Lately, it seems, the market in wireless speakers has turned from a landscape into a minefield. Your choice is almost extravagantly wide now.
Every brand, from those you’ve never heard of to the world’s most famous names, seems to be involved. Every price point, from the equivalent of a couple of pints to the equivalent of a nice second-hand German car, seems to be covered. And every facility, from multi-room ability and voice control to waterproofing and humongous battery life, seems to be available.
Let’s not forget colours, shapes and sizes either. And this is before we even consider sound quality. Picking the right wireless speaker, then, could be a tense and time-consuming process. Or you can let us help you narrow things right down.
What is this wireless speaker for?
To begin with, ask yourself what this wireless speaker is for. Is it going to be your main source of music, replacing a big, unglamorous traditional hi-fi system? Does it need to become part of a multi-room system? Is it a secondary source, maybe for use in the bedroom or kitchen? Is it meant to be a travel companion, no matter if ‘travel’ means ‘down the garden’ or ‘halfway around the world’?
How you answer those questions will dictate the sort of price bracket you’ll need to operate it – because, of course, you need to have a budget in mind.
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You’re looking at £600+ for a serious ‘system’
If you’re thinking of using your new wireless speaker as your primary source of music, if – for all intents and purposes – it’s going to be your main ‘system’, then your budget will probably need to be reasonably serious. You should really consider £600 or so your jumping-off point if you want convincing sound quality and a full suite of features from your speaker – this sort of money puts very credible products like Naim’s splendid Qb2 (£779) within reach.
It’s possible to spend plenty more than £600 on a properly engineered, high-performance wireless speaker – we’ve reviewed both the remarkable Bowers & Wilkins’ Formation Wedge (£899) and the Naim Mu-so (£1,299) and found them to represent proper value for their considerable money. And when we reviewed the Linn Series 3 (£2,950) speaker we suggested it was the best wireless speaker available anywhere, at any price. Given that price is very nearly £3,000, it really ought to be.
All four of those products – and virtually every rival – has a very similar feature-set. They can handle hi-res digital audio files, they can stream wirelessly via Bluetooth or your home Wi-Fi network, they can all form part of a multi-room system without too much aggravation. None of them are battery-powered or, consequently, portable. And while none of them are ‘smart’ speakers in the sense of having integrated mics and being able to answer your random questions, they can all be controlled by an Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant speaker on the same network. And they all, to a lesser or greater extent, sound the money’s-worth.
Apart from sound, the biggest differences between them are aesthetic. If you like the idea of a high-performance wireless speaker that looks like half a lampshade, head straight to your nearest Bowers & Wilkins showroom.
Go affordable for kitchens and bedrooms
If you have more modest expectations of this new speaker of yours, and are looking for a simple and convenient way to get some music into the kitchen or the bedroom, it’s possible to get very good audio results for a much smaller spend. And spending less money doesn’t automatically mean sacrificing features, either.
Amazon, Audio Pro and Sonos – to name but three – all have very capable speakers to sell you for somewhere between £100 and £250. They tend to be far more compact than the full-on system options discussed above and, while they’re not all capable of dealing with hi-res audio, they’ll do most of the stuff the more expensive speakers do. Voice control, multi-room connectivity and Bluetooth are generally pretty common.
As far as looks go, there’s an absolute plethora of choice at this sort of level. Kvadrat acoustic cloth (in a bewildering number of colours) has been a very fashionable finish for a while now, but you can also select speakers that look like little guitar amps (both Fender and Marshall can help here), or also work as lamps (thanks IKEA/Sonos)…
For garden parties, try UE or Sonos
For the keen traveller, the garden-party enthusiast or those folks who like a musical accompaniment while they take a shower, battery power is the way to go. Again, there’s no need to break the bank with Bluetooth speakers – Ultimate Ears, for example, wants less than £100 for its Wonderboom 2 (£70).
It’s small, properly portable, waterproof, has great battery life and sounds really decent for the money – and it’s by no means your only choice. The selection is so wide, in fact, that there’s no reason to choose something that isn’t water-, sand- and dust-proof and still come away with change from £150.
At the other end of the battery-powered scale comes Sonos with its Sonos Move (£379) – it too has good battery life, plus it can be voice-controlled, and can join a wider Sonos multi-room system. And it sounds really energetic and enjoyable. By portable standards it’s quite big, though, so won’t be coming on holiday with you (unless you don’t want to take any other hand luggage).
Think about sources and protocols (yes, sorry)
So you know what your speaker’s for and where it needs to go, and you know how much you’re prepared to spend. You almost certainly have a preference in terms of colour. So now consider how you want to get music into the speaker in the first place – and then you’ll be ready to make a choice.
Apple has been overdue a mention so far. It only has one wireless, mains-powered speaker in its range (the Apple HomePod (£279), a very capable option) but, being Apple, it has created its own way of wirelessly streaming digital files. This AirPlay 2 protocol only works with iOS products – but there are plenty of them about, and most manufacturers like to include AirPlay 2 connectivity in their speakers’ specification if they can. If you’re a house of iPhones and iPads, make sure your favourite wireless speaker can handle AirPlay 2.
Most brands (which basically means ‘everyone except Apple’) are perfectly happy to use Bluetooth wireless connectivity. Every phone can send it, every speaker can receive it (even the HomePod, as long as it’s come from an iOS device), and thanks to refinements like aptX HD it can deliver really convincing sound. Non-Bluetooth wireless speakers are a rarity.
If you’re one of the 100 milllion-or-so people with a Spotify Premium subscription, make sure your speaker can handle Spotify Connect. Making this connection to your speaker means the music is actually coming directly from Spotify rather than via your phone, leaving it free to function as a phone without interrupting your music. As with Apple AirPlay 2, though, your speaker will have to be on the same home network as your phone for this feature to work.
Of course, if your phone and your speaker are on the same network then any music also on the network is available. You may have a few tunes on your laptop or a huge library of music held on some network-attached storage – whatever and wherever they are, as long as your speaker can join your network, they’re available. Make sure your speaker is able to support the kind of digital files you’ve stored, though – there’s not much point in downloading some nice hi-res audio if your speaker isn’t up to playing it.
Audition a few options – if you can
If – at some point – you’re prepared to go out into the wider world and audition a few wireless speakers from the shortlist you’ve been able to draw up, it shouldn’t take long to establish your favourite – and after that, years of effort-free listening are yours. And if you’re not, well, we have some expert recommendations of our own you may wish to investigate.