Thinking of ditching the cables and going wireless? The best Bluetooth speakers will help you do it in style. There's a plethora to choose from – everything from wonderfully sophisticated speakers crafted by hi-fi makers such as Bowers & Wilkins, to waterproof party speakers that deliver great sound-per-pound. But there are a number of things you need to consider before buying a Bluetooth speaker. Seven things, in fact.
So without further ado, here is the definitive, seven-step guide to buying the best Bluetooth speaker...
Is it portable?
Some Bluetooth speakers, such as the dinky JBL Go 2, are no bigger than a bar of soap; others are weighty affairs and designed to dominate a sideboard like a fine sculpture.
Travel speakers such as the five-star UE Wonderboom 2 are perfect for packing into luggage. They aim to balance decent sound quality and loudness with maximum portability.
As a general rule, the larger the the Bluetooth speaker the beefier the sound. The excellent Audio Pro C10, for example, boasts a 13cm mid-bass driver and an 80W digital class D amplifier. Impressive, but you wouldn't want to take it to the beach.
Of course, for a Bluetooth speaker to be portable it must have a built-in battery. Battery life for a portable speaker tends to be around 6-10 hours, but some last up to 24 hours. One of our favourite portable speakers, the JBL Flip 5, lasts 12 hours per charge.
For the ultimate in portability, the likes of the JBL Charge 4 double as charging stations for phones and tablets – handy when camping or going off the grid.
Is it Bluetooth 4 or 5?
Version 1 of Bluetooth appeared over 20 years ago. These days, most Bluetooth speakers use version 4-point-something or version 5.0. It might not sound like a big difference, but it can drastically alter the appeal of a speaker.
Crucially, the wireless range of Bluetooth version 5.0 maxes out at a whopping 120 metres whereas version 4.2 maxes out at about 30 metres.
It's also worth noting that version 5 is faster than version 4. Bluetooth 5 clocks up speeds of 2Mbps and is compatible with a slew of smart home devices, whereas version 4.1 hits the redline at 1Mbps.
Lastly, most smartphones today tote Bluetooth 5.0. They're backwards compatible with older Bluetooth versions, but with Bluetooth 5.0, you can pair multiple devices to one speaker. Useful for those with families or who live in shared houses.
Is it waterproof?
Since water and electronics don't mix, you might want a Bluetooth speaker that is waterproof to some degree. This is denoted by the speaker's IP rating.
Take the Bose SoundLink Revolve: it's rated IPX4 meaning its splash-proof and spill-friendly, making it ideal for picnics and kitchens.
Speakers with the IPX7 rating, such as the JBL Xtreme 2, will survive a torrential downpour and a few hard knocks. That same goes for those rated IP67 – the only difference is that they're dust-proof to boot.
Want a waterproof speaker you can take to the pool? Look for the IP68 rating. In theory, the latter guarantees that speaker can be submerged at a depth of 1.5m for at least 30 minutes before it gives up the ghost.
If you're planning to take to the high seas, it's also worth checking if your chosen Bluetooth speaker floats (like the nifty UE Wonderboom 2, pictured above). If you drop it in the sea, just rinse it off under a tap.
Is it smart?
Most Bluetooth speakers are capable of more than just streaming music. Smart speakers provide access to virtual assistants such as Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri.
You'll also find that many third-party Bluetooth speakers feature microphones for both hands-free calls and support of voice-activated virtual assistants.
The JBL Link Portable, for example, is a great-sounding Bluetooth speaker that also serves up Google smarts. On the top of the speaker you'll find a dedicated Google Assistant button – hold it down for more than two seconds to activate Google Assistant.
Amazon's Echo smart speakers are mostly designed to sit in the home and require a mains power socket, but if portability isn't high on your list, the Amazon Echo Dot with Clock is one of the smartest and most affordable Bluetooth speakers we've tested.
If you want a smart speaker that goes wherever you go, try the Ultimate Ears Megablast – one of the loudest portable speakers we've tested. With Alexa voice assistant built in, it can answer your questions as well as play all your favourite tunes.
(Worth noting: some third-party Alexa speakers don't provide all of the latest Alexa features).
Is it multi-room?
Sometimes one speaker just isn't enough. Luckily, wireless technologies such as Bluetooth and wi-fi have put multi-room audio within most budgets. So if you like the idea of pairing multiple speakers together for a bigger sound, here's what you need to know...
Plenty of Bluetooth speakers support wi-fi as well as Bluetooth, and those speakers can often be integrated into a multi-room system.
Take the five-star Apple HomePod. It's one of the best-sounding multi-room speakers on the market, combining room-filling sound with Apple's Siri smart assistant voice controls. It also features Apple AirPlay 2 tech built in, so you can stream music, podcasts and radio stations directly from your iPhone or iPad. And if you're an Apple Music subscriber, you tell Siri what to play, in what room.
You'll notice that other Bluetooth speakers support Google Chromecast, which enables you to dot several compatible speakers around the home and use them as a multi-room audio set-up.
Other great-sounding Bluetooth speakers with multi-room functionality include the Bluesound Pulse Flex 2i, Harmon Kardon Citation, B&W Formation Wedge, AudioPro Addon C10, Apple HomePod and Denon HEOS 7 HS2.
For a simpler, cheaper multi-room set-up you might want to consider the JBL Flip 5. Its PartyBoost function allows you to pair two or more speakers together over Bluetooth. The advantage of using Bluetooth rather than wi-fi is that you don't need an internet connection, your system will continue to work even if your broadband conks. Useful if you have an unreliable wi-fi network or a poor signal.
Does it have an aux input?
Some Bluetooth speakers have a line-in socket, aka an aux-in. This allows you to connect your wireless speaker to any audio source via a cable.
This could come in handy for a number of reasons. Firstly, you won't have to rely on a Bluetooth wireless connection. Older Bluetooth speakers have a limited operational range of around 10 to 30 metres before the connection is lost – there's no such issue when using good old-fashioned cables.
Secondly, an aux port provides the option to use your Bluetooth speaker with older, non-wireless components such as a record player or CD player, or perhaps an older smartphone with a 3.5mm headphone socket. You could even connect your TV in this way.
Choose a Bluetooth speaker with an aux in, such as the JBL Charge 4 or AudioPro Addon C3, and you'll have the best of both worlds – wired and wireless audio.
Does it support aptX HD?
If you care about sound quality or listen to a lot of high-resolution audio, it's worth buying a Bluetooth speaker that supports aptX HD – the audio codec that supports 24-bit audio streaming via Bluetooth and reduces distortion.
The majority of Bluetooth speakers today support aptX, which transmits music at a ‘CD-like’ 16-bit/44.1kHz. However, some of the more audio-focused Bluetooth speakers boast aptX HD.
The Bluesound Pulse Mini 2i, for example, supports the aptX HD codec for streaming high-resolution audio and features bi-directional Bluetooth, so you can stream music to it while listening to music from it using Bluetooth headphones. Clever. If you have a healthy budget, you might also consider the exquisite, aptX HD-enabled B&W Formation Duo wireless speakers.
Of course, you'll need a source capable of streaming aptX HD audio too. Apple has opted out so there's no point reaching for your iPhone, but plenty of premium Android smartphones, such as the OnePlus 8 Pro, support aptX HD. Alternatively, you could opt for high-res player such as the stellar Astell & Kern A&ultima SP1000M.
Put simply, if you want pristine sound from your Bluetooth speaker, seek out aptX HD n the specs.