Bluetooth Speaker Shootout: The best of wireless audio

One week. Fourteen speakers. We find out the best Bluetooth speaker out in the market, at present.

Published Date
10 - Nov - 2015
| Last Updated
10 - Nov - 2015
 
Bluetooth Speaker Shootout: The best of wireless audio

Bluetooth speakers today are offering consumers a variety of features to stay at the top of their game. We’ve seen speakers that can double up as power banks to charge your phone, even speakers that can be paired to offer multi-channel sound. There are speakers that are waterproof too, so you can literally take them for a swim with you. All these features are great, but at the end of the day, what matters is the sound output. Do these speakers deliver their money’s worth? Are the features on offer useful enough? Does it make sense to purchase a budget speaker, or would you rather save up for the crème de la crème? Let’s kick things off, with the build and design of the Bluetooth speakers and in the process build up towards answering those difficult questions.

BUILD AND DESIGN
Bluetooth speakers need to be light, compact and easy to carry. They must also be built to withstand a small degree of everyday torture, too.

The Frontech JIL 3906 is a small, compact speaker shaped like a landmine. Its biggest USP is that it’s waterproof, so you can take the device swimming with you, if you wish to. We have dropped the speaker a few times too, and it works just fine. Continuing with the small and compact form factor, we have the Logitech X50. It is available in a variety of vibrant colours appealing to the visual palate, but sadly, no waterproofing. The  buttons on this speaker are big, and easy to access.

Moving to the Logitech X300, the speaker has a design similar to the UE Boom. It has three physical buttons on the top, for volume and Bluetooth. The power button is located at the rear of the speaker. Available in a bunch of bright colours, the speaker has a rubberized finish, which  makes it easy to grip, and comfortable to hold in one’s hands. Sadly even this little guy isn’t weather proof. If the design of the X300 was simplified, it would look like the Sony SRS X2, our next entrant. The speaker has a matte, rubberized finish and is by far the simplest looking speaker that we have, and that isn’t a bad thing. The buttons rest at the top of the  speaker, and the AUX  and USB ports are at the back. The SRS X2 is apt for a neat desk.

Moving to the JBL family we have the JBL Charge 2, Flip 3, Pulse 2, and the JBL Xtreme. Keep all the speakers together and it looks like the evolution of the dhol. One can also imagine Dudley Dursley’s life at different stages by looking at these speakers. All the JBL speakers in this list have a similar design – on either side the speakers we have the drivers. The speakers themselves have a cylindrical design with rubber housings to keep them steady when kept horizontal. There is a slight issue with JBL’s designing according to us, because, if you keep the  speaker vertically, you might end up blocking one of the drivers.

The JBL Flip 3 is the smallest and narrowest of JBL’s lot here. It comes with a flap that covers the USB and auxiliary ports. The speaker is splashproof. The Bluetooth button, volume controllers and call button are textured, and are a part of the speaker grille, making them easy to find without looking at the speaker. The textured finish to the grill is a lot like the UE boom. The JBL Charge 2, on the other hand, has a distinct rubber protrusion that acts as the base. You are encouraged not to keep the speaker vertically.
All the buttons are neatly laid out on the top of the speaker (when kept on its intended rubber strip). The speaker has quite a simple design.

If jazzy is what you are looking for, the JBL Pulse 2 is designed for you. This Bluetooth speaker offers an “interactive light show”, which is to say that with the push of a button, you can see a light show from inside the grille of the speaker. It has a sensor called the JBL Prism color sensor lens. You need to point the lens on the speaker at the colour you want, and watch the Pulse 2 bring the colours to life. It’s quite entertaining, even though it isn’t really accurate. Last but not the least, we have the JBL Xtreme. This thing not only resembles a dhol, but also has a strap that lets you carry it as one. It is huge and heavy, weighing 2.11kgs. All the ports on this speaker are hidden beneath an inconvenient zipper,  and even though it is waterproof, we recommend you don’t take a dunk with it.

The Logitech UE Boom looks like a distant cousin of the JBL family, and comes in a bunch of interesting colours. The speaker is well built with a rubberized finish for a good grip, and you have to keep it vertical to get the most from it. The speaker is waterproof, and the only downside is that the flap covering the microUSB port and the auxiliary port can easily be misplaced.

