By Brent Butterworth
After testing 118 Bluetooth speakers over the last two years, we think the UE Roll 2 is the best choice for most listeners. It sounds better and plays louder than most competitors, and its slim, waterproof, rugged design lets it survive almost any journey yet still slip easily into a backpack or laptop bag. Seven months of heavy use across the US and around the world have confirmed the practicality and sheer fun of this speaker.
Who should buy a portable Bluetooth speaker?
Anyone who owns a smartphone or tablet would probably enjoy owning a portable Bluetooth speaker. The best deliver sound quality that’s good enough for casual music listening, podcasts, and Internet radio, and their rechargeable batteries let you easily take them all around the house or on trips to the park or the beach. Though Bluetooth does degrade sound quality slightly, chances are small you’ll hear the effects through relatively low-quality speakers such as the ones discussed in this guide.
How we picked
Some of the portable Bluetooth speakers we tested in 2016.
There are so many Bluetooth speakers available today, it’s impossible for any article about Bluetooth speakers to be comprehensive. So we scoured retail and review sites to find promising models introduced since our last update, with a special focus on new models that readers asked us about. Based on a survey of Wirecutter readers, our criteria prioritized good sound, long battery life, and lots of volume.
We tested both large speakers (anything with any dimension longer than seven inches—which cost more and forsake portability for better sound) and smaller speakers (that value portability and low cost). For this update, we got in 39 new models for testing.
How we tested
Our top picks sit together so you can gauge their relative sizes. Clockwise from top: Riva Turbo X, Bose SoundLink Mini II, AmazonBasics BTV2, UE Roll 2, and Logitech X300 (shown in the aftermarket co2CREA “bondage mask” cover).
We started with a listening session spanning two days, in which we gave new speakers a long listen, connecting them via Bluetooth through a Samsung Galaxy S6 phone and playing the same four test tracks, and compared them with each other and our former picks. We first set the level loud enough to listen to but not so loud it would push the speakers into gross distortion. Then we cranked up the top performers to see how loud they could play, and how good they’d sound doing it.
This let us narrow the group down to the most competitive dozen models for blind testing sessions with our listening panel of four experts. In each session we used a custom-built 16-output switcher, in conjunction with an NTi Minilyzer and Mini SPL, so we could level-match and quickly switch between each speaker.
We also did rundown tests on all of our picks to confirm their approximate playing life. Note that our results may not agree with the manufacturers’, likely because their testing methodology—which they almost never publish—varies from ours.
The UE Roll 2’s integral bungee cord makes it easy to hang the speaker from a shower faucet and lots of other places, too.
The original UE Roll was our unanimous pick for best portable speaker when we tested 30 new models last year, and we feel just as strongly about its replacement, the UE Roll 2. Like the original, the UE Roll 2 sounds full, with smooth reproduction of everything from bass notes to cymbals, and it plays loud enough to fill a hotel room or a beach blanket with sound. It’s so watertight it will survive being dunked one meter underwater for 30 minutes. Seven months of worldwide traveling with the original Roll have only confirmed our love of this design. The only real downside is that it lacks a speakerphone function.
Better sound, less portable
The Logitech X300’s styling may look a little dull, but the sound is anything but.
If you want a slight upgrade in audio quality, if our main pick sells out or becomes unavailable, if you want something with speakerphone function, or if you just want to save some money, the Logitech X300 is a terrific choice. With this speaker, the focus is on sound quality; it doesn’t play quite as loud as the UE Roll 2, but we think it sounds a little fuller and more natural. It’s not waterproof, and other than the speakerphone function, it doesn’t have any fancy features. But it sounds smoother than most Bluetooth speakers we’ve heard, even many larger and more-expensive models.
Better sound, for a price
The Bose SoundLink Mini II improves on the original SoundLink Mini with direct charging over USB, longer battery life, and a speakerphone function.
For those who want even better sound quality and louder volume but don’t need their portable Bluetooth speaker to be super-portable, the Bose SoundLink Mini II is worth the cost (roughly twice the price of the Roll 2). It’s shocking to hear how much better the SoundLink Mini II sounds than most of its competitors, with clearer voices and a fuller sound closer to what you’d expect to hear from a decent small stereo system. It also plays loud enough to drown out a small dinner party. At 1½ pounds the SoundLink Mini II is perfect for lugging along on family vacations or from room to room in the house but it’s probably heavier than backpackers and business travelers will want to carry.
Best sound, refined style
The controls on the top of Riva Turbo X illuminate when you pass your hand within an inch or so of the speaker’s top.
If you’re willing to spend significantly more to get the best possible performance, we think the Riva Turbo X is one of the best portable Bluetooth speakers you can buy. Its sound is clearer, livelier, more spacious, and more natural than its competitors’. It gets you closer to the sound of a real stereo speaker system than any other Bluetooth portable we’ve tried, and it’s the only speaker among our picks that delivers enough volume to be heard over loud party conversation.
It’s also more refined and elegant-looking. The Turbo X is one of the most expensive portable Bluetooth speakers you can buy, but we think it’s worth its cost. Note, however, that even though the Turbo X is splashproof when its rear jacks are protected by its included rubber cover, it’s heavy for its size and not as rugged as the other speakers we’ve picked, so it’s best suited to places like offices, bedrooms, and living rooms.
For smaller budgets and stocking stuffers
The BTV2 delivers good sound for its size and price, and even includes a speakerphone function and a neoprene carrying pouch.
If you’re looking for a Bluetooth speaker for listening to TuneIn Radio or Pandora quietly in your cubicle, or to use as a stocking stuffer or an accessory for a child’s iPod touch or tablet, the AmazonBasics BTV2 is a great choice at a low price of about $25 at the time of this writing. It plays about as loud as a normal speaking voice, and sounds surprisingly full considering it measures just 3¼ inches wide. It can’t play deep bass notes, but voices sound clear and reasonably natural. It also includes two useful and unexpected extras: a speakerphone function and a neoprene carrying sack.
This guide may have been updated by The Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.