Why Get a Portable 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 speakers.
Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, portable speakers were called boomboxes. They played cassettes or CDs and were large, often heavy devices that resembled three cinder blocks cemented together. Nevertheless, these boomboxes were portable. They had handles and took batteries or plugged into an outlet. Boomboxes allowed people to take their music into the street, onto the playground and into the park. This was a time when break dancers spun about on cardboard while someone off to the side held a boombox on their shoulder.
However, the popularity of the boombox declined as the preferred music format shifted from CDs to MP3s and other digital audio. With the new format, your entire music library could fit on a device that slipped easily into your pocket. Boomboxes still existed with ports for these MP3 players, but they weren’t nearly as popular. The ports for the MP3 players were rarely practical enough for the speaker to be very portable. In addition, few people wanted to haul these large speakers on their shoulders.
As smartphones became common, so did the wireless connectivity of Bluetooth, and with Bluetooth came the ability to play music from your phone on Bluetooth-compatible speakers. Still, for many years, portable speakers were something of a novelty with only a few quality manufacturers taking the market seriously, partly because the Bluetooth streaming capabilities weren’t very good. However, as music streaming apps have become mainstream, overtaking the digital format as the preferred way to listen to music, and as Bluetooth’s audio streaming algorithms have improved, portable speakers have returned to the mainstream. Only these portable speakers are nothing like the large cinder block suitcases of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
These portable speakers are generally small enough to fit into a backpack and often weigh less than a pound. Many of these speakers take the term “portable” very seriously. They can be water, dust and impact resistant, and you can get straps and mounts for some of these portable speakers that allow you to take them biking, skiing, surfing and more.
There are several types of portable speakers. Depending on your needs and preferences, you can find one that works for you. However, we considered all types of portable speakers for our comparison. We viewed the speakers’ audio performance as the main factor in our ranking of products.
Mini Portable Speakers: The Smaller, the Better
The best portable speakers are small and light enough to take everywhere you go. As mentioned earlier, modern portable speakers aren’t the cinder-block boomboxes of old, which you had to rest on your shoulder. Today, the best portable speakers are no bigger than a brick. Many are even smaller. This makes it easy to throw them into a bag or backpack and go on your way.
Most portable speakers weigh around 0.7 pounds. However, their small size doesn’t necessarily result in small sound. For example, at just 1.8 inches tall and 7.5 inches long, the Beats Pill is the smallest portable speaker that made our lineup. In fact, it’s so small you can slip it into your pocket. Still, this tiny device reached a max volume of 97.7 dB in our tests, which is easily loud enough to fill a large room with your favorite tunes or provide a soundtrack by the pool.
Waterproof Portable Speakers: Surviving the Elements
Some speakers in our review are portable beyond being a small, handheld device. Many portable speakers on the market today are designed to handle water, mud, drops, spills and dirt. They are meant to be taken in the great outdoors. You can mount these speakers to your ski pole or surfboard and take them on the ride with you.
For example, both the UE BOOM and the UE ROLL are IPX7 rated. This rating means they can play music while submerged under a meter of water for up to 30 minutes. The UE ROLL even comes with a bungee you can tie to things like your swimsuit, backpack or bike. You can also use these speakers in the shower.
The Altec BoomJacket is another rugged portable speaker capable of surviving the elements. With an IPX67 dust- and water-resistance rating, the BoomJacket can withstand being submerged in a meter of water for up to 30 minutes, and the casing is dust tight. This means you can drop it in the mud and wash it off in the lake, and it will still play your favorite music. When it comes to durable outdoor speakers, it’s among the best available.
Other Speaker Options
Not all wireless speakers are small devices that rely on the relatively narrow bandwidth of Bluetooth for streaming audio. If you’re looking for something with greater fidelity and volume, you should check out our review of Wi-Fi speakers. These speakers stream music using your wireless internet. They aren’t generally designed to be portable, but the sound quality is ideal for people who value high-quality audio in their homes.
Portable Speakers: What We Tested, What We Found
When purchasing a speaker of any kind, the audio quality is paramount. It doesn’t matter how flashy it looks or how small or big or loud or durable the speaker is if the audio quality isn’t very good. As such, audio quality was the most important feature we tested in our review. After audio performance, the speaker’s battery life is the next consideration. The best portable speakers don’t require charging very often and offer many hours of airplay between charges.
