Cut the Cord
Wireless speakers are everywhere these days. Big, small, portable, expensive, cheap, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi… the sheer amount of choice can seem overwhelming. But our top picks are sure to have at least one speaker that's right for you. Before anything else, though, you need to decide how you want to go wireless.
Bluetooth or Wi-Fi?
Bluetooth is the most common wireless music streaming standard, but it isn't the only one. Bluetooth is a point-to-point wireless system, pairing a transmitter (your phone or computer) with a receiver (your speaker) to play music. It's very direct and easy to set up, and can stream pretty high-quality music thanks to technological advancements that have greatly improved audio fidelity over what it was a few years ago. Bluetooth generally doesn't have any multi-room tricks in itself, though some speakers can set up stereo pairs with the help of an app, while others can create a wireless mesh among multiple speakers for multi-room audio. It isn't quite as high-fidelity or as powerful as Wi-Fi multi-room audio, however.
Wi-Fi audio includes standards like Apple AirPlay and Google Cast, along with various manufacturers' own Wi-Fi streaming platforms, like Sonos. Wi-Fi can handle more bandwidth than Bluetooth, so it can support higher fidelity audio. It can also integrate into your home network, so you can easily play audio from any device connected to your Wi-Fi without pairing anything. The trade-off is that Wi-Fi music systems generally require a Wi-Fi network to connect to, so they can't be used portably with your smartphone like Bluetooth speakers. The different Wi-Fi standards also mean various services might or might not be available to stream over the device, though this is less of a problem than it has been in the past thanks to Google Cast and Sonos' lengthy lists of supported third-party services.
Most new speakers available feature some kind of wireless support, whether they're clip-on bike speakers or big soundbars. With some exceptions, any speaker you pick up at an electronics store will be able to stream audio either over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Your speaker might even be able to handle both wireless methods. Check if your Wi-Fi speaker has a Bluetooth mode for using it on the go.
What Kind of Speaker?
Besides the type of wireless connection, you need to think about what style of speaker you want. Smaller, battery-powered speakers (usually Bluetooth) are useful because you can take them anywhere, but they don't get particularly loud. Larger speakers generally offer fuller sound and richer bass, but they can be more expensive and are often not portable.
Besides single speakers, you can also find stereo pairs designed for desktop computers and home theater speaker systems like soundbars, soundplates, and home-theaters-in-a-box. These speakers are obviously not portable at all, but if you want a centerpiece sound system for your living room or office they're likely your best choice.
For a speaker to be portable, it needs to both be small and light enough to easily carry around, and be equipped with a battery so it can run without being plugged in. Of course, "small" and "light" are relative; tiny speakers with carabiners let you clip them to your backpack and take them on hikes, while much bigger and heavier speakers might be intended only to be taken from room to room in your home.
Bluetooth speakers are usually portable, but they don't have to be. If a Bluetooth speaker is too big to easily carry around, or doesn't have a battery, it won't be portable.
Since Wi-Fi speakers rely on a separate network to enable multi-speaker and multi-room audio playback, they're rarely portable. After all, portability doesn't matter if you need to be connected to your home's hotspot. There are exceptions, though, and Wi-Fi speakers can still be portable if they have batteries, and ideally can create an ad-hoc Wi-Fi network with your phone.
Not all portable speakers are built to be carried around outdoors, or used by the pool. Rugged speakers can handle splashes, dunks, drops, and gunk and keep running. If you try that with the non-rugged speakers on this list, however, you'll find yourself with a brick instead of an audio device. Look for speakers with IPX ratings and guarantees of water and shock resistance if you want to carry them around to the beach, the lake, the slopes, or the sewers. Our guide to IP ratings explains what those numbers mean, so you can know whether your speaker can handle getting dunked in the pool, or if it simply will stay intact in a light drizzle.
For more, see our list of the best outdoor speakers.
Unless portability is at the top of your priority list, sound quality is paramount. Plenty of speakers don't offer much in the way of features, but produce top-notch audio. Big bass isn't for everyone, but unless your speaker is downright tiny, it should be able to reproduce low frequencies accurately without distorting at high volumes. Clarity is more important than sheer power, and a balanced, clean sound should be your goal when shopping for a speaker. If you want a sound system that can drive a whole party instead of just fill a small room, keep the size of the speaker in mind; generally, the bigger a speaker is, the louder it can get while still sounding good.
As mentioned earlier, in the early days of wireless audio Bluetooth was far inferior to Wi-Fi standards because of limited bandwidth and audio compression. Those problems have been largely solved, and Bluetooth 4.0 (not to mention 5.0) and its relevant audio codecs can transmit excellent quality audio. Wi-Fi can still get an edge purely due to the available bandwidth, and if you want to listen to lossless music on services like Tidal you should probably go with Wi-Fi over Bluetooth. Of course, a wired connection can be better than both thanks to either faster data speeds for digital signals or simply the fact that the wire is carrying the analog sound without any conversion. But this guide is for wireless speakers.
Voice assistants let you simply tell your speaker what to play instead of looking through your smartphone. They were initially very limited, closed systems only available on first-party devices, like Alexa on the Amazon Echo and Google Assistant on the Google Home, but that's steadily changing. More and more third-party speakers are integrating some form of voice assistant, either Google Assistant or Alexa.
These voice assistants are useful for more than just playing music. You can ask them for weather forecasts, sports scores, unit conversions, and even language translation. They also generally support third-party skills that let you do anything from order pizza to play trivia games. If you have other smart home devices, you might even be able to integrate them as well, letting you control the lights and thermostat with your voice.
Voice assistant speakers have one universal requirement: Wi-Fi. They need an internet connection, and without one voice recognition and all of the processing needed to find your music, answer your questions, and control your smart home devices simply won't work. These speakers can still be portable, and even offer Bluetooth connectivity when you're away from your network, but those features aren't certain. The most prominent first-party voice assistant speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home don't have batteries.
Speakers come in a wide range of prices. Don't assume, however, that the most money always buys the best overall product. Generally speaking, higher-end models do sound better, but sometimes they lack the features you might expect for the price. The trick is to get the best sound, along with the features you want, at a price you can afford. And, of course, if you want to know about all of those things, you can read our reviews of each speaker.
The easiest way to get the best price: Shop around online. You'll often find prices well below list if you do a little bargain hunting on the web. Don't be afraid to look for similar speakers to the ones on this list, either; a number of the options included here have solid predecessors that you can now find for much less since they've been replaced. We've also rounded up our favorite Bluetooth speakers under $100.
Bottom Line: This year's Amazon Echo is a great-looking, affordable smart speaker with the best voice assistant technology.
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Bottom Line: The B&O Play Beoplay A1 is a portable Bluetooth speaker with some of the best bass response you'll find in such a compact size.
Bottom Line: The impressive 12-inch Ikea Eneby has the beauty and power of a Bluetooth speaker twice its price.
Bottom Line: The Google Home Max is the first smart speaker we've seen with serious audio performance.
Bottom Line: The outdoor-friendly JBL Boombox delivers thunderous bass balanced with solid high frequency presence in a nostalgic design.
Bottom Line: The JLab Block Party is a wireless speaker that delivers some serious thunder from its modest frame. It's an excellent building block for a simple multiroom audio system.
Bottom Line: The Sonos One is a versatile wireless speaker with excellent sound quality, support for multi-room audio, and Amazon Alexa voice control.
Bottom Line: The large but portable Soundcast VG5 speaker delivers thunderous audio in an outdoor-friendly 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: The JBL Pulse 3 delivers solid Bluetooth audio, but the main event is the LED light show, which makes the speaker a tad pricier than similar-sounding speakers.
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