Speakers for the Price of Headphones
It's hard to imagine this headline being written even five years ago, but Bluetooth audio quality has made great strides recently. You'll still need to spend more money for a high-fidelity listening experience, but the audio delivered by today's sub-$100 portable Bluetooth speakers is nothing to scoff at.
Beyond solid sonics, a fairly common trait in the sub-$100 wireless speaker world is a rugged, outdoor-friendly portable build. While you might be looking for something for your office desk or home bookshelf, many speakers in this price range feature tough, water-resistant builds that can take a beating on a hike, and backpack-friendly designs so you can easily tote them anywhere. And that's just one thing to look for. Here's what else to keep in mind when shopping.
While affordable portable speakers once relied only on the strength of tiny, powered drivers, the last few years have seen the inclusion (to a near-ubiquitous level) of passive radiators—think of them as small woofers or midrange speakers that don't receive direct power like the drivers do, but vibrate sympathetically with the output of the drivers to create a greater sense of bass. They won't make you think there's a subwoofer inside your small speaker, but passive radiators work quite well to create an extended sense of the lows without using more power.
Some passive radiators vibrate so powerfully that many speakers feature design tweaks to accommodate them, like rubber feet to prevent the devices from scooting across desks and counters. Without passive radiators, bass response in this price range would still seem rather weak, so if a little extra thump is important to you, you'll want to find a speaker that uses one, which we mention in our reviews.
Mono Audio and Stereo Streaming
It almost seems like some manufacturers are making more mono (single-driver) speakers than they used to, perhaps favoring the addition of a passive radiator to create stronger bass response over a second driver. This makes sense, because if you stand several feet away from a small speaker with two drivers delivering stereo audio, you won't get much real stereo separation unless the drivers are drastically angled in different directions. Even then, it's not going to be a true stereo image. Many manufacturers are gambling on the belief that you're more likely to notice enhanced bass response from a passive radiator than the presence of stereo audio. They have a point.
However, they also want to sell you more speakers, which is why many manufacturers like JLab, Sony, and Ultimate Ears offer wireless stereo pairing of two speakers. The advantage here is obvious: If you connect two speakers to your phone (most likely using an app) and assign one to the left channel and one to the right, you can suddenly create a very wide stereo field. Of course, most of these options are more expensive than $50 a piece, so this technically isn't an under-$100 option.
Battery Life and Mobile Charging
Battery range for most portable speakers is a respectable 8 to 12 hours. It's always good to keep in mind that whatever number is listed in the specs on a manufacturer's website is likely the very best result you can expect, meaning you can listen up to that long, but your results will vary. If you play your music loud, for instance, your battery life will almost certainly be lower than the number quoted by the manufacturer.
A number of speakers also have a built-in USB port for charging mobile devices on the go. Obviously, this is useful when you're away from home and your phone or tablet is running low on juice, but charging your device will definitely decrease the speaker's battery life, so there's some trade-off. The batteries in these speakers are often a fraction of the capacity of a larger dedicated battery pack, which you should consider as a separate purchase if you really want to keep your phone (or speaker) charged when you're out.
Most sub-$100 wireless speakers are truly portable, but some are bulkier than others, and your idea of portability may differ from someone else's. The relatively large JLab House Party, for instance, is meant for room-to-room portability, while the lightweight JBL Clip 2 has a carabiner to hang from a loop on your backpack.
If you're willing to sacrifice some space inside your bag in order to get a little more audio firepower, the most powerful sub-$100 speakers are, unsurprisingly, a bit larger and going to exist right around the $100 cutoff.
Finally, there's something else to keep in mind for outdoor enthusiasts, particularly cyclists: Many speakers now have pre-threaded screw holes for bicycle mounts and even some action camera gear.
Water Resistance (Or: What Does That IPX Rating Mean?)
Waterproof and water resistant seem like interchangeable terms, but they're really loose slang for very precise measurements. Not every speaker we test in the below-$100 range is protected against liquids, but it's a far more common trait than it used to be. Thus, it's becoming standard practice for manufacturers to list the speaker's IP rating (we'll address the mysterious "X" in a moment) in the specs section of its product page.
You'll be doing yourself a favor to read the rating and understand what it means rather than assuming a speaker that is, say, merely splash resistant is OK to submerge underwater. There are several levels of IP ratings, so memorizing them all is trickier than it seems, particularly when you start adding shock- or dust-proof capabilities to the equation. IPX7, for instance, means the device can handle immersion in up to one meter of water for 30 minutes or less, while IPX5 means it can handle the splash of low-pressure water jets from any direction for at least three minutes.
Now, about that "X" in the rating—there's some confusion about what it actually means. Technically, if you see two numbers after IP, as in IP67, the first number, 6, refers to protection from solids (often dust), and the second refers to protection from liquids. When you see 0, that means it has no protection against solids, but when you see X, it means the product has not been verified to be protected against solids. In reality, the speaker most likely has some level of protection beyond 0, but it can't be verified as it hasn't officially been tested.
Thus, IP07 means that a device is not protected from solids whatsoever, but can be submerged for up to 30 minutes in up to one meter of water, but IPX7 technically means the company believes, based on the device's liquid rating of 7, you should expect a level of protection from solids greater than 0, but it can't be verified in the form of a rating.
If this seems confusing, just keep in mind that an X means the manufacturer assumes the device has some degree of protection from solids, but it's untested and the number you see refers only to the confirmed protection from liquids. No wonder companies often resort to simplified descriptions like "splash proof."
For more top-rated wireless speakers, regardless of price, check out The Best Bluetooth Speakers we've tested.
Featured Bluetooth Speaker Reviews:
Amazon Echo Dot Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Amazon Echo Dot brings Alexa voice assistance to your home for nearly half the price of the original, and you can connect it to your favorite home speaker. Read the full review
JBL Clip 2 Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The JBL Clip 2 is a budget-friendly Bluetooth speaker that delivers solid audio performance in a supremely portable, outdoor-friendly design. Read the full review
Emie Radio Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Emie Radio Bluetooth speaker delivers high-end looks and clear, crisp audio for a low-end price. Read the full review
House of Marley Liberate BT Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The stylish House of Marley Liberate BT speaker delivers a solid Bluetooth audio experience for its small size. Read the full review
JBL Flip 4 Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The JBL Flip 4 speaker delivers strong Bluetooth audio from its modest, waterproof frame. Read the full review
Nyne Edge Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Nyne Edge delivers crisp, clean Bluetooth audio in a portable, rugged design that will appeal most to cyclists looking for solid audio on-the-go. Read the full review
Polk Boom Swimmer Jr. Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Polk Boom Swimmer Jr. is a waterproof portable Bluetooth speaker that offers solid audio performance for the price. Read the full review
Ultimate Ears UE Wonderboom Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Ultimate Ears UE Wonderboom is a small, rugged Bluetooth speaker that produces a surprising punch of sound for its size. Read the full review
Jam Xterior Max Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The outdoor-friendly Jam Xterior Max is a Bluetooth speaker built to take a beating. Its audio performance is solid, but not exceptional. Read the full review
JLab House Party Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The JLab House Party speaker delivers powerful sound for its size. And it's an inexpensive, uncomplicated way to get wireless multiroom audio in your home. Read the full review
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By Tim Gideon Contributing Editor, Audio
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