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We Tested the Latest Bluetooth Speakers, and These Are Our 7 Favorites

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist. Photos: Retailers

The joy of a good Bluetooth speaker is that you can listen to music anywhere without sacrificing great sound quality. But not all Bluetooth speakers are good Bluetooth speakers. Some are so fragile you’re nervous to actually take them out of your house, which defeats the purpose. Others sound great — with deep bass and clear vocals — but they have a short battery life or an overly complicated setup process. And the market is saturated with different shapes, sizes, and sounds, giving you hundreds of options to choose from at a variety of prices.

As the Strategist’s resident tech writer, I’ve researched dozens of models and tested 14 Bluetooth speakers over the past six months. Some of the best Bluetooth speakers I tested are also the simplest. You tap that power button and you’re off to the races. But there are others with such good sound quality — or at such a low price — that they’re worth compromising on ease of use. Use the links here to hop to what you’re looking for, or scroll down to learn more about how I tested.

Best overall | Best portable | Best under $50 | Best with manual controls | Best smart | Best with wireless charging

What we’re looking for

Weight and portability: Bluetooth speakers are mostly designed around the idea that you may want to bring them to different places, whether you’re blasting music in the back of your truck, at a campsite, or on your desk. The speaker’s weight will help determine how easy it is to carry around. For context, most earbuds weigh little more than a stack of pens, and a pair of AirPods in a case weigh about 0.14 ounces. The weight of a Bluetooth speaker varies more widely; I tested many under one pound, but some can weigh up to about three pounds. I’ve found that more rugged speakers weigh more, and smaller home-office speakers weigh less. For my purposes the ideal weight is about one pound; that’s big enough to project a good sound in a variety of spaces but small enough to throw into a bag for a trip. When choosing speaker, consider how you plan to use it: Will it sit in a corner most of the time, or do you intend to bring it on outdoor adventures?

Dust and water resistance: A Bluetooth speaker is the Swiss Army knife of speakers — and if you are taking your Bluetooth speaker on frequent adventures, it has to be able to withstand some bumps and bruises. I’m not saying it should take a beating like Bruce Willis in Die Hard, but it shouldn’t shatter like a piece of glass when it hits the floor. All of the speakers I tested were either waterproof or dustproof or both, but in some cases they were only slightly resistant to water or dust.

Each speaker has an Ingress Protection rating, which tells you how much protection it has against water or solids like dust. The higher the IP rating, the more resistant it is. The IP rating sometimes has two numbers like IP57; the first indicates how the product is protected against solids like dust, and the second indicates how the product is protected against liquids. Sometimes products are specifically tested for solids resistance, so you might see an IP rating of IPX7, indicating that it has resistance to water but wasn’t tested for dustproofing. The speakers I tested had at least some water- and dustproofing — but some, like the Ultimate Ears Wonderboom, can float in water like a rubber duck. Others have rubber coating on their corners to deflect damage from falls or rubberized buttons meant to withstand splashes of water, all of which play into that IP rating.

Battery: The way a speaker sounds will lure you in, but the battery life will determine whether you continue to use it. During my testing, I found that the speaker with longer-lasting battery life naturally happened to be the one I was most interested in (because there’s nothing more miserable than the chirp-chirp sound of a Bluetooth speaker slowly dying as you tried to play an album or a podcast). I was looking for anything between a ten-hour and 20-hour range. Every speaker on my list was able to clock more than ten hours with decent recharge times. Naturally, larger speakers will have larger batteries, but even small speakers should offer over ten hours of battery life.

Sound quality: Whether you want a speaker with a heavy bass or bright and transparent vocals, there’s no denying that sound quality is one of the most important factors in deciding which speaker works best for you. During my tests, I made sure to pick speakers that had a well-balanced sound with clear vocals and a natural-feeling bass that didn’t overpower the other midrange sounds. I also made sure to test how the speakers sound at a normal volume compared with how they perform at the higher volume levels. Some speakers can sound distorted when the volume is fully raised, turning a relatively good-sounding bass and vocals into a shrill mess. I made sure to focus on the clarity and quality you might want while listening to music or podcasts.

Methodology

Over the course of six months, I tested 13 portable Bluetooth speakers. To figure out how the speakers on this list could fit into different situations – and to test for portability and resistance — I used them for upwards of six hours in various settings. I carried them on hikes through the California desert, on trips upstate during torrential downpours, in my backyard during summer BBQs, on bike rides, and, of course, on my desk.

To test a full range of sounds, I listened to Lou Reed’s classic album Transformer, Vince Staples’s self-titled album, Navy Blue’s lo-fi album Navy’s Reprise, and much more, taking note of how each one handled the hip-hop drums or the bass on the more boombastic tracks. And to get a sense of the vocals, I listened to podcasts from Blamo! and NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour.

