Choosing the Best Wireless and Bluetooth Speaker
Great music is vital to so many people—whether they prefer Beyoncé, the Beatles, or Beethoven—and with today’s wireless and Bluetooth speakers, it’s easier than ever to get quality sound, both at home and on the go.
Bluetooth and WiFi-connected speakers provide simple, cable-free connections that don’t sacrifice sound quality. And you don’t always have to spend a lot. We test speakers that range in price from $20 to $1,200—and there are decent choices for every budget. It’s a matter of defining what you want to do.
If you want to take your tunes to the beach or just to the backyard, consider a water-resistant speaker that features a rechargeable battery that packs plenty of power. And if you have a large home, consider a model that works as part of a versatile multiroom system.
Design is also an important consideration because manufacturers are increasingly differentiating their products with styling, producing speakers that are attractive—or at least able to attract attention.
We’ll leave it to you to decide on the aesthetics. In our testing program, we’ve put hundreds of wireless and Bluetooth speakers through their paces. We place the greatest weight on how they sound, but we also evaluate factors such as versatility and ease of use, including a speaker’s ability to pair easily and maintain a wireless connection.
WiFi or Bluetooth—or Both?
There are two ways to go wireless—WiFi and Bluetooth. WiFi speakers connect to your home network. Because most run on AC power, they usually require an outlet. Bluetooth speakers pair directly with a device such as a phone or laptop. They tend to be compact and battery-powered, which makes them more portable. Some models offer both connection options.
Most portable speakers use Bluetooth wireless technology to stream music from another device—say, a smartphone or laptop.
Pros: The technology works with a wide range of mobile devices, including Apple iPhone and Android smartphones. Bluetooth speakers also tend to be less pricey than WiFi speakers.
Cons: The range is somewhat limited, usually to around 33 feet.
Setup: In general, connecting via Bluetooth is simpler than connecting via WiFi. Some Bluetooth speakers now have NFC (near field communication) technology, which enables two devices—one of which is usually portable, such as a smartphone—to establish communication with just a tap.
WiFi speakers let you take advantage of your robust home network, typically giving you a stronger, more stable signal.
Pros: With WiFi, you can stream to multiple speakers at once. And this technology has a longer range than Bluetooth, up to about 200 feet, although 100 to 150 feet is more common.
Cons: You’re subject to bandwidth limitations, which means the volume of traffic on your network (people streaming videos, surfing the Web, or downloading content) can affect the quality of your audio streaming.
Setup: A typical WiFi setup requires downloading a smartphone app and following several steps, which will probably include selecting a network ID and entering a password.
Bluetooth and WiFi Speakers
Several of the highly rated models in our testing have both WiFi and Bluetooth.
Pros: Having both technologies gives you greater flexibility. You can take advantage of your strong home network for most listening. But if, for example, a friend wants to stream songs from a phone or laptop, they can make a quick connection to your speaker using Bluetooth. In general, models that feature both WiFi and Bluetooth are fairly easy to use.
Cons: You might pay more for a speaker with both features.
Setup: If you want to take advantage of the flexibility of using both Bluetooth and WiFi, be prepared to go through the individual setup for each.
WiFi Tech Terms
If you opt for a WiFi speaker, you’ll come across terms such as Apple AirPlay, DLNA, and DTS Play-Fi. These are the wireless standards that a speaker uses to access content on a network. Many WiFi speakers can use more than one, but be sure the speakers you want to link together all share at least one standard. Here are the main things you need to know.
• 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 don’t, 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, if you have one speaker that uses AirPlay and another that uses Play-Fi, they won’t play together nicely.
Let Your Listening Location Help Pick the Right Speaker
Before you choose a speaker, think a little about where you’re going to be using it.
Outdoors: If you’ll be using your speaker outdoors, consider a portable Bluetooth model that can sit near your grill and pump out tunes while you flip burgers, then follow you around the yard if you want to listen to your favorite podcast after dinner. Pick a compact model and you’ll conserve space on the patio or picnic table, or just choose a speaker that comes in a fun color that matches your tablecloth.
