After looking at almost every option around, I decided to use the Logitech UE Mini Boom to play music around my house and outside. It’s compact, has a long battery life, works as a speakerphone and delivers exceptional sound for under $100.
Why a Bluetooth Portable Speaker?
If you’re going to be sharing your music on the go…you’ll want something that sounds better than your phone’s screechy speakerphone.
If you’re going to be sharing your music on the go with other people, you’ll want something that sounds better than your phone’s screechy speakerphone. The dock-based speaker is dead, especially since Apple replaced the 30-pin with the Lightning connection on the iPhone 5. Wired speakers are also becoming harder to find. Basically, wireless is your only option. But devices that use Sonos or Airplay are prohibitively expensive for most people whereas Bluetooth comes baked into virtually every modern tablet, phone, and computer. Unlike other wireless standards, Bluetooth is not platform-specific. It’s also easy to pair and is a hard connection to inadvertently break. Basically, it’s everything you need from a wireless streaming protocol. Unfortunately, it may lack some of the features you want.
Sound quality is Bluetooth’s Achilles’ heel. Make no mistake, you will lose some of the fidelity that would otherwise be preserved if you connected via AirPlay or a 3.5mm headphone jack. But that probably won’t matter in most cases for a couple of reasons. First of which is the speaker itself. A portable speaker needs to be, well, portable. Otherwise what’s the point? However, size matters when it comes to sound. You’re simply not going to be able to get as much bass out of a 1-inch driver as you would from an 8-inch sub–or even a 3 inch driver for that matter. So even in the best case scenario, you’re going to lose a chunk of sound quality. The second reason has to do with the source material. Streaming services are quickly becoming the preferred method of listening to music but truth be told, often times their quality can’t even match what you buy on iTunes, let alone CDs or vinyl. For example, you won’t notice any drop in quality if you’re listening to music using Spotify’s “Normal” and recommended streaming rate of 96 kbit/s. It’s also worth noting that some new music is deliberately mixed to be cruddy so it’ll sound acceptable on cheap headphones. The third reason is that your phone belongs on your person, not on a tabletop with a speaker on it, too far to check your messages.
Basically, lossy songs played through small speakers can only sound so good, and you’ll hit the limitations of the source and speaker well before you notice the drawbacks of Bluetooth.
What Makes a Good Portable Speaker?
We’ve addressed sound already, but beyond that true portability is a must. A speaker is a luxury and almost never a necessity, so unless it’s small enough to throw in your bag or pocket without hesitation, it’ll probably spend more time on your desk than entertaining you and your friends. This was something the Jambox absolutely nailed when it first came out and it’s why it became so popular so quickly. And now, the Mini Jambox (just announced in September of 2013) hopes to build on this, by shrinking the speaker’s thickness down to less than an inch.
…unless it’s small enough to throw in your bag or pocket without hesitation, it’ll probably spend more time on your desk…
You’ll also want a substantial battery (at least six hours of playback), solid sound quality (at least compared to others in this size and price range), and simple pairing. If you need to read the instruction manual to set it up, it’s poorly designed. Most speakers, or any Bluetooth device, make the cut — the process is rarely more complicated than pressing the pairing button or holding down the power button, until it blinks blue or blue and red. When it shows up in your device’s Bluetooth list, you tap it to pair. From then on, it should automatically connect.
As far as less crucial features go, most speakers are able to double as a speakerphone for conversations. As with music playback, some give more vocal clarity than others. We found that most conversations through any speakers made the other person say, “Am I on speakerphone?” so using a phone in a typical manner usually wins out.
Another not so necessary feature is the ability to charge devices from the speaker’s battery. The problem with this is that even speakers that offer this feature don’t have huge batteries to begin with (typically under 1500mAh which is about one fully charged iPhone). Best case scenario, you wind up with a half-charged phone and half-charged speaker that each have only a couple hours of life left. You’re better off with a dedicated external battery so you don’t have to choose between tunes and battery life. Definitely not a must have feature.
