10 best portable and Bluetooth speakers for music on the go
1st Aug 2013 | 13:19
Set your music free with these funky portable boomers
The marketeers would have you buy portable speakers for the beach, a picnic in the park or for entertaining friends in your garden while you burn some burgers. But they really come into their own on work trips and holidays.
Whether you're stuck in a hotel room and chained to your laptop or you want some quality tunes before heading out somewhere exotic, some decent travel speakers make a big impact.
Almost universally bad until recently, there have been some significant improvements to the genre of late that now see some standout products that really impress.
Most travel speakers have built-in batteries and can be used to stream music wirelessly from smartphones and tablets over Bluetooth, but some have added extras such as speakerphone functions or a built-in smartphone recharger for emergencies. What they all have in common is wireless portability, at least for a few hours.
So here are our best portable speakers, ordered by market price at the time of writing.
Marley Chant - £50/US$60/AU$100
This eco-speaker is a hippy hero
More stylish than the iLuv MobiOut or KitSound Hive, the Marley Chant is very portable. It's not heavy, at 410g (14.5oz), and clips to a bag or backpack using a carabiner. The bamboo surround and canvas bag - made from reclaimed hemp, no less - is great to look at, though before you head off into the sunset there are a few things you should know.
It recharges using a micro USB cable, and though there's a 3.5mm jack and cable for hooking up any non-Bluetooth source, this circular speaker's canvas lid doesn't keep out of the way of the zenith-facing speaker. The speaker's position is the main problem, with stereo drifting away from you, leaving vocals muffled and volume low. Still, if you're after a personal speaker, there are few better looking options than the Chant.
KitSound Hive - £60 (around US$90/AU$100)
Honeycomb-covered speaker leaves us a-buzz
Available from Mobile Fun, the KitSound Hive is simplicity itself. The standout feature is undoubtedly its 10-hour built-in battery that recharges via a micro USB cable, which you may already have if you own an Android phone or other device that uses this universal connection.
Weighing in at 375g (13.2oz) and including a 3.5mm cable for attaching anything un-Bluetooth to its aux in port, the Hive lets out a shrill bleep when switched on, but quickly pairs with a phone using Bluetooth. Its 5W speakers don't exactly pump out the music, but it gets to reasonably high volumes and doesn't distort. Vocals can sound thin but there's a lot more low-end than we expected for the money.
iLuv MobiOut iSP 233 - £70/US$120/AU$130
Jump Start refuels the batteries
Still at a reasonably low price, the iLuv MobiOut goes one better than the KitSound Hive. We love the small 350g (12.3oz) waterproof design that looks easy to pack, and the micro USB charging port means fewer cables to carry on trips. Jump Start is the clincher; attach a smartphone's charging cable to the MobiOut's rear USB 2.0 slot and it will charge up to around 85-90%.
Since it plays music - or acts as a speakerphone - for around nine hours, Jump Start is a workable feature, though music over Bluetooth isn't as impressive. Great as a speaker for a bathroom or hotel room, it's not loud or expansive enough for a party, or for use outside, which kind of plays down Jump Start as a must-have feature, too. It also includes an aux input.
SuperTooth Disco 2 - £70/US$85 (around AU$115)
Standup speaker with audio superiority
The follow-up to SuperTooth's original Disco Bluetooth speaker goes six hours before it needs a charge, with its 16W power taking music into the loud territory - providing there's not too much background noise. But bass is lacking, as you might expect when you consider that the Disco 2 is only just over 180mm (7.1 inches) tall. Still, it's one of the best sounding at its price-point, far better than the smaller Marley Chant for audio, and also edging out the higher priced Jabra Solemate.
The latest Bluetooth 4.0 connection is supported with a 10 metre range, and the connection worked instantly and mostly reliably. Weighing 560g (19.8oz), the SuperTooth Disco 2 has a 3.5mm aux in, but no speakerphone mode. We're also slightly flummoxed by its use of a 12V power cable rather than micro USB, but there's no arguing about its audio superiority.
Jabra Solemate - £100/US$150/AU$180
It's got sole but it's not a soldier
Best known for producing Bluetooth earpieces, the Jabra Solemate - complete with a sneaker-like sole on its undercarriage - is nicely designed and good at what it does, but don't think of it as a replacement for a proper music system. Calm, sensitively produced acoustic stuff sounds good, but if you try to belt rock through this, it struggles - it's certainly not as versatile as the SuperTooth Disco 2.
