One Speaker or More?
When building your home speaker system, the first thing you'll need to decide is whether you'll be satisfied with a single speaker, or if you want the option to connect many speakers together into one system, as this will determine the type of technology you should consider.
Multiple speaker systems provide more sound in more rooms of your home, but cost a lot more because they involve buying, well, multiple speakers. Single speaker systems are cheaper and simpler, but tend to be confined to a single room.
The one speaker we found that bucks this trend is the Harman Kardon Onyx Studio 4. It has an internal battery that lasted 10.5 hours in our testing, so it can easily be carried along with you when you want to move your music listening from the living room to the kitchen.
Sound Quality. But how do I know without testing?
There is no doubt that this is one of the most important parameters. At the end of the day, if we are going to buy a loudspeaker, it is because we want to listen to the music much better than we usually do with our mobile. Ok, but having that clear, how do I know that the device has a good sound quality.
There are 4 parameters that can help us know that a speaker will sound good, even without having previously heard it: output power, frequency range, sound system and impedance.
One of these parameters is the output power (Watts). This value refers to the watts emitted by the loudspeaker, which will be closely related to the sound pressure in decibels, that is, the volume. The small speakers that we are seeing in the guide can not develop too much power due to its small size. Between 15 and 20 watts would be adequate to get about 80 dB, a volume high enough to listen well in outdoor environments. Keep in mind that we will not use the loudspeaker to its full power since in that cause distortions. Normally we use a maximum of 80%.
Another thing that indicates the quality of sound is the range of frequencies in which the device is capable of emitting. The audible spectrum, or the sounds capable of being perceived by the human ear, go from approximately 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz.
If a wireless speaker is not capable of emitting in the entire range of the audible spectrum, there will be sounds that we will miss. Therefore, the greater the range of frequencies covered by the Bluetooth speaker, the more clearly we will perceive the sound.
The next point to consider is the type of sound system used. Each system consists of a certain number of channels. These channels are each one of the speakers that are going to emit the sound. You have heard of 5.1, 2.1 etc which means that 5 full range speakers and one subwoofer for bass.
Most Bluetooth speakers consist of wither 2.0 system (two full-range speakers) or 2.1 system (plus one sub) which has the highest quality.
Finally, we have the impedance. The resistance in ohms is treated with the passage of electric current and is related to the power. The higher that resistance, the lower the power with which the speaker emits. Not to complicate things, just remember that lower the impedance, the better the quality of the sound.
Will it be your main music system?
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a wireless speaker to be your main music system, be prepared to spend some cash. And make space in your room.
Speakers such as the B&W Zeppelin Wireless and Naim Mu-so may cost a pretty penny (upwards of £500), but their sound quality is worth it. They’re a viable alternative to a dedicated hi-fi system, coming packed with plenty of streaming and playback features, and make a great style statement in your living room too.
You’ll want to temper your sonic expectations depending on the size and price. Don’t expect huge, room-filling, dynamic and articulate sound from a small, portable speaker like the Jam Heavy Metal or even the Award-winning Dali Katch. Do expect it from the more ambitious Naim Mu-so, though.
Choose the right shape and size
Before we even begin to get technical, the shape and size of your wireless speaker is something that will dictate how you use it.
Wireless speakers come in all shapes and sizes: they can be big, boxy units; they can be small and cylindrical. Some are built to be rugged and waterproof, others put style and design high on their priorities. They can even look like 1920’s airships.
The point is, wireless speakers can look like anything and come in any size. The question, then, is what will you use yours for?
For your bedroom, a sensibly-sized speaker like the Sonos One or Audio Pro Addon C3 is ideal. If the speaker will take pride of place in your living room, larger, eye-catching units like the B&O BeoPlay A6 or Naim Mu-so Qb make quite the statement.
If you want everyone to enjoy an even spread of sound, have a look at omnidirectional speakers such as the Apple HomePod or anything from Ultimate Ear's range of wireless speakers. After something more portable? Try the Dali Katch, Tivoli Andiamo or the Ultimate Ears Megaboom 3.
If you’re the adventurous type, the Roll 2 or JBL Flip 4's rugged, waterproof build will withstand all manner of knocks, bumps, rain and mud splashes. It will fit into your rucksack, too.
