For today's wireless speakers, great power can come with great portability
A wireless speaker can turn your phone -- or any other digital device that stores music -- into a stereo. In general, they hook up to your music collection in one of two ways: via Bluetooth, which works with a wide range of digital devices, or through your home Wi-Fi network. Most experts say portable wireless speakers can't produce the same power and clarity of sound as full-blown wireless music systems, which we cover in a separate report. However, they offer the option of taking your music with you and sharing it wherever you go.
Most of the wireless speakers on the market today are Bluetooth models. These are limited to a range of about 30 feet; if you carry your phone beyond that range, you'll lose your signal. Wi-Fi speakers have a bigger range, but they require an available wireless network. Wi-Fi speakers can link up with Apple devices through AirPlay or with Android and Windows devices by means of a technology called DLNA (short for Digital Living Network Alliance, a trade organization started by Sony in 2003). Alexander George of The Wirecutter, a technology site, says the main advantage of Bluetooth is its ability to work with a variety of devices. What you gain in convenience, however, you may sacrifice in sound quality. George says you will get truer sound with an AirPlay speaker, but you'll be limited to Apple devices and, in most cases, tethered to your home wireless network. Also, you can expect to pay more for an AirPlay speaker. The best-rated models cost anywhere from $400 to $800, while portable Bluetooth speakers can cost as little as $100.
Within the category of Bluetooth speakers, there's a wide range of models geared to different needs. In general, larger speakers offer better sound quality, so for home use, your best choice is a full-sized wireless speaker like the Sony SRS-BTX500 (Est. $300) . Speakers like this can measure nearly 2 feet wide, so while it's technically possible to slip them in a backpack and take them to an event, they'll probably spend most of their time on a shelf. For a true on-the-go music experience, a better choice is a compact speaker like the Bose SoundLink Mini (Est. $200) . Small enough to carry in your hand, these speakers trade some sound quality for much improved portability and longer battery life. If you plan to use the speaker mostly outdoors (for camping, tailgating or wherever), consider a speaker designed specifically for outdoor use. These models offer rugged construction that can withstand being jostled, dropped and splashed with rain and mud.
We selected our best-reviewed portable speakers based on their sound quality, ease of use, design and, if applicable, battery life. We relied chiefly on professional reviews in technology publications sources like CNET, PCMag.com, and DigitalTrends.com. These sources conduct exhaustive hands-on tests of speakers, using a variety of music styles to get a better picture of their overall performance. Then we checked these professional results against user reviews from Amazon.com and other retail sites to learn about how these wireless speakers hold up over the long term.