The great, wide Bluetooth sea: A Bluetooth speaker buyer's guide
By Eric Mack
February 21, 2014
It seems everyone has a Bluetooth speaker in their product lineup today, and selecting the right one is a dizzying experience inciting even more vertigo with each passing week as the mountain of wireless sound options grows bigger. I'm going to walk you through some of the best Bluetooth options in this buying guide, but first it's good to consider a few basic rules of thumb.
Before diving in to the ocean of Bluetooth audio, consider what your needs are. Do you need a speaker that's portable and compact? Or are you looking for great sound in your home without all those irritating wires? It's also good to have an idea of how much you're willing to spend.
With so many different shapes, sizes and companies to choose from, a good way to wade through it all is simply to remember that the names that are already established in home audio and Bluetooth audio in particular are going to be your best bets. I've owned, demoed and reviewed a number of different Bluetooth speakers from a wide array of manufacturers, and the old adage about getting what you pay for generally holds true, but so does the one about the value of experience.
Go with recognized brand names and avoid super-cheap speakers, and you're also likely to avoid one other complaint you often hear about Bluetooth, that its audio is noticeably inferior to other options like traditional wired speakers or AirPlay sound systems. Yes, it can be argued that Bluetooth's sound quality is technically a step down, however it has improved greatly in recent years, and the vast majority of consumers who aren't obsessive audiophiles are unlikely to notice the difference compared to wired or more expensive wireless options.
With that basic primer in mind, let's look at some specific Bluetooth speaker categories and models.
Most people are looking for a Bluetooth speaker big enough to deliver high-quality sound but still small and durable enough to be thrown in a backpack or suitcase. Not surprisingly, you'll find premium audio brand Bose at the top of the heap here, with its Soundlink Bluetooth Speaker III. The third generation of the Bose take on Bluetooth is just out this month and will set you back about US$300, but it sets the standard for portable Bluetooth audio. It's a little large, but Bose offers smaller versions as well, which I'll get to later.
Jawbone's Big Jambox is a potential runner-up in this category, that doesn't quite measure up to the best Bose has to offer in terms of sound, but it's a solid option that's a little less bulky and might save you $30 or so.
Middle range compact portables
Here is where quality speakers get a little more rugged and smaller, and so do their prices. If you're willing to sacrifice a little bit of volume and power in order to save some money or find something a little more portable, then this is the category you should be shopping.
Bose still leads the way here with its smaller Soundlink Mini, and it still comes at a price premium over arguably more hip options like Logitech's cylindrical UE Boom speaker.
Jawbone's Mini Jambox also offers top-notch sound at this level, and JBL's Charge speaker is also worth considering and may offer a little more value at a lower price.
If you take another step down in price, in the $80 - $120 range, you'll find less powerful ultra-compact offerings like JBL's Flip speaker and Logitech's UE Mobile Boombox that will still get the job done. This range is also where we find the Oontz line from Cambridge Soundworks, which attempts to offer inexpensive but still acceptable takes on each size of Bluetooth speaker. For example, the Oontz XL is meant to compete with the Big Jambox, but is available for almost half the price.
Below $80 the field of speakers starts to get very, very crowded, with lots of new entrants that you may or may not have heard of. These models are likely to be quite basic, offering simple sound and perhaps a speakerphone option.
The Oontz and its stylish sibling the Oontz Angle are a few reliable options here. Among the lesser-known entrants, I've had good luck with the Phoenix 2 from Beacon Audio and I'm also quite partial to the nice-looking, compact and durable speakers from Bem Wireless that are marketed to university students.
Ultra-rugged or compact
Some of the smallest Bluetooth speakers out there are looking to carve out that niche to become the go-to way to enjoy and share sound on the trail, the road or anywhere else where extreme durability and compactness are required.
Outdoor Technology is a standout here, with a speaker, the Buckshot, that can likely survive being dropped off a cliff or into a creek and is about the size of a candy bar. The Philips Shoqbox also gets rave reviews from active outdoor audiophiles.
For road trips, I came to depend on the tiny Bluetune Bean from Divoom, one of the few super-simple ultra-budget options that defies the "you get what you pay for" rule. The HMDX Jam Plus and JBL Micro Wireless speaker also get similar reviews at this end of the spectrum.
Home audio replacements
If you're looking to get rid of all that speaker wire in your home, there are a few Bluetooth options, besides simply putting the Bose Soundlink in the middle of your home.
One of the more compelling and affordable options I've found is the Trio from Bem Wireless. These three large speakers all connect to a base unit, which then connects wirelessly to your phone or other device. Each speaker can be moved around your house to keep the tunes flowing from room to room. The range isn't superb, but it makes for a nice party.
Samsung's DA-E750 100-Watt Dual Audio Dock is both AirPlay and Bluetooth compatible, and represents probably the best-looking melding of your old HiFi and wireless technology, for a price.
Once you go Bluetooth, it's very hard to go back to the world of wires. Enjoy living a louder life and let us know in the comments if there's any awesome speakers out there that we missed.
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