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.
Cut the cables and connect over the airwaves with a wireless speaker.
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.
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.
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.
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).
We have awarded the Top Brand award to Samsung for sound bars and home theatre systems. With consistently good test scores, the best reliability in the category and plenty of very satisfied owners, Samsung is a steadily high performer.
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.