In the history of audio, few product categories have expanded as quickly or dramatically as wireless speakers. In the past few years, the evolution of wireless audio technology has helped the genre blossom from novelty devices owned by a small few, to near-ubiquitous parts of the music-listening landscape. The speaker dock, now dead, has been replaced by a legion of wireless devices that will not only charge your smartphone, but allow you to stream the entire history of recorded music from your armchair.
However, while there’s never been a better time to get into the wireless speaker game when it comes to performance and overall value, the ocean of available choices out there can be pretty daunting. As such, we’ve put together this guide to help you filter through the noise and zero in on the absolute best solution for your wireless audio fix. So watch your heads, folks, because we’re dropping knowledge.
Demystifying wireless: Bluetooth, NFC, Wi-Fi, Airplay, and DLNA
Before we begin narrowing the wireless speaker field, let’s first shed some light on the most common wireless tech available. If you’re already familiar with these terms, feel free to skip to the next section. If not, here’s a quick breakdown to clear things up.
For many folks, the ideal wireless protocol will be Bluetooth. Some may still think of it as the tech behind those annoying headsets that flash at you from the ears of some joker in the checkout line, but Bluetooth for wireless audio has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception. While it is often handicapped by a transmission distance of only 33 feet, Bluetooth chips are ingrained into nearly every modern mobile device or computer, and Bluetooth requires no network to connect, meaning it will work anywhere on the planet. It’s also extremely easy to use, requiring mere seconds to connect.
In its most recent iteration, version 4.1, Bluetooth offers high functionality and battery efficiency. But most importantly, while it was once known for its poor audio resolution, Bluetooth is now often indistinguishable from Wi-Fi streaming. With the added aptX codec, it can even provide close to CD-quality resolution. (AptX isn’t compatible with iPhones or iPads, but since most users will be sourcing low-res MP3 files, that’s often a moot point.) Often the most current Bluetooth version is best, but don’t count out older versions. As always, let your ears decide.
NFC, or Near Field Communication, is a wireless protocol you’ll hear about a lot when shopping for wireless speakers. Its range is extremely limited, requiring devices to be close enough to touch for data transference. And when it comes to wireless speakers, it’s really only useful for simplifying Bluetooth connection, called pairing, accomplished by just tapping the devices together. It also isn’t compatible with iPhones. In other words, NFC isn’t helpful for everyone, and it certainly isn’t necessary.
While Bluetooth has made up a lot of ground in wireless audio, Wi-Fi is still superior in some ways. At its best, Wi-Fi streaming can offer a host of services and features for your speaker, as well as accessing audio from multiple sources like NAS storage devices, or media servers. Wi-Fi also allows for higher resolution audio transmission than Bluetooth, making it ideal for those looking for a premium speaker to playback hi-res audio files.
That said, Wi-Fi is more expensive, and, in certain ways, limited. While its stronger signal can offer more immediate range, speakers that employ it are usually tied to the local area network over your router, making them homebound. Most speakers you’ll encounter can’t handle higher than CD quality audio, so Wi-Fi transmission is increasingly becoming less of an advantage there. And while some speakers, such as Sonos’ gear, are a breeze to setup via Wi-Fi, many are a pain.
Finally (and most confusing), Wi-Fi often won’t work with your mobile device on its own. When it comes to mobile streaming, Wi-Fi is generally less of a complete means of connection, and more of a rail system for other streaming protocols that use it like PC apps, Airplay, and DLNA.
Airplay is Apple’s way of magically sending files, music, and even video over Wi-Fi (For most devices, anyway. A “direct” version of Airplay is becoming more available). Many Wi-Fi speakers incorporate the technology, and if you have an iPad or iPhone, the little Airplay symbol in the menu of iTunes and other music apps makes it extremely simple to push music to your speaker – once you’ve connected that speaker to the wireless network that is. Other than being Apple-specific, the main downside to Airplay is that Apple charges companies a lot to use it, which gets handed down to you, often lumping an extra Benjamin on the bill.
Short for Digital Living Network Alliance, DLNA is an organization and an open protocol for transmitting music, pictures, and video from devices over Wi-Fi. In particular, if you’re an Androidian, this is often the only way to play when it comes to Wi-Fi speakers. Unfortunately, while DLNA is extremely ubiquitous, found in everything from game consoles to photo frames, it’s also notoriously clunky and slow. In today’s market, there are increasingly fewer reasons for Android users to choose DLNA over Bluetooth.
Whatcha, whatcha, whatcha want?
Now that you’ve gone to wireless protocol school, it’s time to think more broadly about what you actually want from your speaker. These days, saying you want a wireless speaker is a bit like saying you want a motorized vehicle: Are we talking about a Vespa, or a Mack truck? Depending on your needs, you can expect to spend anywhere from $100-600 (or more), with a wealth of different functionalities available.
