There's a lot of choice when it comes to speakers, and it's not always clear which will be the best for you. Here, we bring you our pick of the best Bluetooth speakers available and expert buying advice to help you choose from the selection.
There are dozens of speaker manufacturers fighting for a slice of the Apple pie, with speakers in all shapes and sizes, designed for both indoor and outdoor use. Many speakers talk the talk - but do they walk the walk?
In this article, we explain various features you should look out for when in the market for a new speaker for your device, including the compression technology used by the speaker, and '360 degree audio'. If you want to skip straight ahead to our round-up of the best speakers click here, but for more buying advice simply read on.
Bluetooth speaker buying advice
By default, every Bluetooth audio-capable device must be able to use an agreed basic compression system, known as sub-band coding (SBC). This is a psychoacoustic lossy codec - that is, it discards music information deemed not so important to our ears, to greatly reduce the number of bits that must be sent in a digital music stream.
The quality of SBC varies and it runs at various bitrates. But SBC typically runs at around 200 kb/s, and has the subjective quality of MP3 at 128 kb/s - which is to say, not at all good.
Alternatives are now in use thankfully. Top dog is aptX, a British invention that forms the basis of DTS cinema sound. It's still lossy and compressed sound but amazingly nearly transparent to CD resolution at its fixed bitrate of 350 kb/s. Samsung invested heavily in current aptX licence holder CSR plc and now fits aptX compatibility into most of its Android phones.
Sadly Apple does not include aptX in any of its iOS devices, although Macs since Snow Leopard can use aptX Bluetooth audio. Instead, the iPhone and iPad will try to beam out Bluetooth audio using the AAC codec, which is part of the MPEG-4 standard. Results are always better than SBC, but not quite as good as aptX.
The second hindrance to Bluetooth speaker sound is the current reliance on low-fidelity amplification technology. While natural sounding hi-fi amplifiers still use a linear system known as Class A or Class B (more typically both, to form Class AB), cheap and portable audio devices use Class D.
Class D is a clever way to make amplifiers far more efficient, turning mains or battery power into usable amp output power. That's particularly noteworthy in a mobile age dependent on batteries.
Class D amps run cold so don't require massive heatsinks to vent unwanted heat. A complete 20W amp module can be built around a small microchip, saving much space and cost. The technology has everything going for it - except sound quality, which is typically grainy, harsh, lifeless and stripped of the natural essence of music.
A popular feature of Bluetooth speakers is '360-degree audio' - but what is 360-degree audio? Generally speaking, speakers that offer 360-degree audio are usually cylindrical or circular in design and feature drivers facing every direction, opposed to the traditional front-facing speaker setup.
This produces 'room filling audio' which waves goodbye to the audio 'sweet spot' that you'll find on traditional speakers, where audio will sound best when facing a certain direction. Though it's not a deal breaker, it's usually something we look for when in the market for a new speaker.
What about battery life? While not too long ago, the standard battery life for a Bluetooth speaker was a slightly disappointing five hours, we've come along way with regards to Bluetooth accessory battery life.
With many budget speakers offering upwards of 10 hours per charge, we wouldn't recommend buying a speaker that offers anything dramatically less. Also, it's worth keeping an eye out for speakers that double up as portable battery chargers, as it'll probably come in handy when using your smartphone to play music.
Some Bluetooth speakers also offer Wi-Fi connectivity, so which connection should you opt for? Traditionally, using a Bluetooth connection gives you a 10m range (although this may vary between products), which means that you'll only be able to play music from a speaker in the same room as you - any further and you'll probably experience the audio cutting out.
Wi-Fi has a much wider reach, and could allow you to play music from anywhere in the house. With this being said, the Wi-Fi setup process can be quite stressful and require users to install a specific app on their smartphone in order to operate the speaker, whereas Bluetooth setup takes 30 seconds.
In terms of design, the Libratone Zipp brings something a little different to the table. Why? As the name suggests, you can unzip the cover of the Zipp and swap it out with a different one, making the speaker more of a fashion statement than just a speaker.
Though at £19 a pop, we don’t think we’d have too many spares laying around – but it’s a nice option for those a little more fashion conscious than ourselves.
The Zipp goes above and beyond the functionality of a standard Bluetooth speaker in some aspects, offering the ability to charge your phone via the built-in USB port. That’s not all though, as the Zipp boasts Wi-Fi capabilities alongside the standard Bluetooth offering, enabling Spotify Connect and AirPlay, along with the ability to stream internet radio.
