5 essential tips to get the perfect portable Bluetooth speaker for you

sonos roam standing among green plants
(Image credit: TechRadar)

The best waterproof speakers are little wonders, delivering superb sound and long battery life to soundtrack your every adventure – no matter how wet it might be. Whether you’re going to the park, a party, the beach or the middle of nowhere, you’re spoilt for choice at every budget, with models ranging from pocket-sized performers to block-rocking party cannons.

That’s great, but it also means there are a lot of speakers to choose from – so how do you decide which one’s best for you? Price is a key factor, of course, which is why when we look at the best Bluetooth speakers, we're always balancing sound quality and features with the cost. But those features are important factors too.

Here are five key things you should think about when you’re looking for a great speaker to take on your trips and travels.

1. Bass

If you’re all about the bass you should steer clear of the smallest outdoor speakers: their little speaker drivers won’t move enough air to give you that all-important low end, so music will sound tinny and empty. Something like the Sonos Roam, with its large oval woofer, will deliver much stronger bass than a smaller speaker such as the pocket-sized JBL Go 3.

That doesn’t mean you need to go for something that looks like the bass bins from a rave, though. Many portable and outdoor speakers supplement their speaker drivers with passive radiators, which channel the air pressure from the driver(s) towards a diaphragm that then vibrates, adding more power to the sound. The result: more bass without having to fit huge speaker drivers. 

Basically, if you want full sound you need bass, and if you want bass you need to pick a speaker that isn't too small.

Bang & Olufsen Beoli 20 close-up showing the charging port

Getting a portable speaker with USB-C usually means it's easier  to charge these days. (Image credit: Future)

2. Battery life and charging

We’re assuming you’re looking for a portable rather than permanent outdoor speaker here, and that means battery life is important. Manufacturers’ battery life figures are usually “up to” claims that may be hard to replicate in everyday use if you like to play your music loud (these figures usually assume 50% volume at most), but as a general rule you can Bluetooth speakers to run for 15-20 hours.

As with smartphones, there’s a trade-off between battery size and portability here: bigger batteries may last longer but they take up more space and add weight too, so make sure you check those bits of the spec sheets if you’re looking for a speaker to take on a hike.

Some speakers have fast-charging support for quick top-ups via compatible chargers, and some, like the JBL Charge 5, even enable you to charge your phone form their battery. Of course, by doing so you’re slightly reducing the speaker’s own battery life, but it makes them double up as emergency help.

Think about what cables and potentially what charger you’ll need to pack, too. Many speakers released less recently require micro-USB, but more recent and more premium ones use USB-C and can take advantage of much faster charging speeds on suitably powerful chargers. So if you want to take fewer chargers in your bag, make sure you get one that uses the same plug as your phone.

3. Connectivity

There are two kinds of connectivity to think about here: how the speaker connects to your sound source, and how (or if) the speaker connects to other speakers. Many outdoor speakers can be paired with identical models to deliver stereo audio or to have multiple speakers in sync with one another, and some can integrate with multi-room audio systems so you can get the same music outside as inside.

The most common kind of connectivity is Bluetooth, which sips rather than guzzles electricity and enables you to stream from your phone, tablet or other device. Some more advanced speakers also have Wi-Fi for higher quality streaming, for features such as Apple AirPlay, and/or for connecting to the rest of your home audio system. The Sonos Roam is a good example of that: it streams using Bluetooth when you’re outside away from your network, but it uses Wi-Fi to connect to your home network when you’re close enough.

The latest version of Bluetooth you’re likely to find in speakers is 5.2, but some older models run 4.2 and you really don’t want anything with an older version than that. Provided your phone or other audio source is compatible, the more recent the Bluetooth the more energy efficient it is. Bluetooth 5.0 upwards also has more bandwidth, so it can support higher quality streaming, and it has longer range than Bluetooth 4.2.

Some Bluetooth speakers support the aptX HD codec for higher quality music streaming, and some Sony models have LDAC, Sony’s own high resolution codec. LDAC offers even higher quality than aptX HD, but not all music sources support it, and if you're using the speaker outside or at a party, you're unlikely to notice the difference anyway.

the Ultimate Ears wonderboom 2 bluetooth speaker floating in a pool

Get the right waterproof speaker, like the UE Wonderboom 2 here, and a soaking in the pool won't be a problem. (Image credit: Ultimate Ears)

4. Ruggedness

The great outdoors isn’t always so great for delicate electronics: there’s water, there’s dust, and there are accidents. Most outdoor speakers offer some kind of water and dust resistance, and there are lots of great waterproof speakers these days, but it’s important to know the different standards. 

Speakers have 'IP' ratings to describe their environmental protection. The first digit after IP tells you the dust resistance; the second, water resistance. Some speakers list one but not the other, with an X replacing the missing number – so for example a speaker rated IP5X has a dust protection rating but not a water one, and a speaker rated IPX5 has a water resistance rating but not a dust one. 

For dust, IP5X is dust resistant, and IP6X is effectively dust-proof.

For water, IPX4 can handle splashes of water; IPX5 can survive low pressure water spray; IPX6 can handle higher pressure sprays; IPX7 can be submerged in up to a metre of water for 30 minutes; and IPX8 can last for 30 minutes in water deeper than 1m. So for rain or spilled-wine resistance you’re looking at at least IPX5; for a speaker that can survive being dropped in a pond or stream, you’ll want a speaker rated IPX7 or IPX8. A speaker with maximum dust and water resistance will have an IP68 rating.

That’s the environmental hazards taken care of. Now for the human ones. Portable speakers’ biggest enemy is us: they can be dropped, they can be accidentally kicked, they can be knocked off tables and they can be banged around inside a bag or onto hard surfaces. Water and dust protection will prevent spilled drinks and other accidents from getting inside them, but if you think your speaker is going to live a hard knock life, it’s wise to get one that’s been designed specifically for more active use than one made to sit on garden furniture. 

There's no handy rating system here, but it's clear quickly that the rounded shape and slightly soft outside of the JBL Flip 6 is going to take less damage from a fall than the heavier, less yielding Sonos Move.

Bang & Olufsen Explore speaker hanging from a fence post by its strap

Some speakers, including the B&O Beosound Explore, have straps or carrying handles as part of the design. (Image credit: Future)

5. Portability

Portability isn’t a key consideration if you’re only planning to listen on the patio, but if you’re looking for a speaker to pack into your luggage, to put in a backpack or drop in a beach bag, then size and weight become very important. The UE Wonderboom 2 weighs less an a pound (under 500g); the JBL Charge 5 is nearly a kilogram; while the Sonos Move is 3kg. We’d describe that one as 'transportable' rather than 'portable'.

Some outdoor speakers have built-in straps to make moving them less of a pain, so for example the Bang & Olufsen Beosound A1 2nd Gen and some JBL speakers have carrying straps.

Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall (Twitter) has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR.