BUYING PORTABLE AUDIO

These days, most of us carry our music collection, or at least some of it, around with us on a smartphone or tablet. Alternatively, you might use any number of music streaming services including Spotify, Pandora or Google Play Music.

Portable speaker systems come in handy in a variety of situations, because they can be used for work or for recreation. They are a great way to listen to liven up a party or picnic as you can keep hold of your device and control music playback, while enjoying louder, higher-quality sound than its internal speaker could ever provide. One of the best things about this type of speaker is that music can be taken to places where it was never able to go before.

There are a variety of portable speaker styles that make these speakers systems even more versatile, so it is good to know what types of features are available so that the speakers can be used and enjoyed to their maximum potential. The choice of wireless speakers can be pretty confusing, though.

PORTABILITY

One of the hallmarks of a good portable speaker is, of course, portability. Just because a speaker can run on batteries doesn't mean it's easy to carry around.
Business travelers generally need something extremely portable yet capable of producing enough sound to fill a small hotel room or reach the back of a conference room. Portable speakers are small without sacrificing sound quality. Even with their compact size and easy portability, they're designed with built-in amplifiers to deliver full-range audio whenever you want.

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WI-FI OR BLUETOOTH?

Your first decision is how you plan to go wireless. Do you want to go via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi? Some models spare you the trouble by offering both.

By far the most common standard is Bluetooth, since virtually all smartphones and tablets have it. Connecting a speaker to your smartphone, MP3 player, tablet, portable game console or laptop is easy with Bluetooth technology. Some wireless speakers can even connect to each other for a richer, more developed sound.
You won't need special apps or hardware to use this technology as long as both the device and audio system are Bluetooth-enabled. However, there are apps available for some speakers to help make the experience more user-friendly. You can also find some wireless speakers that use AirPlay.

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BLUETOOTH SPEAKER

Bluetooth is no longer a feature that is used just for hands-free devices such as cell phones. Many electronic devices are now designed with Bluetooth capability.

Most portable speakers use Bluetooth wireless technology to link to another device and are battery-powered and compact, making them more portable.
Within the Bluetooth standard, there are different levels of quality. Stereo A2DP typically delivers an MP3-like quality, but aptX is preferable as its near- lossless. But you'll only get the benefit of aptX's better quality if your smartphone, tablet or other Bluetooth sending device also supports it.


Pros

The tech works with a wide range of mobile devices, including Apple iPhone and Android smartphones.

Cons

You can only stream audio from your gadget to one speaker at a time, and range is limited (usually around 33 ft.)

Set-up

In general, connecting via Bluetooth takes fewer steps than connecting via Wi-Fi.

WI-FI SPEAKERS

Wi-Fi speakers let you take advantage of your home network, typically giving you a stronger, more stable signal.

Pros

With Wi-Fi, you can stream to multiple speakers at once. And this technology has a longer range than Bluetooth, up to around 200 ft. (though 100 to 150 is more likely).

Cons

You’re subject to bandwidth limitations, depending on the volume of traffic on your network (people streaming videos, surfing the net, downloading content), which can affect the quality of your audio streaming.

Set-up

Some Wi-Fi models are particularly easy to set up, especially those that use WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup), a feature designed to connect the speaker to your home network simply by pushing WPS buttons on the speaker and the WPS-enabled router. However, typical setups require downloading an app and following several steps, which will likely require selecting a network ID and entering its password as part of the process.

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BOTH WI-FI AND BLUETOOTH

Several of the highly-rated models in our testing have both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Pros

With both technologies, you have more choice. That includes not only the flexibility to take advantage of your strong home network, but if, for example, a visitor wants to play some songs from a phone or laptop, the simplest way to connect is over Bluetooth. In general, these models are fairly easy to use.

Cons

You might pay more to have both features (anything with Wi-Fi tends to add to the cost).

Set-up

If your intention is to take advantage of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, be prepared to go through the individual set-up for both. It's worth noting that that's not that difficult.

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WI-FI TECH TERMS

If you opt for a Wi-Fi speaker, you’ll come across terms such as Apple AirPlay, DLNA, DTS Play-Fi, etc. Those are the wireless standards a speaker uses to access content on a network. Many speakers can use more than one. But be sure that the speakers you want to link together all share at least one standard. The main things you need to know are:

Apple AirPlay can access content from Apple mobile devices and any computer with iTunes installed on it. For Android devices, you’ll have to use a third-party app. The same goes for streaming to multiple AirPlay speakers from an iPhone or iPad. You do not, however, need the third-party app when you're using a computer.

The other standards: including DLNA, DTS Play-Fi, Heos, and Sonos—can usually work with iOS and Android devices, plus PCs and some Mac computers.

If you want to play music on multiple speakers, those speakers can come from different brands. However, they have to use the same wireless technology standard. In other words, you can’t have one speaker that uses AirPlay and another that’s Play-Fi only.

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 high resolution audio files. It’s also preferred if you don’t want your tunes to be disrupted by mobile notifications.

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.

Finally (and most confusing), 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. Those include speakers with dedicated mobile apps, protocols like Airplay and DLNA, and the growing selection of app-based multiroom speaker systems


MULTIROOM

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 impressively, the more multiroom speakers you add to your arsenal, the more you can link up (to a point), allowing you to spread latency-free audio throughout the home, or play different music on each, simultaneously. In addition to all those features, multiroom speakers offer high-quality sound, with more and more systems incorporating CD-quality resolution at the minimum. (Though, again, the benefits of this will depend highly on your source audio.) Multiroom speakers are awesome, and they are increasingly becoming the wireless system of choice, but a quick word of warning: If you only need one speaker, multiroom is often the priciest way to go.