The built-in AirPlay functionality works well with iOS most of the time, although we suffered from occasional stuttering despite having a fairly strong Wi-Fi signal. The Bluetooth connection offered no issues for us, though.
The speaker provides excellent 360-degree sound from five drivers which are tuned for boomy bass rather than crisp highs, and lasts around 10 hours per charge.
You can control things from the touch sensitive panel on the top which is easy enough to get used to, but a little confusing to operate at first. Our only complaint is that at higher listening levels the poise and balance of the audio is lost.
Acoustic Energy Aego 3
It's almost a decade since the original Aego M speakers picked up a rave review on Macworld, but there's finally been an update in the form of the new Aego 3.
In some ways, the Aego 3 does still look rather old-fashioned. It's a 2.1 speaker system with two small stereo satellites that are designed to sit on either side of a computer monitor, along with a knee-high sub-woofer that can go down on the floor beside your desk.
However, the Aego 3 isn't just for giving presentations on your Mac. There are aux-in and digital optical connectors, along with Bluetooth for mobile devices, so you can use the speakers in your front room or bedroom and connect them to other devices if you need to.
The 2.1 combo provides a total 65W output, so there's plenty of power available, whether you're giving a presentation to a large audience, or just playing some music for a dinner party. That power is combined with attractive clarity and detail on the higher frequencies, and a nice firm bass thud from the sub-woofer. We also like the inclusion of separate bass controls on the little remote control.
It makes a nice change to hear proper stereo speakers that provide good separation between the left and right channels - something that's always lacking in more compact, all-in-one speakers and docks.
However, Acoustic Energy also make a version of the Aego 3 that includes a soundbar and sub-woofer combo, which might be a good option for use with the AppleTV or maybe a games console. Cliff Joseph
Third in the series, the Bayan Audio SoundBook GO is a Bluetooth portable speaker worth reading about. (See what we did there?)
It's an affordable little speaker that bucks the trend for many of its Bluetooth breed by being a delight to listen to. Plus, it's a neat design that provides some protection to the front perforated grille if you should travel with it.
Inside the SoundBook Go is a pair of 35mm full-range drivers powered by a 7.5 watt stereo Class D chip amplifier. You'll get reliable Bluetooth connection or the option of a 3.5mm minijack for improved sound performance.
Interested? Find out more in our Bayan Audio SoundBook Go review.
The Libratone Too is one of the best looking Bluetooth speakers we've seen below £150, and while the sound quality isn't mind-blowing, it's solid enough to make the Too a great choice for anyone looking for both portability and great design in a speaker.
The Too is a 'tube' speaker, and comes in a range of four colours - we reviewed the 'Cerise Red', which is bright and vibrant, with an attractively simple design. There are no sharp edges to the Too, with the soft, rubberised plastic shell blending seamlessly into the curved grille. The power button is subtly indented into the top of the body, while the Libratone logo adorns a small touch panel, which tap for pause/play, or alter volume with a circular sweep (which always proved a little more fiddly than we hoped, but that's a small niggle).
Sound is driven by a pair of 1.5in full-range drivers and one passive driver, and while audio is pretty crisp the bass output is definitely limited - don't expect this to fill the room. Still, it's solid sound for £109, and the 306-degree output makes it ideal for travel, helped by the Too's light weight, comfortable carry handle, and splash-proofing. It's also got a microphone so that you can use it for calls, which we found to be pretty crisp and clear.
Other speakers might pack more punch, but you'd have to spend a fair bit more to find one with better audio that can match the Too when it comes to design.
Cambridge Audio Bluetone
The Bluetone's matte black casing isn't much to look at, but it packs a serious punch for speaker costing just under £200.
With 100W output, the Bluetone is powerful enough to really fill a room with sound, and provides a more solid bass sound than many compact speakers of this size. It measures 182x354x118mm and weighs 4.1kg so isn't quite as portable as some of the other speakers in this round-up.
It only runs off mains power, but there's a carrying handle built into the back of the speaker and it's light enough to easily carry from room to room at home.
It uses Bluetooth for wireless connectivity - with the option of Apt-X for devices that support it - and there are two inputs for non-wireless devices as well.
The Cowin Ark is unlike many other Bluetooth speakers as its formed of two parts; a portable Bluetooth speaker/soundbar that sits on top, nicknamed Cruze, and the wired base, nicknamed Ark. The mixture of brushed metal sides and a mirror finish on top makes for a space age device.