How We Decided
There are dozens of Bluetooth speakers out there, especially in the sub-$150 range (including the original Jambox, which has recently been selling for as low as $130), so we let reviewers like PC Magazine, Wired, iLounge, and CNET pick out the best ones, models that appeared at the upper-end of multiple reviews — this meant nothing less than a 3.5/5, B rating, or an 8/10. These professional reviews were our main sources, but if there weren’t many reviews on a promising looking model, we looked at reviews of previous versions of updated models. We also assembled a long list of potential candidates from the floor at CES numbering in the dozens, almost all of which wound up being busts.
After thoroughly reading all the reviews we could get our hands on, we arrived at about a half-dozen top competitors. We parsed these with stricter criteria such as higher overall ratings and recommendations from audiophiles. We then called in and personally tested those finalists by playing everything from concert guitar (thanks,Geoff Morrison) and bass-heavy house, each using a variety of source materials from lossless CD quality to 96 kbit/s streaming. To control for bias, we tested each speaker in the same room location and with varying numbers of bodies in the room.
With the overall sound quality rated, we evaluated the everyday usability of each model, which meant bringing them on plane trips, using them in multiple rooms with different size crowds, and timing both playback and standby times of the battery life. We also looked at ease of pairing and portability. When all was said and done, the choice was clear.
It’s so portable it fits in a jacket pocket, but the sound it produces has enough power to clearly fill a room…
Logitech’s UE Mini Boom works because it’s a speaker that you’ll actually use. It’s so portable it fits in a jacket pocket, but the sound it produces has enough power to clearly fill a room and preserve the most important aspects of the song being played. On top of that, despite retailing for substantially less than the original Jambox, pretty much every reviewer agrees that it performs better.
As for specific numbers, the UE puts out 86 dB of sound from two 1.5-inch drivers, about equivalent to standing near a busy street and just beyond the 85 dB threshold at which hearing damage can start to set in–i.e. more than enough to fill a small room. It’s 4.4 inches wide, 2.6 inches deep and 2.4 inches high, approximately the size of either a can of food or four iPhones stacked on top of each other. It weighs a little over half a pound (Logitech’s site has it at 301 g or 0.7 pounds; when I weighed it myself, it came out to 299 g). With the speaker about four feet away from you, the UE works as a speakerphone with boardroom-ready clarity. The battery gives an astounding nine hours of playback, just shy of the manufacturer’s claimed ten hours and well north of the 6 hours you’d typically expect from one of these things.
The UE’s build quality is another highlight. Wrapping around its metal speaker grill is a rubberized shell feels like it can take a beating and adds traction to keep the speaker set on most surfaces. It also feels satisfyingly heavy when you pick it up in the way that most quality electronics tend to feel. (Think of an iPhone 4 versus its plasticky Android peers.) The UE also comes in several color combinations to fit your style.
The controls sit on the top and are pretty much idiotproof: pair, volume up, volume down. There’s everything you need and nothing you don’t. On the back, there’s a 3.5 mm input jack, a micro-USB port for charging and a sliding on/off switch. After I’d paired it with a phone, which took less than ten seconds, linking it back up to my iPhone 5 took less than three seconds on average. And it never failed, whether we turned the speaker on before the phone’s Bluetooth or turned on the speaker with the phone’s connection already on.
Even better, the sound quality–considering its size–was every bit as impressive as the reviewers made it out to be. Treble comes through cleanly, classical strings have their range preserved and the bass, while not bowel-loosening, transmits well enough to give hip hop and DJ sets enough punch to catch the beat. Above all, however, the UE’s ability to play at high volume without sounding fuzzy or distorted makes it an exceptional specimen in the sub-$100 price range. This was most clearly demonstrated by its ability to fill a room with rock and roll loud enough to get all 6 people’s heads bobbing to the beat.
And don’t forget, all that sound sits inside something that fits in a jacket’s breast pocket. Crazy.
The UE also gets points from us for charging via micro-USB. Since cheap Bluetooth speakers are so portable, especially the UE, you’ll want to bring it on trips to pump sound into your hotel room. Since micro-USB charges Kindles, the Nexus 7, most Android phones and a handful of other gadgets, adding the UE means you still only need to take one cable for all those devices when traveling. Plus then the cable is easy to replace should you lose it on accident. Another bonus of micro-USB charging is that you don’t need a fat, multiple-outlet-hogging AC adapter; any old USB port will do. It makes AC-adapter-dependent models look outdated by comparison. It’s a joy to be able to travel with only an Apple Lightning cable, my MacBook Air’s plug, and a micro-USB for my Kindle and the UE.
