Bluetooth Speaker Roundup – Holiday 2016

With the holidays coming up, we’re on the lookout for that perfect gift for everyone on your gift lists. Music is life, and bluetooth speakers have become the new home entertainment system.

In the 20th century, audiophiles would drop thousands of dollars on high-end home stereo equipment to listen to records, tapes, CDs, and radio. But times have changed, and our smartphones have become music hubs instead.

Now we can carry an entertainment system in our pockets, purses, and backpacks in the form of a bluetooth speaker.

To help figure out which speaker to buy, I contacted the manufacturers and asked them to send their best speakers to run a playlist from a variety of genres and see how they sound. Here’s the playlist:

Hopsin – Ill Mind of Hopsin 5
David Rosen – Negative
Johnny Cash – Hurt
B.O.B. – Satellite

The Beatles – Hey Jude
Chris Cornell – Billie Jean
Florence + the Machine – Dog Days Are Over
Bruno Mars – Uptown Funk

2016-bluetooth-speakers
And here are the speakers we played them on to hear how they sound…

Razer Leviathan Mini ($179.99 at Razerzone.com)

razer-leviathan-mini-black

The smallest speaker on this list, Razer’s Leviathan Mini still packs quite the punch. If you’re already familiar with the Leviathan soundbar that plugs into your TV, then you know Razer can certainly make a capable speaker.

Only a fraction the size of its big brother (2.16L x 7.28W x 2.12H in and 1.18 lbs or 55x185x54 mm and 538g in non-retard), the Leviathan Mini takes after its larger counterpart in design. It’s the most portable, able to fit (albeit uncomfortably) in my pants pocket.

Keeping with the nautical theme, pressing the bluetooth button causes Leviathan to start pinging like the sonar of a submarine as it searches for a phone or tablet to control it. Straying from the nautical theme, it’s neither waterproof nor shockproof. Thankfully the design provides a thin layer of protection against the elements.

The Leviathan Mini does have some great features though, including a minimally padded carrying bag to protect it while traveling. Two can be paired together to either provide a louder sound or separate the left and right channels for stereo mode. It supports NFC pairing as well, which made things easier for my Galaxy S7.

It also has a microphone and can double as a speakerphone. Taking a call was a bit weird and the person on the other end could tell I was using speakerphone.

Johnny Cash and Paul McCartney sound great, but it’s unable to do justice to Chris Cornell’s operatic vocals. The Leviathan Mini mostly held up throughout the playlist, but there was an obvious lack of bass during Satellite, Uptown Funk, and Ill Mind.

Still, it outperforms the Beats Pill and Creative Sound Blaster Roar (and your standard TV speakers) in that department (although only barely).

For such a tiny speaker, Leviathan Mini packs a powerful punch with its two front-firing, 12 W, 45mm drivers, 40x70mm passive radiators, and 2600mAH battery. I got just over 9 hours of battery life out of it, which is pretty close to the advertised 10 hours. It’s just a shame there’s no bass, and doubling the speakers doesn’t really help.

JBL Charge 3 ($149.99 at JBL.com)

jbl-charge-3-red

JBL is known for making some of the best speakers on the general consumer market, and its latest bluetooth speaker, the Charge 3 continues that tradition with an IPX7 waterproof certification (meaning it can be fully submerged up to 1m for up to 30 minutes with no issues) and nearly 20 hours of play time from its 6000mAH battery bank.

Unlike most bluetooth speakers, the JBL Charge also has a full-size, 2A USB port capable of charging your smartphone or tablet (that’s why it’s called the Charge). Two 50mm transducers power two 10W speakers, and although the specs are lighter than the Leviathan Mini, the bass is much more prominent, especially at higher volumes.

Like the Leviathan Mini, the JBL Charge 3 has a mic, and, like the Leviathan Mini, the party on the other end could tell I was using speakerphone.

Measuring at 3.43L x 8.39W x 3.48H in and 1.76 lbs (87x213x88.5 mm and 800g in non-retard), the Charge 3 is a bit larger than most bluetooth speakers, making it somewhat more difficult to carry around. The extra size and weight is due to a larger battery pushing more power, providing a much richer sound than most.

Multiple JBL speakers can be connected through the JBL Connect app, and they don’t even have to be Charge 3s – the Flip 3, Pulse 2, and Extreme can be connected. Through the app, you can configure which channels play on which speakers.

The bass-driven beats of B.o.B. and Hopsin were much more impressive on the JBL Charge 3 than the Leviathan Mini. However the rappers’ voices got a little muddy as the speaker struggled to cover the full sonic range of the songs. And the bass simply wasn’t strong enough to truly appreciate Satellite.

Rosin’s instrumental track shined on the speaker though, as it beautifully captured the various highs and lows on the track. Cornell’s rendition of MJ’s classic hit sounded as eerily beautiful as it should.