Though the Cowin Ark comes as a two-piece Bluetooth speaker system, the Cruze can be taken to the beach or the park and be used by itself, thanks to its built-in rechargeable battery.
The Ark features Magnatec technology, which syncs the two parts of your system ready for playback, while also keeping the Cruze securely attached to the Ark whenever its placed on top - but that's not its only functionality.
The Magnatec technology also provides wireless charging for the soundbar, which means the Cruze is fully charged and ready to go whenever you are. Oh, and the Ark can also be used to charge up your smartphone too, if it supports wireless charging.
We were really surprised by the audio quality of the Cowin Ark, especially with regards to its bass output. The levels of bass are nothing short of phenomenal and when paired with a soundbar that can produce 35W of room-filling audio, the result is a well rounded sound perfect for a variety of tasks, from background audio when you're relaxing to playing tunes full blast in your living room with your mates.
This is thanks to its two speaker drivers, two passive radiators and a 5in ported subwoofer.
You can read a review by our colleagues at PC Advisor here.
Creative Sound Blaster Roar Pro
We really liked the original Roar from Creative Labs, and that first model has now given birth to an entire range of roaring speakers.
The Roar Pro is the latest addition to the range, although it sticks with the deceptively compact design of its predecessor and looks barely larger than a chunky paperback novel. It'll fit easily into a backpack when you're on the move, and the battery life for this model has been increased from eight to 10 hours, so it'll last all night long if it needs to.
There's no shortage of power squeezed into that compact case, though. The three drivers for mid-range and high frequencies are backed up by two bass radiators that help to produce a really firm, expansive sound - and that's even before you press the special Roar button that kicks it into overdrive, or the TeraBass button that enhances bass output when listening at lower volumes.
There's also a handy switch that lets you choose between 'warm', 'neutral' and 'energetic' presets, depending on the type of music that you want to play.
It's versatile too, with a built-in microphone for taking voice calls, and a microSD slot so that you can play music stored on a memory card. You can also use the mic to store voice recordings on a memory card, which will be handy for lectures and speeches.
There's also an optional wireless microphone - costing about £60 - that allows you to use the Roar Pro as a portable PA system, perhaps for giving presentations at work, or doing your DJ act at the weekend. Cliff Joseph
Denon Envaya Mini
The Denon Envaya Mini is a gorgeous little Bluetooth speaker ready for use with your iPhone, iPad or Mac. It measures in at just 20.9x5.4x5.1cm, but it weighs a surprisingly hefty 558g, which makes it a little less portable than we'd like.
But where this speaker really excels is the audio, so there's a bit of good news for you. It boasts dual 40mm full range drivers with a 40x83mm passive radiator, which produces both crisp sound and impressive bass.
Could the Denon Envaya Mini be the speaker you've been looking for? Check out our colleagues at PC Advisor's review.
Last year's Bric from Edifier was a smart little portable speaker, but let down by its lack of rechargeable battery, which meant that you had to slap six AA batteries into it before you could leave home.
The new Edifier MP700 corrects that weakness, with a rechargeable battery that can last for up to eight hours (depending on music volume). The aluminium casing looks nice and smart, and is sturdy enough to cope with the occasional bump when you're travelling. We also like the adjustable carrying handle, which can double up as a stand if you need to prop the speaker up on an uneven surface.
Bluetooth is the main option for playing your music, and the Rave also includes the high-quality AptX codec for devices that support it.
There's a line-in connector on the left-hand side of the unit, along with a connector for mains power, and a USB port that lets you charge up your mobile devices from the internal battery. Those ports are also covered by a little rubber flap to protect them from dust and splashing when you're outdoors.
Sound quality is very good for a relatively compact speaker, with the Rave's four drivers handling a wide range of musical styles with no trouble at all. The bass could be a little firmer, perhaps, but that'd be tough with a speaker of this size, and the 36W output is more than powerful enough to get the mood going when you're out and about with friends. Cliff Joseph
Gear4 Stream 1
The Stream 1 has conventional Bluetooth for quickly pairing with your iPhone or other mobile devices, and its rechargeable battery should last for about eight hours so it'll be ideal for listening to music at a BBQ or for a weekend in the great outdoors. There's also a USB port that lets you charge up your iPhone if you need to, and a 3.5mm line-in as well.
