Why Buy a Wireless Speaker?
The top performers in our review are the JBL Pulse 2, the Gold Award winner; the UE BOOM 2, the Silver Award winner; and the Bose SoundLink Mini II, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing a product to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of the top 10 wireless speakers.
In recent years, more technology has become wireless – wireless charging, wireless earbuds, wireless keyboards, wireless mic, wireless controllers, wireless everything. That said, wireless speakers have been around since the early ‘80s. Back then, of course, they were called boomboxes, and most of them were the size of three cider blocks glued together. Some of them weighed as much too. Sure, boomboxes had power cords that plugged into outlets, but these suitcase-size speaker systems also took batteries, allowing you to hoist them onto your shoulder and take your music with you.
While the technology is starkly different from the boomboxes of old, wireless speakers are now brick-size devices that provide boombox-like sound. You can hold them in your hand, throw them into a backpack or strap them to the handle bars of your bike. You can even take some wireless speakers with you into the shower, to the beach or out on the lake. Not only are these speakers wireless, but many are also designed to handle more than your hippest tunes.
There are several types of wireless speakers on the market. Some are built to handle just about anything, while others are designed to provide high-end audio. Depending on your needs, you can certainly find the best wireless speaker for you. That said, in our wireless speaker review, we looked all types of wireless speakers and considered audio quality, battery performance and design as the primary features.
Mini Wireless Speakers: The Smaller, the Better
It’s now rare to see a suitcase-size speaker of old, though they are still popular among certain hipster circles. Now, wireless speakers are all about being small, portable and light. Most wireless speakers are no bigger than a brick. Some are even smaller.
The average weight of a wireless speaker is around 0.7 pounds. Still, their diminutive statures don’t necessarily mean small sound. For example, the Beats Pill, which is about the size of a toilet paper roll without the paper, reached volumes of 97.7 dB in our tests. To put this in perspective, 97.7 dB is about as loud as a hand drill and can cause permanent hearing damage if you’re exposed to it for long periods. So while these speakers may be small, they can pack quite a punch.
Waterproof Wireless Speakers: Handling the Elements
Some people want a wireless speaker they can simply move from room to room without having to plug and unplug, and others are looking for one than can go wherever they go, whether they’re hanging by the pool or camping on the beach. For the latter group of people, many wireless speakers are designed to handle almost anything. Some speakers can only handle splashes of water or light rain, but others can be dropped in the mud and washed off in the lake, all while still playing music as though nothing happened. These are the wireless speakers you want on a campout or a beach day.
A wireless speaker’s IP Code, which is sometimes called the Ingress Protection Marking or International Protection Marker, tells you how durable it is. To receive such a rating, the speaker has to pass rigorous tests. The first number after the IP reflects the level of resistance against dust and other particles, while the second number reflects the level of water resistance.
While several speakers in our review have no protection against dust or water, most have some level of protection. A level 4 water-resistance rating means the speaker can handle light splashes of water and rain. A speaker with a level 5 rating can handle water projected by a 6.3 mm nozzle from any direction. Those with level 6 ratings can handle powerful jets of water as wide as 12.5 mm from any direction. Finally, a wireless speaker with a level 7 water-resistance rating can be submerged in 1 meter of water for 30 minutes without experiencing damage.
Dust protection is a little simpler. Every speaker in our review either has a level 6 rating, which means it is dust tight, or doesn’t have a dust protection rating at all. An IP rating with an X means that dust protection tests were not performed. However, this doesn’t mean the speaker isn’t dust-resistant. If it has a water-resistance rating of 7 or higher, it’s generally accepted that the speaker is also dustproof. As such, most manufacturers opt not to seek the dust-resistance rating because it would be redundant.
Great examples of this are the UE BOOM and the UE ROLL. Both wireless speakers have a IPX7 rating. This means you can hold the them under the water while playing music, and they will work for 30 minutes without damage. This also means these speakers are dustproof, despite the fact they don’t technically have a particle protection rating.
Other Speaker Options
Most wireless speakers rely on the relatively narrow bandwidth of Bluetooth’s wireless technology. This means that the audio has to be compressed for the wireless transfer and then decompressed by the speaker – this can cause blips and distortions you can hear if you listen closely. While Bluetooth’s AD2P profile, which allows you to transfer audio from one device to another, has improved to the point that most listeners won’t notice, Bluetooth still isn’t considered ideal for music.
If you’re an audiophile – one who loves high-fidelity audio experiences – then the wireless speaker you’re probably looking for is a Wi-Fi speaker. Wi-Fi speakers are generally not very portable, and usually require power from an outlet, but they stream music through your Wi-Fi, which has a much broader bandwidth that provides better-quality audio. If this is the type of wireless speaker that you’re looking for, check out our review of the best Wi-Fi speakers.
Wireless Speakers: What We Tested, What We Found
Audio performance is king for any speaker – it doesn’t matter if it’s a car speaker, a home sound system or a wireless speaker. It must sound good. Even if it looks flashy or can handle a hurricane, if it doesn’t sound good, then it’s failed its purpose. With this in mind, we treated audio quality as the most important feature in our wireless speaker review. After audio quality, we looked at the battery life and the design.
Judging audio performance is always somewhat subjective. What one person hears is different from what another person hears. A 15-year-old most likely has better hearing than a 65-year-old, and where you are in relation to the speaker can also affect the quality of the audio. Your physical environment can absorb or reflect the acoustic signal, which also impacts audio quality – a wireless speaker will sound different in a dorm room than out by a campfire.
Objectively speaking, speakers move air to create sound waves. Everything, including the shape of the cone, the materials the speaker is made of and the size of the magnet, can affect the speaker’s ability to accurately create those sound waves.
To evaluate audio quality, we connected all of the speakers to a switcher – a device that can quickly switch the audio signal from one speaker to the next. This allowed us to make quick, comparative judgments. We then matched each device’s volume using a decibel meter, which, as its name suggests, measures decibel output. This ensured that speakers weren’t favored for simply being louder.
Once this was all set up, we recruited a group of reviewers. We blindfolded them to avoid brand bias and had them listen to music from a variety of genres through the speakers. As they listened, they rated the bass response, vocal clarity and overall audio performance. We gathered their responses, averaged the results and graded the speakers in a way that makes them easy to compare.
Turning a speaker up to 11 doesn’t necessarily result in good audio quality. In fact, music played at high volumes generally has distortion and a dip in audio quality, since the speaker has to strain to move more air. When a speaker can project music at high volumes without distortion, you can fill more space with sound. It also means that you can feel the music more, which often leads to better enjoyment.
Finding each speaker’s maximum volume was simple. We turned the volume up as high as it would go without causing distortion and used a decibel meter to measure the sound level 1 meter from the speaker. The loudest wireless speaker in our test reached 97.8 dB, while the average volume was 96.51 dB. To put this in perspective, this is about as loud as a hand drill or the sound of a jet plane taking off 300 yards away. In addition, music played at 97 dB is loud enough to cause hearing damage when exposed to it for long periods.
Boomboxes from the ‘80s and ‘90s gobbled up as many as eight to 10 double AA batteries at a time. When the batteries died, you had to completely replace them. Now, wireless speakers use rechargeable batteries, and battery life mean the difference between having music during your whole campout or only for the first few hours.
Testing the battery life was pretty easy – starting with a full battery, we timed how long the battery lasted while playing music. However, the practicalities of testing this metric proved to be more involved than we expected, since many of the speakers have battery lives of over 24 hours. We set up a GoPro camera in the Purch Labs Audio Visual Room and aimed it at the speaker’s battery indicator light. The camera took a picture every two minutes, and when we reviewed the footage, we were able to pinpoint when the battery died to within a few minutes.
It's important to note that we played each speaker at medium volume throughout this process. We also used a wired connection rather than Bluetooth because we needed to ensure the audio signal was consistent. Bluetooth has a tendency to be inconsistent, especially when streaming audio over long periods of time. It is likely a speaker’s battery life will be shorter if you listen to music at a loud volume and stream audio through Bluetooth, as both require the speaker to use more power.
Since rechargeable batteries degrade a little each time you recharge them, we performed the battery life test a second time to see how much charge memory the battery had. Some batteries degrade faster than others. In many cases, the battery life on the second test was almost the same as the first. In other cases, the drop off was significant. For example, the Altec Lansing BoomJacket had a 36-hour battery life in the first test but lasted just 22 hours and 33 minutes in the second test.
We also timed how long it took to fully recharge the battery. While this isn’t as vital as the battery life, it’s an important benchmark to consider in relation to battery life. The best wireless speakers have a high battery life to charge time ratio. You don’t want a speaker that takes nearly as long to charge as it can play music.
Wireless Speakers: Our Verdict and Recommendations
The JBL Pulse 2 earned our Top Ten Reviews Gold Award for having the best overall audio quality and above-average battery life. While it isn’t as durable as other speakers we reviewed, it does have an IPX4 rating, which is better than no rating at all. It also has a cool lightshow feature that adds ambience to your listening experience.
We gave the Silver Award for best wireless speaker to the UE BOOM 2. This wireless speaker does everything well: The audio quality is excellent, the battery life was over 22 hours, and it has an IPX7 rating, all of which make it one of the most portable and durable speakers available. You can even jump into the pool with this speaker.
The Bose SoundLink Mini II received our Top Ten Reviews Bronze Award. Like our other award winners, this speaker had some of the best audio quality as rated by our blindfolded reviewers. In addition, while the battery life wasn’t impressive, it still exceeded the manufacturer’s specification by hours. This speaker isn’t very durable, so it’s definitely a home speaker best left on your bookshelf or desk.
Wireless speakers can provide a soundtrack while you study for a test or lounge by the pool and pack excellent audio into a small, portable design. To learn more, read our articles about wireless speakers and other electronics.