These days, finding the perfect Bluetooth speaker can feel a bit like looking for a needle in a very large haystack—particularly in the budget category. Any big box store will have dozens of options to choose from, and attempting to find one in a sea of products on Amazon is nothing short of daunting. Plus, there are plenty of OK or even good speakers in this category, but fewer of them are truly great in both sound and value.
In defining parameters for a good budget Bluetooth speaker, Gizmodo looked at several factors including durability, design, and overall sound. While there are plenty of Bluetooth speakers floating around that might seem like a steal, we wanted to find a speaker that would hold up over time but also wouldn’t necessarily break the bank. We also wanted to find a speaker that could take a fair amount of wear and tear—a speaker that could be as useful around the house as it would be on the go. What we landed on were the following five: the Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 2 ($100), Bose’s Soundlink Micro ($100), Sony’s XB23 Extra Bass Portable Bluetooth Speaker ($80), Anker’s Soundcore Flare 2 ($70), and the Tribit Stormbox ($60).
The Sony sounded great at almost any volume, though I did notice it can get a little brassy at top volumes with bass or percussion-heavy tracks—I was listening to James Blake’s “I Need a Forest Fire” and Illa J’s “DFTF” when this happened for me—however, Beverly Glenn-Copeland’s “La Vita” sounded lovely while maxed out on the Sony, as did Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” I was also surprised at how well music was handled on the Bose given its wee size, and while I found it was not my favorite speaker for practical applications, I did love the design—and we’ll get to that. Neither of these got quite as loud as the other three I tested, which is something to keep in mind if you want a speaker that absolutely howls your music at you (it me). But as far as quality goes, both played just about any track beautifully, particularly at mid-range volumes.
What I’ll say about the most affordable of these five options, the Tribit Stormbox, was that it will reach volumes that are extraordinarily loud for such an affordable speaker. It didn’t always handle those top volumes well, though. Thundercat’s “Lava Lamp” frankly sounded piercing when maxed out at the speaker’s highest volume setting, and a lot of richness and sound quality was lost in translation at higher volumes on the Bearcubs track “Underwaterfall.” But as a basic Bluetooth speaker with a surprising amount of thump in the low- and mid-ranges, it did fine. When compared to the similarly priced Sony or Anker, though, I’m not sure I’d recommend this one over those two.
Unsurprisingly, the Wonderboom 2 from Ultimate Ears, a company known for the bass performance on its Bluetooth speakers, absolutely slapped. But unlike its slightly more expensive cousins, the Boom and Megaboom, this miniature version doesn’t have the same EQ customization available on those devices. The speaker that did allow me to customize the sound I heard, however, was Anker’s Soundcore Flare 2—a speaker that I frankly could not believe got as loud as it did. In addition to having a function that allows you to boost the bass on your music—which on several tracks, including both “Underwaterfall” by Bearcubs and James Blake’s “Life Round Here,” literally shook the floor in my home—you can choose between several preset sound modes or customize your own. Plus, two of these cost slightly more than some of the most expensive speakers on our list and can be paired for a fuller surround sound.
I’d also be failing you if I didn’t also mention that the Soundcore Flare 2 can also be illuminated. I personally found this feature grating and opted in most cases to disable it entirely, but who am I to deny you your right to rave?
Winner: Anker Soundcore Flare 2
From a design perspective, the speaker that wins you over here will likely depend on what you plan to use it for. Aesthetically, I thought the Sony and Anker speakers looked best around the home. But functionally, they were also the most intuitive to use. Bluetooth speakers these days tend to omit panels in favor of sleek, multi-use buttons or defer to your connected device. But I much prefer the ability to control my device on-unit without having to study an involved process that varies from speaker to speaker. And both the Soundcore Flare 2 and the Sony excelled here. Of the two, the Sony looks like a more premium product. It’s available in blue, rust red, taupe, moss green, and black—all fairly muted and neutral—and I found the blue version blended into my own home setting quite nicely.
Obviously if getting a light show with your music playback is a perk, the Soundcore Flare 2 is a no-brainer, but it’s probably not going to be as practical for throwing in a small purse or everyday gym bag. For that, the Wonderboom 2 or the Bose SoundLink Micro are fantastic options. With a carabiner, the Ultimate Ears, Sony, and Tribit speakers can also be clipped onto a backpack. But the Bose’s on-speaker tear-resistant silicone strap makes it perfect for a cooler or bike, where it can rest flush against a bar without dangling around near your legs.
Each of these speakers is fairly well suited for outdoor and on-the-move environments. In a drop test indoors, the Bose merely bounced off the ground. However, given its silicone outer shell, I’d be careful on outdoor surfaces like pavement and asphalt. With an IPX7 rating, the Soundlink Micro is waterproof to the extent that dropping it in a pool or the ocean shouldn’t kill your speaker, and its battery will last for up to six hours depending on your listening habits—so you should be good okay on a charge outside the home provided you make sure it’s fully charged ahead of time. Otherwise, pack a power brick.
The Soundcore Flare, meanwhile, also has an IPX7 rating for water protection but doubles the Bose’s battery life with up to 12 hours of playtime. This one survived an indoor drop test, too, as did the Sony and the Tribit. The Sony device is made to take some tumbles, and I had no problem with the indoor drop tests I performed. But it may be best to avoid testing the limits of these speakers’ (and the Tribit model’s) abilities to take repeated hard falls over time.
As far as true ruggedness goes, the Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 2 takes the cake here. Like the Sony, the Wonderboom 2 has an IP67 rating, which means it’s dust-proof and waterproof. That makes Wonderboom 2 and its larger Boom and Megaboom cousins regular fixtures in my woodshop, where they’re constantly coated in sawdust and other woodworking grime. The Wonderboom 2 holds up to drop tests, which I appreciate when it’s accidentally knocked off a narrow workbench, and its waterproof outer fabric means a quick run under the kitchen faucet cleans these speakers up like new. The Wonderboom 2 more than doubles the battery life on the Bose with up to 13 hours of playback, meaning I can be out in my shop all day without having to recharge it.
Winner: Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 2
Choosing between the five Bluetooth speakers we mentioned here will depend on which specific features matter most to you, be that design, volume, bass, portability, durability, or value. But for the price, I have to say that the Anker Soundcore Flare 2 was my favorite across the board if for no other reason than I prefer to listen to my music at top volumes, and this little speaker handled those with panache.
It’s also a delightfully easy speaker to use, small enough that it could be thrown in a suitcase or overnight bag, and customizable in more ways than most of its peers in the budget category. It’s also a great buy for your dollar, and some of the money you save on this speaker might be put toward a twin unit that could be used for surround sound. And listen, while light rings aren’t really my thing, they are a fun feature to have on hand in the event that your social distanced hangout does turn into a social distanced dance party.
Winner: Anker Soundcore Flare 2