One helpful feature we found in our own testing that wasn’t specifically mentioned in many reviews was the fact that the UE has indicator sounds in addition to the blinking Morse code lights found on most other models. It has a specific chime for when it turns on, successfully pairs, and when it hits the maximum or minimum volume. It also will make a sound when there’s been no music or user activity for 15 minutes and it’s about to shut down to save battery. It’s a small feature that comes in handy to tell you when you can start playing music or make a speakerphone call.
Who Else likes It?
Reviewers universally applaud the UE’s sound quality and value.
Ryan Waniata of DigitalTrends says, “At this size and price point, you’ll have a very difficult time finding a speaker that can outperform the UE Mini Boom. … the Mini Boom pulls off some of the most powerful sound we’ve heard from a speaker of its size, out-blasting most competing speakers we’ve evaluated.” They gave the Mini Boom an 8.5/10 and an Editors’ Choice designation.
At BetaNews, Ryan Fagioli said, “Amazingly, the sound is very balanced and without compromise –highs, mids and lows are all well represented. In other words, regardless of the genre, music sounds great.” He praised its easy connection to his Chromebook: “Pairing was a breeze here too. Bluetooth audio on ChromeOS is a fairly new feature but it works flawlessly.”
Comparing UE Mini Booms to the larger UE Boom, our pick for best rugged Bluetooth speaker, Rob LeFabvre at Cult of Mac says, “There’s got to be some fancy sound engineering inside these rugged little speakers to produce such a well-balanced sound in such a minuscule package. While not as ultimately loud as the UE Boom cylinder, the Mini Booms in concert are easily able to fill a normal sized room. They do fairly well outside, as well, letting me keep a recent outside BBQ well supplied with music at a livable volume.”
It’s Not Perfect
CNET wasn’t quite as enthusiastic. They gave its predecessor, the UE Mini Boombox, a solid-but-not-great 3.5 out of 5 stars. (They haven’t updated their review for the new Mini Boom, ostensibly because of the small number of noticeable changes.) Their main complaint was the lack of bass: “The truth is that these little speakers aren’t really designed to be cranked up and belt out big booming sound. They can play loud for their size and fill a small room with sound, but they tend to sound best at 6-8 on the volume scale rather than at 10. They also offer virtually no stereo separation since their internal drivers are crammed so close together.”
We agree with them. But at this price, you have to limit expectations for audio, and it doesn’t look like CNET wove that into their assessment. Save for this chunky, AA-powered Creative that they reviewed in 2010, CNET doesn’t have any sub-$150 Bluetooth speakers with more than 3.5 stars. We think their assessment, though overall flattering to the UE, doesn’t do much to invalidate other critics’ collective praise for the speaker.
Jeremy Horwitz at iLounge gave the Mini Boom a solid B+ rating, saying that UE’s claims of an expanded, 50-foot range are just that—claims. “Although Logitech promises Bluetooth streaming will work at up to 50-foot distances, we found that it only worked reliably at Bluetooth’s typical 33-foot range.” After that, they found dropouts and stuttering. Our experience was similar. While performance was robust through walls and in my apartment up to 25 feet, anything beyond that was met by intermittent transmission lapses.
At MacNN, Robert Fingas found the Android or iOS app-based ability to link two Mini Booms for surround sound to be flawed. “You also have to re-link Mini Booms each time you turn them on, so however much you might like the idea of having sound throughout a building or campsite, you’ll probably end up reverting to a single speaker out of frustration.” We agreed and had difficulty maintaining a consistent connection.
In short, the UE manages to be portable and easy to pair, get exceptional battery life, have a long wireless range, and sound as good as one can reasonably expect from a truly portable Bluetooth speaker.
