No longer are wireless speakers tinny little Bluetooth models that sound worse than flatscreen TVs. Today’s wireless speakers are stylish products with the latest streaming technologies inside – and they are packed with clever features.
Taking note of new trends and how people listen to music, they now incorporate multi-room ability and the likes of Spotify Connect. And they can sound great.
Wireless speakers had long prioritised convenience over sound quality, but the tide is turning. Retaining their ease of use, simple connectivity and portable features, they have evolved to deliver excellent sound quality – the best are almost good enough to be called hi-fi.
But with such a vast variety of wireless speakers available on the market, how do you pick the one that's best for you? This handy guide will narrow things down.
All shapes and sizes
The KEF Muo is ideal if you want a portable wireless speaker
Wireless speakers can be big, boxy units; they can be small and cylindrical. Some have rugged exteriors, others opt for an elegant modern design. They can even look like 1920’s airships.
The point is, wireless speakers can look like anything and come in any size. The question, then, is what will you use yours for? For your bedroom, a sensibly sized Geneva Model S Wireless DAB+ or Audio Pro Addon T3 is ideal. If you want something more portable, try the KEF Muo or UE Boom 2. If you’re the adventurous type, the UE Roll’s rugged, waterproof build will withstand plenty of knocks and mud splashes.
Serious kit means serious cash
The B&W Zeppelin Wireless is pricey, but the sound quality is worth it
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a wireless speaker to be your main music system, be prepared to spend some cash. And make space in your room.
Speakers such as the B&W Zeppelin Wireless, Geneva Aerosphère Large and Naim Mu-so may cost a pretty penny (upwards of £500), but their sound quality is worth it. They’re a viable alternative to a dedicated hi-fi system, and make a great style statement in your living room too.
You’ll want to temper sonic expectations depending on the size and price. Don’t expect huge, room-filling, bass-heavy sound from a tiny portable speaker like the UE Roll. Do expect it from the more ambitious Naim Mu-so, though.
MORE: Naim Mu-so review
Portable versus mains-powered
The ultra-portable UE Roll has a battery life of around nine hours
Portable speakers have a rechargeable battery, so you’re not tied to a mains socket. You can simply pick up the speaker and take it with you. Depending on how big it is, that might mean to another part of the house or to the beach when you’re on holiday.
Take note of the speaker’s battery life. Four hours is fine if you’ll be listening in the garden, but you’ll probably want eight hours or more if you’re taking it with you on holiday.
It defeats the point of a portable speaker if you have to keep plugging it into the mains every few hours to charge it back up. The ultra-portable UE Roll lasts for nine hours, while the KEF Muo clocks in at 12 hours on a full charge.
Mains-powered speakers, inevitably, are more restricted, and tend to work best for speakers that stay at home.
They’re usually bigger and more expensive than portable ones – the Geneva Model S Wireless DAB+, B&W Zeppelin Wireless, B&O BeoPlay A6 and Naim Mu-so are cases in point – and are demanding enough to need a constant source of power to drive the speakers and reach their full performance potential.
MORE: KEF Muo review
More after the break
Which wireless streaming method?
Consider how to send music from your smartphone to the speaker
Once you’ve decided on the shape, function and portability of your wireless speaker, the next thing you need to think about is how you’ll be sending music from your smartphone or iPod to the speaker. Will you be sticking with standard Bluetooth? Are you tempted by AirPlay? Or do you plan on a multi-room system?
MORE: Best multi-room systems
Bluetooth – simple and ubiquitous
Bluetooth is the most common tech you’ll see in wireless speakers. It’s easy to use, taking only a couple of seconds to make a connection. You’ll find Bluetooth in nearly all wireless speakers as well as in most smartphones, tablets and laptops. It’s the easiest and most fuss-free method to use with wireless speakers, taking only a couple of seconds to make a connection.
Bluetooth also doesn’t care if you’re an Apple or Android user. It doesn’t pick favourites, so everyone can use it to stream songs. Standard Bluetooth has a range of about 100 metres, but use a speaker in the house (with all the walls and other obstructions) and this range drops noticeably. Inside you can rely on a range of around only 10 metres or so.
AirPlay – Apple only
AirPlay is Apple’s own way of streaming files wirelessly and, as is the way with the Cupertino company, it works only with Apple products. Still, that’s useful if you’re an Apple-only household. Set up can be fussy and takes longer than Bluetooth as it piggybacks your home’s wi-fi network, but you’ll have to do it only once.
AirPlay’s limitations have seen it go out of favour in recent years. Even if you are a big Apple fan, it’s simpler to connect your iPhone or iPad using Bluetooth. We generally prefer the sound quality of Bluetooth over AirPlay, too.
A few select models (Libratone Zipp, B&W Zeppelin Wireless, Monitor Audio Airstream S200, Naim Mu-so, for example) still feature AirPlay, but the days of dedicated AirPlay speakers are long gone.
Wi-fi – for higher-quality streaming
If your wireless speaker has an ethernet port and built-in wi-fi, you can plug it straight into your home network. The advantages? You can stream higher-than-MP3 quality tracks from any source that’s also connected to the same network: your smartphone, laptop or your NAS box. So if you’ve got a library full of CD-ripped and hi-res files, you might want to look into speakers that support the higher resolution. They are becoming more common now though, with many, such as the Naim Mu-so supporting music streams of up to 24-bit/192kHz.
Multi-room – for music all around the house
Multi-room speakers are all the rage now: why not turn your home into one seamless music hub? The more speakers you buy, the more you can dot around – then link them all up, so you never miss a second of sound. Or you can arrange it so each room is playing a different song – perfect if you’re hosting a themed party.
The success of a multi-room speaker lives and dies with its app, and how easy it is to connect to your music source and home network. A well-oiled app that makes this process seamless is the reason Sonos remains the master of multi-room. Bluesound is hot on its heels, though, offering hi-res audio throughout the home.
Spotify Connect – Spotify made simple
If you’re an avid user of Spotify Premium, it’s worth looking for a wireless speaker that has Spotify Connect, such as the B&O BeoPlay A6 or Libratone Zipp. These speakers have Spotify embedded in them, meaning songs won’t be streaming from your phone but straight from the cloud. This frees up your smartphone (you can make calls without interrupting the music), and it doesn’t drain your battery either.
With Connect, you can also flit between sources, and send songs from one speaker to another with a button tap. It’s a nice feature that makes a big difference once you start using it.
There’s a lot of choice out there. A lot. But now that you’re armed with all the knowledge, picking your next wireless speaker should be plain sailing.