Give the audio on your iPhone and iPad a boost
The iPhone 6s and 6s Plus provide up to 128GB of storage, which makes them ideal for home entertainment and storing all your music and video files – even those with 16GB devices can stream the latest music through the likes of Apple Music and Spotify. With music becoming more easily available, you’ll need a good speaker system to go with them, and you’re really spoilt for choice these days.
There are dozens of speaker manufacturers fighting for a slice of the Apple pie, with speakers in all shapes and sizes, designed for both indoor and outdoor use. Many speakers talk the talk – but
do they walk the walk? Here we explain various features you should look out for when in the market for a new speaker for your device, including the compression technology used by the speaker, and 360-degree audio.
By default, every Bluetooth audio-capable device must be able to use an agreed basic compression system, known as SBC. Sub-band coding is a psychoacoustic lossy codec – that is it discards music information deemed not so important to our ears, to greatly reduce the number of bits that must be sent in a digital music stream.
The quality of SBC varies and it runs at various bitrates, depending on how fine and deep the slices are made into separate frequency bands known as ‘bins’. Actually quality depends on how the sending device has been configured by its maker. But SBC typically runs at around 200kb/s, and has the subjective quality of MP3 at 128kb/s – which is to say, not at all good.
Alternatives are now in use thankfully. Top dog is aptX, a British invention that forms the basis of DTS cinema sound. It’s still lossy and compressed sound but amazingly nearly transparent to CD resolution at its fixed bitrate of 350kb/s. Samsung invested heavily in current aptX license holder CSR plc and now fits aptX compatibility into most of its Google phones.
Apple does not include aptX in any of its iOS devices, although Macs since Snow Leopard can use aptX Bluetooth audio. Instead, the iPhone and iPad will try to beam out Bluetooth audio using the
AAC codec, which is part of the MPEG-4 standard. Results are always better than SBC, but not quite so good as aptX.
The second hindrance to Bluetooth speaker sound is the current reliance on low-fidelity amplification technology, in common with other budget consumer electronics. While natural sounding hi-fi amplifiers still use a linear system known as Class A or Class B (more typically both, to form Class AB), cheap and portable audio devices use a fast-switching PWM system to drive speakers, known as Class D.
Class D is a clever way to make amplifiers far more efficient, turning more precious mains or battery power into usable amp output power. That’s particularly noteworthy in a mobile age dependent on batteries. Class D amps run cold so don’t require massive heatsinks to vent unwanted heat. A complete powerful 20W amp module can be built around a small microchip, saving much space and cost. The technology has everything going for it – except sound quality, which is typically grainy, harsh, lifeless and stripped of the natural essence of music.
The smallest of speakers with a single mid-range speaker and limited volume can hide some of these issues; the challenge for the designer is to make a full-range speaker system that makes you actually want to listen to it.
Battery life and additional capabilities
So, what should you look for when in the market for a Bluetooth speaker? A popular feature of Bluetooth speakers is “360-degree audio” – but what is
360-degree audio? Generally speaking, speakers that offer 360-degree audio are usually cylindrical or circular in design and feature drivers facing every direction, opposed to the traditional front-facing speaker setup. This produces ‘room filling audio’ which waves goodbye to the audio ‘sweet spot’ that you’ll find on traditional speakers, where audio will sound best when facing a certain direction. Though it’s not a deal breaker, it’s usually something we look for when in the market for a new speaker.
What about battery life? While not too long ago, the standard battery life for a Bluetooth speaker was a slightly disappointing five hours, we’ve come along way with regards to Bluetooth accessory battery life and with many budget speakers offering upwards of 10 hours per charge, we wouldn’t recommend buying a speaker that offers anything dramatically less. Also, it’s worth keeping an eye out for speakers that double up as portable battery chargers, as it’ll probably come in handy when using your smartphone to play music.
Some Bluetooth speakers also offer Wi-Fi connectivity, so which connection should you opt for? Traditionally, using a Bluetooth connection gives you a 10m range, which means that you’ll only be able to play music from a speaker in the same room as you - any further and you’ll probably experience the audio cutting out. However, Wi-Fi has a much wider reach, and could allow you to play music from anywhere in the house. With this being said, the Wi-Fi setup process can be quite stressful and require users to install a specific app on their smartphone in order to operate the speaker, whereas Bluetooth setup takes 30 seconds.
GEAR4 SoundWave portable Bluetooth speaker
Price: £40 Another great Bluetooth speaker for the money is the GEAR4 SoundWave, the company’s latest portable Bluetooth speaker. Black in design with a smooth-to-the-touch silicon finish, the SoundWave certainly doesn’t fall into the category of ugly Bluetooth speakers, though it is pretty bulky when compared to other portable Bluetooth speakers, measuring in at 22.5x6x8cm and weighing 496g. However, with this being said, its largerthan-usual size means it can pack some serious audio equipment under the hood, which provides surprisingly decent audio – but we’ll come to that.
On top of the Bluetooth speaker, you’ll find a number of controls that not only allows you to change the volume, but also allows you to skip to the next track, skip back to the previous track and even pause the music completely. Though these buttons may not sound ground-breaking, a number of manufacturers are moving away from physical Bluetooth controls in favour of exclusive control via
the device playing music, but that’s not always ideal and we like to have the option to control playback via the speaker.
The GEAR4 SoundWave features twin speakers that, when coupled with a passive radiator for additional bass, produces audio that’s both room filling and full of bass. However, the bass isn’t too overpowering – it’s subtle enough to make its’ presence known without drowning out the midrange. The power of the SoundWave is pretty impressive as it can reach high volumes without the distortion that you’ll find with many other budget Bluetooth speakers, making it an ideal companion for those trips to the beach or the park.
With regards to battery life, you should get around six hours on a single charge of its rechargeable lithium-ion battery. You can connect to the speaker via Bluetooth with a range of 10m, although it also has an auxiliary input to be used with older devices that don’t feature Bluetooth connectivity.
UE Boom 2 Price: £169.99
Ultimate Ears’ UE Boom 2 is the second generation BOOM, bringing with it a number of improvements when compared to the original (and hugely popular) UE Boom. The main selling point of the UE Boom 2 is its 360-degree audio, providing truly room filling audio and waving goodbye to the speaker audio ‘sweet spot’. It’s not just audio projection that makes the UE Boom 2 the speaker that it is though, it’s shock and dirt proof with IPX7 rated water resistance, meaning it’ll survive any journey you take it on.
The UE Boom 2 also boasts a 15-hour battery life, has a 100ft wireless range and can connect to two devices at once, providing a musical switch-over without having to disconnect from the speaker and stop the music from playing. It helps to make listening to music a more sociable experience, rather than having one person deciding what’s played. Users can also download the UE Boom app to tweak the EQ of the speaker and even pair up with a second UE Boom 2 for a true stereo experience.
It’s available in a range of colours, from a rather modest black and grey to a more outlandish orange and purple combo. The best part about the UE Boom 2 is that the company is constantly updating the speaker and adding new features, all of which can be installed via regular OTA updates, making the speaker future-proof (to a certain extent, anyway).
Marsboy Orb portable Bluetooth speaker Price: £38.99
Marsboy’s Orb, the 5W Bluetooth-enabled budget speaker will turn your bedroom into your own private disco, thanks to its built-in colour changing LEDs. Circular in design, this black plastic speaker is half mesh and half soft-touch plastic. Below the meshed surface a series of LEDs can transmit a range of colours, creating a disco-like effect in your bedroom.
Rather than pulsating to the music, the LEDs are controlled by choosing one of seven programmes. The button to control this is found on the speaker’s rim. Also here are the various controls:
play/pause, skip track, volume up/down and answer call when the speaker is connected via Bluetooth to a smartphone. You can also hook it up using an AUX cable, or take advantage of the built-in microSD card slot - the Marsboy supports MP3, WMA, WAV, APE and FLAC. Removable memory card support is not at all a given on cheap Bluetooth speakers.
There’s also an option that allows you to pair two Marsboy Bluetooth speakers to create surround sound from your iPhone or iPad – which is handy, as the Orb isn’t the loudest Bluetooth speaker we’ve ever heard. While audio isn’t of the crystal clear variety you’d find in true audiophile equipment – and neither would you expect it to be at this price – the Marsboy was able to handle everything we threw at it, from rock to pop and everything in between. For the money, you certainly can’t complain about the performance. And with a built-in 3000mAh battery, you should see around 12 hours of battery life on a single charge.
Price: £149.99 The Cowin Ark is unlike many other Bluetooth speakers as its formed of two parts; a portable Bluetooth speaker/soundbar that sits on top, nicknamed Cruze, and the wired base, nicknamed Ark. The mixture of brushed metal sides and a mirror finish on top means that the Cowin Ark demands attention – if you’re looking for a Bluetooth speaker system that’ll be ‘invisible’ in its surroundings, the Ark isn’t the best option for you.
Though the Cowin Ark comes as a two-piece Bluetooth speaker system, the Cruze can be taken to the beach or the park and be used by itself, thanks to its built-in rechargeable battery. The Ark features Magnatec technology, which syncs the two parts of your system ready for playback, while
also keeping the Cruze securely attached to the Ark whenever its placed on top – but that’s not its only functionality. The Magnatec technology also provides wireless charging for the soundbar, which means the Cruze is fully charged and ready to go whenever you are. Oh, and the Ark can also be used to charge up your smartphone too, if it supports wireless charging.
