Wondering what you need to look for when buying a bluetooth speaker? This buyer's guide will tell you what you need to know.
How to Choose the Best Wireless Speaker
Whether you are having a jam session with friends, relaxing on the beach, watching movies on your tablet or pumping your favorite tracks throughout your home, there is a wireless speaker available to fit nearly any use and preference.
While the earliest Bluetooth speakers were once very expensive and offered questionable audio quality, the latest wireless speaker options feature great sound at much lower price points.
If you’ve ever considered purchasing a wireless speaker or multi-room speaker system but weren’t sure where to start, we’ve got you covered.
Wireless Speaker Basics
Physical designs of speakers vary widely. However, most can be grouped into one of three categories:
These speakers are light and compact.
Most feature rechargeable battery cells for convenient charging and use on the go.
Some feature water resistance, protective shells and other protective features to improve durability as well.
Sizes range from smaller than paperback book to larger boom box-styled models with handles.
Very few portable speakers offer smart speaker functionality, but there are a few premium options if you require it.
Home Audio Speakers
These speakers are typically larger and heavier than portable models.
While some offer battery power, most require a connection to an electrical jack.
While they are light enough to carry or move in most cases, they are designed to be placed in a location or room and stay there.
These speakers are often more expensive than portable models but offer better audio quality.
Stereo/Multi-Room Wireless Speakers
Many home audio speakers allow you to use multiple speakers and connect them in groups of two or more to make playing audio across your entire home easy.
Stereo wireless speakers place each speaker in a separate box for better audio separation and clarity over single speaker systems.
For computer, laptop or tablet use, these speakers offer good sound and reduce cable clutter without taking up substantial amounts of space as well.
Multi-room systems take this one step further allowing you to connect 2 or more speakers in different locations throughout your home or business. You can also usually use apps to create speaker groups or decide where to stream audio to provide control of your listening experience from a central place regardless of where you are in relation to the speakers.
In most cases, each speaker will need its own power source. So while it's not 100% wireless, you can avoid having to run audio cables throughout the house.
Wireless Speaker Types
Common wireless speaker types include:
- Bluetooth speakers
- AirPlay Speakers
- Smart or Voice Control Speakers
Regardless of the type, connecting your speakers is typically as simple as setting your smartphone, tablet, or computer to detect devices and choosing it on the screen -- either in the device settings or in an app.
Some speakers -- particularly Bluetooth speakers -- will require you to put the speaker in pairing mode. This is often done using a physical button somewhere on the speaker.
With the basics out of the way, let's look at some of the differences of each speaker type.
For Bluetooth devices, you'll need to put the speaker in pairing mode and then search for them using the device you wish to connect. In most cases, this is done in your settings under the "Bluetooth" section.
Most Bluetooth speakers are limited to connecting to a single device. This means you can't let everyone control the music at once or easily switch between devices -- such as your phone and your laptop -- without repairing the device.
If you pair your speaker(s) with another device, they will typically forget the first device they were connected to.
The one exception to this is speakers with multi-point pairing. This feature allows the speaker to remember multiple devices. Some even feature switches to quickly toggle between multiple devices.
Checking the manual for your speaker is the best way to know about specific features and instructions.
AirPlay is a feature created by Apple to allow wireless speaker connectivity using your Wi-Fi network.
When the feature debuted, you needed and Apple device -- such an iPad or iPhone -- to connect to the speakers.
These days, there are apps to help with this on Windows and Android as well.
Regardless of what you're using to connect, you'll need to use an app to establish set everything up. But once you have, you shouldn't need to do so again -- even if you're using multiple speakers or devices.
AirPlay offers a number of benefits over Bluetooth, including:
- Extended Range: Instead of being limited to an area around the speaker, AirPlay speakers can connect to any device using the same Wi-Fi network. This makes it easy to stream audio across the entire house or out the yard or pool.
- Multi-room Audio: AirPlay 2 allows you to group speakers and connect to multiple speakers at the same time. This provides greater flexibility in enjoying your favorite audio throughout your home or office.
- Improved Audio Quality: While audio quality over Bluetooth has greatly improved since the earliest speakers, the ability to stream audio over Wi-Fi means that AirPlay can handle much high-quality audio. Of course, whether you can notice a major difference will depend on the types of speakers you're comparing.
For more information, be sure to check out our Beginner's Guide to All Things AirPlay.
Smart or Voice Control Speakers
Smart or voice control speakers take many of the connectivity advantages of AirPlay speakers (mainly Wi-Fi support and app controls) and add two extra conveniences -- the ability to control the speaker using your voice and the ability to use the Wi-Fi to interact with a range of online apps and services.
