In recent years, portable Bluetooth speakers have become essential gadgets for modern living. Going into the woods and want to listen to some Phish? Get a speaker. Want to listen to podcasts in the shower? Use a Bluetooth solution. But beyond being so useful, what's exciting about Bluetooth speakers these days is the fact that you can get an excellent Bluetooth speaker for cheap. Heck, get one for a friend, too!
It's not hard to find a Bluetooth speaker for less than $40. That doesn't mean you should buy a $40 speaker, though. By spending a little more money, you can get a speaker that looks cool, sounds great, and feels indestructible. Unlike the ultra cheap models, these slightly pricier speakers also tend to offer more features and connect to your devices better.
Frankly, we liked them all. But after taking them through battles that tested designs, connectivity, and sound quality, a clear winner emerged.
Nobody likes an ugly gadget, but Bluetooth speakers are potentially more visible than, say, the back of a TV. You want your speaker to look pretty. After all, they're something you might want to put on your kitchen counter for some cooking-time tunes or something you might prop up in the sand on a breezy beach day. Which brings us to a second key design feature: durability. To get the most out of them, you'll want a Bluetooth speaker that's drop-proof, waterproof, and idiot-proof. And that's where the last component of good design comes in to play. A good Bluetooth speaker is simple and easy-to-use.
Based on durability alone, we had to eliminate the Sony XB10 from this battle right away. Every other speaker we tested is IPX7 rated, which means it can be immersed in up to 90cm of water for 30 minutes. The Sony XB10 is IPX6 rated, which means it's only splash-proof. You really do want a dunk-proof speaker if you plan on using it near water.
General aesthetics divide the remaining speakers into two camps. Most of them are somehow round and capable of blasting sound from all sides. However, the JBL Clip 3 and the Bose SoundLink Micro have this hockey puck design that means sound is only projected in one direction. So those got eliminated, too.
While we really liked how the remaining speakers were designed for 360-degree sound, what ended up setting the winner apart was usability. All gadgets should be easy to use, and generally speaking, adding lots of extra buttons has the opposite effect. The Sony XB21 and the JBL Flip 3 have too many buttons! Some of them, like the play pause buttons, are useful. Others, like the nest of options hidden behind a rubber door on the Sony and the button with the hieroglyphic graphic on the JBL, are just confusing.
The UE Wonderboom has a power button, a Bluetooth pairing button, and multifunction button on top that can play, pause, and skip tracks. There are also huge obvious plus and minus zones on the speaker itself for volume control. The Wonderboom is, by all measures, idiot-proof, and it wins.
Winner: UE Wonderboom
This used to be the nightmare challenge for Bluetooth speakers. In earlier versions of the technology, Bluetooth connections were difficult to initiate, bad for audio quality, and and ultimately just unreliable. Thankfully, that is no longer the case. Most of the speakers we tested were pretty good at connecting to a phone!
Some of the speakers did struggle when trying to connect to more than one device, however. An issue like this could spell trouble if you're having a party, and several people want to play music. The Sony, JBL, and Bose speakers struggled with more than a couple connections, for instance. They would either drop one phone when trying to connect with another or they simply wouldn't connect at all. The UE Wonderboom did just fine connecting to three iPhones at once. While that might be an edge case, it's also evidence that the Wonderboom offers a super dependable connection.
Winner: UE Wonderboom
Back in the day (the 90s), portable speakers sounded like listening to music underwater. (Seriously, remember these Sony cubes from way back when?) Portable speakers have gotten a lot better. Now, the best of them claim to offer 360-degree sound with quality you might expect from a more expensive and much less portable bookshelf speaker.
The latest version of Bluetooth also does away with some audio fidelity issues that plagued the technology a few years ago. So, similar to our connectivity test, this one was tough because everything sound pretty darn good.
We did have to eliminate the little ones right out of the gates, though. While you'd expect to make some sacrifice by paying $60 for the Sony XB10 or the JBL Clip 3, the smaller drivers simply can't produce the same range of sound that the larger speakers can. And they tend to sound like garbage if you crank up the volume.
The Bose SoundLink Micro suffers a similar fate of having less speaker real estate to move air and, thus, produce music. However, even though its that problematic puck shape, the SoundLink Micro does project sound from both sides thanks to an extra speaker grille on the back, though the transducer and passive radiator both point towards the front of the speaker. You will get a bigger sound, but it still doesn't hold up to the other $100+ options.
That leaves us with the Sony XB21, the JBL Flip4, and the UE Wonderboom. In an attempt at a more precise way to measure the 360-degree sound of each speaker, we rigged up some microphones and watched the levels on all sides of the speaker. All three of these sound very good, though the Sony is characteristically too bass-heavy.
Meanwhile, both the XB21 and the JBL Flip really only projected sound from the front of the speaker, while we picked up pretty comparable audio from every side of the Wonderboom. While it was a close call between the Flip and the Wonderboom, we ultimately decided that the UE speaker should win not only for having supreme sound quality but also the most versatility.
Winner: UE Wonderboom
It would be tempting to call this a landslide, but in truth, all of the speakers we tested performed admirably. It was easy to see from each and every battle, however, the UE Wonderboom would be the most appealing and best performing cheap Bluetooth speaker for the most people.
Then again, if $100+ doesn't sound cheap, our $80 options were great. And if you're looking to spend a little more, the Wonderboom's big siblings, the UE Boom 3 and Megaboom 3, cost $150 and $200 respectively. It's also not hard to find premium Bluetooth speakers that cost $500 or more. So $130 is a pretty good sweet spot, especially for a speaker as good as the Wonderboom.