Take Your Tunes Anywhere
There’s a seemingly endless supply of portable Bluetooth speakers out there, most of which will work just fine after being stowed in your luggage and pulled out for use in your hotel room. But perhaps you’re looking for something to take on your next camping excursion or trip to the beach. Or maybe you want a speaker with built-in cupholders, a retractable luggage handle, and the ability to double as a guitar amp. We test plenty of outdoor-friendly speakers that meet all of these requirements and more. Here’s what to look for, as well as the top models we’ve tested.
Ruggedness and Waterproofing: Understanding IP Ratings
Manufacturers often claim a speaker is water-resistant or waterproof, but the only true measure of just how protected a speaker is from liquid and other potential hazards is its IP rating. But these ratings can be confusing as well.
Every proper IP rating consists of either a two-digit score, or an X (acting as a placeholder) and a single digit. The first digit refers to a product’s protection against solids, like dust, while the second refers to protection against liquids. The number range for solids spans from zero (no protection) to six (dustproof), and for liquids it’s zero to eight (waterproof and submersible beyond one meter for extended time periods).
The rating IP68, therefore, is the top IP rating, signifying a dustproof, waterproof, submersible product. When you see ratings with an X in them, it usually means the manufacturer didn’t officially test for protection, but believes the rating would be higher than zero. Thus, an IPX8 rating means the product has the highest level of water protection, and an unverified level of dust protection (but one that is assumed to be higher than no protection at all).
Most portable wireless speakers with IP ratings range in the IPX5 to IPX7 range. The low end of this spectrum means the speaker is protected against low-pressure water streaming from any direction, while IPX7 signifies a speaker is submersible up to 1 meter without issue. Sometimes a time period will be specified—some speakers are only guaranteed to be protected while submerged for, say, 30 minutes.
Plenty of speakers also have solids protection, and will list the tested number instead of the X placeholder. If protection against dust or sand is crucial (good for trips to the beach), you’ll want to go for a speaker that actually lists a numeral rather than an X.
If a manufacturer neglects to list a speaker’s IP rating but makes a claim of a water-resistant design, you can probably assume that it can handle rain, sweat, and minor splashes, as well as a quick rinse in the sink now and then. But submerging it in a pool or tub is not a wise idea without knowing the IP rating.
Size and Portability
Portable speakers aren’t limited to small speakers that can be stashed in your backpack. In fact, plenty of the ones we test are relatively large and heavy, meant for portability in the sense that you can carry them to your car’s trunk and from the car to the campfire, but they’re about as large as a cooler.
Obviously, one role size plays in the equation is how much bass response and overall volume a speaker is able to project. Don’t expect a pocket-size speaker to have much, if any, bass depth. Of course, bass doesn’t matter nearly as much as powerful high-mids and high frequency response outdoors; there aren’t any walls to shake and resonate powerful bass vibrations, so sound can only carry directly through the air (which is much more treble’s forte).
Portable Bluetooth speakers have come a long way in the last half decade. Today small speakers can pack some fairly impressive firepower. This is thanks mostly to the near-ubiquitous inclusion of passive radiators.
Passive bass radiators are made of rubber-like surfaces that vibrate sympathetically with the output of a powered driver—like when you place a speaker on a long wooden table and you notice the table vibrating, seemingly increasing the bass response. The vibrations often create the sense of stronger bass depth, even without these radiators receiving actual powered audio on their own. It sounds like a gimmick that shouldn’t be effective, but some manufacturers have worked magic and manage to pump out rich bass response from fairly small speakers.
Some outdoor speakers also feature outdoor listening modes. These modes tend to dial up the treble to make up for the lack of reflective surfaces when you’re sitting in the middle of a field or forest. The walls in your kitchen or office do, indeed, perform a function in transmitting audio to your ears, and without them in the picture, high frequencies in particular can sound dulled, especially if you’re not terribly close to the speaker.
One more thing to note is whether a speaker is mono or stereo. Plenty of the Bluetooth speakers we test, especially the smaller ones, only have a single driver. Or they may have multiple drivers, but the drivers are devoted to different frequency ranges and not left and right channels—in other words, the manufacturer decided that pumping out some stronger bass matters more than stereo separation. And it’s not a bad approach—keep in mind that if your left and right drivers aren’t farther apart than your ears, you’re not likely to hear much stereo separation unless they’re angled to play off a room’s surfaces. And even if you do have enough space between the drivers for stereo separation, if you are farther away from the speakers than the drivers are from each other, that stereo image will often sound a lot more like mono.
Many of these extra features, along with drivers that pump out big bass at high volumes, come at the cost of battery life. Just about every speaker we test is powered by an internal lithium-ion battery that gets charged via a micro USB port or an actual AC power adapter.