After reading all the experts’ impressions, we tried out a UE ourselves and found that our experiences matched up to those of the reviewers. After I’d paired it with a phone, which took less than ten seconds, linking it back up to my iPhone 5 took less than three seconds on average, and it never failed, whether we turned the speaker on first then the phone’s Bluetooth, or turned on the speaker with the phone’s connection already on. As Wired’s Mike Calore observed, the claimed 50-foot range doesn’t quite hold up. Ours was good to about 25 feet without obstructions. That’s plenty of connection power. In an apartment, the sound came through clearly at about ten feet with a wall between the phone and the speaker.
Even better, the sound quality–considering its size–was every bit as impressive as the reviewers made it out to be. Treble comes through cleanly, classical strings have their range preserved, and the bass, while not bowel-loosening, transmits well enough to give hip hop and DJ sets enough punch to catch the beat. Above all however, the UE’s ability to play at high volume without sounding fuzzy or distorted makes it an exceptional specimen in the sub-$100 price range. This was most clearly demonstrated by its ability to fill a room with rock and roll loud enough to get all 6 people’s heads bobbing to the beat. And don’t forget, all that sound sits inside something that fits in a jacket’s breast pocket. Crazy.
The UE also gets points from us for charging via micro-USB. Since cheap Bluetooth speakers are so portable, especially the UE, you’ll want to bring it on trips to pump sound into your hotel room. Since micro-USB charges Kindles, the Google Nexus 7, most Android phones, and a handful of other gadgets, with the UE, you’ll only need to take one cable for all those devices when traveling. Plus they’re easy to replace should you lose it on accident. Another bonus is of micro-USB charging is that you don’t need a fat, multiple-outlet-hogging AC adapter. Any old USB port will do. It makes AC adapter dependent models look outdated by comparison. It’s a joy to be able to travel with only an Apple Lightning cable, my MacBook Air’s plug, and a micro-USB for my Kindle and the UE.
One helpful feature we found in our own testing that wasn’t specifically mentioned in many reviews was the fact that the UE has indicator sounds in addition to the blinking Morse code lights found on most other models. It has a specific chime for when it turns on, successfully pairs, and when it hits the maximum or minimum volume. It’s a small feature that comes in handy to tell you when you can start playing music or make a speakerphone call.
In short, The UE manages to be easy to pair, is portable, has a long wireless range, gets exceptional battery life, and sounds as good as one can reasonably expect from a truly portable Bluetooth speaker.
The original Jambox was the speaker that started the transition away from docks, towards battery-powered Bluetooth speakers and it’s easy to see why. It was beautifully designed, sounded surprisingly good for its size, and had an undeniable “cool-factor” to it. But even back when it first launched in 2010, it was far from perfect.
Your typical Jambox review went something along the lines of “Well-designed, sounds pretty good but not great, and easy to use, but it’s a bit expensive for what you get: 3.5/5 stars.” CNet, PC Mag, and iLounge all said basically just that, giving it 3.5 stars, 3.5 stars, and a B- rating respectively. But that was back in 2010 and there were no other reputable competitors to compare it against.
Over the last two and a half years, the Jambox’s price has dropped 30% to $130, but in that same period of time, the wireless speaker field has evolved past the original Jambox in terms of performance and value. I’ve tested the Jambox head to head against the Logitech and the Logitech wins in just about every regard besides looks. In fact, I would pick the Logitech over the Jambox, even if they cost the same. The Jambox is still the prettiest speaker, but it’s definitely not the best. The Big Jambox however, is a different story.
And now there’s the newest Jambox—the Mini Jambox, which was released in late September. It’s roughly the same length and height as the original Jambox, but shaves the thickness down from 1.57 inches to just barely under one inch for extra portability. It still costs $180 (same as the original), but it’s Bluetooth 4.0 capable and rated for 10 hours of battery life (same as the Logitech we recommend and the new Mini Boom, but down from a claimed 15 hours on the original).
We tested it against the newest UE Mini Boom, which retails for $100, and we prefer the Mini Boom—especially given the difference in price The Jawbone is slimmer by more than half, skinny enough to fit in a jeans pocket, but it’s much longer, and the Mini Boom ain’t no bulky beast, either. The main thing though, is that the Mini Boom sounds better—it had clearer treble and rounder bass. And while the Boom is loud enough to piss off your neighbors, the Mini Jambox will mildly annoy them at best.
