What the best karaoke machine has
- Decent audio quality. The system should include either a decent set of built-in speakers or an audio output to connect it to your home stereo's speakers.
- Multiple music sources. Look for a machine that can stream music from a variety of devices, such as an included CD+G player, a home CD or DVD player, an MP3 player or a smartphone.
- A display screen for lyrics. Some karaoke machines come with a built-in display, while others hook up to a TV set or tablet computer.
- Easy setup. Machines designed for home use should be basically plug-and-play.
- Intuitive controls. It should be easy to adjust the volume of your voice and the backing tracks, as well as switch between different musical inputs.
- Sturdy construction. Karaoke parties can get a bit rowdy, so look for a machine that will stand up to rough handling.
- A warranty. Even a short warranty of one to three months will protect you in case you end up with a lemon.
- For apps, easy installation and good stability. We saw lots of complaints -- especially from Android users -- about apps that were difficult to install, or were buggy. That's not the biggest deal when using a free app -- just uninstall it -- but something to keep in mind if you are considering a paid app.
Know before you go
What do you want from the machine? If all you want is to have some fun at home with your family, then the most basic machine will probably do. However, if you're planning to host karaoke parties, then you may need speakers with enough volume to be heard over a noisy room. You might also consider a second microphone for duets. Some karaoke machines include special features like audio effects or automatic voice control to give strictly-for-the-shower singing voices a professional quality. Karaoke apps aren't great for party fun, but are a good choice for those who want to record and share their performances.
Who will be using it? If the karaoke machine is intended mostly as a toy for kids, then simple controls are a top priority. A cute design with features such as flashing lights may also be a plus. For adults, you can choose something with more complicated features, such as pitch control or echo effects. For serious musicians, you might want to make sound quality a priority. This could mean investing in a more expensive system or upgrading the microphones on a basic machine.
What devices are you using now? Make sure that the karaoke machine you choose is compatible with any devices you intend to use with it. For instance, some machines can connect to Apple iPods or iPads but not to Android devices, and might need an adapter for use with the latest generation of Apple devices (those with Apple's newer Lightning connector). You'll need either analog or digital (HDMI) outputs if you intend to connect the karaoke machine to your TV. If you want to use the karaoke machine with your home stereo system, check to make sure it has audio outputs.
Is portability a priority? If you plan to bring your karaoke machine to parties and events, you'll need one that you can easily carry and tuck into the trunk of your car. Some karaoke machines billed as portable are self-contained units, with their own speakers, amplifier and monitor. However, with these, you may sacrifice sound quality and power. A machine that connects to a home stereo system will offer better performance, but you'll need to spend more time hooking it up when you get there.
Where do you plan to get your music? Karaoke machines use a variety of formats. Some come with a CD+G (CD plus graphics) player, which plays music while scrolling the lyrics across a screen. These machines often include a sampler CD+G disk to get you started, but you'll have to pay for additional disks. Newer machines often accept input from other devices, such as MP3 players, smartphones or tablet computers. They offer you the option of finding karaoke videos on YouTube for free, though the sound quality of these videos can vary. Some machines can even play standard songs from a CD or MP3 player and mute the vocals, so you can sing along to any song in your music collection.
Value expectations: The dollars and cents of it
When you buy a karaoke player, your investment doesn't stop with the machine; you also need to find music to use with it. We found prices for CD+Gs ranging from around $5 to $50, though the higher-priced items are often multidisk collections that cost less per song. Karaoke machines that can play digital music offer a wider range of options. BuyKaraokeDownloads.com offers karaoke music downloads starting at 99 cents per track. You can also find karaoke tracks on YouTube or at the online music service Spotify.com, though you'll need to print out your own lyrics for the latter. Karaoke apps are often free or have a modest cost, but you'll need to pay for the music either by the song, via a subscription or by completing offers such as watching sponsored videos.
What's to come
Karaoke? There's an app for that. Lots of apps, in fact, and most of them are free or quite inexpensive. For this report, we've included discussion of karaoke apps for iOS and Android that can turn your smartphone or tablet computer into a karaoke player.
Using an app has both advantages and disadvantages over buying a full-fledged karaoke system. It costs less up front, and it won't take up nearly as much room. However, you may end up paying more for music tracks than you would with a karaoke machine that includes a CD+G player. Also, while many karaoke machines are all-in-one devices, a karaoke app on your tablet or phone will need to be hooked up to your home TV or stereo system to provide decent sound, and still might not be the best choice if your main interest is having fun at parties. On the plus side, apps can make it easy to record your performances and share them with others via social media.