Typical battery life for portable speakers ranges anywhere from 10 to 20 hours, depending on size and features. But keep in mind these are estimates, and manufacturers will often list a higher battery life based on the assumption that you’ll be listening at modest volume levels. As you might expect, blasting a speaker at top volume will drain the battery more quickly.
If the speaker you’re considering delivers less than 10 hours of battery life, it might be worth investing in a portable battery pack to keep the party going.
You can argue that, beyond a strong IP rating and solid audio performance, a quality outdoor speaker needn’t have a bunch of extra features. But where’s the fun in that? Some speakers let you charge other devices with their battery, provide light shows, or even function as flash lights.
Voice assistance, in the form of Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, is also starting to make its way into the portable market. Not only is the Ultimate Ears UE Blast waterproof, it features Alexa voice control so you can treat it like any other smart speaker, including the Amazon Echo.
Just keep in mind that if you want a speaker with a built-in flashlight, for instance, it’s out there, but if it costs only slightly more than an actual flashlight that has no speaker, you can do the math and rightfully assume you won’t be getting much in the way of quality audio. Extra features (should) drive up the price to an extent—you are wise to be skeptical when they don’t.
But there are some added features that cost very little to include, and are often exceedingly useful. Plenty of outdoor speakers have a threaded screw mount for tripods, or for attaching to bikes or action camera gear, for instance.
There are plenty of solid-sounding outdoor-friendly speakers for $150 or less. The top end of this price range will get you reasonably good bass response, and typically, the speaker will be able to transmit stereo audio. The lower end of this price range will usually feature smaller speakers, often mono, and few of them will have much low-end response to offer.
Below, say, $50, you’re flirting with options that may not sound markedly (or at all) better than your mobile device on its own. And if you’re willing to reach above $150 there plenty of alluring options, including offerings from luxury brands.
Pros: Powerful audio performance with rich bass and crisp, clear highs. Gets quite loud for its size. Waterproof.
Cons: No speakerphone function. Mono audio output.
Bottom Line: The JBL Charge 4 is an excellent option for those who want a waterproof, powerful-sounding portable Bluetooth speaker in a moderately sized frame.
Pros: Impressively powerful audio performance for the size. Waterproof. Affordable.
Cons: Can come close to distortion on some deep bass. Speakerphone mic isn’t very clear.
Bottom Line: The Sony SRS-XB12 packs a powerful punch for such a tiny speaker, and its waterproof build adds value to its already affordable price.
Pros: Powerful Bluetooth audio performance with huge bass response and crisp, defined highs. Splash-resistant, dustproof design.
Cons: Not for purists seeking accurate frequency response. Lacks track navigation controls.
Bottom Line: The large but portable Soundcast VG5 speaker delivers thunderous audio in an outdoor-friendly design.
Pros: Powerful audio performance with intense bass depth. Adaptive EQ. Water-resistant build.
Cons: Pricey. No audio cables included. No track backward navigation button.
Bottom Line: The massive Ultimate Ears Hyperboom Bluetooth speaker is a portable sonic powerhouse with a water-resistant build and a useful companion app.
Pros: Touch-sensitive controls. Shake-based feature can be used to skip tracks or control other functions. Useful app allows you to customize EQ and controls.
Cons: Mono audio only. Expensive for the size.
Bottom Line: Though pricey for its size, the B&O Play Beoplay P2 delivers a strong, rich Bluetooth audio experience in a graceful design.
Pros: Strong audio performance, with rich lows and well-defined highs. Waterproof. Good speakerphone mic.
Cons: A little overpriced. No aux input.
Bottom Line: The Bose SoundLink Micro speaker delivers an impressive Bluetooth audio performance for its size, but its price feels a tad high.
Pros: Solid audio for the size and price. Waterproof. Lightweight design with built-in carabiner.
Cons: Light on accessories. No real bass response.
Bottom Line: The JBL Clip 3 is a compact, waterproof speaker made for travel and sounds great for its size.
Pros: Solid audio performance. Streams via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Support for AirPlay 2 and Chromecast. Hands-free Google Assistant access. Waterproof.
Cons: Audio performance is more in line with slightly cheaper (non-smart) speakers. No aux input.
Bottom Line: The JBL Link Portable speaker offers Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity along with AirPlay 2, Chromecast, and hands-free Google Assistant support in a waterproof design with solid audio performance for its size.
Pros: Powerful audio with rich bass depth and bright highs. Portable, dust- and water-resistant build. Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant voice control.
Cons: Expensive. Heavy. Sculpted, mono sound signature not for everyone.
Bottom Line: The Sonos Move is a powerful multi-room smart speaker with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant voice control, as well as a durable, battery-powered design you can use anywhere.
Pros: Powerful sound with good clarity in the high-mids. Rugged build. Long battery life.
Cons: Can falter with intense deep bass. No wired connection.
Bottom Line: The wireless Ultimate Ears UE Megaboom 3 speaker improves upon its predecessor with a sleeker, more rugged design and a lower price tag.