WiFi and Bluetooth speakers

wireless speaker

Cut the cables and connect over the airwaves with a wireless speaker.

Wireless speakers use either Bluetooth to connect to your music-playing device; or WiFi to connect to a streaming service. We tested budget options as well as pricier models, and consider what to look for when buying.

From our test

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About our test

Our panel of expert listeners judged the quality of a variety of music, spoken word, and sounds on each device and scored them out of 10.

These scores were collated to get the overall sound score.

The tracks were:

  • Here to Stay, Pat Metheny Group
  • I, Frankie Goes to Hollywood
  • Your Song, Rita Ora
  • Galway Girl, Ed Sheeran
  • a radio play of Harry Potter.

The panel also listened to pink noise. Pink noise is like white noise but has equal energy per octave, so it’s noticeably deeper.

As with our other audio testing, we didn’t include R&B, hip-hop, soul or other bass-heavy music. Our tested tracks were assessed on how easily the bass could be discerned and how “muddy” it sounded.

Connecting to your speakers

Either Bluetooth or WiFi will get your new speaker playing what you want, when you want it.

Connecting via Bluetooth is simple and doesn’t require any WiFi network support – just pair and go. This is done when the speaker is in pairing mode, either via NFC (tapping your phone to the speaker) or by selecting the speaker’s name from a list in the Bluetooth settings on your device.

While manufacturers usually claim range is limited to about 10m, our testers got ranges in excess of this (30m+), even through obstructions such as doors or walls. Our testers got the best range when the speaker was placed 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 use that connection to play music from streaming services, such as Spotify or Amazon Music. In nearly every instance, 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 then press play. This also means you can control the sound from your device.

If the speaker has a built in virtual-assistant, such as Amazon’s Echo devices, then you can literally ask it to play whatever music you want. For example, “Alexa play music from the 80s”. You can also tell it to skip, shuffle, change the volume, and stop. It can even tell you the name of the song and the artist performing it.

Bluetooth audio adapters

If you are happy with your current speakers – portable or wired – but you want Bluetooth connectivity, then there is an option. All you have to do is plug a Bluetooth audio adapter into your speaker’s 3.5mm auxiliary input and then connect your Bluetooth device to the audio adapter.

Speaker networks

Network or “system” speakers work by connecting various wireless speakers over your home’s WiFi network.

Once all the speakers are linked, you can play audio through any combination of them. The speakers don’t even need to be in the same room as long as they are connected to your network – so you can be listening to music in just one room, or all of them. You can also set up two of the same speaker (for example, two Sonos Play:1 speakers) as a left and right channel. This will all be done via an app.

Creating a network means you don’t need to lay out a large amount of money in one go, but can build up by buying separate pieces over time. You can’t pick and choose from different brands, but each manufacturer has various speaker types available, from regular speakers to wall-mounted flat panels or round speakers that can broadcast in multiple directions. This variety means you can tailor a system to suit your home.

Here’s how the network speakers in our test performed as a complete system.

Brand[width=large] Yamaha Sonos
App MusicCast Sonos
System Price $3349 $4045
Overall score 78% 72%
System sound quality (/10) 7.8 7.0
Ease of use - Android app (/10) 8.1 7.9
Ease of use - iOS app (/10) 8.9 8.1
Ease of use - speakers (/10) 4.5 5.0
WiFi Dual Band Red Red
Apple Airplay Green Red
Bluetooth Green Red
Google Play Music Red Green
Pandora Green Green
Spotify Green Green
Speakers can act as network extenders Green Green
Can create own network Red Green

GUIDE TO THE TABLE PRICES taken from an October 2018 online price survey. SYSTEM PRICE is the combined price of all speakers. SYSTEM SOUND QUALITY (70% of overall score). EASE OF USE - ANDROID APP (12.5%). EASE OF USE - iOS APP (12.5%). EASE OF USE – SPEAKERS (5%).

System reviews

We reviewed systems in the same way as individual speakers.

Yamaha
$3349 total system cost
Score: 78%

The Yamaha MusicCast system has very good quality sound from its five speakers, (including the NX-N500, which has excellent sound). The YSP-2700 soundbar offers a massive 16 speaker drivers and 7 channels. However, it's not a cheap system and doesn't have a few features, such as dual-band WiFi. The speakers can be used as network extenders though, which is useful.