There’s a decent amount of critical praise for the Mini Jambox (see here), which makes sense if you’re going off of looks and design alone (it’s very pretty), but it’s got nothing on the Mini Boom side-by-side—it’s just too quiet. Basically, for $80 extra you get a sleeker package, which might be worth it for some, but we think the volume and value of the Mini Boom makes it a better buy for most.
The Step Up
The $200 UE Boom is our pick for best rugged speaker, but it’s a great portable speaker in general if you’re willing to spend a bit more money. You can read our full review if you want our full reasoning for why it’s great, but in a nutshell, it puts out great sound in all directions, has a 12 hour battery life, and is water resistant to boot. That said, it’s not our top pick because you pay for all that extra battery life and sound quality in portability. Whereas the Mobile Boombox can be thrown in a bag or coat pocket without a second thought, the Boom is about the size of your forearm and is about a pound heavier.
Last Year’s Model
The Mini Boom is only a very slight update from the old Mobile Boombox. The update is so slight that even side-by-side it’s hard to tell what exactly changed. 9to5Mac rounded up the changes: UE shifted around the internal structure to improve sound clarity; it is “louder and crisper at higher volumes;” and two speakers can be paired, as mentioned above, via an app.
The Mobile Boombox is still available via Amazon, costing around $75. We still recommend you get the newer model. Though the specs are very nearly identical, the Mini Boom handles audio better at loud volumes and generally produces a crisper, clearer sound. But if you don’t care about pairing or slightly better sound, the Mobile Boombox could be a good deal.
The Other Competition
We had an audio engineer test out the new JBL Charge, which has earned good reviews from Digital Trends and CNET and a 4.7-star review on Amazon (out of 316) reviews, all praising its clear sound and loud volume. Our engineer agreed, saying “The sound quality is cleaner, clearer and more detailed than the UE, and the speakers are also better at filling a room with even sound. The bass on the JBL, though modest, is natural, and reasonable enough on a small speaker, though not quite as full as the UE.” Overall, it’s a better, more balanced sound, unless a loud, desk-rattling bass is your No. 1 priority. It’ll also give you 12 hours worth of battery life versus the Mini Boom’s 10.
With that said, we still think the UE Mini Boom is the better pick. Why? You’ll pay for the Charge’s better sound, both in money and in size: It’s $50 more, and at that price point you’re inching towards full-size speakers like the UE Boom, our pick for best rugged Bluetooth speaker. We just don’t think the sound is $50 worth of better. It’s also nearly 2 inches longer than the Mini Boom, and about 6 ounces heavier. At this point you’ll be hard-pressed to throw it in your jacket or bag and carry it around. But if you plan to keep it mostly in the same place, don’t mind paying a little more for better sound, and don’t care that much about bass, it’s a good pick.
The $200 Bose SoundLink Mini is perhaps the most interesting competitor owing to its great sound in a smaller package, but it fits a bit of a strange niche that we think limits its real world appeal. Its $200 price tag pits it squarely against the UE Boom, our pick for best rugged speaker, which is water resistant, puts out 360 degree sound, charges via micro USB, has double the battery life, and clear-sounding speakerphone capabilities. Now if you’re willing to do away with all those features, and put up with a chunky, proprietary charging dock, then by all means get the Bose, which other reviewers agree has a slight edge in sound quality owing to its deeper, warmer bass (GadgetMac has the most detailed review that pits the Bose head-to-head with the Boom). At the end of the day though, if you want the best sound possible, you should get a bigger speaker. And if you want something that’s also portable, you’re going to want the extra features of the Boom (which is no slouch in sound quality).
Soundfreaq’s Sound Kick formerly held the title of our Best Cheap Bluetooth speaker because it produces great sound for its $100 price. Unfortunately, it’s just too big to carry comfortably in most situations. It also weighs almost a pound more than the UE and needs a similarly large and heavy AC adapter to charge. Bringing this on a trip means having to leave behind something else, and that’s no good. What’s more (or less, rather), its 7-hour battery life falls about two hours short of the Logitech’s 9 hours.
