Back in the old days, if you wanted to take your music to go, you shouldered a giant boombox and went. But kids today are spoiled and have a bevy of pint-sized options at their disposal. Whether they're picnicking in the park, laying out at the beach or hanging out with friends, they can easily pull out a compact Bluetooth speaker from their bag to belt out their favorite tunes.
Since Jawbone introduced the Jambox in 2010, we've seen an explosion in the portable speaker market, with more options for mobile music than ever before. To help you wade through the choices, we're going hand-on with six Bluetooth speakers.
Up first is the one that started it all. Before Jambox ($200), Jawbone was known as a Bluetooth headset company. Its headset roots were apparent with the Jambox, which doubles as a speakerphone for taking calls in between listening to music, and this precedent has led its competitors to follow suit.
The Jambox came to be so popular because it was surprising to hear clear audio from such a tiny (and frankly) cute device. The music was good enough for casual listening, but audiophiles were quick to point out high-end distortion. (In May, Jawbone unveiled the aptly named Big Jambox to satisfy them, which packed much more boom in a package that's five and a half times larger by volume — it also came with a heftier price tag of $300.) As the competition heated up, Jawbone introduced Jambox the Remix, which allowed you to customize the speakers' aluminum grill and rubber caps with more than 100 color combinations. This splash of paint is likely to broaden its appeal. That along with the ability to update the speakers' firmware and install custom apps (eg. for audio enhancement, changing the speakers' default language, dialing, etc.) continue to make Jambox a standout choice.
2. Jabra Solemate
Jabra's answer to the Jambox is the Solemate ($200). Over the summer, the company, also known for its Bluetooth headsets, released its shoe-inspired portable speaker, appealing to both sneakerheads and bassheads with its thumping sound.
Sporting a footprint that's larger than the Jambox, the Solemate includes a number of unique design elements: its shoe shape, rubber sole, carrying strap and even laces (an audio cable integrated to the bottom of the speaker for listening over hard wire). Jabra's implementation of Bluetooth is especially slick, letting multiple users connect to the Solemate at the same time, so friends can take turns DJing.
Another distinctive characteristic of the Solemate is the male announcer, who will interject to let you know the battery status and Bluetooth connectivity when prompted. When you're pairing the speaker, a hip hop track plays in the background while the narrator gives you directions. After some use, the novelty wore off, and it came to be overbearing. Not to mention, after getting to know the Solemate, I've come to realize his tone is a bit too suggestive and familiar for my liking.
3. Logitech UE Mobile Boombox
High rollers might not flinch when they see a $200 speaker, but that's still a pretty penny. That's why it was refreshing to see the Logitech UE Mobile Boombox sport a price tag half that. This speaker is the most compact (and adorable) of the bunch, but it's still able to pump up volumes matching the Jambox.
It's great for casual listening, but it's lacking in range, so details are likely to get lost. Like the Solemate, it allows for multiple simultaneous Bluetooth connections, adding a clever social element. While I like the large embossed buttons, it's notably missing a battery indicator, except for when you're running low — like charge-it-now low — in which a pinhole-sized light next to the power button on the speaker's backside flashes. Overall, it's a good buy for the price point.
4. JBL Flip
Another $100 Bluetooth speaker, JBL has managed to cram remarkable sound at half the cost of many of its competitors. The Flip outputs legitimately large, rich and clear audio. Given its small stature, it suffers from less distortion at high volumes. It also breaks from the group with its unique cylindrical shape, easy to grab when you're heading out.
Of the bunch here, I would say the JBL Flip offers the most bang for your buck, but that doesn't mean there aren't shortcomings. The five-hour battery capacity is notably tiny, unable to last a day-long outing. Its portability and practicality is further limited with its 12-volt wall charger. Every other portable speaker I've tested thus far charges via microUSB, a cable you expect people to have at home, in their offices and in their bags. However, no normal person carries a 12-volt wall charger on them, so when the Flip's battery is drained, you're music-less until you return home.
One of Jambox's earlier competitors, Braven (then known as Spar Zephyr) distinguished itself with power output. If your smartphone's battery is running low, you can borrow juice from this speaker, a handy design element. When the company rebranded itself as Braven earlier this year, it rolled out three speaker products: the entry-level 600, ruggedized 625s and the 650, which touts the best audio fidelity.
When it comes to audio, the Braven 650 ($189) can compete against the Jambox but falls short of Solemate's bass and the Flip's richness. It has a sleek aluminum finish, but the buttons are confusing to navigate given their small size. Furthermore, since the Braven also doubles as a battery, there are controls on both sides of the speaker. This means changing the volume isn't just a matter of just reaching over and pressing a clearly marked button, but something that requires a tad more effort. Since I only tried one Braven speaker, I can't attest to its daisy chaining feature, but the ability to connect multiple Bluetooth speakers is a major plus, allowing for a mini-surround sound setup.
The big letdown of the group is the EDGE.sound ($149). Simply put: Do not buy unless you like wasting money. If you watch the video for this Kickstarter project (a failed project by the way), the creators might have you convinced that this is the end-all, be-all of portable speakers. (Jawbone might as well shutter its Jambox line now.) But immediately upon listening, it's apparent they were over-reaching.
The sound is hollow and lacking. After expressing my disappointment with EDGE.sound, I was told an update would improve the audio quality. But the update process was unclear. Following the directions, I connected the speaker to my computer and went to its website, but I never got any confirmation that an update actually downloaded. This prompted the company to send me a second speaker with the update installed. Side by side, the v1.1 version was able to pump out louder volume, but it still failed to deliver music I wanted to listen to, instead continuing to produce a tinny, lackluster sound. On the up side, the speaker's made of eco-friendly materials, which I'm sure is the top consideration for such a purchase (but not really).
All images by Alice Truong for DVICE.