Dragging party music to the park or patio doesn't have to involve so much actual dragging. More party, more easy! You've got a gazillion songs on your phone already. And little, portable Bluetooth speakers are getting so cheap. Now, for $100, you can blast your jams to high heaven—or, at least, a 10-meter radius—without any hassles.
We tested four Bluetooth speakers, listed at less than $100, to find out which one packs the perfect combination of portability, sound quality, and volume. Basically, these speakers should deliver easy wireless audio to go. So their mobility matters.
Beaming audio over Bluetooth involves an inherent sacrifice in audio quality. And, chances are, this little speaker isn't going to be your primary sound system. So rather than expecting it to deliver perfect sound, it was more critical to measure whether you could hear the speaker over gusty wind, the din of traffic, or the noise of a nearby soccer game.
Most phones and computers now support A2DP Bluetooth streaming. And pairing isn't the disaster it was a few years ago. So we tested each speaker to make sure they'd play nicely with an iPhone, a MacBook, and a Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Bonus points for any additional features.
The tiny Mini Boombox looks like it should be a clock radio sitting next to your bed. Its polished, black plastic design looks sleek straight out of the box, but after banging around in a book bag for a little while, it started to look beat up. The capacitive buttons on the top of the speaker control playback. They're backlit in red, but they're very difficult to see in bright sunlight. The speaker is loud for its size, but the sound was about as muffled and veiled as it comes. Details were hard to make out when there was any other noise around. The speaker was the only one of the bunch that supports a hands-free profile from a phone. But, well, we weren't planning on taking any business calls on a trip to the park, so we didn't find any use for this feature.
The D100 is a hulking beast compared to the other speakers in this Battlemodo. It looks the most like an old boombox. And, like an old boombox, it doesn't come with a rechargeable internal battery. It takes four AA batteries. Ok, so that's not quite eight D batteries, but it's more than you probably want to deal with. That said, it sounds very good, and delivers convincing bass and detail. It gets deafeningly loud, and that set of batteries is good for 25 hours of playback. If you need something to sit on your back patio, this speaker's a great deal, but it's large enough—and, at over 2 pounds, heavy enough—that you might want to forget it at home rather than carry it a long way.
The baby blue Phoenix speaker is freaking adorable. At about the size of a baseball, it's the lightest-weight speaker tested, and its tough plastic finish is clearly meant to travel. For extra protection, the speaker comes with a padded carrying case. The button design is very minimal and a little confusing: The power, play, and pairing functions are combined into one button, and the skip track and volume share a button, too—pushing this button skips the track, and holding it increases the volume. It's annoying.
While the speaker isn't the best-sounding in the test, it was impressively powerful. Playback was clear and vibrant enough to surprise everyone around—it was more than once mistaken for a much larger speaker sitting nearby. In a smart design touch, the Phoenix's speakers point in opposite directions, to project toward a large area from a minimal footprint. If you need an ultra-portable speaker for 100 bucks, this is the way to go.
From the exterior, the Sound Kick is dark gray box about the size of a carton of cigarettes. It has a ribbed metal grate on one face; the rest is ridged dark plastic. The minimal design does not feel cheap at all (unlike our third and fourth place speakers). As a side benefit, it charges a gadget via USB.
To turn the Sound Kick on, you pull out a recessed, rectangular piece that also functions as a kickstand. To turn it off, you pop that piece back in, and it travels flat. It's not the most compact speaker, but it's easy to imagine it slipping into a picnic bag.
This is the winner not because it's the most ultra-portable—that'd be the Beacon—but because it sounds so darn good. It won on sound quality by a long shot, actually, as it provided great detail across tonal ranges. LCD Soundsystem particularly stood out, because the Sound Kick delivered BASS—that's not something we're used to hearing from a Bluetooth speaker. Awesome, satisfying, music-enhancing bass. Delicious.
The sound quality on this is on par with a Jambox, and perhaps slightly better—yet it's about half the price. Spend $100 on this speaker. It's hard to imagine regretting it.