The Creative Sound Blaster Roar looks like the ideal desk speaker. It is also the only speaker with the largest number of buttons and options at the back, and we will explain why this is the case in the features section.

Moving on to the Bose family, we have the SoundLink Color, SoundLink Mini 2, and the SoundLink III. The SoundLink Color, as the name suggests, is available in a number of colours and has a simple box design. Despite the colour options up for grabs, the design of the speaker may be too simple for some. All the buttons rest on the top of the device and have rubbery bumps to them. The SoundLink Mini 2 on the other hand has a rectangular design. The unit we received comes with an aluminum finish, making it appear elegant. There is an external base plate that comes with the device, but does not fit very well. The SoundLink III, on the other hand, has the most boring-yet-elegant design, being a rectangular desk speaker for the businessman. It’s the speaker you’d find on Harvey Specter’s desk. The buttons at the top feel very premium, though.

Last but not the least, we have the B&O Beolit 15. The speaker is huge, and comes with a leash attached to it (for the lack of better description), and looks like a picnic box. There is an in-unit box at the back of the speaker, where you can stow the charging cable, and this is really handy. The top of the speaker has Bluetooth, power and volume buttons. Minimalistic, and well placed.

All the speakers that we have in this list, even the low cost ones, bring good builds to the table. Its great to see that Bluetooth speaker manufacturers pay attention to the build, even if the design is kept simple. But, how feature-rich are these speakers?

Click to Enlarge

Click to enlarge

FEATURES
There was a time when we’d be pleasantly surprised when a Bluetooth speaker boasted the ability to remember more than two Bluetooth devices. The number of features on offer on a Bluetooth speaker today, is insane. Here’s how we tried to break it down for you.

Power Bank: Yes, some of these speakers house a USB port, and you can charge your smartphone using the speaker as a power bank. The ones that sport this ability are the JBL Charge 2, Creative Sound Blaster Roar, B&O Beolit 15 and the JBL Xtreme.

Some of the speakers have the ability to pair with another speaker (either from the same family, or the exact same model) to give you stereo output. The ones that support this are the JBL Flip 3, Creative Sound Blaster Roar, Logitech UE Boom and the JBL Xtreme.

Coming to other features of the speakers, the JBL Charge 2 has a Social Mode button, that allows up to three devices to connect to it via Bluetooth. Users can take turns playing music on the device, making the speaker a more social affair.

Never judge a book by its cover, and that’s the best way to describe the features of the Creative Sound Blaster Roar. The company has thrown every feature possible in this speaker, except for AirPlay and the kitchen sink. The speaker works as a DAC. You can simply connect it to a PC through USB, and use this feature. Sure, it has Bluetooth, NFC and a microSD card slot, but did you know that you can record audio on it to a microSD card? Yes, you can. We found the feature online and tried it, and it works – the device can work as a microSD card reader when it is plugged into a PC. There is a button at the back of the Roar, that says ‘alarm’. Press this for three seconds and a siren sound plays from it very loudly. Living in Delhi, there are a lot of reasons why we can recommend carrying this speaker around, for this one function alone.

Coming to the B&O, two devices can be paired with the speaker at once. This allows the user and a friend, to play music together.

Everything written above seems great but the primary function of a Bluetooth speaker is to deliver great sound output. Does it succeed? Read on.

PERFORMANCE
Kicking things off with the budget speakers, we have the Frontech JIL 3906. One annoying feature is that the Volume button, that, instead of controlling volume, changes the track. Controlling the volume is from the device (smartphone) only, unless you stop playing music, press the volume button a few times, and resume playback. Coming to the performance, there is practically no bass, but the vocals are clear. At its highest volume, the audio is still quite soft. Since the vocals are clear, the speaker is good for receiving calls. For the price you pay, it can not really be tagged ‘bad’. This is the speaker you get your kids, because you won’t be worried about them losing it.

Frontech JIL 3906

Moving to the Logitech X50, the speaker is loud, clear, smooth, and can connect to two devices at the same time. There is a big jump in quality and loudness, when compared to the Frontech JIL 3906. The vocals are comparatively clear too, on the speaker. On the downside, the mids are subdued, and overall, the output audio has a lot of distortion. There is a distinct lack of bass in the speakers. The speaker is loud and good enough for a small party, but if you want crisp detail in your audio, you will need to look elsewhere.

Coming to the Logitech X300, the speaker has very clear mids, and has an overall good range. When you expect the sound to become loud and deliver a punch, the speaker auto-levels the bump of the highs. This works well in some cases, while in a number of cases, the punch is vividly missing. This feature of the speaker is subjective to how you like your music. It has good stereo separation. This is the first budget speaker where there is considerable semblance of bass, which is good at this price point. The speaker has warm texture of audio notes, and details of the drum’s beat are clear and balanced. Overall, the audio from this speaker is quite good, especially considering its price.

Logitech X300

The Sony SRS X2 sounds flat, but it is clear. The speaker has very high treble, to the point where it screeches at full volume. When there are a lot of instruments playing, the speaker sounds chaotic more than clear. Instruments aren’t balanced with the vocals making the sounds too muddled. The SRS X2 is only good enough for casual listening nothing more.

Sony SRS X2

Coming to the JBL Charge 2, the speaker is well balanced, and has pronounced mids, leading the cue of well balanced audio performance. The speaker delivers the relevant punch when it’s needed in the song, and that’s a very good thing. The bass sounds a little ‘dirty’, but is distinct, nonetheless. To put things into perspective, distortion levels on the Charge 2 are higher than the X300. It does not completely destroy the experience, but it still is there. At maximum volume, this is not  the loudest speaker we have, but it is loud enough, nonetheless. At high volumes, the speaker is tuned to favour bass and attenuates other frequencies. These speakers are excellent for outdoor listening.

The Bose SoundLink Color has really good range, especially in the frequency test. There is slight bass distortion but the speaker has very clear audio while listening to the snares and the hi-hats of Carnival. Put simply, it delivers reasonably balanced audio. On the downside, the mid-range frequencies are compromised. Although the overall audio output is clear, the audio delivery is unidirectional, making the speaker restricted in terms of overall soundstage.

Bose SoundLink Color

The JBL Flip 3, to begin with, has very sharp audio clarity. The output is relatively loud, even at lower volumes. The treble is on the higher side in terms of audio balance. The speaker does have good, powerful bass, courtesy  the dedicated bass drivers. The guitar riff in ‘Into The Night’ is shrill (owing to the higher treble), taking away some of the elegance of the original patch on Santana’s Les Paul. This speaker is best heard at 65-75% volume to get the best audio fidelity. At 100% volume, the auditory experience is not the best.

Coming to the JBL Pulse 2, the vocals sound pristine but the bass isn’t all that much. Listening to Counting Stars felt somewhat hollow. The speaker is good for outdoor listening, or a small party. The bling lights won’t be out of place in the latter scenario.

JBL Pulse 2

Moving on to the Creative Sound Blaster Roar, let’s get the worst out of the way – a thin strip of the speaker gets muffled when placed on a table, which restricts the outflow of reflected audio from within the mesh. It has very clear audio, and is very loud, as the name suggests. Highs, mids and lows can all be heard clearly, but the speaker favours treble. Once you press Roar, get ready to be blown away. The speaker gets really loud once you hit the roar switch, although it somewhat loses out on timbre. In our listening test, we felt that the speaker was too bass heavy with Counting Stars. The acoustic sound output is incredibly pleasant on the ears though.

The Logitech UE Boom has good bass, considering its size and design. The treble side is slightly sharp, though. Despite this, it has clear and balanced audio, and slight amounts of audio distortion at the highest volume level. Overall audio quality is very warm, clear, rich, and the vocals sound crisp and levelled. The mids are very well pronounced, too, which lays the foundation stone for the overall-balanced audio. Overall, the speaker gives you clear and balanced audio.

The Bose SoundLink Mini 2 has slightly distorted audio, at full volume. Additionally, the audio sounds a little restricted because of the small drivers, and the narrowness of the speaker. The highs and mids on the speaker are good, though. The bass, however, is a little overpowering. Overall, the timbre is good.

Bose SoundLink Mini 2

As it looks, so does it sound! That’s the best way to describe the JBL Xtreme. To begin with, the speaker is loud, really loud. The treble is clear, and the mids are good as well. The great fidelity of the audio comes at the cost of the dimensions and weight. Portability takes a hit. The audio fidelity, however, is really good. Bass is on the heavier side. The device is more like a boombox for electronic, Dubstep or EDM lovers. If you are having a party and need to bring the house down, then this is the speaker for you.

