Cut the Cord
Wireless speakers are everywhere these days. Big, small, portable, expensive, cheap, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi…the sheer amount of choice can seem overwhelming. But our top picks are sure to have at least one speaker that’s right for you. Before anything else, though, you need to decide how you want to go wireless.
Bluetooth vs. Wi-Fi Speakers
Bluetooth is the most common wireless music streaming standard, but it isn’t the only one. Bluetooth is a point-to-point wireless system, pairing a transmitter (your phone or computer) with a receiver (your speaker) to play music. It’s very direct and easy to set up, and can stream pretty high-quality music thanks to technological advancements that have greatly improved audio fidelity over what it was a few years ago. Bluetooth generally doesn’t have any multi-room tricks in itself, though some speakers can set up stereo pairs with the help of an app, while others can create a wireless mesh among multiple speakers for multi-room audio. It isn’t quite as high-fidelity or as powerful as Wi-Fi multi-room audio, however.
Wi-Fi audio includes standards like Apple AirPlay and Google Cast, along with various manufacturers’ own Wi-Fi streaming platforms. Wi-Fi can handle more bandwidth than Bluetooth, so it can support higher-fidelity audio. It can also integrate into your home network, so you can easily play audio from any device connected to your Wi-Fi without pairing anything.
The trade-off is that Wi-Fi music systems require a Wi-Fi network to connect to, so they can’t be used portably with your smartphone like Bluetooth speakers (though many offer Bluetooth pairing as a backup). The different Wi-Fi standards also mean various services might or might not be available to stream over the device, though this is less of a problem than it has been in the past thanks to Google Cast and Sonos’ lengthy lists of supported third-party services. It’s worth noting that the new Sonos Move supports Wi-Fi and Bluetooth streaming, so compatibility isn’t an issue at all.
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Most new speakers available feature some kind of wireless support, whether they’re clip-on bike speakers or big soundbars. With some exceptions, any speaker you pick up at an electronics store will be able to stream audio either over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Your speaker might even be able to handle both wireless methods. Check if your Wi-Fi speaker has a Bluetooth mode for using it on the go.
If you want sound throughout your home, you’re going to need more than one speaker. Instead of juggling Bluetooth pairing with each one or physically carrying a speaker from room to room, a multi-room sound system is the way to go. Fortunately, multi-room audio is more common and easier to use than ever. Multi-room audio is exactly what it sounds like: playing audio in multiple rooms. It means a system can manage multiple speakers at once, playing from one or more sound sources to one or more speakers at a given time.
Sonos speakers like the Sonos One (along with Ikea Symfonisk speakers made in collaboration with Sonos) tap into the Sonos app to let you access any or all speakers connected to your home network and play music from dozens of different streaming sources, or local storage.
See How We Test Speakers
Apple’s AirPlay platform is the iOS- and OSX-friendly multi-room sound solution. There aren’t any first-party AirPlay speakers besides the Apple HomePod, but many other Wi-Fi speakers, including Sonos products, support AirPlay. They let you easily stream from your iPhone or iPad at better quality than Bluetooth, but if you’re an Android user, you won’t find much utility in it.
Google Cast is Google’s answer to AirPlay, and works similarly. Google Home/Nest devices support Google Cast, as do many Wi-Fi speakers and soundbars. Any Google Cast speaker can be incorporated into your Google Home setup, including support for room-based groupings in the same app as your Google Assistant speakers and smart home devices (if you use Google Home for that).
Amazon Echo speakers and the Alexa voice assistant didn’t originally support multi-room audio, but the Echo/Alexa platform has been updated and now most recent Alexa speakers can be grouped together and arranged like any other multi-room system. Like Google Cast, setting up multi-room Echo audio is performed through the same app as your voice assistant and smart home devices, only it’s all Alexa instead of Google.
Finally, a few Bluetooth speakers support linking, chaining, and mesh networks that connect multiple speakers to each other. These usually aren’t as complex or robust as Wi-Fi multi-room systems, but they’re a simple option that can provide an alternative to using your home network to stream music.
What Kind of Speaker Do You Want?
Besides the type of wireless connection, you need to think about what style of speaker you want. Smaller, battery-powered speakers (usually Bluetooth) are useful because you can take them anywhere, but they don’t get particularly loud. Larger speakers generally offer fuller sound and richer bass, but they can be more expensive and are often not portable.
Besides single speakers, you can also find stereo pairs designed for desktop computers and home theater speaker systems like soundbars, soundplates, and home-theaters-in-a-box. These speakers are obviously not portable at all, but if you want a centerpiece sound system for your living room or office they’re likely your best choice.