We were really surprised by the audio quality of the Cowin Ark, especially with regards to its bass output. The levels of bass are nothing short of phenomenal and when paired with a soundbar that can produce 35W of room-filling audio, the result is a well rounded sound perfect for a variety of tasks, from background audio when you’re relaxing to playing tunes full blast in your living room with your mates. This is thanks to its two speaker drivers, two passive radiators and a 5in ported subwoofer.
Edifier Bric Connect Price: £65 on Amazon
The sophisticated design of the Edifier Bric Connect is suited more to the home than outdoors in our opinion, especially with no kind of water, dust or shock resistance provided with the speaker. It certainly isn’t on a par with the likes of the UE Roll in terms of its indestructibility, but with this being said, it’ll suit many users both at home and away – as long as you don’t plan on going swimming with it!
Unlike many other Bluetooth speakers, the Bric Connect offers two ways to power the speaker, one suited for home and one suited for the outdoors. The first option is to plug the speaker directly into the mains, which is ideal for those of us that want
to use the Bric Connect as a stationary Bluetooth speaker within the home. But what happens when you want to venture out with the Bric Connect? The good news is that the speaker can also be powered via batteries, but not the lithium-ion rechargeable ones that you’re probably expecting. Instead, the Bric Connect requires six AA batteries to power the speaker wherever a plug isn’t available.
The Bric Connect produces well rounded, room filling audio that we think is well above the Bric Connect’s £65 price tag. The main cause of shock was the levels of bass produced by the speaker (thanks to its bass reflect port at the rear), as we’d only heard a similar level of bass produced by twopiece systems. It doesn’t drown out the mid range either, which is an issue we’ve experienced with Bluetooth speakers in the past. Vocals sound rich, and the speaker performs as well playing acoustic music as it does playing Dubstep.
Cambridge Audio Bluetone Price: £199.95
The Bluetone’s matte black casing isn’t much to look at, but it packs a serious punch for speaker
costing just under £200. With 100W output, the Bluetone is powerful enough to really fill a room with sound, and provides a more solid bass sound than many compact speakers of this size. It measures 182x354x118mm and weighs 4.1kg so isn’t quite as portable as some of the other speakers in this round-up. It only runs off mains power, but there’s a carrying handle built into the back of the speaker and it’s light enough to easily carry from room to room at home.
It uses Bluetooth for wireless connectivity – with the option of Apt-X for devices that support it – and there are two inputs for non-wireless devices as well.
Denon Envaya Mini Price: £99.
The Denon Envaya Mini is a gorgeous little Bluetooth speaker ready for use with your iPhone, iPad or Mac. It measures in at just 20.9x5.4x5.1cm, but it weighs a surprisingly hefty 558g, which makes it a little less portable than we’d like.
But where this speaker really excels is the audio, so there’s a bit of good news for you. It boasts dual 40mm full range drivers with a 40x83mm passive radiator, which produces both crisp sound and impressive bass.
Maxell MXSP-BT03 Price: £44.99
This petite portable speaker from Maxell will appeal to those who value style, ease of use and true portability above audio quality. It’s by no means a bad little speaker set for your iPhone or iPad. It comes in a variety of colours including
white, blue and black. Weighing just 278g and just 154x59x46mm in size, it’s well put together and should survive most tumbles thanks to its durable build. It’s a 6W output wireless speaker set with two cones and no subwoofer so don’t expect amazing audio quality, but for its affordability and portability it’s a price some will be willing to pay.
There’s Bluetooth 4.0 or you can plug in via the 3.5mm cable, and it’s loud enough to fill a room. There’s a built-in DC 6V 12000mAh rechargeable Li-ion battery, too.
Bayan Audio SoundBook Go Price: £62.99
Third in the series, the Bayan Audio SoundBook GO is a Bluetooth portable speaker worth reading about. It’s an affordable little speaker that bucks the trend for many of its Bluetooth breed by being a delight to listen to. Plus, it’s a neat design that provides some protection to the front perforated grille if you should travel with it.
Inside the SoundBook Go is a pair of 35mm full-range drivers powered by a 7.5 watt stereo
Class D chip amplifier. You’ll get reliable Bluetooth connection or the option of a 3.5mm minijack for improved sound performance.
Scosche BoomBOTTLE Price: £119
The Scosche BoomBOTTLE is a portable speaker ideal for those who enjoy the outdoors. As the name suggests, it’s designed in the shape of a drinks bottle, which is actually designed to fit in the bottle holder on your bike. It’s able to pair with an iPhone or iPad via Bluetooth, USB or 3.5mm jack.