SOUND QUALITY

One of the biggest complaints that people have when it comes to choosing portable speakers is that it is difficult to find ones with good sound quality. Although there are models that are better than others are in the sound quality department, typically people who have this complaint are ones who purchased the wrong one to suit their needs. Purchasing a high fidelity portable speaker system aids in eliminating these complaints.

Sometimes it takes buying a portable speaker system with accessories such as a woofer to please the needs of the music enthusiast. Portable speaker systems with woofers are often especially important to people who use these speakers for their professions, such as in the case of a disc jockey or a music band. There are a wide range of sizes and styles in this category that helps fill those types of needs, as well as ones that are simply for recreational purposes.

One very important aspect that is involved with buying portable speaker systems is making sure that the system is compatible with the electronic device with which it is intended to be used with. For example, many types of speakers such as ones that have wireless capabilities may only be compatible with certain device operating systems like the ones used the iPhones or iPods.

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CHARGING

There is a lot of technologically-advanced components that can go into portable speaker systems. The fact of the matter is, the more features and power a system has, the more likelihood that it is to lose its charge and die. This is especially true for systems that receive continual use for long periods of time or when the volume is increased. Some portable speakers have built-in rechargeable batteries, which makes it more convenient to listen to music when you want and how you want to without worrying about running out of batteries. Often these batteries need to be recharged by plugging the speakers into an electrical outlet, which is a handy way to charge them, but at the same time can be very unhandy if the batteries run low and there is no electrical power source available to recharge the speakers.

The good news is, if you aren't near an electrical outlet, you can still charge your device via some portable battery backup, using a built-in USB port that also allows you to plug in your charger or connect to your car charger so you can maintain power on the go.

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PAIR MULTIPLE SPEAKERS

Amplify your listening experience with portable speakers that can pair directly with each other. This is especially helpful when you want to share audio with a group of people in an outdoor setting where sound needs to travel.

For some people, size makes a difference in when it comes to the portability of a speaker system. Some people desire a large portable speaker system because they feel that this type is more powerful, and in many cases this is true. However, there are many small portable speaker systems that offer quite the bang for the buck by providing a clear, crisp sound.

INPUTS AND OUTPUTS

Almost all wireless speakers have auxiliary audio inputs used to connect gear such as a portable audio player or a TV. Some can even charge other devices via a USB port. An optical digital audio input can connect to gear such as a Blu-ray/dvd/cd player. Outputs allow you to add another subwoofer to send video from, say, a docked iPad to a TV.

CONNECTORS AND DOCKS

Depending on the model, you may also get an iPod dock or the ability to connect an iPhone, iPod, or other device via USB. Some units have connectors or docks that accept the old-style 30-pin connections found on iPads, iPods, and older iPhones. (The latest 9-pin Lightning connector on the Apple iPhone 5 and beyond requires a separately purchased adapter.)

REMOTE CONTROL AND VOICE RECOGNITION

Some portable audio come with the only buttons being the power and volume buttons, so you’re stuck with controls on the source device. These days, some portable audio devices give you the opportunity to interact with them seamlessly either via;

VOICE RECOGNITION

this can be handy when you can’t handle either device (phone or portable audio), maybe because of distance or activity, but it can be hit or miss. Remote Control: an alternative to voice control is a portable audio with your typical remote control or an app on a smart device.

ONLINE MUSIC SERVICES

In addition to streaming digital audio from a computer, several of the Wi-Fi models can access a handful of premium music services, such as Pandora and Spotify.

HANDS-FREE SPEAKERPHONE FUNCTIONALITY

Only available on certain Bluetooth models, this lets you take phone calls, offering another layer of convenience, the feature is perfect for conference calls and anytime you don't want to miss a call. Speakers with this feature usually fade out audio streaming when the phone rings.
They have a built-in microphone which means they can double up as a hands-free speakerphone. If you're already playing music from your smartphone, they should allow you to take an incoming phone call seamlessly.

WATER - AND WEATHER-RESISTANCE

Depending on where and how you intend to make use of your portable audio, you might want to choose a wireless speaker that can keep pace with your active life by surviving stormy weather, spilled drinks, and drops into puddles. From the pool to the beach to all your outdoor adventures, a water-, dirt- or weather-resistant Bluetooth speaker will keep the playlist going wherever you are. Some models are even submersible, so they are able to survive an accidental plunge into the pool or the lake.

SIZE AND STYLE OPTIONS

Portable speakers are available in a variety of weights and shapes, designed to be packed in a bag, stowed in your pocket or carried by an attached handle. You'll even find speakers with pulsing lights that add extra ambience to your audio. Plus, optional covers and cases make for a custom listening experience.

SMART SPEAKERS

A relatively new category — but one we expect will grow with time — is the smart speaker, which begins with Amazon’s revolutionary Echo. 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. Thanks to its dedicated app and voice assistant Alexa, the speaker is extremely fun and easy to use, and sound quality over Wi-Fi is surprisingly impressive from the speaker’s 360-degree driver ring. Finally, let your ears be your guide: If it sounds good, it is good.

Audio Buying Guide
NOW THAT YOU KNOW BETTER!
You can choose better,
from our collection of portable audio devices