The modern speakers come equipped with the latest Bluetooth versions, (Bluetooth 4.0 or 5.0). If your sending device with which you are going to connect has an older version, it is possible that you will encounter a pairing problem. Make sure the speaker is compatible with lower Bluetooth versions up to the A2DP and you can avoid disappointment.
Many brands equip their units with a USB or micro USB output connection that are used to charge the equipment and in some cases to install updates and avoid compatibility problems.
Have you already thought about where you are going to put the loudspeaker at home? Although it is a small and simple device, which occupies very little space, if you plan to leave it in a visible place, such as a bookcase or a table, choose a device with an appropriate design. If you are thinking more about using it to take it out on the street, take it to a party or go with it to the beach, you may like more one with colors that draw attention.
Most brands offer multiple color combinations, choose the one that best suits your personality.
Portable or mains-powered speaker?
Is portable better? Well, portable speakers have a rechargeable battery, so you’re not tied to a mains socket. You can simply pick up the speaker and take it with you. Depending on how big it is, that might mean to another part of the house, into the garden, or all the way to the beach or a summer festival.
Take note of the speaker’s battery life. Four hours is fine if you’ll be listening in your own garden, but you’ll probably want eight hours or more if you’re taking it with you on holiday. It defeats the point of a portable speaker if you have to keep plugging it into the mains every few hours to charge it back up.
Portable no longer means cheap, either, not in build quality or price. The ultra-portable and rugged Ultimate Ears Wonderboom lasts for ten hours, while the sleek Dali Katch clocks in an impressive 24 hours on a full charge.
Mains-powered speakers, inevitably, are more restricted and tend to work best for speakers that stay at home, such as the Sonos' range of speakers.
They’re usually bigger and more expensive than portable ones, too – the Devialet Gold Phantom, B&O BeoPlay A6 and Naim Mu-so are cases in point – and are demanding enough to need a constant source of power to drive the speakers and reach their full performance potential.
Demystifying wireless: Bluetooth, NFC, Wi-Fi, Airplay, DLNA, and multiroom
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.
Wi-Fi speakers are a much more capable option to a Bluetooth speaker, connectivity-wise. But, Wi-Fi speakers can be all kids of complicated when it comes to their unique features. They can support different streaming platforms such as AirPlay or Chromecast, they can support multi-room streaming, and possibly may have smart assistants baked in.
Wi-Fi speakers tend to require power being connected to the wall at all times, but many speakers can also get quite loud. They also tend to have more premium-sounding audio. For audiophiles who want to go wireless, Wi-Fi is pretty much a necessity.
That said, Wi-Fi is often more expensive, and in certain ways, limited. While its extended signal can offer more immediate range, speakers that employ it are usually tied to the local area network over your router, making them homebound. While more and more speakers are going hi-res (higher than CD-quality audio), the rise of Spotify and other streaming services that stream compressed audio are increasingly making that less of an incentive. And while some speakers, such as Sonos, are a breeze to setup via Wi-Fi, some can be a pain.
Bluetooth is the most common tech you’ll see in wireless speakers. It's the quickest and easiest way to let your devices talk to each other wirelessly, taking only a couple of seconds to pair your smart device to your wireless speaker.
You'll find Bluetooth in nearly all wireless speakers (it's usually the sole method of streaming in portable and affordable models), as well as on most smartphones, tablets and laptops.
Bluetooth also doesn’t care if you’re an Apple or Android user. It doesn’t pick favourites, so everyone with a smart device can use it to stream songs.
Standard Bluetooth has a range of about 100 metres, but use a speaker in the house (with all the walls and other obstructions) and this range drops noticeably. Indoors, you can rely on a range of around 10 metres or so.
In its most recent iterations, 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 and other improvements, Bluetooth can even provide simulated CD-quality resolution. (AptX isn’t compatible with iPhones or iPads, but since most users will be sourcing low-res streams or MP3 files, that’s often a moot point.) Often the most current Bluetooth version will be the most efficient, but quality always wins when it comes to the difference between this year and last year’s models. As always, let your ears decide.
- Often portable
- Frequently have built-in batteries
- Most have integrated hardware buttons to control playback
- Usually work with speakerphone
- By-and-large more affordable
- Tendency to be weaker sounding speakers
- Will always be reliant on another device to stream music
- Can only stream to one Bluetooth speaker at a time - no multi-room support
- Pairing process can be annoying each time or for new users
One category that’s been expanding like crazy lately multiroom speaker technology. These Wi-Fi-connected systems employ an integrated mobile app that links to your phone, computer, and even storage devices. The systems allow you to stream your entire music collection, as well as streaming apps like Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, and others.
