I’ve used many Bluetooth speakers over the years. Some have been good, and others have been, well, not good. Choosing a portable Bluetooth speaker that’s a good fit for you requires considerations like whether you care more about a bargain price or, say, a thumping bass. But before you shell out a couple of hundred bucks on a speaker, you may want to think about practicality and function as well. Is this a speaker that you’re going to throw in a suitcase and bring with you on your travels? Will it be something you display in your home and use as a primary sound system? Does it need to be rugged? How important are things like battery life and range?
Taking all of these things into consideration, and with portability front-of-mind, I looked at speakers in the $150 range and landed on three: The Bose SoundLink Color II ($130), the Ultimate Ears Boom 3 ($150), and the Marshall Emberton ($150). This seemed like a good price point if you want a Bluetooth speaker that’ll sound great but can also be transported pretty much anywhere without making you feel like you’re carrying around a glass egg—in other words, a speaker that can take some wear and tear. These three are either entirely or partly waterproof, arguably a necessity for any true on-the-go sound gadget. They also promise other key portability features like good battery life or decent Bluetooth range.
Let me just start by saying you’re going to get a fantastic sound with any of these three speakers, but you’re definitely going to get the biggest thump with the Boom 3. You’re also going to get the best sound for your individual tastes with the speaker—an associated Ultimate Ears app makes controlling preset and custom EQ modes fairly simple. It’s also how you’ll control and pair multiple Ultimate Ears speakers at a time, should you have more than one on hand. (A note: You can occasionally find some decent deals on the Megaboom 3, the slightly larger, more powerful sibling to the Boom 3. If you don’t mind a little additional heft, you’ll get better bass with the larger of the two options—something worth considering if you can find one at a discount.)
As for the Emberton, this packs a big sound for such a little speaker, but its supported levels are still trumped by the Boom 3. You’ll find that music starts to lose some bass at louder volumes, but it does sound great at lower and mid-range volumes. Vocals sounded a little crisper to me on the Soundlink Color 2, but between the two, I repeatedly found myself gravitating toward the Emberton for bass. As someone who prefers to listen at louder volumes, I like some thump, and ultimately I’d recommend Boom 3 to any other bass enthusiasts.
Winner: Ultimate Ears Boom 3
Design-wise, I love the style of the Marshall’s sleek front metal grilles framed by black silicone exterior—and of the three, I preferred the look of this speaker most when sitting on a shelf in my living room or in a corner in the dining room, something I noted when I reviewed the Emberton last month. It’s got a fairly easy-to-use single button that operates power, plus volume control and tracking. It’s lovely if aesthetics are your top priority, but you’ll probably want to be a little gentle with it (we’ll get to that in a minute).
I may be in the minority here, but the Boom 3’s design—which makes it practical for so many uses—is also one of the things I dislike most about it. Its oversized buttons feel awkward and a little too gimmicky for my personal taste, but I realize whether or not your speaker is pretty is probably not as big of a deal for something you’re likely going to cart around outdoors. The Soundlink Color 2’s button panel is by far my favorite simply because it’s the most intuitive, but that’s nothing that a few minutes with an instruction manual can’t fix with the other two speakers. (And the Boom 3’s associated app means you can handle a lot of the music control directly from a paired mobile device as well as monitor battery life.)
I will be honest in saying that the power-up sounds on both the Emberton as well as the Boom 3 are both god-awful and annoying as hell, but again, that’s unlikely to be a deal-breaker for most people.
Winner: Marshall Emberton
All of these speakers are made to withstand some rough handling, but the Boom 3 definitely seems best designed to endure the wear and tear that comes with real portability. It’s dust-resistant, it’s drop-proof up to 5 feet, it floats, and it’s waterproof when submerged for up to 30 minutes in 3 feet of water. In other words, this is a speaker that very much feels like it was designed with outdoor environments in mind, and that’s why it was the first speaker I reached for when packing for a recent camping trip. Particularly for stuff like dirt and sand, this is probably your best bet of the three if you want your speaker to stand up to the elements.
The Emberton can also be submerged in 3 feet of water for up to 30 minutes. While I’d be less inclined to take this with me to the beach because of its grille, its waterproofing means that you can wash it pretty easily without too much fuss. But the thing about the Emberton is that while it’s only a hair heavier than the Boom 3 and Soundlink 2, its beautiful design is also the thing that makes me worry about dropping it. Both the front and back grilles slightly protrude past its silicon exterior, and when testing its ruggedness on these exposed sides, my suspicions were confirmed: Dropping this speaker from a height of just 3-feet in my driveway left parts of the weaving a little dinged up. On grass? You’re good. On asphalt? Not so much.
The Soundlink Color 2 isn’t marketed as being drop-proof, though a Bose spokesperson told Gizmodo it “can withstand some drops and bumps.” I had no problems with this speaker when dropping it from a distance of about 3 to 5 feet indoors, but it did get a little ding in the bottom when dropped outside—something that was a teeny bit disappointing for me, a superfan of the nearly indestructible first-generation Soundlink Color. I have lugged that thing halfway across the world in suitcases, on camping trips, as well as to parties and family reunions. It’s withstood every imaginable wear-and-tear scenario you can imagine, including being dropped repeatedly. That speaker was made of tougher hard plastic, though, and the newer model has a softer silicone exterior. It’s chicer and more modern-looking—I appreciate this!—but I wouldn’t recommend testing the limits of its durability against surfaces like pavement.
Winner: Ultimate Ears Boom 3
Sadly, the most affordable of the bunch loses major points here. The Soundlink Color 2 will get you up to 8 hours of playtime, but I’ve found when traveling that battery life will drain pretty fast if you’re listening at top volume without a full charge. The speaker has a wireless range of about 30 feet—the same as the Emberton—but doesn’t have nearly the range or battery life of the Boom 3. That speaker claims to support a mobile range of up to 150 feet, though I did find the speaker would get a little spotty if I had it set up in the backyard and walked into the house with my phone on me. The Boom 3 claims you can get up to 15 hours of playtime on a single charge, but again, that will largely depend on how you’re listening.
The Emberton, meanwhile, will give you up 20 hours of playtime. One of my favorite things about this speaker is how fast it’ll pick up a charge. If you’re anything like me and frequently forget to fully power up your devices before heading out the door, Marshall says this speaker can get a charge for several hours of playtime in just 20 minutes. It also has a battery indicator light right up top to signal when you’re low. You’ll have to simultaneously hold down both volume buttons to check your battery life on the Boom 3, which isn’t the worst thing. (On the Soundlink Color 2, you can do this by holding down the power button.) But it is nice having a little visual right there on the device.
For farthest range and battery life, though, I’ve got to give this one to the Boom 3.
Winner: Ultimate Ears Boom 3
Ultimately, any one of these speakers is going to give you great sound for the price, but your individual choice will depend largely on your priorities. Personally, the Bose is my trusty go-to and knocks about $20 off the cost of the others (and generally more if you can find a sale). It’s a fantastic bargain pick for sure. But this is, after all, a fight to determine the best portable speaker—the one with the overall ability to meet your needs on the go, presumably away from outlets and possibly even portable chargers. In terms of satisfying battery longevity, plus portability, ruggedness, and a solid sound on top of that, your money would be well spent on the Boom 3. It’s not perfect, but it’s a damn good speaker.