Using the BoomBOTTLE in your bike’s bottle holder is not exactly ideal, but thankfully it’s not limited to just that. It lends itself to other outdoor situations and it’s robust, too. The cylindrical speaker shape means it offers omni-directional sound, provided by two 3W 40mm speakers.
Plus, it weighs a surprisingly light 443g and is 70mm across and 205mm long.
Pure Jongo S3X Price: £129.99
Pure’s Jongo speakers have been really popular, and the company recently added the portable S3X model to the range. Admittedly, the S3X is a little heavier than many of its portable rivals – at 1.25kg it weighs almost as much as the 13in MacBook Air – but its rechargeable battery lasts for up to 15 hours and its 20W output is powerful enough to get things going at an outdoor party or BBQ.
The S3X includes both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for streaming your music. And, like all the other Jongo models, the S3X can be used on its own, paired with another Jongo for two-channel stereo, or as part of a multi-room system that beams music all around your home.
Bowers & Wilkins A7 Price: £699.99
The Zeppelin from Bowers & Wilkins was one of the first speakers to support Apple’s AirPlay, but
the company has released a number of other AirPlay speakers since then and the A7 is its current flagship model. The £699 price tag is pretty steep, but the A7 can earn its keep, with five separate drivers – including a proper sub-woofer – that provide terrific clarity and detail, along with a good, firm bass sound. And with 100W total output the A7 can fill a small hall with sound, let alone your front room at home. There’s no Bluetooth but, as you’d expect, the A7 supports AirPlay for your iOS devices, and provides both Wi-Fi and Ethernet for connecting to your home network.
Creative Roar Price: £129.99
It’s a while since we’ve heard from Creative, but its Roar speaker deserves to get your attention. It’s a relatively compact speaker, about the size of a thick paperback, and finished off with a smart metallic grille. However, Creative’s engineers have managed
to cram in five separate drivers and two amps, including a proper sub-woofer that gives it a nice firm kick in the bass.
Creative doesn’t quote a figure for the amp output, but it really does create a big sound for such a small speaker system. It’s a little heavy at 1.1kg, but the sound quality, eight-hour battery, and extras such as a microphone for voice calls make the Roar one of the best portable speakers we’ve seen in this price range. There’s Bluetooth, 3.5mm line-in, Micro-USB and a microSD slot to boot.
Jabra Solemate Max Price: £249.99
The rugged design and attractive sound of the original Solemate speaker earned it a lot of fans, so Jabra recently followed it up with the larger Solemate Max.
Admittedly, a weight of almost 3kg means that you probably won’t be carrying the Solemate Max around in your backpack, but it does have its own carrying handle to help you out, and the extra size
and weight means that it can include a big battery that lasts for up to 14 hours.
It produces a big sound too – the bass could be a bit stronger, but its 90W output is powerful enough to get the party going when you’re on holiday or out in the garden. The £250 price tag is a bit steep, but it’s dust, dirt and water-resistant, so it’ll earn its keep if you need a speaker system that can cope with the British weather.
Monster Superstar Price: £99.99
Most speakers of this size sacrifice sound quality for portability, but the modestly named SuperStar claims to be the ‘world’s smallest audiophile’ speaker.
It really is a pocket-sized little speaker, measuring just 48mm thick and 206mm long. However, it’s splash-resistant and sturdy enough to cope with life on the move. The sound quality, inevitably, isn’t up to true audiophile standard, but the bass radiator gives it a firmer sound than many of its ultra-compact rivals. It kicks out a decent volume too – noisier rock
and dance music can distort a bit at high volume, but it’ll still do the trick for listening to a few tunes when you’re out and about with your friends.
i-Box Max Price: £124.99
It’s not as portable as its little brother, the Trax, but the Max makes up for it with really good sound quality and a competitive price. The Max measures almost a foot long and weighs about 2kg, so it’s
a bit big and heavy for a backpack. However, it’s light enough to carry around indoors or to take out into the garden, and big enough to pack a decent punch as well. The 30W output won’t have the roof rattling, but it’s more than loud enough for listening to music in your bedroom, or for a dinner party or BBQ, and the inclusion of a bass radiator lends it a firmer, fuller sound than you normally get from midsize speakers such as this.
iClever IC-BTS02 Price: £22.99
iClever’s Bluetooth Wireless Speaker is one of the best cheap Bluetooth speakers we’ve tried. It looks great and it’s affordable. It’s surprising just how much sound emanates from this tiny zinc-alloy box. Given that you can easily fit the 64.5x64.5x70.1mm 261g iClever in a single hand, the 5W speaker hidden inside does a much better job than we should reasonably expect from such a portable speaker, both good on bass and free from distortion at high volume.