Portable speakers use Bluetooth to play sound from your device, while home speakers often use WiFi to stream directly. We’ve tested both, including budget options and pricier models. Here’s what to think about when buying.
Battery or mains power?
Our test includes portable battery-powered speakers, which can be easily shifted to a different room or taken outside, and smart home speakers, which plug into the wall as semi-permanent pieces of furniture. They often look similar, so make sure you don’t buy the wrong type.
Portable speakers sometimes lack the sound quality of their plugged-in cousins. But that’s not always a dealbreaker where convenience might be more important.
If your speaker’s going outside, weight and water resistance are worth thinking about – but neither are relevant for home speakers.
Bluetooth, WiFi or both?
In general, portable speakers use Bluetooth only, while home speakers likely use WiFi as well. A few home speakers don’t have Bluetooth capability at all. Either connection type can do the job, just in different ways.
Connecting via Bluetooth is simple and doesn’t require network support. Just put the speaker into pairing mode and select its name in the Bluetooth settings on your phone or computer.
While manufacturers usually claim range is limited to about 10m, our testers found some ranges over 30m, even through obstructions such as doors or walls. They got the best range when the speaker was on a flat surface, such as a table.
Bluetooth connections compress audio files for transfer, which can reduce audio quality, whereas WiFi does not.
Speakers on WiFi can stream from services such as Spotify or Apple Music. Usually, this requires using an app from the device manufacturer. Once connected, playing music is simple – in Spotify, you select the speaker from a list and press play. You can also control the sound from your device, including skipping tracks and setting up a queue.
Which features are important to consider when choosing a wireless speaker?
Battery run-time: If your speaker has a rechargeable battery, make sure it lasts long enough. In our testing, battery run-times ranged from 5 to 39 hours.
Water and dust resistance: This is useful if you want to use your speaker outdoors. Look for an Ingress Protection (IP) rating of at least IP54. Higher numbers offer more protection. For information on the different levels of protection, read our article about IP ratings.
Multi-room pairing: Many manufacturers make speakers that can be paired to others of the same brand so you can play your audio in multiple locations. The same single-channel sound will play from all speakers.
Stereo pairing: Stereo pairing is different from multi-room speaker pairing. Speakers of the same brand, paired in stereo, produce a multi-channel sound.
Near Field Communication (NFC): NFC lets you skip the pairing stage of connecting to a Bluetooth speaker. You can simply tap your device to your speaker and they’ll start communicating.
3.5mm AUX input: This is a port that allows a 3.5mm audio cable to be connected directly to the speaker. It’ll use less power than Bluetooth, but distance is limited by the length of the cable.
Charge devices via USB: Some speakers can also charge smaller devices, such as a phone, via USB. They have a specific type of USB port for this purpose.
Apple AirPlay 2: This is a wireless connection protocol that lets your speaker communicate easily with Apple devices.
Voice assistance: Many speakers now have a built-in virtual assistant, such as Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, or Apple Siri, so you can control your speaker by voice.
Check our test results to see which models have the features and accessories you want.
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