The 487,000th time I caught myself cupping my hand underneath my phone’s speaker so my friends could hear a YouTube video, I finally came to grips with the idea that the speakers on my phone, my tablet, and my laptop are an affront to the music I listen to every day. So I set out to buy a Bluetooth speaker, one that would connect to any device in any place and make for beautiful music whether I’m at home, on the beach, or stuck in the office trying to show someone the latest OK Go insanity.
The perfect portable Bluetooth speaker is a fairly simple idea. It’s easy to connect and has good range, never dropping its connection as I move around the room or around my house. It looks good, and it’s at least portable enough to go in my backpack when I go to the beach. Its battery lasts at least as long as your average barbecue. It works as a speakerphone, in a pinch. It has some nifty extra features, like the ability to chain a few together or connect multiple phones at once. And most importantly, it sounds good whether I’m listening to Yo-Yo Ma or the Ying Yang Twins.
Most of the time, you’re making tradeoffs with anything you buy. But with portable Bluetooth speakers, there’s one option that does it all.
Logitech UE Boom
Logitech didn’t invent the Bluetooth speaker category, but it owns it. The UE Boom is essentially flawless: it’s a tall, water-resistant cylindrical speaker that fires sound in every direction. It sounds great, with more bass response and more resonant mids than I’d expect from a speaker either this size or this price. The sound is clear and powerful, and gets plenty loud to throw a dance party.
The Boom comes in a bunch of good-looking color combinations, and if you buy a couple of them you can pair two together and turn them into proper stereo speakers. There’s a companion app that lets you control equalizer settings and more, but you can also just ignore the app and connect the Boom like any other Bluetooth speaker. It only takes one button press and a few seconds to set it up, and its range extends up to about 35 feet — that’s standard for Bluetooth.
Even at loud volumes, the Boom will last much longer than your party. It lasted more than 16 hours of continuous playback before it died, and used more sparingly shouldn’t need to be charged very often at all. And when you do need to charge, it takes a simple Micro USB cable to get it back up and running.
The UE Boom is on the larger side of Bluetooth speakers, but it’s still plenty portable. And it’s everything I want it to be: good-sounding, long-lasting, with plenty of extras, and it’s good-looking to boot. If you want the best all-around option you can buy, it’s really not even close.
The Runner Up
Sol Republic Deck
It doesn’t sound quite as good as the UE Boom, but Sol Republic’s Deck has an insane set of features no other Bluetooth speaker can touch. First, there’s the range: I walked 200 feet or more from the speaker, and music kept playing without a hitch. Then there’s battery: the Deck played continuously for 22.5 hours, longer by a wide margin than anything else I tested. And the features: it has a neat Heist mode that lets you pair up to five different devices, so you can all DJ together.
The Deck looks like a strange, alien carrying case of some kind; it’s wide and short, designed to be used on a flat surface of some kind. It comes in a handful of cool colors, too (it was originally designed to be sold with the also-colorful Moto X). It’s a little lighter than the UE Boom, but effectively just as portable.
I like everything about this device, except that the sound just isn’t quite there: there’s some bass response but not as much as I’d like, and you can hear the compression in any kind of dynamic music. With the Boost mode on, you can certainly hear it from across the room, but that mode just makes vocals really loud at the expense of everything else. Ultimately, none of the Deck’s nifty extras make up the difference in sound between it and the UE Boom — but you certainly can’t go wrong this way either.
On pure sound quality alone, the SoundLink Mini can’t be beat. It produces full, rich, clean, natural, and dynamic audio of all sorts; it’s shockingly good for a speaker this small. But its connection is inconsistent and its range is poor, only going up to about 15 feet, and the SoundLink has nothing in the way of extras or cool added features. Plus, it’s heavy. It sounds great, but that’s not all I want in a portable Bluetooth speaker.
If you define portable as “fits in my pocket,” the UE Mini Boom is the best speaker you can buy. It doesn’t sound great, and only fires sound in one direction through its two speakers, but it’s far better than anything else in its size or price range. For a little more money you get a lot more sound, and many more features — but for the smaller budget the Mini Boom is a solid option.
The Mini Jambox is awesomely portable, simple to use, and good-looking to boot. But it doesn’t sound very good: it has far too much of that compressed, singing-in-a-tin-can effect that makes your computer speakers sound bad in the first place. And for the way it sounds, it’s much too expensive.
The Jambox may be the device that popularized the Bluetooth speaker market in the first place, but it’s far from the best you can buy. It’s in a frustrating middle ground: too expensive to not sound better, too big to be forgiven its shortcomings in the name of portability. It’s great-looking, but you’re not buying art, you’re buying a speaker. Buy a better one.
Here we’re pretty firmly at the fringes of what can be considered “portable.” The Jambox sounds great, yes, with big and dynamic sound. It looks great, too. But it’s not going to fit comfortably in a purse or backpack — it’s great for throwing in the car and taking on a day trip, not for keeping in your bag during a hike. The Big Jambox is great option if that’s what you want, and it’s definitely loud enough to keep a party going, but it’s name is no lie.
Like the Big Jambox, the Bose SoundLink II sounds fantastic but is ultimately just too big to be something that can go everywhere with you. It’s great for some things, but just bigger and louder than you need for most cases. Not to mention, it’s the most expensive of any speaker on this list.
The Sound Kick is an odd-looking plastic speaker that sounds shockingly good. It has a clever second chamber that pops out to give the speaker more room to resonate and fill, and collapses when you really need portability. But in either case, the speaker’s pretty big, and doesn’t do much other than just play music — it won’t even work as a speakerphone.
Among cheaper Bluetooth speaker options, the Flip 2 is also one of the best. It sounds good, looks good, and works well. Its only real problem is its battery life, which is only a few hours at a time — nothing sucks more than having your speaker die in the middle of the dance party.
If you think going to the beach involves scuba gear and possibly a riptide, a rugged speaker like the Panasonic SC-NT10 is your best bet. This one sounds great, too; really the only knock against it is that the audio is a little thin and the speaker doesn’t do much other than just play music. Oh, and it’s ugly. But if you’re in the water and not near it, this is a great accessory to have.
Like the Panasonic SC-NT10, the BRV-X is a waterproof Bluetooth speaker. But Braven’s model is ready for anything else you might throw at it, too, and it’ll sound good the whole way. The bass, in particular, is more powerful than I expected. You can get better sound in a smaller body for the same price, but for the most rugged among us the Braven’s hard to beat.
Don’t buy the Beats Pill. Just don’t. Even if you like that classic Beats sound, the thumping low-end and rich, sculpted audio, you won’t like the Pill. It distorts at stunningly low volumes, and never sounds anywhere near as good as it should. It’s among the most expensive speakers on this list, and one of the worst-sounding. Stay far away.