Bluetooth Speakers: What You Should Look For When Buying


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Growing up as a kid in the 90s, I remember walking up and down the aisles of my local Target and seeing massive boomboxes, with speakers that had a shiny sticker on the front labeling how many watts they boasted.

The buying decision of speakers back then was easy: Bigger always meant better.

However, today is a much different story because, thanks to rapidly improving sound technology, we now have small, affordable speakers that can produce room-shaking volume. All this without any wires.

But with so many brands, prices, and styles that are out there on the market, how can you choose the best bluetooth speaker for your needs?

Here’s a list of what you should look for when buying a bluetooth speaker:

  • Portability
  • Sound Quality
  • Battery Life
  • Connectivity
  • Friends and Family
  • Style
  • Controls
  • Voice Assistant
  • Durability
  • Budget

The great thing about bluetooth speakers is that they can be used in a wide variety of situations and places.

Follow the detailed guide below so that you can choose a speaker that suits your specific needs best.

Portability

I can gladly say that we no longer have to worry about slinging a boombox over our shoulders in order to add music to our environment.

Bluetooth speaker manufacturers understand today that their customers have a variety of wants and needs when it comes to how portable their music should be.

For instance, if you plan on going hiking with just a backpack but want to bring some tunes, you probably won’t want a speaker that adds weight to your total load.

Someone who doesn’t plan on moving their speaker that often, on the other hand, can look for a larger speaker that features a solid base that can sit on a table or the floor.

If true portability is what you’re looking for, make sure that your speaker comes with attachments that can hook to your backpack and has a rugged protective covering, like this Bose Soundlink Micro portable speaker on Amazon (aff. link).

Units like these are usually designed to withstand impacts, scrapes, and minor drops so that you can be comfortable with using them indoors or outdoors.

Sound Quality

Although small portable bluetooth speakers have the size benefit of portability, their sound can lack certain qualities compared to larger units.

Smaller speakers have to compromise between total output and battery life, so you will usually find that the lightest speakers have a decent number of hours per charge, but their sound at highest volumes may produce distortion or lack of bass.

The lightest units also have smaller components, such as bass drivers and amplifiers, so that they can be compact enough to fit inside a small bag or carrying case, also compromising some quality of sound.

Larger bluetooth speakers don’t share the same portability advantages, but have more robust components and drivers that can push more sound.

Thanks to an A/C plug for power, these speakers also don’t have to compromise output for battery life, so higher volumes tend not to crackle or lose range.

The Sonos Play:5 Wireless Speaker is a great example of this. The bigger build and solid base of this model signify that it is not meant for carrying around on camping trips, rather it is made for sitting in a large room, where it can produce deep bass and solid wattage to fill a decent-size party space.

If you are not quite sure yet if you want to commit to a non-portable speaker, but are on the hunt for great sound, consider a mid-size bluetooth speaker.

Slightly larger and bulkier than the hockey puck style speakers, yet much smaller than the heavyweights, these speakers are a great mainstream middle ground for if you want room-filling sound but need the freedom to take it wherever you want.

The Ultimate Ears Megaboom 3 shines the light on this “large sound, portable package” concept perfectly. This portable speaker will noticeably weigh down a small backpack, yet has over 20 hours of plug-free battery life and the rugged protection to carry outdoors or party at your friends place. It also has decent-sized drivers that can crank out big sound with plenty of distortion-free bass and treble range.

Battery Life

Like most gadgets in our portfolios today, we expect our batteries to last all day, and portable bluetooth speakers should be no different.

There is nothing like being in the middle of a canoe trip or with some friends at the beach listening to the latest banger, when all of a sudden… the speaker craps out. What a vibe killer.

For the smallest micro units you should look for no less than 6 hours of battery life, as that is what most models of this size in the industry can handle.

Medium and larger-size portable bluetooth speakers should have more than twice that amount or more. Anything less than 10 hours is sub-par performance.

Thanks to modern Li-ion battery technology, we also don’t have to worry about charging our devices all day to get a few extra hours of play time.

Be sure that you buy a speaker that also come with this quick charge feature so that you can bring some music back in a hurry and not get left in the dust. This feature will usually be posted on the front of most packages or websites.

Connectivity

Bluetooth speakers now host a whole range of options when it comes to connecting with devices, chargers, and even more bluetooth speakers.

When wireless speakers first entered the market they originally came with bluetooth connectivity to the intended sound source. Now there are a couple more modern choices: including NFC (Near Field Communication) and Wifi connectivity.

When a wireless speaker has NFC built in to it, you can essentially bring an audio source (such as your smartphone) near the speaker and connect it wirelessly. This connection is slightly quicker and more efficient than bluetooth, and can save from some fumbling when switching the audio source between smartphones.

Wifi is known as the highest fidelity mode of wireless sound connection, where speakers that have this technology utilize the rooms Wifi router to bounce signal between the audio source and the speaker itself.

NFC as a feature is good to look for when buying a bluetooth speaker, but is not necessary, especially if you don’t intend on switching audio sources that often.

Wifi is also a great feature, especially if you want that extra clarity in sound quality. But that little bit of extra quality can be muted by its biggest con, which is it can’t be done outside of wifi range: read as any outdoor use.

They way speakers connect to chargers has vastly changed as well. What started as round DC adapter plugs has improved to the standard micro USB family.

There are even speakers that have wireless cradles so that all you have to do is plop the unit on its charging pad and it can charge wirelessly.