Popular examples of these speakers include:
However, most smart speakers come with a significant drawback if you're looking for something portable -- they nearly all require power through a wall plug. There are a few exceptions to this rule, such as the Bose Portable Home Speaker, but they're currently rare.
Despite this drawback, smart speakers off a range of benefits you won't find in Bluetooth or AirPlay speakers, such as controlling:
- Smart home devices -- such as thermostats, outlets, lights, and locks.
- Streaming media boxes -- such as Rokus, Chromecasts, and Fire TVs.
- Video game consoles -- such as the Xbox One S & Xbox One X.
- Audio streaming services -- such as Spotify, iTunes, or Pandora.
There are even smart speakers with built-in displays -- sometimes known as Smart Displays -- that can let you make video calls, watch your favorite streaming video sources, read recipes in the kitchen, and more using your voice to control things.
What You Need to Know
With an idea of what to expect from wireless speakers and the basics of operation, we can move on to what to look for in a speaker.
These tips should help you find the perfect speaker for your needs.
Size Matters: Finding the Ideal Speaker
One of the most important considerations when choosing a wireless speaker is its size.
While there are always a few exceptions, in general, larger speakers come with higher price tags. However, they also tend to offer better sound quality as well.
If you are looking for a portable wireless speaker, consider how easy it will be to throw it in your bag or purse.
While many of these include protective covers and cases, it is still up to you to transport it from place to place.
While larger portable speakers typically offer greater volume and improved bass response, they also require more power.
Check the model you are considering to ensure it will offer plenty of battery life for your intended usage.
Protecting Your Wireless Speaker Purchase
Unless you intend to use your speaker strictly in the home or office, there is always the risk of exposure to water, sand, dust, and the bumps and bruises of mobile life.
Many speaker models, such as the UE Wonderboom 2, utilize protective grills, dust sleeves, water-resistant designs, and a wide range of other protective features.
The slight premium on the price of these models is often much less than replacing the cost of the average wireless speaker.
Rechargeable vs. Traditional Batteries
Portable wireless speakers, especially larger ones, might offer a choice of power sources.
While rechargeable cells reduce waste and overall operating costs, you will find it difficult to use your speaker for an extended period unless you have a charger nearby.
Not to mention, many internal battery packs are not easy to replace. This means you might end up having to replace the speaker as the battery gets weaker over time.
Traditional batteries offer the ability to keep extra power on-hand for those long parties or extended camping trips and are simple to replace -- eliminating one more possible point of failure.
Some premium models offer both options for increased flexibility.
AptX, A2DP, Bluetooth 5.1, NFC: What Features Really Matter?
Do feature listings for the average wireless speaker look like an impossible list of random letters and numbers to you?
Let’s break them down and find out what’s really important in a wireless speaker.
- NFC Support: NFC, or Near-Field Communication, is an increasingly popular feature on new mobile devices. If
both devices offer NFC, pairing them is as simple as enabling the feature and tapping the two devices together.
While this is certainly not a crucial feature, it adds a level of convenience and simplicity to using the speaker -- especially if you regularly switch between speakers or devices.
- Bluetooth Versions: When looking at Bluetooth speakers, the version of Bluetooth used by the device is most
A speaker using Bluetooth 2.1 or higher is likely capable of connecting with virtually any device and producing adequate sound.
However, newer versions and protocols can improve this quality, offer better battery life, and improve connection range.
The current newest Bluetooth standard is 5.1.
- A2DP: Also known as Advanced Audio Distribution Profile, this feature allows a Bluetooth speaker to receive
true stereo sound.
If you are using a portable speaker, this might not be noticeable in audio quality. However, for larger speakers or split-speaker designs, the difference is clear.
Fortunately, most speakers that would benefit from the feature support it.
- AptX: Traditionally, Bluetooth audio is compressed before it is streamed to a device. The result is a
reduction in audio quality, especially in high frequencies, such as cymbals, and low frequencies, such as drums or
AptX is a new feature that allows for audio streaming at much higher qualities than traditional Bluetooth streaming. For larger speakers or hi-fi devices, it makes a noticeable difference in quality.
However, both devices must support AptX for it to function. Before purchasing an expensive speaker for AptX support, consult the manuals of the devices you plan to stream from most frequently to ensure compatibility.
- Lossless Audio: Most audio files (and streaming services) use some form of compression to allow for small file sizes. Lossless audio files allow you to enjoy your music at the best quality in exchange for increased file size or bandwidth usage.
Speakers which support lossless audio will allow you to listen to these files at the highest quality but often cost much more than other speakers. This is typically found in AirPlay speakers, multi-room speakers, and other Wi-Fi enabled speakers.
