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The best portable Bluetooth speaker

The UE Wonderboom 2 is the best option for most people.
Wirecutter, @wirecutter
November 29, 2019
Rozette Rago/Wirecutter

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By Brent Butterworth

This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter's independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and Engadget may earn affiliate commission. Read the full guide to portable bluetooth speakers.

Portable Bluetooth speakers come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and prices, so it's impossible to say that any one model is perfect for everyone. But we think the UE Wonderboom 2 has the best chance of delighting your ears without walloping your finances. This speaker has a full, clear sound and a compact design. It's also waterproof and dustproof, and built to survive even the most adventurous vacations.

The UE Wonderboom 2 is as euphonious as Ariana Grande but as tough as Lara Croft. In our blind tests, our panelists picked this Bluetooth speaker as the best-sounding model under $100, with its especially clear vocal reproduction and a decent amount of bass for its size. It has an IP67 rating and is one of the most rugged Bluetooth speakers we've tested, able to survive a 5-foot drop and a dunking in 1 meter of water—but because it floats, it'll probably never dive that deep. The Wonderboom 2's only downside is its battery life, which, at eight hours, is adequate but not impressive. We like the Wonderboom's cute, compact design, even if the almost-spherical shape makes this model a little tougher to pack away in a suitcase pocket or laptop bag.

If you want a portable Bluetooth speaker that approaches the sound of a good small stereo system yet is rugged enough to take almost anywhere, the JBL Xtreme 2 is a terrific choice. Three of our four listeners thought the Xtreme 2 was the best-sounding speaker we tested, praising it for its ample bass, high maximum volume, and overall clear, clean sound. It's IPX7-rated, which means it can survive submersion in 1 meter of water, and it includes a handy, strong carrying strap. The Xtreme 2 also delivered 19 hours of battery life. But it's much larger and pricier than the UE Wonderboom 2.

If you need something that sounds a little louder and fuller than the UE Wonderboom 2, but that's more portable and affordable than the JBL Xtreme 2, the Sony SRS-XB32 finds a nice middle ground. It's about twice the Wonderboom 2's size, plays a little bit louder, and puts out a lot more bass. It's also rugged, with an IP67 waterproof/dustproof rating. In our battery test, it automatically reduced its volume after about six hours of fairly loud use, but it played for about five more hours after that. It also has adjustable multicolor lights and flashing strobes, which don't appeal to us—but somebody must like these things or manufacturers wouldn't keep including them.

If you want to spend the bare minimum on an all-around good portable Bluetooth speaker, the Tribit XSound Go is a great choice. Its sound is obviously clearer and louder than that of almost all other budget Bluetooth speakers. The XSound Go is also small enough to slip into a laptop bag or an already stuffed suitcase, and it will run 10½ hours on a charge. Plus, it's IPX7-rated, which means it's sufficiently waterproof to survive a half-hour dunking in 1 meter of water, and it has a speakerphone function.

The EcoXGear EcoBoulder+ is a completely different kind of portable Bluetooth speaker than our other picks—it pumps out maximum volume for pool parties, picnics, and tailgating events. Although it can blast, it can also soothe—not only with its full, natural sound, but also with a built-in bottle opener and cupholders. Weighing 29 pounds and sized like a roll-aboard suitcase, the EcoBoulder+ is not something you'll take on business trips, but its retractable handle and wheels do make it easy to lug around. It also has a built-in AM/FM radio and a long battery life—24 hours, in our test.

Why you should trust us

I've reviewed audio gear professionally since 1990. I have written reviews for magazines and websites including Sound & Vision, Home Theater Review, LifeWire, and Home Theater. I've probably conducted more blind tests of audio products than any other journalist, and I've tested somewhere around 350 wireless speakers to date. Since 2008 I have brought portable Bluetooth speakers on about 100 trips, from bike tours to transoceanic junkets to week-long trade-show slogs.

For our most recent listening tests, I was a panelist, along with Wirecutter senior staff writer Lauren Dragan and two musicians I often play with in Los Angeles: woodwind player Dan Gonda and drummer Sammy Velick, both in their late 30s. Dan and Sammy have considerable experience in music performance and production. And both of them own a few Bluetooth speakers and have heard many more of them in my home, where I use them to demo jazz tunes for musicians in my jam sessions.

