Cut the Cord
Wireless speakers are everywhere these days. Big, small, expensive, cheap, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth. The sheer choice can seem overwhelming, but this 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 or Wi-Fi?
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) 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 Bluetooth 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, however.
Wi-Fi audio includes standards like Apple AirPlay and Google Cast, along with various manufacturers’ own Wi-Fi streaming platforms, like Sonos. 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 generally require a Wi-Fi network to connect to, so they can’t be used portably with your smartphone like Bluetooth speakers. 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 third-party services they support.
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.
What Kind of Speaker?
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.
Many larger speakers need to be plugged into power at all times. This might seem inconvenient, but it has its advantages. The size and constant power means these speakers can get much louder than a tiny Bluetooth speaker you can toss in your bag. They’re very handy options to just set in your living room and use whenever you want to listen to music at home. The Amazon Echo is a unique case; it isn’t very big or very powerful, but the always-plugged-in design ensures it stays within range of your home network so it can respond to voice commands and play music without a local source at all times.
On the other end of the speaker flexibility spectrum are portable speakers. Many Bluetooth speakers have built-in batteries and can easily be used anywhere, not just hooked up in your living room. These are generally less powerful than the bigger, stationary speakers, and often a bit less expensive, too.
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.
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, like the Sonos One and 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.