It’s important to note that audio quality is largely a subjective benchmark. Objectively, speakers move air to create frequencies that we can hear, and those frequencies can be measured for accuracy. That said, not only does every person have unique hearing abilities, but the listening environment can also affect audio quality. A portable speaker will sound different in a bedroom than out by a campfire, for better or for worse. This is because of the way the sound frequencies bounce off objects, like ripples in a pond.
To evaluate audio quality, we connected all of the speakers to a switcher, which is a device that allows us to play music from a single source and switch the audio from one speaker to another. Doing this provided an easy side-by-side comparison of audio quality.
We matched each device’s volume so louder speakers weren’t mistaken for having better audio quality. After equalizing the volume, we blindfolded reviewers and had them rate each speaker’s audio quality as we played music pulled from a wide variety of genres. Each reviewer rated the audio performance based on overall sound quality, bass response and vocal clarity. We then collated their responses, averaged the data and graded the results to reflect the comparison.
Loud doesn’t always mean good. In fact, at high volumes, you typically hear more distortion – though not the good kind of distortion common with certain music genres. That said, higher volumes allow you to fill up more space with music. Louder speakers are better for the outdoors, and some people prefer their music turned up all the way regardless.
Testing maximum volume is fairly simple. We turned each portable speaker’s volume to its highest setting and then measured the volume using a sound decibel meter held 1 meter away. Most speakers in our test maxed out at about 97 dB, which is about as loud as a hand drill and just a little quieter than standing about 300 yards from a jet plane taking off. This is loud enough to cause hearing damage when exposed to it for long periods.
Second only to audio quality, battery life is an important consideration with a portable speaker. A long battery life means more uninterrupted music, which equates to more fun and more entertainment. According to manufacturer specifications, a speaker’s battery life can range between seven and 40 hours. This could mean the difference between a few hours of music on a campout or having music on the entire trip.
To test this, we started by ensuring each speaker’s battery was fully charged. We then set up a GoPro camera in the Purch Labs Audio Visual room. The speakers were arranged such that their battery indicator lights were clearly visible to the camera, and we set the camera to take pictures every two minutes. We played music through the speakers at medium volume until their batteries died, and the camera allowed us to pinpoint when the battery died to within a few minutes.
We opted not to use a Bluetooth connection to stream music during this test because we needed a reliable signal throughout the entire process. Instead, we connected the speakers to an iPad using several splitters and wired connections. Still, it’s important to note that using Bluetooth generally requires more from the speaker’s battery than a wired connection. It’s also important to note that there isn’t a standardized way of testing batteries in the portable speaker industry, so manufacturers can bolster their battery life specifications based on their own tests, which you can bet are performed under ideal circumstances. For the sake of our review, our results are comparative – tested under the same circumstances and in the same environment.
Once the battery drained, we performed the test in reverse to see how long it took to fully charge the battery. Most of the portable speakers fully recharged in two to three hours, though some took as long as four hours. After the batteries recharged, we ran the battery life test again to see if the first results could be replicated. In almost every case, a significant amount of battery life was lost on the second test.
For example, the Altec Lansing BoomJacket had a 36-hour battery life in the first test, but the battery life dipped to 22 hours and 33 minutes in the second test. The best explanation for this is the fact that rechargeable batteries degrade a little every time you drain and recharge them, which results in a loss of battery life over time. Some simply degrade faster than others.
Bluetooth Speakers: Our Verdict and Recommendations
The JBL Pulse 2 earned our Top Ten Reviews Gold Award for best portable speaker. Not only does this speaker have fantastic bass and an output capable of filling a large room, but it’s also the only speaker that received an A in every audio quality category. This speaker also has a good battery life, lasting over 18 hours on the first test and 17 hours on the second, which was well above the 10-hour specification provided by the manufacturer. While this speaker doesn’t have the durability features of other portable speakers, the casing displays a light show to enhance your listening experience.
The Silver Award was given to the UE BOOM 2. This portable speaker does a little bit of everything. The audio quality isn’t superb, but it’s above average. It has an IPX7 waterproof rating, which means you can fully submerge it under 1 meter of water for up to 30 minutes. Also, the battery life is excellent, lasting up to 22 hours in our tests.
The Bose SoundLink Mini II received our Top Ten Reviews Bronze Award. This speaker was among the most loved in our blindfolded listening tests. The battery life exceeded the manufacturer’s specifications by several hours. However, this isn’t a speaker designed to handle the elements, which limits its portability.
Portable speakers are no longer a novelty item with poor audio quality. They not only provide excellent audio, but many can also handle whatever you throw at them. With a portable speaker, there’s no reason why you can’t have your own soundtrack. To learn more, read our articles about portable speakers and other electronics.