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Back in the day, you’d need a full-fledged stereo or computer multimedia system to get the most out of your CDs or MP3s. Not any longer. In 2021, all those messy cables and bulky woofers have been exiled to niche audiophile territory as compact – and cheap – Bluetooth speakers become commonplace in homes and on picnic mats everywhere.
These diminutive devices are no longer second-string speakers. Their battery life, connection range and sound quality have improved so dramatically – as have streaming services – that many people would opt for a single Bluetooth speaker when watching TV, playing games or listening to music. And since so many of them are portable, they can easily be brought along outdoors.
What to look for in a portable Bluetooth speaker
Size: A Bluetooth speaker needs to be compact, but big enough to have long-lasting battery life and good sound. So there’s a bit of a compromise here: larger speakers are heavier and bulkier, but they score better in the other categories.
Range: It’s incredibly important for a Bluetooth speaker to be able to function even when your source – a smartphone, most likely – moves around. A 30-foot range is about the shortest you’ll find these days, which will do in pretty much all instances, but there are models that boast a 100-foot range. Not that you’d need it.
Voice assistants: Many Bluetooth speakers now come with Alexa or Google Assistant built in. If you have an existing system set up around these voice assistants, pick a Bluetooth speaker that supports it. Siri users, unfortunately, only have Apple’s HomePod and HomePod mini to choose from – or they can use AirPlay as an intermediary.
Additional inputs and outputs: Besides Bluetooth, if you plan on hooking up the speakers to other sources besides your phone (say, a CD player), then you’ll need to ensure the speaker has either RCA stereo inputs or the more common 2.5/3.5mm aux in.
Battery life: With a portable Bluetooth speaker, one of the biggest concerns will be battery life. The average model will have around seven hours on tap, but there are a few that stretch up to 12 hours. Our advice is to prioritise this last – you can always charge them or connect the speaker to a power bank if it’s running low on juice. If the speaker is strictly for home use, then this is a moot point as you’d have it hooked up to a power source at all times.
The best Bluetooth speakers
Bose SoundLink Color II
Bose is well known for its high-end audio products, yet this wireless, portable Bluetooth speaker gives the mass market a taste of its famed sound quality, good looks and smart features.
We really like the design of the SoundLink Color II. Bose has found a happy middle ground between form and function: its Dieter Rams-esque design has more in common with top-tier models, while its soft-touch silicone exterior is water-resistant and rugged enough to keep the innards of the speaker safe from knocks. Plus, it comes in five colours.
Featuring an eight-hour battery with a built-in microphone, the compact, lightweight SoundLink Color II is an ideal peripheral to stow away in a bag – but once the music starts flowing, you wouldn’t be able to tell that such big sound can come from such a small device.
JBL Pulse 4
This is a Bluetooth speaker that wants to be the life of the party, going by the LEDs that pulse and dance across its exterior. Despite that, however, it’s more likely you’ll hear the JBL Pulse 4 before seeing it.
The device measures just 20 centimetres tall, yet its 360º speaker array and 12-hour battery life keep the music pounding – we like how JBL managed to design the Pulse 4 with these very clear, rave-minded needs. It’s also waterproof, so it can be thrown into a bath or a swimming pool. If you’re planning to use the Bluetooth speaker at a party, look no further.
The only shortcoming here is a lack of a virtual assistant. However, the Pulse 4 more than makes up for this with its fun customisable RGB lighting (you can control it via an app to follow the beat of the music, for instance), solid sound quality expected from a brand like JBL, and huge battery life.
Marshall Stockwell II
Marshall, the eminent guitar amplifier brand that has been making ears bleed since the 1960s, has updated its popular Stockwell speaker with a few small yet not insignificant tweaks.
The Stockwell II is equipped with Bluetooth 5.0, which means connecting to a device is much quicker than with its predecessor. The new model is also water-resistant, has a solid metal grille and sports flush-mounted corner caps – these make the speaker slightly heavier than the original Stockwell, but also smaller and more durable.
The refinement we like the best is under the hood: the Stockwell II has a rear-facing speaker, giving it multi-directional, rock-oriented sound that’s loud enough to fill any room.
The Stockwell II’s battery life is also worth mentioning. While a quick 20-minute charge will give it six hours of playtime, a full, five-hour charge will bump that battery life to more than 20 hours – which is rare for a speaker this size.
Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 2
Here’s a speaker made for the great outdoors. From the IP67 waterproof and dustproof rating to the rugged, drop-proof design, the UE Wonderboom 2 can survive the knocks and drops that are bound to happen when you’re out and about. The thing can even float on water.
What we like most about this pint-sized speaker, however, is how everything has been succinctly designed so that form meets function. Like the squat, barrel-like shape that prevents it from toppling on rugged surfaces, a hanging loop for dangling the speaker on bags or carabiners, and oversized volume buttons that look as snazzy as they are easy to adjust.
Elsewhere, like on the JBL Pulse 4, the speakers on the Wonderboom 2 wrap around the device, so you’ll be able to enjoy full 360º sound – this particular model has a bass-forward sonic signature – no matter where you place this. It has a massive 13-hour battery life, too (at 80 per cent volume). All that for well under $/£100.
Anker SoundCore Mini
Don’t let its price fool you. Anker has made a name for itself for its affordable but reliable power banks and charging cables, and its Bluetooth speakers are cast in the same mould.
Given Anker’s expertise with power and connectivity, the SoundCore Mini boasts a 15-hour battery life and sprawling 66-foot wireless range – the two features that we think give this little guy a leg up over the competition.
The speaker also manages to cram in a microSD slot, an aux input, a noise-cancelling microphone for calls, and an FM radio. Very impressive for a device that measures under seven centimetres tall and clocks in at less than $/£30.