Take Your Tunes Anywhere
There’s a seemingly endless supply of portable Bluetooth speakers out there, most of which will work just fine after being stowed in your luggage and pulled out for use in your hotel room. But perhaps you’re looking for something to take on your next camping excursion or trip to the beach. Or maybe you want a speaker with built-in cupholders, a retractable luggage handle, and the ability to double as a guitar amp. We test plenty of outdoor-friendly speakers that meet all of these requirements and more. Here’s what to look for, as well as the top models we’ve tested.
Ruggedness and Waterproofing: Understanding IP Ratings
Manufacturers often claim a speaker is water-resistant or waterproof, but the only true measure of just how protected a speaker is from liquid and other potential hazards is its IP rating. But these ratings can be confusing as well.
Every proper IP rating consists of either a two-digit score, or an X (acting as a placeholder) and a single digit. The first digit refers to a product’s protection against solids, like dust, while the second refers to protection against liquids. The number range for solids spans from zero (no protection) to six (dustproof), and for liquids it’s zero to eight (waterproof and submersible beyond one meter for extended time periods).
The rating IP68, therefore, is the top IP rating, signifying a dustproof, waterproof, submersible product. The EcoXGear EcoSlate boasts this rating. When you see ratings with an X in them, it usually means the manufacturer didn’t officially test for protection, but believes the rating would be higher than zero. Thus, an IPX8 rating means the product has the highest level of water protection, and an unverified level of dust protection (but one that is assumed to be higher than no protection at all).
Most portable wireless speakers with IP ratings range in the IPX5 to IPX7 range. The low end of this spectrum means the speaker is protected against low-pressure water streaming from any direction, while IPX7 signifies a speaker is submersible up to 1 meter without issue. Sometimes a time period will be specified—some speakers are only guaranteed to be protected while submerged for, say, 30 minutes.
Plenty of speakers also have solids protection, and will list the tested number instead of the X placeholder. If protection against dust or sand is crucial (good for trips to the beach), you’ll want to go for a speaker that actually lists a numeral rather than an X.
If a manufacturer neglects to list a speaker’s IP rating but makes a claim of a water-resistant design, you can probably assume that it can handle rain, sweat, and minor splashes, as well as a quick rinse in the sink now and then. But submerging it in a pool or tub is not a wise idea without knowing the IP rating.
Size and Portability
Portable speakers aren’t limited to small speakers that can be stashed in your backpack. In fact, plenty of the portable speakers we test are relatively large and heavy, meant for portability in the sense that you can carry them to your car’s trunk and from the car to the campfire, but they’re about as large as a cooler. Obviously, one role size plays in the equation is how much bass response and overall volume a speaker is able to project. Don’t expect a pocket-size speaker to have much, if any, bass depth.
It’s also important to make sure you’re actually looking at an outdoor-friendly speaker. Just because a speaker is portable doesn’t mean it has an IP rating. Plenty of options, especially lately (thanks to Sonos-like multi-room systems as well as the ever-growing smart speaker market), are portable only in the room-to-room sense. But if you must take Alexa with you, the Ultimate Ears UE Megablast has you covered.
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Portable Bluetooth speakers, be they for the great outdoors or simply for room to room, have come a long way in the last half decade. Today small speakers can pack some fairly impressive firepower. This is thanks mostly to the near-ubiquitous inclusion of passive radiators.
Passive bass radiators are made of rubber-like surfaces that vibrate sympathetically with the output of a powered driver—like when you place a speaker on a long wooden table and you notice the table vibrating, seemingly increasing the bass response. The vibrations often create the sense of stronger bass depth, even without these radiators receiving actual powered audio on their own. It sounds like a gimmick that shouldn’t be effective, but some manufacturers have worked magic and manage to pump out rich bass response from fairly small speakers—the Sony SRS-XB10 is a strong example.
Some outdoor speakers also feature outdoor listening modes. These modes tend to dial up the treble, and sometimes the bass, to make up for the lack of reflective surfaces when you’re sitting in the middle of a field or forest. The walls in your kitchen or office do, indeed, perform a function in transmitting audio to your ears, and without them in the picture, high frequencies in particular can sound dulled, especially if you’re not terribly close to the speaker.
