How to Buy Wireless Speakers

Updated February 28, 2014

What the best wireless speakers have

  • Great sound quality. A great speaker will deliver room-filling sound across the whole musical range, from treble to bass, without distortion.
  • Smooth wireless performance. Whether you're using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, your speaker should be able to pair easily with your devices and stream your music smoothly, without interruptions.
  • Ease of use. Setup should be straightforward, controls should be clearly marked and intuitive, and the system should either include a remote or allow you to control the music directly from your phone.
  • Long battery life. Not every "portable" speaker includes a rechargeable battery, but those that do should be able to play for at least five to six hours on a full charge.
  • Sturdy construction. Signs of quality include a solid metal case, a stable base and a generally solid feel.
  • Presentable looks. If a portable speaker doesn't offer a sleek, stylish design, it should at least be unobtrusive.

Know before you go

What devices do you use? Wireless speakers can play music from your smartphone, tablet, media player or home computer. Most portable speakers connect with Bluetooth, which works with a wide range of mobile devices. Wi-Fi speakers, by contrast, connect through your home's wireless network. Apple devices link in to Wi-Fi using Apple's AirPlay technology, while Android and Windows devices use a DLNA connection. If you want to use the same speaker with multiple devices, make sure it's able to communicate with all of them.

Where will you be using your speakers? If you're planning to use your speaker at home, think about where you'll be setting it up. A bigger room will obviously need a more powerful speaker to fill it with sound, and the acoustics of the room can affect the sound as well. In general, a larger (and more expensive) speaker will offer better power and clarity, but it will also be much harder to take with you on the go. For travel use, compact size and long battery life will be important considerations. If you'll be using the speaker outdoors a lot, then you'll need something with rugged construction that's able to compete with ambient noise.

What kind of music do you usually listen to? The best reviewers test speakers by playing a variety of musical styles. Some may rate better for classical or jazz than others, for example. If your musical tastes tend strongly in one direction, it's worth combing through reviews to see which speakers will work best with your favorite tunes.

What other features are you looking for? Some portable speakers can also function as speakerphones. If you want to use this feature, then check reviews to see how clearly the speaker can transmit a spoken voice and how well it can be heard from different angles. If you want to hook your speaker up to your home CD player or your TV, then make sure it has the right connections. If most of your music collection is stored in the cloud, then make sure the speaker you choose will allow your device to connect to the Internet and stream to the speaker at the same time.

What's to come

Some reviews refer to portable speakers as "speaker docks," and a few of the ones covered in this report still include a physical dock in which you can seat your phone or other musical device. However, most of today's portable speakers seem to have dropped this feature and now are strictly wireless. In fact, one technology site, The Wirecutter, has entirely dropped the category of "best iPod dock" from its reviews of audio equipment. "I'm removing our pick for Best iPod Dock from the leader board," editor Seamus Bellamy declares, "because the future is wireless." For those who already own an old-school iPod dock, he recommends picking up a Bluetooth adapter so it can work wirelessly; for everyone else, he recommends choosing a Bluetooth or AirPlay speaker. If Bellamy is right, the next update of this report probably won't cover speakers with a physical dock at all.