I could see the Sound Kick being a good option for those who just want a speaker for their desk, but still want the option of taking it on the occasional trip. But even then, the Logitech sounds almost as good and is much more discrete.
JBL’s Flip is yet another speaker that has great sound that’s lacking in other respects. It’s a touch larger than the UE, so it can deliver really punchy sound, as explained by Mike Calore at Wired and Jeremy Horowitz at iLounge. For many reviewers, it’s the best-sounding speaker $100 can buy. But a few convenience setbacks keep it from being as good as the UE. First of all, its 4-hour battery life is borderline unacceptable considering the competition. That’s less than half of the lifespan of the UE. As for ease-of-use, the Flip gets its name from its ability to be played while upright, or horizontal — unfortunately, its cylindrical design makes it prone to tipping in either position. It also has a proprietary charger with a big transformer on the end that has no place in the speaker’s included carrying case. At $100 on Amazon, we don’t think the boost in sound quality is worth the sacrifices in portability and ergonomics.
Braven’s 570 and 600 speakers cost a bit more than their competitors ($120 and $150). MacLife gave the 600 a 4 out of 5 praising its ability to charge devices, and it’s 1400mAh battery. The bummer is that it’s $50 more and you don’t get $50 more sound than the UE. Esquire found that it dropped their connection in testing.
HDMX Jam is solid, but has cheap construction and only four hours of battery life.
The Philips Shoqbox SB7200 is $30 more than our pick and offers no compelling reason to drop the extra cash. It may be rugged, but the sound profile is messy and it doesn’t get very loud.
We like the Braven BRV-1 and give it a favourable mention in our rugged Bluetooth speaker guide. It’s waterproof but suffers from a lack of volume, which makes it a poor choice at $140. If you’re desperate for a rugged speaker, it would be better to spend $200 on the UE Boom.
Solar power is a cool feature, but the Eton Rugged Rukus sounds as good as your laptop speakers (not good). For $100, you’re better off with our favorite.
Though it is cheap at $59, Amazon reviewers say you get what you pay for with the JLab Crasher as build quality seems to be a major issue.
Like most celebrity-endorsed audio gear, the Beat by Dr. Dre Pill is okay but not noteworthy and $200 is way too much to spend on a mediocre product. It also loses connection way too easily.
The Scosche Boom Bottle fits in a bike bottle holder, gets loud, and has plenty of bass, but suffers from lackluster tonal quality and a shoddy user interface. It’s also $150 which is too much to pay for something that sounds worse than our pick.
The Geneva Sound System is twice as expensive as our pick at $200 but the battery only lasts for five hours while our pick lasts about nine. Pass.
The Monoprice Bluetooth Portable Speaker (number 9728) is dirt cheap at $30, but the money you save isn’t worth the cost of muddy sound and clunky pairing. We’ll add more as we assess the competition, but we don’t think there are many models to consider outside of those above to which we’ve given careful consideration.
The Cambridge SoundWorks Oontz XL is good for its $100 price but not for its size, which is more comparable to the Big Jambox. CNET says it’s better sounding than most mini speakers, but no speaker in this price range will blow you away with its sound quality so it makes sense to prioritize portability.
The G-Project G-Boom gets high marks for good sound at places like Digital Trends, which gave it an 8.5/10 and a “Recommended Product” accolade. But at nearly 12″ wide and more than 10″ tall, it’s not truly portable — not to mention its mediocre six-hour battery life. Its price is right and its sound might be great, but it’s significantly more cumbersome to port around, unlike the Mini Boom.
What To Look Forward To
We’re going to take a look at another Bluetooth entry from JBL: the Pulse. This one is similar in style to its Flip and Charge siblings except it comes with an integrated, programmable LED light show that will pulse along with the music it’s playing. It’s larger, heavier and priced higher than the others too, at $200. The Pulse can go 10 hours on battery while playing music, but when lights and music are playing, the battery life drops to 5 hours.
Wrapping It Up
There are other speakers that sound a bit better than the Logitech UE Mini Boom, but nothing beats its combination of quality sound, portability, ease-of use, and value.