Wireless speakers

Wireless Speaker Buying Guide
Wireless Speaker Buying Guide
How to Pick the Best Wireless Speaker

We're so used to taking our music everywhere we go. But we expect convenience and top-notch sound quality when we play our tunes. Wireless speakers are the solution. Yet there's a vast array of features to choose from—Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connectivity, ports for hooking up other devices, the ability to play musical files you have bought or burned from CDs, battery power versus AC plug-in, the possibility of linking several units to create a multi-room home system...the list goes on and on.

There are two main categories: In-home models (which plug into an outlet) and portable models. If the speaker has a rechargeable battery, it's considered portable. You may want to ask yourself whether or not it goes with your room decor, will it hook up to your TV to create DIY "surround sound," or does it clip onto a backpack? Questions like these will help you figure out which features matter to you. And though beauty is generally only skin-deep, when it comes to the best wireless speakers, form can be integral to function, messing with your sound quality. In our testing, we not only evaluate sound, but also ease of use and versatility (capacity to connect with other devices).

With the best wireless speakers, you can get the convenience of no cords without giving up high-quality sound—although you may have to dig deep into your wallet for really impressive results. The models we tested ranged from $70 to $700.


Wi-Fi or Bluetooth—or Both?

Your first decision is how you plan to go wireless—via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Some models spare you the trouble by offering both. Wi-Fi speakers connect to your home network; they usually run on AC power, so they require an outlet. Most Bluetooth speakers are battery-powered and compact, making them more portable.

Picture of a Bluetooth speaker.

Bluetooth Speaker

Most portable speakers use Bluetooth wireless technology to link to another device, like, say, a cell phone or a laptop.

Pros: The tech works with a wide range of mobile devices, including Apple iPhone and Android smartphones. Bluetooth speakers tend to be less pricey than Wi-Fi options.

Cons: You can only stream audio from your gadget to one speaker at a time, and range is limited (usually around 33 ft.).

Set-up: In general, connecting via Bluetooth takes fewer steps than connecting via Wi-Fi. Some Bluetooth speakers now include NFC (near-field communication) technology, which enables two electronic devices—one of which is usually portable (i.e. a smartphone)—to establish communication. How does it work? You simply tap an NFC-equipped device to the NFC tag on the speaker.

See Which Bluetooth Speakers Rated High
Picture of a wireless wi-fi speaker.

Wi-Fi Speaker

Wi-Fi speakers let you take advantage of your home network, typically giving you a stronger, more stable signal.

Pros: With Wi-Fi, you can stream to multiple speakers at once. And this technology has a longer range than Bluetooth, up to around 200 ft. (though 100 to 150 is more likely).

Cons: You’re subject to bandwidth limitations, depending on the volume of traffic on your network (people streaming videos, surfing the net, downloading content), which can affect the quality of your audio streaming.

Set-up: Some Wi-Fi models are particularly easy to set up, especially those that use WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup), a feature designed to connect the speaker to your home network simply by pushing WPS buttons on the speaker and the WPS-enabled router. However, typical setups require downloading an app and following several steps, which will likely require selecting a network ID and entering its password as part of the process.

Check Out Our Wi-Fi Speaker Ratings
Picture of a speaker with both wi-fi and bluetooth capability.

Bluetooth and Wi-Fi Speaker

Several of the highly-rated models in our testing have both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Pros: With both technologies, you have more choice. That includes not only the flexibility to take advantage of your strong home network, but if, for example, a visitor wants to play some songs from a phone or laptop, the simplest way to connect is over Bluetooth. In general, these models are fairly easy to use.

Cons: You might pay more to have both features (anything with Wi-Fi tends to add to the cost).

Set-up: If your intention is to take advantage of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, be prepared to go through the individual set-up for both. It's worth noting that that's not that difficult.

Some Models Tested Have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

Wi-Fi Tech Terms

If you opt for Wi-Fi when you’re speaker shopping, you’ll come across terms such as Apple AirPlay, DLNA, DTS Play-Fi, Heos, and Sonos. Those are the wireless standards a speaker uses to access content on a network. Many speakers can use more than one. But be sure that the speakers you want to link together all share at least one standard. The main things you need to know are:

• Apple AirPlay can access content from Apple mobile devices and any computer with iTunes installed on it. For Android devices, you’ll have to use a third-party app. The same goes for streaming to multiple AirPlay speakers from an iPhone or iPad. You do not, however, need the third-party app when you're using a computer.

