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 battery-powered speakers, which can be easily shifted to a different room or brought outside the house. But it also includes smart home speakers, which plug into the wall as semi-permanent pieces of furniture. Confusingly, they can often look similar, so make sure you don’t buy the wrong type.
Portable speakers can lack the sound quality of their plugged-in cousins, but that’s not always a dealbreaker. Because they’re used so differently, convenience is 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 got ranges in excess of 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 affect 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.
If the speaker has a built in virtual-assistant, such as Amazon’s Echo devices, you can ask it to play whatever music you want. For example, “Alexa, play music from the 80s”. You can also use your voice to skip, shuffle, change the volume or stop. You can even ask for the song’s title and the artist performing it.
Which features are important to consider when choosing a wireless speaker?
- Battery life – if your speaker has a rechargeable battery, make sure it lasts long enough. In our testing, battery runtimes ranged from 8 to 30 hours.
- Water and dust resistance is useful if you want to use your speaker outdoors. Check for an Ingress Protection (IP) rating of at least IP54. For information on the different levels of protection, read our article about IP ratings.
- Near Field Communication (NFC) lets you skip the pairing stage of connecting to a Bluetooth speaker. You can simply tap your device to the speaker, and they’ll start communicating.
- 3.5mm AUX input – a port that allows a 3.5mm audio cable to be connected directly to the speaker. This connection uses less power than Bluetooth, but distance is limited by the length of your cable.
- Speakerphone support recognises when your phone is getting an incoming call. It pauses the music and lets you receive the call through the speaker, then resumes the music once you hang up.
- Charging USB devices – some speakers with a built-in battery can also charge a device, such as a phone, through USB. This does require a specific type of USB port.
- Dual-band WiFi means the speaker can connect to both 2.4GHz and 5GHz WiFi bands.
- Apple Airplay is a wireless connection protocol that lets the speaker communicate easily with Apple devices.
Which speakers are most reliable?
We ask thousands of Consumer members about their products to find out which brands are most reliable and satisfying to own. The results are available to members and Digital Pass holders.
Bluetooth audio adapters
If you’re happy with your current speakers – portable or wired – but you want Bluetooth connectivity, there is an option. You can plug a Bluetooth audio adapter into your speaker’s 3.5mm aux input, then connect your Bluetooth device to the audio adapter. However, because aux ports aren’t powered, you’ll either need to plug the adapter into the wall or recharge its battery occasionally.