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.
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 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 $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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Super portable and so so tiny! But it has a dumb kickstand that's annoying.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A hefty brick from the aforementioned British audio company. Too heavy to really be portable.
A cheaper version of the 705, which I almost recommend above.
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 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.
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