Best overall Bluetooth speaker

$80

Weight: 0.94 pounds | Battery: 13 hours | Resistance: Waterproof and dustproof | IP67

For a long time, my favorite Bluetooth speaker was an old UE Wonderboom; it was even a Strategist favorite, getting praise from other writers and editors. I loved the iconic and sometimes comically large buttons that were easy to press, the simple setup, and its overall ruggedness. It survived enough drops and falls to be in a John Wick movie. The UE Wonderboom 2 is the newest version of my longtime favorite — and it’s just as good if not even better. From the plastic door around the back that’s meant to block any water leaking into the USB-C charging port to the squishy and easily identifiable buttons, every part of the 15-ounce Wonderboom 2’s design is built to resist water damage. It floats too.

The sound quality isn’t always perfect: Although the Wonderboom 2 fares well when listening to most music, throw something like Kanye West’s Yeezus into the mix and the vocals can start to crumble and fall apart like a poorly designed sandcastle being swept away by a rogue wave. The good news is it only seems to happen when the volume is above 85 percent; you can avoid the problem entirely by activating outdoor-boost mode, which increases loudness and vocal clarity to handle more chaotic outdoor activities like a BBQ or large party. With a battery that lives up to 13 hours, it’ll last you through nearly any event.

Best portable Bluetooth speaker

JBL Clip 4
$50

Weight: 0.53 pounds | Battery: 10 hours | Resistance: Waterproof and dustproof | IP67

Most of these Bluetooth speakers are portable, but the Clip 4 is the lightest and smallest speaker I tested, coming in at just over a half-pound. Despite that fact, its battery still lasts up to ten hours. And though I initially thought there was no way you could fit a good speaker into something as small as the Clip 4, I was quickly proven wrong. When I set the speaker in the sand on a small beach in California, it managed to sound clear and vibrant while playing Haim’s Women in Music Pt. III even with waves crashing quite loudly nearby. While walking around the city, I saw different delivery workers and couriers who had attached their own Clip 4s to the back of their bags while they weaved in and out traffic, their music playing loud enough for the rest of us to hear clearly, too (whether we wanted to or not). The clip design allows you to attach it to nearly anything — it held just as well on to a hiking pack as it did a bike basket. It has rubber ribs on the back that allow you to place it flat on smooth surfaces without having to worry about it sliding all over the place. This makes sense because, at the peak of its volume, the Clip 4 is prone to shaking like a SpaceX launch. The speaker is also incredibly durable. It’s waterproof and dustproof, and I’ve knocked it against hard surfaces, had it roll through a pile of sand, and fall flat on its face against a hardwood floor without the music skipping a beat.

Best Bluetooth speaker under $50

Weight: 0.81 pounds | Battery: 24 hours | Resistance: Waterproof | IPX7

Even at $43, the Tribit XSound can almost compete with the JBL Clip 4 and the UE Wonderboom 2. There’s slight distortion at the higher levels, but that’s to be expected for a speaker this small and inexpensive. The waterproof XSound has a tough plastic shell with smooth, curved edges that almost make it the perfect dupe for the Beats Pill. It has simple controls, with a play/pause button, Bluetooth button, and on/off button. It weighs just under a pound, which is about average, but where this speaker really shines (other than that price) is battery life: It’ll last you a full 24 hours.

Best Bluetooth speaker with manual controls

Photo: retailer

Weight: 1.51 pounds | Battery: 20 hours | Resistance: Waterproof | IPX4

Although digital everything has improved our lives in many ways, I will never prefer a relatively unresponsive button to a knob control. Like most Marshall products, the 1.5-pound Emberton speaker has manual controls, but it also adds a circular joystick control to the mix. Move it to the right or left to skip songs, up or down to raise or lower the volume, or hold it down to power on or off. This might not seem like a game changer, but after testing all these speakers, I’ve seen how many companies fail to realize good controls shouldn’t be an afterthought. The speaker is shaped like a brick and feels about as tough as one. Plus it’s covered in a thick silicone rubber. Functional and durable, yes. Super-attractive, no. But the Emberton does produce a full, immersive sound across all genres whether it’s punk rock, reggae, or even a podcast. My only gripe — and it really is minor — is the annoying start-up sound. It sounds like someone playing a few notes on a grungy guitar. Otherwise, this is a great speaker with a 20-hour battery life (and convenient LED that always displays how much battery is left), and I would always be happy to have it with me.