For a speaker to be portable, it needs to both be small and light enough to easily carry around, and be equipped with a battery so it can run without being plugged in. Of course, “small” and “light” are relative; tiny speakers with carabiners let you clip them to your backpack and take them on hikes, while much bigger and heavier speakers might be intended only to be taken from room to room in your home.
Bluetooth speakers are usually portable, but they don’t have to be. If a Bluetooth speaker is too big to easily carry around, or doesn’t have a battery, it won’t be portable.
Since Wi-Fi speakers rely on a separate network to enable multi-speaker and multi-room audio playback, they’re rarely portable. After all, portability doesn’t matter if you need to be connected to your home’s hotspot. There are exceptions, though, and Wi-Fi speakers can still be portable if they have batteries, and ideally can create an ad-hoc Wi-Fi network with your phone.
Not all portable speakers are built to be carried around outdoors, or used by the pool. Rugged speakers can handle splashes, dunks, drops, and gunk and keep running. If you try that with the non-rugged speakers on this list, however, you’ll find yourself with a brick instead of an audio device. Look for speakers with IPX ratings and guarantees of water and shock resistance if you want to carry them around to the beach, the lake, the slopes, or the sewers. Our guide to IP ratings explains what those numbers mean, so you can know whether your speaker can handle getting dunked in the pool, or if it simply will stay intact in a light drizzle.
For more, see our list of the best outdoor speakers.
Bluetooth Audio Quality
Unless portability is at the top of your priority list, sound quality is paramount. Plenty of speakers don’t offer much in the way of features, but produce top-notch audio. Big bass isn’t for everyone, but unless your speaker is downright tiny, it should be able to reproduce low frequencies accurately without distorting at high volumes. Clarity is more important than sheer power, and a balanced, clean sound should be your goal when shopping for a speaker. If you want a sound system that can drive a whole party instead of just fill a small room, keep the size of the speaker in mind; generally, the bigger a speaker is, the louder it can get while still sounding good.
As mentioned earlier, in the early days of wireless audio Bluetooth was far inferior to Wi-Fi standards because of limited bandwidth and audio compression. Those problems have been largely solved, and Bluetooth 4.0 (not to mention 5.0) and its relevant audio codecs can transmit excellent quality audio. Wi-Fi can still get an edge purely due to the available bandwidth, and if you want to listen to lossless music on services like Tidal you should probably go with Wi-Fi over Bluetooth. Of course, a wired connection can be better than both thanks to either faster data speeds for digital signals or simply the fact that the wire is carrying the analog sound without any conversion. But this guide is for wireless speakers.
Voice assistants let you simply tell your speaker what to play instead of looking through your smartphone. They were initially very limited, closed systems only available on first-party devices, like Alexa on the Amazon Echo and Google Assistant on the Google Home, but that’s steadily changing. More and more third-party speakers are integrating some form of voice assistant, either Google Assistant or Alexa.
These voice assistants are useful for more than just playing music. You can ask them for weather forecasts, sports scores, unit conversions, and even language translation. They also generally support third-party skills that let you do anything from order pizza to play trivia games. If you have other smart home devices, you might even be able to integrate them as well, letting you control the lights and thermostat with your voice.
Voice assistant speakers have one universal requirement: Wi-Fi. They need an internet connection, and without one voice recognition and all of the processing needed to find your music, answer your questions, and control your smart home devices simply won’t work. These speakers can still be portable, and even offer Bluetooth connectivity when you’re away from your network, but those features aren’t certain. The most prominent first-party voice assistant speakers like the Amazon Echo and the Google Home don’t have batteries.
For more, see our picks for the best smart speakers.
Speakers come in a wide range of prices. Don’t assume, however, that the most money always buys the best overall product. Generally speaking, higher-end models do sound better, but sometimes they lack the features you might expect for the price. The trick is to get the best sound, along with the features you want, at a price you can afford. And, of course, if you want to know about all of those things, you can read our reviews of each speaker.
The easiest way to get the best price: Shop around online. You’ll often find prices well below list if you do a little bargain hunting on the web. Don’t be afraid to look for similar speakers to the ones on this list, either; a number of the options included here have solid predecessors that you can now find for much less since they’ve been replaced. We’ve also rounded up our favorite Bluetooth speakers under $100.
For more, see the latest speaker reviews in our speakers product guide. And if you want to cut the cord without waking the neighbors, check out our favorite wireless headphones.