The Best Wireless Speakers of 2016
Wireless speakers have exploded in popularity, and nearly every major consumer electronics vendor has a cord-cutting model of some sort. Speakers can vary wildly in size, shape, and even the type of wireless connection they use, but this list will probably have at least one speaker that's right for you. Before anything else, though, you need to decide how you want to go wireless.
AirPlay, Bluetooth, or None of the Above?
AirPlay is Apple's wireless audio feature that lets iPod, iPhone, iPad, and Mac users stream their iTunes libraries. It can simultaneously stream music to multiple speakers, and sends track information to display if that feature is supported on the speaker. It's a feature-rich wireless audio system for any iOS device, but it only works with Apple mobile products. You can't, say, stream music to an AirPlay speaker from your Android tablet. AirPlay speakers also tend to be more expensive than Bluetooth speakers, and most are significantly bulkier and power-hungry, meaning you're less likely to find a battery-powered model you can pick up and carry from room to room while listening. They also tend to lag a few seconds behind the commands you enter on your tablet or smartphone, especially if there's interference nearby.
Bluetooth is the longer-established wireless streaming system that doesn't have quite as many features as AirPlay, but supports many more devices. Bluetooth works by pairing, so a device can only stream to a single speaker set at a time. Bluetooth speakers tend to be less expensive than AirPlay speakers, and many can run on rechargeable batteries, making them easier to carry around the house or set up outside. That said, you can still find some large, powerful Bluetooth speakers that don't travel easily but sound excellent.
As an alternative to Bluetooth or the iOS-reliant AirPlay, several companies like Sonos offer their own Wi-Fi-based wireless multi-room audio systems that work with varying degrees of success. Sonos' own system is established and effective, and the company's speakers don't sound too shabby, either.
What Kind of Speaker?
Besides the type of wireless connection, you need to think about what type of speaker you want. Smaller, battery-powered speakers (usually Bluetooth) are useful because you can take them anywhere, but they don't get particularly loud. Larger speakers generally offer fuller sound and richer bass, but they can be more expensive and are often not portable.
More specific-purpose speakers have also gotten wireless support in the last few years, and many soundbars and stereo PC speakers now feature Bluetooth or a Wi-Fi audio system. Considering the deluge of Bluetooth speakers we've seen in the last few years, there are now far more wireless speakers available than wired-only speakers.
Power Versus Portability
Most Bluetooth speakers can be carried around and used anywhere, but that's not the case for all wireless speakers. Some speakers, including most Wi-Fi-based ones, are significantly larger and need to be plugged into power at all times. This might seem inconvenient, but it has its own advantages. The size and constant power means these speakers can get much louder than a tiny Bluetooth speaker you can toss in your bag. They're very handy options to just set in your living room and use whenever you want to listen to music at home. The Amazon Echo is a unique case; it isn't very big or very powerful, but the always-plugged-in design ensures it stays within range of your home network so it can respond to voice commands and play music without a local source at all times.
On the other end of the speaker flexibility spectrum are portable speakers. Many Bluetooth speakers have built-in batteries and can easily be used anywhere, not just hooked up in your living room. These are generally less powerful than the bigger, stationary speakers, and often a bit less expensive, too.