Best smart Bluetooth speaker

Weight: 1.23 pounds | Battery: 18 hours | Resistance: Waterproof and dustproof | IP67

Bang & Olufsen has always made products with superior sound, and the next-generation A1 is no exception. Like its predecessor, the new A1 produces sound with clarity you wouldn’t expect from a speaker this small. On Vince Staples’s “Law of Averages,” the sped-up samples, percussion sounds, and high-pitched vocals all come together perfectly to complement Staples’s matter-of-fact style of rapping. Other speakers this small would’ve swallowed the vocals with the pulsating bass and kick drum. The dustproof and waterproof Beosound doesn’t sacrifice loudness for clarity; it’s tuned just right. It also an 18-hour battery life and USB-C charging, and it weighs a respectable 1.23 pounds. It has a tough metal outer shell with tiny perforated speaker holes and a rubber base that keeps it in place. If you’re interested, it also supports Alexa. This was the only pain point for me. To set up Alexa, you will need to download the Bang & Olufsen app, which can feel a bit tedious. I was happy to be finished with setup and avoid fiddling with my settings purely because I don’t want to go back into the app. The physical controls aren’t quite as intuitive as the Marshall’s, but they’re there, and they’re quite responsive.

Best Bluetooth speaker with wireless charging

Weight: 0.93 pounds | Battery: 10 hours | Resistance: Waterproof and dustproof | IP67

The Sonos Roam is trying to do two things at the same time: It wants to be the perfect portable speaker while also connecting seamlessly with the other Sonos products you might have in your home. After spending some time with it, I can confirm it does an excellent job of both. As a home speaker, the Roam supports smart voice commands from Google or Alexa, so it can control itself or your entire Sonos setup. There’s also a technology called Sound Swap that means you can pass along the audio from your Roam to any other Sonos speaker by holding down the play button. It’s small but powerful with a sleek design (it feels more luxurious than the other speakers I tested) that fits on any bookshelf or your desk. When it’s time to take the party elsewhere, just grab it and throw it in your bag. You shouldn’t need to charge it for ten hours, but the battery is on the weaker side compared with the other speakers on this list.. Thankfully, you can throw it on any Qi-compatible wireless charger for a quick top of energy if the battery light turns orange, indicating that it’s running a bit low on power. The waterproof, dustproof speaker weighs less than a pound and has easy-to-press buttons that I found myself using more than the app.

In terms of music quality, the Roam was among the most crisp-sounding portable speakers I’ve tested. Where other speakers can turn vocals into a murky pool swallowed up by bass, the Sonos balances everything gently. James Blake’s “Unluck” sounds lush and vibrant, and the monstrous snare easily surrounds his vocals without turning into a mess. What really impressed me, though, is Trueplay, Sonos’s sound-optimizing software. It tweaks the speaker’s settings depending on the room you’re in, so if you place the Roam outside, the sound will adjust to fill the open space, but in a bathroom, it tightens up the bass so you don’t get those big sounds bouncing off the walls and overwhelming the vocals. Not many speakers could juggle so many tasks, but the Roam does it flawlessly.

Best Bluetooth speaker with a built-in radio

Weight: 1.75 pounds | Battery: 12 hours | Resistance: Weather resistant | IPXX

The Tivoli Pal BT was seemingly designed in defiance of the modern Bluetooth speaker, trading low-profile buttons for three protruding knobs that you can twist and turn with surgical precision. And don’t bother calling Alexa or Siri or any other digital assistant — the Tivoli Pal isn’t compatible with them. Inspired by Tivoli’s classic Model One, a tabletop AM/FM radio, the Pal has been chopped and screwed and flipped vertically to combine a radio and a Bluetooth speaker in one sleek package. It is a beautiful machine that can be placed anywhere in your home: a bookshelf, a desk, a bedside table.

If you’re streaming music from a phone, it’s easy to pair to the speaker by pressing and holding a discreet Bluetooth button on the back. If you’d rather hear live radio — a feature that really sets the Pal apart — use the knobs on the front to find your desired station. No matter what you’re listening to, the Tivoli Pal produces a smooth sound with clear vocals and distinct bass and drums. It’s also capable of maintaining that wonderful sound at high volumes, where the output from lesser speakers can become a distorted mess. I’ve thrown the soulful leanings of Billy Preston, the matter-of-fact rapping of Vince Staples, and the laid-back pop of Benny Sings at the Pal, and it’s always delivered. It has a 12-hour battery life, a headphone jack, and a tiny antenna that is hidden in the back for better radio reception. At $220, the Pal is one of the most expensive speakers on this list. But if you’ve ever loved the radio and found yourself neglecting it in favor of streaming, the Pal is a worthwhile two-in-one purchase that invites you back in with open arms.

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We Tested Bluetooth Speakers, and These Are Our 7 Favorites