While Uptown Funk had a much more defined bass beat that made the song feel richer and more vibrant, I still felt like Mars’ voice lost a little something to the bass.

UE Boom 2 ($199.99 at ultimateears.com)

ue-boom-2-white

The original UE Boom is one of the most celebrated bluetooth speakers on the market, and with good reason. It’s simple, sleek, and has a powerful sound. After creating several other iterations of larger speakers, the company returned to the original design with the Boom 2, a louder and more rugged update of the original.

Like the JBL Charge 3, Boom 2 is IPX7-rated waterproof and is also shock absorbent. Like the Leviathan Mini, it can also pair via NFC. Two speakers can be paired and configured to act as either stereo or amplified speakers and it can also be used as a speakerphone (though, once again, it’s obvious you’re on speakerphone to the other party).

It’s also integrated with Siri and Google Now to replicate some features of the Amazon Echo. You’ll need a firmware upgrade to do this, but that firmware upgrade also comes with another great feature.

Beyond the typical two-speaker setup, a single smartphone can connect to 50 UE speakers in Party Mode to exponentially increase the volume, which is already louder than the original Boom (and on par with the Charge 3).

UE’s Boom 2 also includes an accelerometer, so you can pick it up and tap it to play, pause, and skip songs. The feature worked nearly every time we tried it.

The Boom 2 has two 45mm active drivers and two 45x80mm passive radiators. It measures 2.75L x 7.13W x 2.75H in and 1.21 lbs (67x180x67 mm and 548g in non-retard).

Running through the playlist, the bass is comparable to the JBL Charge 3. Although Uptown Funk definitely sounded better, I still wasn’t satisfied with the deepness of the bass on Satellite, which seems impossible in a portable speaker.

Dog Days Are Over was easy enough to get lost in with the volume cranked up. On Hurt, the trembling in Cash’s voice was easier to feel than on the other speakers and you’re able to appreciate the minimalism of the track.

Unlike the other speakers, the UE Boom 2 is designed to play standing up, which seemed to open the sound up a bit more than the others, as it was spread across a greater area. As a portable speaker, it’s easy to see why US Boom 2 is so popular.

Vizio Crave Pro ($299.99 at Vizio.com)

vizio-crave-pro-wifi-bluetooth-speaker

The final speaker I received isn’t technically in the same class as the others as it requires an AC outlet to work. It’s also much more than just a bluetooth speaker (although it’s that too).

Crave Pro is the latest release from Vizio and aims to be a modern version of the classic home entertainment system. Now I can’t necessarily compare the sound of this speaker to the others due to its size. Here’s a pic of the Leviathan Mini sitting on it to give you an idea of the comparison:

vizio-crave-pro-vs-razer-leviathan-mini

Still, Crave Pro is a great speaker to have at home while you use the others on the go. Crave Pro is part of Vizio’s Smartcast system, which means it can stream radio, music, movies, and more through built in Chromcast/Google Cast and the Vizio Smartcast app.

Crave Pro is a 2.1 system (two speakers and a subwoofer) and can be setup for a multi-room system via WiFi, and, since it has a subwoofer, the bass is much deeper and more defined than on the portable speakers.

Playing Satellite, I finally got the feeling in the pit of my stomach I was looking for when the bass drops. However, it struggled with the treble on Negative and, while the bass in Cash’s voice became much more prominent, I felt like Cornell’s voice sounded better on the Boom 2 and Charge 3.

Hey Jude sounded almost as good as the Paul McCartney concert I attended a decade ago. Uptown Funk was a little too bass-heavy, and I almost preferred the portable speakers for that as well.

Meant for indoors more than outdoors, Crave Pro tries its best to compete with ecosystems like Sonos and does a competent job at it. It’s not on the level of Bose, Klipsch, or Yamaha home theater speakers, but it’s an affordable entry-level into the home speaker market.

Final Thoughts

Bluetooth speakers are a dime a dozen these days. The four I reviewed are just a small portion of the market, and I’ll get a hold of more at CES in January. Still, they’re a great representation of what’s available.

Battery and speaker drivers are the biggest defining factors in the quality of a bluetooth speaker, but some have additional features that make the experience more satisfying.

The Leviathan Mini is a solid speaker that performs well but lacks the waterproofing and shock resistance necessary to truly be portable. The Charge 3 has great sound at the cost of a larger size that may be difficult for some to carry.

The Boom 2 is the perfect middle ground between size and function, offering great sound in a convenient package. The Crave Pro, on the other hand, is a great start for solid audio while at home base.

brian-penny-headshotBrian Penny is a former Business Analyst and Operations Manager at Bank of America turned whistleblower, troll, and freelance writer. His work appears in Forbes, High Times, Fast Company, and Huffington Post.

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Brian Penny is a former Business Analyst and Operations Manager at Bank of America turned whistleblower, troll, and freelance writer.

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