Most wireless speakers these days have some form of multi-room ability, or at least have the ability to pair two speakers together to double up the sound or use in stereo. Sonos and Audio Pro are the gold standards for proper multi-room streaming across your home, but plenty of speakers offer similar abilities, so why not turn your home into one seamless music hub?
The more speakers you buy, the more you can dot around the house. Link them all up and you need never miss a second of sound. You can also arrange it so each room is playing a different song – perfect for a music-loving family.
The success of a multi-room speaker rests in no small part on its app, from how easy it is to connect to your network to how it organises your music. A seamless app experience has kept Sonos ahead of the pack, though Bluesound is a decent alternative if you're after hi-res audio playback.
For Apple users, AirPlay can be a must-have feature. AirPlay makes it extremely easy for any iOS, macOS, or tvOS device to connect and play music back. It even works for guests. There is no convoluted pairing process seen with Bluetooth.
AirPlay is Apple’s own way of streaming files wirelessly and, as is Apple's way, it works only with iOS products. Still, that’s useful if you live in an Apple-only household.
In terms of set up, AirPlay piggybacks your home’s wi-fi network, so just make sure your iPhone, iPod or iPad and your wireless speaker are on the same network, and you'll be streaming in no time.
While AirPlay-only speakers have long gone out of fashion (like 2011's B&W Zeppelin Air) you'll find it now added to most wireless speakers' long list of features.
The latest version, AirPlay 2, now allows for multi-room audio across multiple speakers, too, and you'll find it Libratone, Devialet, B&W, Naim and Sonos speakers, amongst others.
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.
There is simply no comparison where a Bluetooth speaker comes out on top of an AirPlay 2 set. But, that comes at a price.
Obviously AirPlay and AirPlay 2 are particularly beneficial for Apple users, especially when everyone in the house uses Apple products. Since they can be streamed to effortlessly from any Apple device, it opens a lot more possibilities than some others. Those who want multi-room and AirPay should wait for more AirPlay 2 speakers to be released or updated.
Beyond just how the speakers connect, and what smart assistant technology they rely on, there are other factors to consider when looking at speakers.
A relatively new category — but one we expect will grow with time — is the smart speaker, which begins with Amazon’s revolutionary Echo. What can this speaker do? What can’t it do might be a better question. Offering everything from sports scores and weather updates to online shopping — all controlled via voice commands — Amazon’s new device is much more than a speaker.
And let's not forget the latest trend on the technology block: smart speakers.
Wireless speakers with voice control built in, using one of the many personal assistants currently available (Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant), smart speakers are becoming increasingly popular.
If you want a smart speaker solely for the 'smart' aspect of it - controlling your music and elements of your home using voice commands has certainly caught people's attention - then smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home are ideal for adding a touch of sci-fi to your home. You can link them up for multi-room audio, too.
They're not the best sounding speakers, though - unless you opt for the pricey Apple HomePod. So if sound quality is your top priority in a wireless speaker (as it should be) but you still want the voice control aspect as a fun addition, all is not lost: new speakers such as the Sonos One and Ultimate Ears Megablast offer a fantastic sonic performance while also having Alexa voice control built in - it's the best of both worlds.
Alternatively, you can simply add a tiny puck-sized Amazon Echo Dot or Google Home Mini to give your main music system a dash of AI.
Regardless which route you go down, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, you will never be short on options. Even with us covering generalities, there are still speakers that break the rules. The Amazon Echo Tap has Alexa built-in while being portable. The Fluance F170 is a massive wall-powered Bluetooth speaker that sounds amazing.
It would be nice to see nearly all Wi-Fi speakers support nearly the same primary features so that we can get back to focusing on the primary importance: audio quality. Until then, there are a lot of research and comparisons that can go into choosing the perfect speaker for each use case.
Last but not the least, the best is not the most expensive but one that offers the best quality for less money. So do not blindly buy expensive Bluetooth speakers. These are electronic products that are prone to damage. Research little bit, find your specific needs, choose the right speaker that suits your need after going through descriptions and reviews.