For sake of simplicity, if you own a smartphone that has the new standard of charging cable, which is USB-C, you might want to look for a speaker that also has a USB-C port for charging as well.

This is just so you don’t have to carry around an extra micro USB charging cable for your bluetooth speaker everywhere you go.

Friends and Family

Did I peak your interest when I mentioned that bluetooth speakers have the capability to be connected to other bluetooth speakers?

I agree, it’s pretty awesome. And is one reason why you should look at what bluetooth speakers your friends and family currently have.

This mostly boils down to brand consistency, where Ultimate Ears units can sync with each other, JBL’s can chain up, etc.

Some brands are still catching up to this phenomenon in wireless technology, which is a shame because connecting your bluetooth speaker with a friends speaker of the same kind, and then joining with your family member’s across the room can produce earth-shattering surround sound.

All of this from just a few portable speakers.

If you currently don’t know anyone that has a bluetooth speaker that can be wirelessly chained to another speaker, consider being the first in your group that invests in a model that has this linking technology so that they can link their speakers up to yours in the future.

Style

Wireless bluetooth speakers come in all sorts of sizes, and with that come various different styles.

Bluetooth speakers that are built for indoor-based use will usually have slick and shiny, or delicately padded exteriors that are designed to be the centerpiece of any room. For one of the most luxurious, look no further than the Apple HomePod speaker.

Other models have a tough, rubbery or mesh exterior that resists dust and water. These speakers are great and recommended for if you intend on bringing your music outdoors.

Consider how your speaker will sit in its intended spot or how it will be carried. For instance, the JBL Flip 5 portable speaker has a very round body with flat ends so that you can stand it upright like a soda can. Other speakers have flat bottoms so that they sit longitudinally across a surface.

So if you want a speaker that has a small footprint you might want to go for the upright design, otherwise, consider the flat-bottom look for sturdiness if you want it to stay in its place at a party.

Controls

Many speakers, including portable bluetooth speakers, and eliminating more and more buttons and leaving the controls up to the audio source.

Some, like the Ultimate Ears, only have a “+” and a “-” button to change the volume and seek tracks.

Others have separate buttons for all of these functions, although these models are becoming harder to find these days.

Speakers are also coming pre-loaded with hands-free assistants so that changing a function is as easy as saying a simple voice command.

If you plan on making or answering calls through your speaker, look for a model that has its own button for phone functionality, or at the very least, allows you to answer and make calls with your voice.

Voice Assistant

There are so many gadgets today that are incorporating smart voice assistants from household names like Google, Amazon, and Apple.

Bluetooth speakers are no different. The ones that are built and sold by these companies will already come with their proprietary voice assistant right out of the box.

Other brands will feature either one or the other, but some come with both Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa.

If Siri capability is what you are looking for, you are stuck with the HomePod for now.

I wrote an article explaining all the ways you can make your home a smart home, and it’s worth mentioning here that if you already have smart-compatible devices with one of these assistants then you should consider staying consistent with that brand.

When buying a bluetooth speaker, you should also make sure that it has the same voice assistant as any other smart gadgets in your home so that they can communicate with each other.

Durability

If you plan on leaving the home with your bluetooth speaker, you want to buy one that has the durability to withstand the harsh elements of the outdoors.

Many speakers from reputable brands that are built for outdoor use are built with an IPX7 rating. It is not recommended to purchase a speaker with a rating less than this because it will be less water and dust resistant.

Also take a look around the outside of the bluetooth speaker you are buying and see that the exterior features a material that can withstand impacts and scrapes.

A lot of speakers that are designed with durability as the highest priority usually have either a hard-rubberized or mesh coating that has tough speaker grates to resist any dents.

If you end up buying a bluetooth speaker that looks nice but are not sure if it will survive an upcoming trip, consider purchasing a case that wraps around it. Usually, if you have a bluetooth speaker from a more well-known brand, there is most likely a third-party that makes a case for it (or sometimes even the company itself).

Budget

This category will probably not be as headache inducing compared to larger investments like TVs, laptops, and headphones, but is still worth mentioning. Especially if budget is a major factor in your decision.

If you are looking for an all-around portable speaker that doesn’t break the bank, consider buying one of the smaller models. The ultra-light speakers usually have a starting price of around $50 and go no higher than $90, other than a few premium versions.

Larger portable speakers with bigger batteries and sound are also quite affordable. Expect to pay somewhere between $100 to $150 and no more than $200 for the high-end models.

The biggest home speakers are where price point can creep up quite a bit. Although they are not portable, don’t have batteries, and need an AC plug to operate, they have some of the most sophisticated components that on their own can fill a theater with their sound chamber.

For these most expensive models you should expect to pay somewhere between $300 to $550: and the prices can continue to rise from there with no limit.

The good news is that, like TVs, retailers love to have sales on bluetooth speakers, especially around holiday times.

So if you come across a speaker that you really like at full price, consider waiting until near a holiday and see if it goes on sale. More often than not, you will be able to find the sale that makes even the most expensive units much more affordable.

Bluetooth speakers also get updated quite a bit too. And when the newest model gets released, the previous one goes down in price almost immediately. Buying a bluetooth speaker from the generation before can save your wallet tremendously.

John Hammer

I'm John Hammer. Ever since growing up I've purchased and tinkered with all kinds of tech, gaming gadgets and software applications. To this day my curiosity has never left, and I continue to experience and dive in to the latest excitements of the consumer electronics industry.

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