And if you’re listening by a pool, at the beach, or anywhere that a speaker could be exposed to a rain shower, choosing a model that’s water-resistant can reduce your worries about accidental damage.
Indoors: If you’re going to use your speaker mostly indoors, think about the location of your electrical outlets and the strength of your WiFi network’s signal before deciding on an AC-powered WiFi model.
Placement can also affect a speaker’s performance. You typically want the music source, such as your smartphone, to stay within 33 feet of a Bluetooth speaker. Bluetooth models also work best with a clear line of sight to the source. Walls, large objects, and even people between your speaker and the music source can cause those annoying audio dropouts.
WiFi models are better at handling greater distances and physical obstructions between the router, music source, and speakers. Under ideal conditions, you might be able to maintain a connection with a speaker that’s more than 200 feet from the router, but 100 to 150 feet is a more typical range.
Form Follows Function
Plain and boxy or strikingly sleek, the form on many wireless speakers is more than merely aesthetic—it can affect sound quality and portability.
Important Features for Wireless Speakers
Whether you’re all about the bass or prefer a more refined sonic presentation, you’ll want certain functions so that you can take control of your wireless speaker.
Inputs and Outputs
Many wireless speakers also feature auxiliary audio inputs that can be used to connect source components, such as a TV or an old CD player or cassette deck, directly to the unit via a cable. Some speakers can even charge your phone or tablet via a USB port. An optical digital audio input can connect devices like a Blu-ray/DVD/CD player.
Connectors and Docks
Depending on the model, you may be able to connect a smartphone or other device via a USB cable, which can eliminate those annoying dropouts that affect some wireless connections. You’ll probably need the right cable for your device—most iPhones have a nine-pin Lightning connector, while Android phones are likely to have a USB-C jack.
Remote Control and Voice Recognition
Voice recognition seems like a fun way to turn up the volume when you don’t want to leave the dance floor, but in reality it can be hit or miss. A standard remote or an app on a smart device usually provides a more reliable way to operate your speaker from a distance. Some new models are taking voice recognition to the next level with full-blown smart-speaker functionality; Consumer Reports covers smart speakers as a separate category.
Online Music Services
In addition to streaming digital audio from a computer, some wireless speakers offer direct access to streaming music services such as Spotify, Amazon Music, and Pandora.
Hands-Free Speakerphone Functionality
Available only on certain Bluetooth models, this feature lets you take phone calls directly on your speaker.
Wireless and Bluetooth Speaker Brands
Now owned by Apple, this company continues to offer midrange to high-priced portable Bluetooth speakers under the brand name Beats by Dr. Dre.
Bose, perhaps best known for speaker systems and headphones, offers several home and portable wireless speakers at a variety of prices.
Edifier has a full line of Bluetooth speakers for home and portable use. Many of its models offer unique and/or colorful designs, at low to midrange prices.
Jabra—a subsidiary of GN Netcom—is known for its wireless and corded headsets for mobile-phone users. The company also manufactures a line of portable Bluetooth speakers in low to midrange prices.
Part of Harman International, JBL offers a wide variety of wireless and Bluetooth speakers, and Bluetooth portable systems, in all shapes and sizes, many of which are water-resistant for outdoor use. Prices vary widely.
Sonos, which helped pioneer the multiroom wireless speaker category, has a lineup of WiFi speakers that can be used independently, as part of a multichannel sound system, or as a speaker in a multiroom system. Prices range from low to high.
Sony produces WiFi and Bluetooth portable and multiroom products across a range of prices.
UE Bluetooth portable speakers come in several sizes, at low to midrange prices. Logitech, the brand’s parent company, is well-known for its personal computer and tablet accessories.
Additional brands to check out in our ratings include Denon, Harman Kardon, House of Marley, Klipsch, and Marshall.