Components: NX-N500 ($899); MusicCast WX-030 ($399); YSP-2700 ($1582); Restio ISX-80 ($469).

Sonos
$4045 total system cost
Score: 72%

Sonos is synonymous with connected speaker systems. The Sonos speaker system has good sound quality and you can use the speakers to extend your network. You can even use the system to create its own network. It doesn't work with Apple's AirPlay but it does work with Google Play Music. The Playbar and Sub can also be combined with two Play:1 speakers and connected to your TV to create a 5.1 home theatre system.

Components: Play:1 ($299); Play:3 ($499); Play:5 (2nd Gen) ($849); Playbar ($1199); Sub ($1199).

Features

Here are some features to consider when choosing wireless speakers.

  • Near Field Communication (NFC) allows you to skip the pairing stage of connecting to a Bluetooth speaker and simply tap your device to the speaker for them to communicate and for your music to start playing via Bluetooth.
  • 3.5mm AUX input – a port that allows any 3.5mm audio cable to be connected directly to the speaker. This wired connection uses less power than Bluetooth, but any device will need to be in close proximity to the speaker.
  • Speakerphone support recognises when your mobile phone is getting an incoming call, pauses the music and allows you to receive the call through the speaker, resuming the music once your call is finished.
  • Carry bag or handle makes them easier to carry.
  • Dust or water resistance is useful if you want to use your speaker outdoors. Some of the models tested have an IPX3 or IPX4 rating, which means they can cope with some splashing water, but not immersion.
  • Built-in battery – some wireless speakers don’t have a built-in battery, which means they aren’t portable.
  • 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, so not all wireless speakers will have this feature. Dual-band WiFi – this means the speaker can connect to both 2.4GHz and 5GHz WiFi bands.
  • Apple Airplay – this is a wireless connection protocol that lets the speaker communicate easily with Apple devices.
  • Network extenders – this means the speakers will act as receivers and transmitters of your home network, so it can expand to fill the entire house with fewer dead zones.
  • WiFi Direct – Some speakers can create their own localised WiFi network to connect speakers and devices. This means you don’t need an existing WiFi network, but they won’t be able to connect to streaming services without connecting a phone or tablet.

Waterproof

If you plan on taking your devices out and about with you, it’s important they can withstand the elements. Devices that are water and/or dust-proof have Ingress Protection (IP) ratings.

For example, the most common is IPX7. This means the device hasn’t been tested on dust particles, but is resistant to water up to a metre in depth. See here for more on IP ratings and the different levels of protection.

In real life

To see how this works outside a lab we took the UE Boom 2 and UE Wonderboom, both IPX7, and dropped them in a pool to see how they perform underwater and after a dunking.


If you’re worried about dropping one of these speakers in water, don’t be. The water didn’t damage the electronics, though it did soak the fabric parts. The water interrupted the Bluetooth signal, so when a speaker was immersed, the sound stopped, but it reconnected instantly when above water. The Boom 2 sank like a stone, but survived and reconnected when taken out again. The Wonderboom is designed to float so, after a quick dunk and loss of signal, it happily bobbed along playing music. The music was notably quieter than usual as only a third of the device is above the water (below the water the music was loud).

First Look reviews

First Looks are trials of new or interesting products. Here’s what our product experts thought of these Bluetooth speakers.

Bose is a Top Brand

The Top Brand award recognises brands that perform consistently well across product testing, reliability and customer satisfaction.

We have awarded the Top Brand award to Bose for sound bars, home theatre systems, wireless speakers and headphones. Bose sound products tested very well and returned exceptional owner satisfaction.

Reliability

For an “on the move” product, wireless speakers are very reliable with an average of 97% overall. Their main problem is the bane of many tech devices: power, batteries and charging.

Bose and Sony were the most reliable, followed by Logitech/UE and JBL. However, there were more than 80 other brands represented, contributing 267 speakers. These “other” brands were a wide mix, from well-known tech brands such as Amazon and House of Marley to one-sample wonders.

The performance of the “other” group held up – reliability was very high (98%) and an average number of owners were very satisfied and saw excellent value in their purchase.

For more on wireless speakers reliability, see our survey.

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