JBL Xtreme

Coming to Harvey Specter’s speaker, the Bose SoundLink III – we found the speaker really loud, a marginal distortion at high volumes, but the mids are pristine. Considering the price of the speaker and the fact that it is up against JBL’s dhol, the bass felt relatively subdued, but somewhat clearer and balanced. The audio output is somewhat unidirectional, unless you are listening to it from within a range of one foot. The speaker is ideal if it is kept in a corner, and not the center of the room. What exemplifies the SoundLink III is the rich timbre. Despite the vocals being overpowering at the highest volume, the audio is crisp and pristine. While this does kill bits of extreme detail off the instrumentation  in certain tracks, you can still distinctly tell the difference between a snare and a tom tom, and this is where Bose is Bose.

Last but not least, we have the B&O Beolit 15. The best way to describe the audio from this speaker is – this is what Santana was meant to sound like; this is what Carnival was meant to be. We fell short of words to describe how the speaker sounds. The worst thing to say about it is that it looks like a tiffin box – Tupperware met Bang & Olufsen somewhere, maybe. It won’t appeal to  an audience that likes stylish speakers, but it will certainly appeal to the audiophile.

So, who wins this Bluetooth shootout?

WINNERS
Best performer

The award for the best performer goes to the B&O Beolit 15. Even though the speaker looks like a tiffin box, it sounds exceptionally good. The Beolit 15 hit every note perfectly, and it sounds like a dream. This is how music was intended to be heard, and the fact that the speaker boasts of 24 hours of battery life ensures that you don’t run out of juice. Oh, and did we mention that it charges your phone too? 

B&O Beolit 15

Best buy
(under Rs.10,000)
Logitech X50

When you are on a tight budget, there are a lot of places where you will have to make a compromise when purchasing a budget speaker. It is here that the Logitech X50 attempts to bridge the gap. It is loud and clear for its size. The speaker may lack bass, but what you get is a budget speaker that’s good for those small, family picnics.

Logitech X50

Best Buy
(above Rs. 10,000)
UE Boom

Waterproof, colourful, brilliant audio and durable – all of this, at a great price point. You can literally take this speaker swimming with you, and it will still work. The speaker hits all the notes, and has clear and loud audio.

UE Boom

Editor’s pick
Bose SoundLink 3

The speaker not only sounds good, but is ideal as that elegant showpiece you have in your house, which shows how elegant you really are. If simplicity, class and good sound is what you are looking for, then the Bose Soundlink III is the weapon for you.

Bose SoundLink 3

HOW WE TESTED
To begin with, we looked at the build and design of the speakers. The materials used and the construction quality took precedence here. Being a Bluetooth speaker, the devices need to be portable too. Keeping the weight and form factor in mind, we put the speakers through everyday scenarios, to judge them on their portability. We also checked for weather-proofing capabilities of the speakers, the ones that claimed that were.

Moving beyond the build and design, we took a look at the connectivity options on offer. Going beyond Bluetooth, NFC and auxiliary input, we took a look at microSD card support, USB support, and any other input that the speakers supported. Some of the Bluetooth speakers double up as a power bank, and the ones that do, were put to test.

Some Bluetooth speakers also have dedicated applications available on iOS and Android. These apps help you pair the speakers with your smartphone, connect multiple speakers together, or simply help you control the volume and other features of the speakers. We checked the app for platform compatibility (iOS, Android and Windows Phone), along with checking how user-friendly the app is.

Coming to performance, we checked the number of Bluetooth devices the speaker could remember. This helps with ease of pairing, if you are using multiple devices with one Bluetooth speaker.

We also played a bunch of tracks such as Carnival of Rust, Instant Crush, Into the Night, Counting Stars and Carnival (from the movie, Whiplash) to see how the speakers performed. The speakers were judged, based on clarity, range, loudness and balance of the output audio.

Finally, for the price, we checked the box and product website for the maximum retail price, as well as online shopping portals for the best market operating price, to judge the price to performance ratio.

Finally, the best performer was decided purely based on the sound quality of the speaker. The best value was determined based on not only the audio output performance, but keeping in mind the price-to-performance ratio. The editor’s pick was the speaker that appealed to the testers, the most.

With Inputs from: Sameer Mitha

Souvik DasSouvik Das

Sentience.