Nearly every speaker will offer the basics, including a charging port for your mobile device, a speakerphone (with smaller speakers), and an Aux input to hardwire sound. Apart from those stalwarts, you’ll want to decide the most important features to you, i.e. how you will be using the speaker. Will you be listening mostly at home, or on the go? In the living room, or by the pool? Near a power source, or in the woods? Determining how you want to use your speaker will help you lock down the most value, and the best audio experience.
When it comes to portability, there’s move-it-around-the-kitchen portable, and then there’s take-it-to-the-top-of-Mount-Everest portable. While there are speakers on keychains these days, obviously, the smaller you go, the more sound will suffer.
For a quality speaker that goes wherever you do, our list starts with the palm-sized Mini Boom, from Ultimate Ears ($100). Stepping up in price to the $200 range unearths several other worthy options like the Braven 600, the JBL Charge, and the Bose SoundLink Mini – though the latter offers a pedestrian 7 hours of battery life. That’s a good start, and you can find many similar options on our Best Portable speaker list, or elsewhere on the web.
If you’re idea of portable is less wilderness, and more backyard barbecue, the ratio of sound performance to price steps up considerably. G-Project’s G-Boom is a boombox-style wireless speaker with pretty decent sound for around $100. If battery power is a concern, check out Eton’s Ruckus XL ($200), which sounds good, and uses solar power to charge its battery. Further up a few notches are speakers like the Harman Kardon Onyx Studio, which offers excellent sound, chic style, and a convenient handle to move it around the house.
Portability is all well and good, but it’s a dangerous world out there, and sometimes you need a little protection. One of our favorite purveyors of rugged speakers is Braven, which offers both the BRV-1, and the larger, more refined BRV-X, which prices out around the $200 range. Both are covered in armor, and offer some water resistance. If you’re going on a rafting expedition, you may need a watertight solution, like the Grace Digital EcoXBT, which is fully submersible – though the sound definitely suffers.
If you can’t stand to be without top-notch audio performance, even at the beach, you’ll want to look at Soundcast speakers, like the Melody. At $450, it’s no budget buy, but it offers incredible sound quality in a fully armored shell – a great choice if you don’t mind a speaker that looks like a thermos. The company offers several other premium outdoor options at higher price scales.
One genre that’s getting a lot of attention lately is multi-room speaker systems. These Wi-Fi-connected systems employ an integrated app that links to your computer, phone, or storage device to allow control from each, and streaming of your entire music collection. Most systems also integrate Internet radio apps, like Spotify. Most impressively, the more speakers in the arsenal you buy, the more you can link up, allowing you to spread latency-free audio throughout the home, or play different music on each, simultaneously.
In addition to all those features, multi-room speakers generally have high-quality sound, though most top out at CD-quality resolution. Sonos pioneered the genre, famous for its brilliantly simple architecture which sets up with the press of a button. The series begins with the $200 Play:1, and goes up from there. Other options include the Soundtouch collection from Bose, as well as the Samsung Shape M7 and M5 speakers, which also offer Bluetooth connection. Multi-room speakers are great, but if you only need one speaker, they’re also rather pricey for what you get.
The centerpiece of sound
Finally, there are those speakers engineered to be a total sound solution. These pieces are designed to look great, sound fantastic, and take up minimal space in order to fill your room with sound, without filling it with gear. As you might guess, they will run you a chunk of change, starting around the $300 range.
If modern style is your bag, check out speakers from Bowers and Wilkins, like the pricey Zeppelin Air ($600), or the more reasonable Z2 ($300) For gorgeous sound with a vintage vibe, look at the new Authentic line from JBL. If pounding bass is your game, check out Klipsch’s KMC 3 ($400), or – if you’re wallet is stacked – the ridiculously powerful and present Stadium (you don’t want to know). There are also some affordable wireless shelf speaker sets from the likes of Grace Digital, Aperion Audio, and Edifier, all of which offer great value for the price, and can double as computer speakers.
An eye on quality
Our final piece of advice has to do with learning how to find quality products. Of course, you can follow many of the brands we’ve outlined above, including Braven, Klipsch, JBL, Sonos, Bose, and Bowers and Wilkins. In addition, you’ll want to give attention to other eminent brands like Sony, Harman Kardon, Denon, and Cambridge Audio.
But beyond brands, you can look for quality construction. Does the exterior cabinet look chic, or gaudy and cheap? Give the speaker a knock – does it feel chintzy, or solid? Generally, metal is a better sign than plastic, though a solid plastic exterior is no threat to quality. Also, look for stability – some speakers will actually dance around on the table from bass-heavy tracks. Finally, let your ears be your guide: If it sounds good, it is good.
That concludes our guide to find your wireless speaker soulmate. Now you know what to look for, and as G.I. Joe always said, knowing is half the battle. You’re ready, so go out there and wrangle yourself some awesome wireless action!