Even its unusual styling isn't just for show; that sole provides a grippy surface that isolates the speaker from vibrations, and also hides a cable with 3.5mm jacks to supplement the wireless Bluetooth connection. There's also a nice fabric grip handle on the side. The battery lasts for about eight hours, and it recharges using a micro USB cable and charger.
Native Union Switch - £120/US$150/AU$200
Upright speaker with built-in smartphone charger
The Native Union Switch looks a bit like the Jabra Solemate, but its squared-off rectangular shape means it can be positioned horizontally or vertically. Weighing just over half a kilo and able to fill a room with clear and precise tunes, the Switch has a huge volume dial on one end and - rather like the iLuv MobiOut, Bang & Olufsen Beolit 12 and Philips Fidelio P8 - a built-in battery that can be shared with a smartphone via a USB slot.
It's a bigger battery, too, able to fuel the Switch for a stunning 14 hours and take an empty iPhone to 100% with charge to spare. Featuring both aux in and out and a speakerphone feature, the well designed and built Switch is expensive, but worth it.
Jawbone Jambox - £130/US$150/AU$230
Pocket-sized speaker is a hands-free hero
Its small size and cute design aren't the only reasons to call on this highly portable gadget. Pairing with a phone via Bluetooth - both automatically and immediately, too - the 340g (12oz) Jawbone Jambox fades out its streaming of music when a phone call comes in.
There's a microphone, too, so you don't even have to pick up the phone. The Jambox is at its best when supplying low-key but detailed sonics for up to five hours on a single charge, though it's expensive compared to the similar Native Union Switch, iLuv MobiOut and KitSound Hive.
Philips Fidelio P8 - £200/US$150 (around AU$335)
Exceptional detail on this serious business speaker
A heavyweight contender in more ways than one, Philips' new Fidelio P8 is a wannabe hi-fi component as much as a travel speaker. Weighing a hefty 1.3kg (2.9lbs), the P8 is modelled on the outgoing P9 minus the wooden-effect ends and leather case. This aluminium-covered 20W version packs the same punch; music is bass-heavy and expansive as well as being thoroughly detailed and well-balanced. It's one of the best sounding portable speakers here.
Just like the iLuv MobiOut, Native Union Switch and Bang & Olufsen Beolit 12, the Philips Fidelio P8 can share its eight hour battery. We managed to completely refuel an iPhone via USB 2.0 with charge to spare. It displays its charge level when touched, but like the SuperTooth Disco 2 it uses a 12V plug rather than a micro USB connection, which adds to the already considerable weight. This is definitely one for travelling business types.
Geneva Sound System Model XS DAB+ - £220 (around US$335/AU$370)
Swiss style and super sonics
There's something slightly awesome about the Model XS DAB+. It's actually attached to the faux leather-topped metal case it comes with, with the foldout finish creating a clever clamshell look. With FM, DAB and DAB+ radios, a couple of alarms and a built-in five hour battery, the Geneva Sound System Model XS DAB+ has touch-sensitive buttons and a subtle red LED-lit display behind the speaker grille.
And - best of all - its Bluetooth connectivity produces stereo sound from a smartphone that's more detailed and balanced than some mini hi-fi speakers. Weighing half a kilo (1.1lbs), it's a high-end option for anyone after a travel alarm clock with an extra special dimension.
Libratone Zipp - £330/US$400/AU$500
There's nothing sheepish about this wool-covered AirPlay speaker
A rather hefty-looking circular speaker best used around the home, the Libratone Zipp comes with interchangeable red, grey and blue woollen sleeves for an unusual look. With AirPlay for Apple devices and PlayDirect for direct link-up to all others, at four hours the Zipp has a slightly short rechargeable battery life, though decently chunky bass, sufficient competency in the mid-range and good clarity.
It's heavy at 1.8kg (4lbs) and way over-priced - that much is obvious - but those after something unusual for carting from house to garden to bedroom to bathroom will love the Zipp.
Bang & Olufsen Beolit 12 - £600/US$800/AU$990
AirPlay & Danish design on this high-end slice of style
If a portable wireless option is the star turn on this luxury item, the presence of Apple AirPlay connectivity will make it a must-have in certain social circles. Promising eight hours playback on a single charge, the mains cable then tucks into the Bang & Olufsen Beolit 12, which can fully replenish an iPhone when necessary.
The leather strap, hand-assembled aluminium casing and retro design that echoes the brand's transistor radios from the 1960s are the highlights, but it's that AirPlay connectivity that really sets the tone. However, at 2.8kg (6.2lbs) the Beolit 12 won't be leaving home anytime soon.