• The other standards—including DLNA, DTS Play-Fi, Heos, and Sonos—can usually work with iOS and Android devices, plus PCs and some Mac computers.

• If you want to play music on multiple speakers, those speakers can come from different brands. However, they have to use the same wireless technology standard. In other words, you can’t have one speaker that uses AirPlay and another that’s Play-Fi only.



Wireless Speaker Placement and Signal Strength

This can be a major factor in your choice of speakers.

If you’ll be using it outdoors, a portable Bluetooth model can sit next to the BBQ while you flip burgers, then follow you around the yard. Pick one that’s compact and won’t hog the patio table or, if it’s going to be on display, one that comes in fun colors. Consider whether you need water-resistance or rugged construction, too.

Think about placement: If a large metal object (a car, say, or a fridge), building infrastructure, or even a friend gets between a Bluetooth speaker and the device with the music on it, the sound might get dropped. You’ll typically want the music source to stay within 33 ft. of the speaker, too. Wi-Fi is better at handling distance and physical obstructions between the router, music source, and speakers. Under ideal conditions, you might get reception on a speaker that’s 200 feet or more from the router, but 100 to 150 feet is more typical.

Illustration: Chris Philpot

Style Is Substantial

Looks aren’t necessarily superficial when it comes to a wireless speaker. Plain and boxy or strikingly sleek, the form on some units is more than aesthetic; it affects sound and portability.


Important Wireless Speaker Features

Whether you’re all about the base or singing in the shower, you’ll want certain functions in a wireless speaker to best suit your tastes.

Inputs and Outputs
Almost all wireless speakers have auxiliary audio inputs used to connect gear such as a portable audio player or a TV. Some can even charge other devices via a USB port. An optical digital audio input can connect to gear such as a Blu-ray/dvd/cd player. Outputs allow you to add another subwoofer to send video from, say, a docked iPad to a TV.

Connectors and Docks
Depending on the model, you may also get an iPod dock or the ability to connect an iPhone, iPod, or other device via USB. Some units have connectors or docks that accept the old-style 30-pin connections found on iPads, iPods, and older iPhones. (The latest 9-pin Lightning connector on the Apple iPhone 5 and beyond requires a separately purchased adapter.)  

Remote Control and Voice Recognition
Voice recognition can be handy when you don’t want to leave the dance floor, but it can be hit or miss. Option B: your typical remote control or an app on a smart device.

Online Music Services
In addition to streaming digital audio from a computer, several of the Wi-Fi models can access a handful of premium music services, such as Pandora and Spotify.

Hands-Free Speakerphone Functionality
Only available on certain Bluetooth models, this lets you take phone calls.

Amazon’s first Bluetooth speaker, the Echo, (first introduced in 2014) blurs the line between a portable Bluetooth speaker and digital personal assistant that can answer questions and respond to voice commands. Amazon’s line of Echo products is expanding and what these products can do continues to expand. The Echo line is low-to-mid priced.
Recently purchased by Apple, this company continues to offer mid-priced portable Bluetooth speakers under the brand name “Beats by Dr. Dre.” Beats are in the mid- to high-price range.
Bose, perhaps best known for speaker systems and headphones, now has several home and portable speaker systems covering all price points.
Edifier has a full line of Bluetooth speakers for both home and portable use. Many models have unique and/or colorful designs, with prices that range from low-to-mid priced.
Jabra—a subsidiary of GN Netcom—is known for its wireless and corded headsets for mobile phone users. Jabra also manufactures a line of portable Bluetooth speakers in the low-to-mid price ranges.
Part of Harman International, which also owns AKG, Harman Kardon, Infinity, Lexicon, Mark Levinson and Revel, this company offers audio products in many home-theater categories, including wireless home speakers and Bluetooth portable systems in all shapes and sizes. The prices vary widely.
Sonos, which helped pioneer the multiroom wireless speaker category, has a lineup of Wi-Fi speakers that can be used either independently, as part of a multichannel sound system, or as a speaker in a multiroom system. Prices range from low to high.
Sony markets Wi-Fi and Bluetooth portable and multiroom products across almost all price ranges.
UE Bluetooth portable speakers come in several sizes, in the low-to-mid price ranges. Logitech, its parent company, is well-known for its personal computer and tablets accessories.
Additional brands to check out in our ratings include: Brookstone, Harman Kardon, House of Marley, Klipsch, Marshall, Polk Audio, and Riva.