadgets - it is just a speaker for playing music. Maybe you are confusing it with another device? Because the Boom Mini is a disappointment for sure (law of diminishing returns?) but absolutely everyone comments on how ridiculously good the Boom's sound is. Everyone.

              I agree that most Bose stuff sounds artificial and that the Mini is different but I cannot believe you tested the two side-by-side and still bought the Bose. I'd assumed only hip-hop lovers would do that.

                Looks like I'm not alone:
                http://www.tomsguide.com/us/ue-boom-vs-bose-soundlink-mini,review-2292.html
                http://www.engadget.com/products/bose/soundlink/mini-bluetooth-speaker/reviews/127k/
                http://www.gadgetmac.com/reviews/bose-soundlink-mini-review.html

                There are a lot more, I guess it comes down to personal preference, I prefer the warmer sound with more bass output. Others, like yourself, obviously prefer the higher, clearer mids and can trade off the lower bass output. Either speaker has its trade offs and isn't going to give you a audiophile sound experience.

        "..if you wrapped it in a towel or a blanket.." guffaw

    The *best* BT speaker is not even on your list - the SoundBlaster Roar - $149 of total brilliance - so many options that *none* of the competition can offer...
    http://au.creative.com/p/speakers/sound-blaster-roar

      http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2014/05/creative-sound-blaster-roar-wireless-speaker-australian-review/

    Would like to know how the Marshal speakers stack up. Their products are usually terribly made and yet somehow awesome.

      Nice pun!

    Forgot the jbl charge 2, better quality than the ue boom that's for sure

      The Charge has no bottom end at all at high volume, especially compared to the Boom or Bose Mini. It sounds good at low volume but as soon as you try to pump it, the bass goes away. The clarity in the mid range is very impressive, though, so it would probably be good for acoustic music but not for much else.

    Tests the soundlink mini but ignored the Soundlink 3... Good journalism. Would read again.

      I think because of the price, he's reviewing speakers in the sub $200 category.

      He made it quite clear he was sticking to sub $200 speakers, which disqualifies the Soundlink III.

      Good title then. That's like reviewing best laptops under $300. Sure there's a few but they're all absolute trash

    Hey guys I want a bluetooth speaker that can fillup a whole basketball gym i dont care if its mediocre but whats out there that powerful?

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