Audio quality is really good, and despite its compact design the Stream 1 packs a real punch, with plenty of volume and good definition on the high and mid-frequencies.
The bass could be a little firmer, but it's respectable for a speaker of this size and price, and the Stream 1 works well with everything from gentle acoustic ballads through to pumping dance music.
But the real advantage of the Stream 1 is that it also includes Wi-Fi networking as well. When you're at home you can connect to your Wifi network and use the Stream app to connect to a variety of internet radio stations, as well as services such as Spotify and Deezer.
There's also a Party Mode that allows you to quickly set up a multi-room system by automatically connecting to other Stream speakers around your home.
Harman Kardon Go + Play
- Buy from harman/kardon
The Go + Play speaker has been around in various forms for several years, but this latest update is the best one yet. It retains the classy design of its predecessors, with the curved stainless steel carrying handle that gives it such a distinctive profile.
The old dock for an iPod or iPhone has gone, with the current model now providing Bluetooth for mobile devices. You can pair it with three separate devices so that you and your friends can all play your music together, and there's a 'dual sound' option that allows you to pair two Harman speakers together for a more powerful sound.
Mind you, the Go + Play is pretty powerful all by itself, with its two woofers and two tweeters providing a total 100W output. It's thunderously loud, yet still maintains clarity and detail even at high volumes. There's no sub-woofer, but the Go + Play does include two bass radiators that add plenty of heft to dance tracks.
Throw in a microphone for taking voice calls, and a USB port for charging your iPhone, and you've got a truly powerful and versatile speaker system at a competitive price.
The only minor disadvantage of the Go + Play is that it's a bit on the heavy side. Despite the carrying handle and eight-hour rechargeable battery, the Go + Play weighs in at around 3.4kg, which means that it probably needs to go on the back seat of a car if you're travelling any great distance.
Even so, it's a great choice if you need a powerful, high-quality speaker that you can take to a holiday apartment, or carry outside for a BBQ in the summer. Cliff Joseph
iClever IC-BTS02 Bluetooth Wireless Speaker
iClever's Bluetooth Wireless Speaker is one of the best cheap Bluetooth speakers we've tried. It looks great and it's affordable.
It's surprising just how much sound emanates from this tiny zinc-alloy box. Given that you can easily fit the 64.5x64.5x70.1mm 261g iClever in a single hand, the 5W speaker hidden inside does a much better job than we should reasonably expect from such a portable speaker, both good on bass and free from distortion at high volume.
Find out more in PC Advisor's full review.
Jabra Solemate Max
The rugged design and attractive sound of the original Solemate speaker earned it a lot of fans, so Jabra recently followed it up with the larger Solemate Max.
Admittedly, a weight of almost 3kg means that you probably won't be carrying the Solemate Max around in your backpack, but it does have its own carrying handle to help you out, and the extra size and weight means that it can include a big battery that lasts for up to 14 hours.
It produces a big sound too - the bass could be a bit stronger, but its 90W output is powerful enough to get the party going when you're on holiday or out in the garden. The RRP is a bit steep, but it's available for much cheaper now, and it's dust, dirt and water-resistant, so it'll earn its keep if you need a speaker system that can cope with the British weather.
This petite portable speaker from Maxell will appeal to those who value style, ease of use and true portability above audio quality. It's by no means a bad little speaker set for your iPhone or iPad. It comes in a variety of colours including white, blue and black.
Weighing just 278g and just 154x59x46mm in size, it's well put together and should survive most tumbles thanks to its durable build. It's a 6w output wireless speaker set with two cones and no subwoofer so don't expect amazing audio quality, but for its affordability and portability it's a price some will be willing to pay.
There's Bluetooth 4.0 or you can plug in via the 3.5mm cable, and it's loud enough to fill a room. There's a built-in DC 6V 12000mAh rechargeable Li-ion battery, too.
Find out more in PC Advisor's Maxell MXSP-BT03 review.
Most speakers of this size sacrifice sound quality for portability, but the modestly named SuperStar claims to be the 'world's smallest audiophile' speaker.
It really is a pocket-sized little speaker, measuring just 48mm thick and 206mm long. However, it's splash-resistant and sturdy enough to cope with life on the move.
The sound quality, inevitably, isn't up to true audiophile standard, but the bass radiator gives it a firmer sound than many of its ultra-compact rivals. It kicks out a decent volume too - noisier rock and dance music can distort a bit at high volume, but it'll still do the trick for listening to a few tunes when you're out and about with your friends.