Who should buy a portable Bluetooth speaker

Anyone who owns a smartphone or tablet would probably enjoy owning a portable Bluetooth speaker, which can improve the listening experience anywhere. Bluetooth is available in every current smartphone and tablet, as well as in most laptop computers, so you don't need additional equipment. Unlike smart speakers and Wi-Fi speakers, Bluetooth speakers don't require a network connection and the use of special apps—whatever you play on the phone will play through the speaker.

Portable Bluetooth speakers have a rechargeable battery and are frequently waterproof or splash-proof, so you can easily move them around the house or take them to a park or the beach. We've found that they make hotel rooms feel more like home.

The best of these speakers deliver sound quality that's good enough for casual music listening, podcasts, and Internet radio. Although Bluetooth does degrade sound quality slightly, you're unlikely to hear the effects through relatively low-quality speakers such as these. If you're worried about it, take the online blind test on my website and see what you think.

If sound quality and volume are your top priorities, and you don't plan to take the speaker out of your house, you may want to check out the larger, more powerful speakers featured in our other tabletop speaker guides:

For true high-fidelity sound, we recommend a pair of decent bookshelf speakers and a stereo receiver or one of the top picks from our best computer speakers guide. You'll get clearer sound, much better stereo imaging, and usually much deeper bass response. You can add a Bluetooth adapter if the system doesn't already have Bluetooth built in.

Voice control of the sort popularized by the Amazon Echo and Google Home is uncommon in portable Bluetooth speakers, because almost all voice-command technologies require a Wi-Fi connection to function. Some Bluetooth speakers provide a button that activates your smartphone's voice-command technology (such as Google Assistant), but because you can access those features straight from your phone, this isn't a big advantage.

How we picked

Portable Bluetooth speaker

Here are some of the speakers we tested for our fall 2019 update. Photo: Rozette Rago

I'd estimate that there are a couple thousand models of Bluetooth speakers now available, many sold under obscure brands and sometimes only through Amazon. Considering that new ones seem to appear every week, it would be impossible to find and hear them all. But we've listened to most of the major models and are always on the lookout for promising new models to test.

We use the following criteria to help us decide which speakers to call in for testing:

  • Portability and battery life: Although any Bluetooth speaker can be lugged around, we focused on models that have rechargeable batteries and are designed to take a trip to the beach or the park with no hassle.
  • Ruggedness and waterproof design: We gave priority to speakers that are built to survive the knocks and bumps of travel. Although we didn't limit our testing to waterproof speakers, we did give preference in our judging to speakers with an Ingress Protection (IP) rating, which tells you exactly how waterproof and dustproof a speaker is.
  • Price: Even though we would like to test every type of portable Bluetooth speaker, we set a bottom price of $15. Bluetooth speakers are often available for as little as $5, but we've never found such an inexpensive model to sound good enough to bother using—especially when the speakers built into today's better phones can play loud enough for light listening.
  • Playback controls: Because playback can be controlled from your Bluetooth source device (usually a phone or tablet), we didn't require the speaker itself to have playback controls, but it's a convenient plus.
  • Special features: Bluetooth speakers offer all sorts of features beyond the ability to play audio from Bluetooth-sourced devices. These include speakerphone capability, pairing (the ability to play the same material through two Bluetooth speakers at once), built-in lighting, and even integral bottle openers. In polls and comments, every reader seems to have their own opinion as to which (if any) features are the most important, so we didn't require any particular features when picking products to test.

After considering all of the criteria, we ended up evaluating 35 new models for the most recent update, including recent releases from 1More, Anker, Audioengine, Doss, EarFun, Heyday, Harman Kardon, JBL, Kew Labs, LG, House of Marley, Marshall, Monoprice, Sony, Tribit, Tronsmart, UE, VicTsing, and Vifa. This brings us to a total of about 270 Bluetooth speakers that we've tested since this guide first posted.

