Best (and Biggest) Portable Speakers for Tailgating

    If your idea of nirvana is a football stadium parking lot on the weekend, here are the top picks for an outdoor audio system from JBL, Sony, and UE

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    Ion-Audio speaker sitting in the trunk of an SUV.
    ION-Audio Sport XL speaker
    Photo: ION-Audio, Shutterstock

    In stadium parking lots all across America, people are now gathering to support their favorite football teams, raising the art of tailgating to a sport unto itself—all in a friendly competition to throw the biggest and best shindig before the big game.

    And what’s a party without great sound? Here’s a selection of wireless and Bluetooth speakers that can fill the great outdoors with music, your team’s pregame show, or even the dulcet baritone of NFL Films legend John Facenda.

    Tailgate speakers tend to be bulky and heavy, so they might not be ideal for a leisurely stroll about town. But with audio, size often equals superior sound quality.

    "All the speakers in this roundup featured admirable sound quality, and that should be enough to earn them a place in your home after the game," says Elias Arias, the head of CR’s wireless speaker testing program.

    These standout speakers have been tested in Consumer Reports dedicated sound lab. Our trained experts evaluated them for ease of use, versatility, and most of all, sound quality. As with all products, every test speaker was purchased anonymously from a retail source. And, of course, we never accept freebies from manufacturers.

    The JBL Boombox 2 represents a slight upgrade to the original Boombox, which was a digital re-imagining of the giant beat boxes the cool kids—and even LL Cool J—carried around in the 1980s and 90s. But while those behemoths ate D-cell batteries the way competitive eaters down Nathan’s hot dogs, the Boombox 2’s rechargeable battery is good for 24 hours of music, according to JBL. And unlike those old-school boomboxes, the JBL sports an IPX7 water-resistance rating, which means you can submerge it up to 3 meters.

    But instead of old-school cassettes that would warble and occasionally self-destruct, the JBL streams smoothly from your phone via Bluetooth. Sonically, our testers find a very strong resemblance between the new model and the original JBL Boombox. Both feature bass that can rattle the walls—or maybe your neighbor’s fillings—and that’s not entirely a good thing.

    While our testers give the Boombox 2 a solid score for sound quality, they add a caveat that those robust low frequencies can be overwhelming with some music, explaining that this speaker would have scored even higher with a little less bass. The Boombox 2 might be less than great sitting on a desk in a small office, but its extreme low-frequency impact might be just the thing to pump up the Penn State fight song in the parking lot on a Saturday afternoon.

    If you’re looking for really great sound at your tailgate and you’re willing to pay for it, the Ultimate Ears Hyperboom is a great option.

    Our testers report that the speaker is both loud and clear, with robust bass and clean midrange, and enough volume for most situations, indoors or out. They find the large controls easy to use, so the model gets good grades for versatility.

    The Hyperboom also features an optical input, which allows it to serve as a TV sound bar or a way to upgrade the sound of a game console. UE claims an IPX4 water-resistance rating for the Hyperboom, which means it’s splashproof and spillproof, but not designed to stand up to a full-fledged dunking.

    Although the Hyperboom isn’t exactly small—remember that speaker size and sound quality tend to go hand-in-hand—its orientation is vertical, so the footprint is relatively compact, which is a plus at a tailgate. And compared with many top portables, the UE’s styling is subdued, allowing it to be heard but not seen when you return it to your living room after the game.

    As you might expect from the name, Anker’s SoundCore Rave PartyCast is quite the social animal.

    While the sound isn’t especially refined compared with the very best wireless speakers in our ratings, the sonic flaws are relatively minor. The speaker is quite substantial in size, plays impressively loud, and, the manufacturer claims, it meets IPX 7 water-resistance standards, which allow for a dunk in shallow water—or at least a bout with a spilled drink—without serious harm. All of these features serve the PartyCast well in the parking lot.

    Our testers also find the PartyCast quite easy to use, with intuitive, always-on Bluetooth pairing. The model has USB and Aux inputs in case you want to plug in a source rather than streaming your source material. And the PartyCast feature allows you to connect up to 100 of the company’s speakers at once.

    If you want to add visual interest to your tailgate, the speaker has LED lights that sync to the music. And, if you’re so inclined, it can blink to your favorite team’s play-by-play.

    Here’s why reviews by Consumer Reports can be so important in making a purchasing decision. The Sony XG300 is very similar in appearance and design to the larger XG500, so you’d expect that the two models would perform similarly, too.

    But the XG300 is actually one of the better-sounding portable speakers we’ve tested, with bass that’s got a decent amount of sock and a clear, even midrange. By contrast, the bigger and more expensive XG500 fell short of its smaller sibling with bass that’s kind of boomy while that all-important midrange is muffled.

    And while it’s somewhat smaller than other models in this roundup, the XG300 does what you want in a tailgating speaker with decent volume, IP67 water resistance, and a rechargeable battery that delivers 25 hours of battery life, according to Sony.

    If you want a speaker that’s inexpensive, easy to transport, and checks most of the boxes you want for tailgating, then the ION Sport XL should be on your shopping list.

    It’s large and boxy and weighs just under 25 pounds, but, to help you manage that mass, it’s got wheels, a roller-bag-style handle, as well as grab handles on the side. It’s also IPX 5 water-resistant, says ION, which means it can withstand a light spill or a rain shower.

    Sonically, the speaker provides enough volume to fill a large room, and the bass has decent impact, although the lowest bass notes don’t go as deep as those on some other models. One of the handier features on the ION is an AM-FM tuner that allows you to tap into the local play-by-play during the game or find your favorite sports talk station and hear Vinnie from Queens rant about that controversial fourth-down call.

    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.