Smart speaker or 360 sound? Tips for picking a Bluetooth speaker

  • TECH
  • Tuesday, 18 Jun 2019

The Beoplay A1 of Bang & Olufsen promises sound in all directions. — dpa

The selection of Bluetooth speakers is huge: From mini versions for your coat pocket up to the stationary sound bar for your living room, there is something for every taste and every budget.

Bluetooth speakers can be differentiated from smart speakers in that the latter have built-in digital assistants such as Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant. If all you want to do is stream music to a speaker, you're generally better off buying a Bluetooth one as it's cheaper than the smart version.

Which one you buy depends on your own requirements, says speaker tester Wolfgang Pauler. Cost doesn't always equal quality. "A really expensive speaker is not necessarily the one that sounds the best."

However, at the low cost end you will notice the difference, and cheap models won't give you a decent sound, Pauler says.

Other factors besides price are also relevant when choosing the right speaker. For example, if you want to listen to music on-the-go, a speaker that's small and light will suit you best.

"Then I usually have to make compromises on the sound quality because with little volume it can't produce full sound with real bass," Pauler says.

For mobile use, good battery life is important. "More than half of the Bluetooth speakers tested by us run for at least 10 hours on battery power at elevated room volume. There is no reason to be content with less," Pauler says.

If you want to listen to music on the beach or at the pool, you should make sure that the device is protected from splashes of water and dust. This is indicated by the IP rating – the higher the number, the better the protection.

Speakers with a microphone can be used as a hands-free kit but these don't always work well, Pauler says.

It's useful if several loudspeakers of the same type can be paired together to act as a stereo pair, according to tech tester Michael Knott. "This usually benefits the sound quality significantly," he says.

He advises buyers to be cautious about manufacturers' promises such as claiming that a couple of small speakers can replace a full stereo system by using "virtual surround" and the like. "Physical laws can't be outsmarted by 360° speakers," he says.

Potential buyers should listen to the speaker before buying it and, if necessary, make use of their right of return if they're not happy with the device's performance, Knott says.

A radio function or the option to play music from multiple sound sources are useful, Knott says. The speaker should offer the necessary connections if you want to play music from an SD card, a USB stick or a jack connected to another device.

The transmission standard also plays an important role in music quality. Algorithms called codecs compress the audio signal. "While the SBC codec strongly compresses the music, AAC or aptX ensure better audio transmission," says sound enthusiast Sven hansen.

Those who value high-definition sound should opt for a Bluetooth speaker that supports the corresponding codecs. – dpa
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