How we tested

Portable Bluetooth speaker

Our top picks, left to right: EcoXGear EcoBoulder+, Sony SRS-XB32, Tribit XSound Go, UE Wonderboom 2, and JBL Xtreme 2. Photo: Rozette Rago

As has become my standard practice for updates to this guide, I started by giving all of the new models a long listen, connecting them via Bluetooth through my Samsung Galaxy S9 phone and playing the same four test tracks: pop, heavy metal, hip-hop, and jazz. I compared the speakers not only with each other but also with some of our previous picks.

I measured the maximum output of each speaker at a distance of 1 meter using an NTi Minilyzer audio analyzer and a calibrated NTi MiniSPL test microphone. For this round of testing, I made one change from our past testing method because I noticed that my previous methods didn't seem to accurately reflect the perceived maximum volume level in the speakers I tested. I speculate that this is due to the increasing sophistication of the internal limiters that protect the speaker drivers and minimize distortion. So instead of simply playing pink noise and noting the maximum decibel level on the audio analyzer, I used the analyzer's Leq mode, measuring the average maximum level when playing ZZ Top's very loudly recorded tune "Chartreuse." Sometimes the result was a little higher than in previous tests, sometimes a little lower, but I think this approach will deliver a result that better reflects what you'll hear in day-to-day use.

I narrowed the contestants to the models that I thought had a real chance to impress our listening panel, and I included a couple of past picks.

Although my personal audio tests were, by necessity, sighted (that is, I always knew which product I was hearing), I used a screen of thin black fabric to hide the identities of the products from the panelists. I first set the playback level of each speaker to 74 decibels, using the shaped-noise channel-balancing test tone recorded from a Dolby Digital receiver. Because of the widely varying performance, the coarse volume control steps, and the unpredictable actions of the volume limiters used in these speakers, it was impossible to match levels accurately, but in most cases I was able to get them within plus/minus 0.3 dB.

I played each panelist a mix of tracks known to be good tests of audio quality, such as Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car," as well as a couple of tracks of their own choosing. I concluded the test of each speaker by cranking it up as loud as it would go and playing a rock track, such as AC/DC's "Highway to Hell." We started with smaller models and moved up to larger ones, and I changed the order of presentation for each panelist.

I asked the panelists to note which speakers they liked best, paying particular attention to:

  • how clear they sounded at normal levels
  • the balance of bass to midrange to treble
  • how loud they were able to play when cranked up
  • how clear they sounded when cranked up

After the listeners gave me their opinions of the sound, I unveiled the speakers and got their comments about design, features, and price.

I checked the battery life of each of our top picks by repeating Steely Dan's "Aja" at an average level of 75 decibels (measured at 1 meter), over and over until the power ran out. Note that our results may not agree with the manufacturers' stated battery life, likely because their testing methodology—which they almost never publish—varies from ours. I also measured maximum Bluetooth range of all our picks.

For models that offer speakerphone functionality, I tried placing a call with each model to Lauren, who has helped me evaluate speakerphone quality for years. I speak to her from the same place in my living room, starting with my mouth 2 feet from the speaker; then I note how she sounds to me, and she tells me how my voice sounds.

Our pick: UE Wonderboom 2

Portable Bluetooth speaker

Photo: Rozette Rago

A portable Bluetooth speaker should be compact, rugged, affordable, and (most of all) good-sounding. The UE Wonderboom 2 ticks all of these boxes and then some. Three of our four panelists considered this model's sound to be the best of any speaker we tested under $100, and they praised its natural balance of bass to midrange to treble, as well as its clear reproduction of voices. The Wonderboom 2 is about the size and weight of a large apple, so it's easy to carry around. It also has lots of useful features, including an Outdoor Boost mode that makes it louder (at the expense of bass), an ultra-rugged design, stereo/mono pairing, an extra-long Bluetooth range, and a top button that lets you pause and restart the music, as well as skip to the next track.

"The sound is surprisingly clear for such a small speaker," Sammy said. "It's the best of the under-$100 models, and definitely the best overall when you consider price." Lauren added: "It sounds bright, but it's got enough bass to balance that out—it's boom and sizzle, where most of the small speakers are all sizzle."