One more thing to note is whether a speaker is mono or stereo. Plenty of the Bluetooth speakers we test, especially the smaller ones, only have a single driver. Or they may have multiple drivers, but the drivers are devoted to different frequency ranges and not left and right channels—in other words, the manufacturer decided that pumping out some stronger bass matters more than stereo separation. And it’s not a bad approach—keep in mind that if your left and right drivers aren’t farther apart than your ears, you’re not likely to hear much stereo separation unless they’re angled to play off a room’s surfaces. And even if you do have enough space between the drivers for stereo separation, if you are farther away from the speakers than the drivers are from each other, that stereo image will often sound a lot more like mono.
Many of these extra features, along with drivers that pump out big bass at high volumes, come at the cost of battery life. Just about every speaker we test is powered by an internal lithium-ion battery that gets charged via a micro USB port or an actual AC power adapter.
Typical battery life for portable speakers ranges anywhere from 10 to 20 hours, depending on size and features. But keep in mind these are estimates, and manufacturers will often list a higher battery life based on the assumption that you’ll be listening at modest volume levels. As you might expect, blasting a speaker at top volume will drain the battery more quickly.
If the speaker you’re considering delivers less than 10 hours of battery life, it might be worth investing in a portable battery pack to keep the party going.
You can argue that, beyond a strong IP rating and solid audio performance, a quality outdoor speaker needn’t have a bunch of extra features. But where’s the fun in that? The most feature-packed outdoor speaker we’ve tested is, without a doubt, the EcoXGear EcoBoulder+, a portable speaker the size of a small trash can and armed with cup holders, a radio, mic inputs, wheels, and a retractable luggage handle, to list most, but not all, of its bells and whistles.
Voice assistance, in the form of Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, is also starting to make its way into the portable market. Not only is the Ultimate Ears UE Megablast waterproof, it features Alexa voice control so you can treat it like any other smart speaker, including the Amazon Echo.
Just keep in mind that if you want a speaker with a built-in flashlight, for instance, it’s out there, but if it costs only slightly more than an actual flashlight that has no speaker, you can do the math and rightfully assume you won’t be getting much in the way of quality audio. Extra features (should) drive up the price to an extent—you are wise to be skeptical when they don’t.
But there are some added features that cost very little to include, and are often exceedingly useful. Plenty of outdoor speakers have a threaded screw mount for tripods, or for attaching to bikes or action camera gear, for instance.
There are plenty of solid-sounding outdoor-friendly speakers for $150 or less. The top end of this price range will get you reasonably good bass response, and typically, the speaker will be able to transmit stereo audio. The lower end of this price range will usually feature smaller speakers, often mono, and few of them will have much low-end response to offer.
Below, say, $50, you’re flirting with options that may not sound markedly (or at all) better than your mobile device on its own. And if you’re willing to reach above $150 there plenty of alluring options, including offerings from luxury brands like Bang & Olufsen.
Bottom Line: The JBL Charge 3 is an outdoor-friendly portable Bluetooth speaker that packs a considerable bass punch for its size and price.
Bottom Line: The JBL Clip 2 is a budget-friendly Bluetooth speaker that delivers solid audio performance in a supremely portable, outdoor-friendly design.
Bottom Line: The Sony SRS-XB3 speaker delivers some of the best Bluetooth audio we’ve heard for the price, wrapped in a portable, outdoor-friendly design.
Bottom Line: The large but portable Soundcast VG5 speaker delivers thunderous audio in an outdoor-friendly design.
Bottom Line: Though pricey for its size, the B&O Play Beoplay P2 delivers a strong, rich Bluetooth audio experience in a graceful design.
Bottom Line: The Bose SoundLink Micro speaker delivers an impressive Bluetooth audio performance for its size, but its price feels a tad high.
Bottom Line: Sony’s wireless, outdoor-friendly SRS-XB10 speaker delivers some surprising bass depth for its size and price.
Bottom Line: The Ultimate Ears UE Wonderboom is a small, rugged Bluetooth speaker that produces a surprising punch of sound for its size.
Bottom Line: If you want to take Alexa on the go, the UE Megablast is one of the biggest, most powerful smart speakers you can tote and expose to the elements without worry.
Bottom Line: The EcoXGear EcoBoulder+ is a unique portable Bluetooth speaker with built-in cup holders, a bottle opener, wheels, and the ability to float or double as a guitar amp.