- Voice Assistants: If you're buying a speaker from one of the companies who also has a voice assistant, there's a good chance it will exclusively support their own assistant -- such as Apple's Siri, Google's Google Assistant, and Amazon's Alexa.
However, many third-party wireless speakers support multiple assistants. So be sure to choose a speaker with assistants you prefer.
Pricing Wireless Speakers
Like most audio equipment, audio quality tends to increase with the cost of the speaker.
To help find the best price and device for your needs, consider these price brackets:
These are your entry-level wireless speakers. Quality and performance can vary greatly. In this price bracket, reviews are your best tool for finding a good device.
In most cases, these speakers will offer decent clarity and a well-rounded sound. Bass won't boom, but in a good entry-level speaker it will be noticeable. Unless you speak to reputable brands, they might also distort at higher volume levels.
If you're looking to check out smart speakers, this price bracket tends to include the basic versions from most major brands. They're an excellent way to dive in and see if this new technology is useful for you.
Also, with multiple smart speakers, you can create a sort of budget multi-room audio setup.
$51 to $250
For the average person, this price is the sweet spot for decent sound and features.
All the devices in our recent best Bluetooth speakers roundup fall into the price bracket.
Expect improved bass response, better build quality, and increased features over the sub-$50 price point.
From ultra-rugged portables to room-filling home audio speakers and smart speakers with displays, this price bracket has plenty to offer.
$250 and Up
This range tends to feature high-end multi-room audio systems and hi-fi devices.
Most speakers in this range are designed to be placed in a room, not carried about.
However, for the price, speakers such as the Sonos series of wireless speakers, can offer sound quality that rivals traditional wired speakers and make your favorite tracks or movies truly shine.
We’ve discussed features, designs, prices and more.
You’re now ready to go out and find the perfect wireless speaker for your needs. Still unsure on how to proceed?
Consider these common scenarios:
Nature Lovers, Athletes and Those On-the-Go,
From hitting the beach with friends to practicing for the big game, you’re always on the move. You need a portable Bluetooth speaker that is ready to take a beating, is easy to toss in a bag and is ready to blast the soundtrack of your life loud and clear.
For you, a mid-to-high range portable speaker with an IP rating is probably the best option. If your activities tend to involve groups of people, splurging on a boom box style model might provide a little more enjoyment for you and your friends.
The Audiophile, Professional Musician, or At-Home Movie Junkie
Want to hear every nuance of your favorite tracks and movies faithfully reproduced? Frequently stream movies to your tablet or phone and would prefer a more movie-like experience at home? Looking to drop the bass and blow the windows out of your apartment?
Then you’re looking for mid-to-high end home speakers. These speakers typically offer improved bass response, louder volume and wider sound stages for an optimum listening experience.
If you're looking to enjoy music throughout your home, consider a system with multi-room audio support.
Frugal Music Lovers, College Students and Parents of Teens
You’ve got too many cords to keep track of and are looking for an affordable way to cut the clutter and enjoy your favorite music or movies. While you don’t want your favorite song to sound like crying cats, you don’t need the thump of the club either.
For you, a mid-tier portable or low-end home speaker or smart speaker is a good choice. They will offer respectable sound quality without breaking the bank. For college students and teens, it also won’t annoy the neighbors or cost too much to replace should the unexpected occur.
Social Butterflies and Party People
You’re always up for a good party. Whether you are at the park or at the club, you’re always surrounded by friends and looking to have a great time. When it comes to listening to your favorite music or catching a movie on your mobile device, it is always a group affair.
For you, portable boom box designs or 360-degree speakers are likely to be the best fit. These speakers offer plenty
of volume to blast over the crowd, are easy to pick up and take to the next location and will fill the area with sound instead of shooting it forward in a straight line.
Smart Home Adopters and App Lovers
If you love the idea of controlling your home with your voice or want to have the option to use apps and services with your speaker, a smart speaker is the best option.
The smaller models are budget-friendly and give you a huge portion of the smart speaker experience. However, if you want powerful audio or the fullest set of features, you'll want to choose a standard model.
If you'd like to add a touch interface or video to your smart speaker experience, consider a smart screen.
Also, keep in mind that most smart speakers allow you to use multiple speakers with no issues. So if audio quality isn't the highest priority, multiple smaller speakers can offer whole-house coverage at a price lower than a single larger model.
All that’s left is to go out and find that perfect speaker to fit your budget and lifestyle.
If you'd like some more help deciding, be sure to check out our wireless speaker reviews.
At this point, you just might know more than the sales team at the store, but if you have any additional questions or concerns, we’d love to hear them! Just head on over to the community forums and ask.