Cool Speakers for Grads

    These eye-catching models from Bose, Marshall, and Monster offer solid sound, too

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    While laptops and televisions tend to look alike, those who design Bluetooth, WiFi, and smart speakers often let their imaginations run free.

    In our testing, we’ve run across numerous models that are truly distinctive in aesthetic terms. Or to put it another way, they just flat out look cool.

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    But unlike some models that look slick but sound lousy (a now-discontinued magnetic floating speaker comes to mind), all these models performed admirably in our labs.

    They’re easy to use and offer sound that’s satisfying, which makes them attractive gifts for grads or a way to treat yourself and fill your home office with music and style.

    As always, the test samples were purchased through the same retail channels you’d use. No freebies means no chance to influence our results using models hand-selected by the manufacturer.

    Sony SRS-XB31

    This is a speaker that lets you not only play music but also make music. The XB31 features what Sony calls a Party Booster, which adds a variety of percussion sounds when you strike the sides and top of the enclosure in time with the beat.

    The feature isn’t as responsive as one might hope, but it’s still fun to use. The XB31 also features cool lighting effects—a multicolored LED that changes color with the beats, accented by two white strobes, which can be adjusted with a smartphone app.

    The model comes recommended by our testers largely on the basis of sound quality. Although the XB stands for, um, “eXtra bass,” that’s a bit of a mischaracterization. Our testers found that percussion instruments were reproduced with realistic sharpness and impact, but the deepest bass was limited by the speaker’s modest size.

    Despite its tweedy fabric covering (available in four colors), the XB31 features an IP67 rating, which means that it should keep out dust and water to a claimed tested depth of 1 meter for 30 minutes. (We don’t test speakers for water resistance.) That should keep the XB31 safe from most spills.

    JBL Pulse 3

    What looks a little like a lava lamp and does a great job playing music? The JBL Pulse 3. This Bluetooth speaker channels the aesthetic of those groovy 1960s relics but uses LEDs under a plastic dome for its visual effects, instead of waxy blobs cooked by a heat lamp.

    The Pulse 3 can also do things that no lava lamp can. Using the JBL smartphone app, you can customize the patterns and colors of the light show and even match the color palette to your favorite throw pillow if you’re so inclined.

    JBL claims an IPX7 water-resistance rating for the Pulse 3, which means it, too, should withstand immersion in a meter of water for up to 30 minutes.

    The Pulse 3 also performs well in our sound-quality tests, earning a recommendation for its good bass impact, among other sonic attributes. Stereo pairing is an option, but the Pulse 3 can also be synced with up to 100 other Pulse 3s using JBL’s Connect+ protocol. Imagine that groovy party.

    Marshall Stanmore II Voice

    If your favorite student is a guitar fan—or just a consumer of classic rock videos on YouTube—consider this stylish smart speaker, which channels the classic good looks of Marshall’s iconic guitar amplifiers (although unlike a real Marshall stack, you can’t play your Stratocaster through it).

    The Stanmore, available with built-in support for Alexa-powered voice commands, draws praise for its impressive ease of use. (There’s a Google Assistant version, too, but we didn’t test that one.) Like a vintage guitar amp, the unit has three beefy knobs on top for controlling the volume, bass, and treble. They’re nicely knurled and turn with a silky feel.

    The sound quality of this model is less refined than that of the very best-sounding smart speakers, with its somewhat boomy bass and a midrange that’s slightly congested. However, the unit does provide enough volume to fill a large room.

    Monster SuperStar Monster Blaster

    The Superstar Monster Blaster will remind you of those giant beatboxes of the 1980s and ’90s. But while those behemoths ate D-cell batteries like competitive eaters down Nathan’s hot dogs, the Monster features a huge 20,000-milliamp-hour rechargeable battery. And instead of those old-school cassettes that were prone to self-destruction, this boombox streams today’s hits smoothly from your phone via Bluetooth.

    The Monster SuperStar Blaster is big and beefy by portable-speaker standards but sports relatively subtle styling. Our testers found the Monster’s bass a bit boomy, with good sound overall. And it provides enough volume to power a party in a large room or stream Jay-Z’s latest in the great outdoors.

    The speaker’s controls are quite easy to use, but they’re a little less flexible than those on some competitors. For example, instead of individual bass and treble controls, the Monster has indoor and outdoor modes that tailor the bass response to the surroundings.

    What Makes a Great Speaker?

    Do you know the difference between good speakers and excellent speakers? On the “Consumer 101” TV show, Elias Arias, a Consumer Reports expert, explains to host Jack Rico how to identify quality devices.

    Allen St. John

    I believe that technology has the power to change our lives—for better or for worse. That's why I’ve spent my life reporting and writing about it for outlets of all sorts, from newspapers (such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times) to magazines (Popular Mechanics and Rolling Stone) and even my own books ("Newton’s Football" and "Clapton’s Guitar"). For me, there's no better way to spend a day than talking to a bunch of experts about an important subject and then writing a story that'll help others be smarter and better informed.