Mobile / Hands-on Review

Holiday 2012: Bluetooth Speakers for Less than $100


Docking speakers are great if the connector on your smart phone or tablet fits, but if you have the newest iPhone or iPad or a non-Apple device, compatibility is more likely to come through a wireless protocol called Bluetooth (BT). Many source players including notebook computers, phones and tablets have a BT transmitter built in. You simply turn it on in the device’s settings menu, then pair the device to a speaker with a built-in BT receiver. Bluetooth range is typically limited (but not always) to about 30 feet (10 meters), and since the technology utilizes a radio frequency, line of sight between devices isn’t required. Nor do you need to use your BT source and speaker within a Wi-Fi network, as you would with AirPlay-licensed speakers.

Though you can spend a couple of hundred dollars on a Bluetooth speaker, choices abound in the under-$100 range. All these speakers are small and light enough to travel. The majority are powered by an embedded, rechargeable battery. One model uses removable batteries, while two forgo battery power. Except for a mono model in our roundup, these speakers deliver stereo sound. One system comes with two speakers, affording the maximum amount of two-channel separation. Another model doubles as a stand for your tablet.

The mono speaker is the Rechargeable Portable Bluetooth Speaker in black or red from iHome. At 4.1 ounces, the baseball-sized speaker is the lightest in weight in our roundup. Included is a 2-in-1 cable that attaches to the speaker’s sole input, a micro USB port. At the other end, the cable diverges into a 3.5mm audio cable that plugs into the earphone jack of any device (in lieu of a Bluetooth signal) and a standard USB connector for charging the speaker’s built-in lithium-ion battery from a USB port. That USB charging port could be on a computer, a TV or an AC adapter (not included).

iHome also offers a stereo speaker, the iDM12 Rechargeable Portable Bluetooth Speaker System. The dual active speakers and passive radiator are enhanced with SRS TruBass digital sound processing to add extra bass. The 7-inch wide system comes with the same micro USB input and micro USB to 3.5mm audio / USB cable seen in the baseball speaker above. The battery can be charged through a USB port or optional AC adapter. The iDM12 also includes a magnetic speaker cover/iPad stand.

i.Sound offers two styles of Bluetooth speakers: one with a dock and the other with a bowtie design. The bluSOUND Wireless Speaker contains an integrated lithium-ion rechargeable battery and a front docking station flanked by stereo speakers. There’s even an SD card slot and a jack for a USB memory stick. So, whether you want to play music wirelessly via Bluetooth or from a docked iPod or iPhone or directly from a memory device or from a cabled player using the included 1/8” (3.5 mm) audio cable, you’re covered. There’s also a headphone jack. The speakers put out 6 watts (3W x 2) of power. A soft travel bag is included.

The i.Sound Twist Bluetooth Speaker in black, red, white or graphite may well turn heads. The 9.8” wide speaker looks like it was grabbed at both ends and twisted in the middle. Two 1.5” drivers put out 6 watts (3W x 2) of power. There’s also a single, passive radiator subwoofer for enhanced bass response. The rechargeable lithium-ion battery supports five hours of continuous playback. The Twist has a built-in mic, allowing speakerphone operation. The mic features advanced noise cancellation to keep conversations on your Bluetooth phone clear.

The Aluratek ABS02F Wireless Speaker / Speakerphone supports up to 10 hours of playback from its built-in lithium-ion battery. The bar-shaped portable puts out 4 watts of power from its two 1.58” (40.13mm) drivers. Considering its svelte size at 7.2 x 1.3 x 2.3" (18.29 x 3.30 x 5.84 cm) and weight at 10.2 oz (289 g), the Aluratek is easy to slip into your carrying bag. The ABS02F comes with an audio cable for connection to the earphone jack of non-Bluetooth devices, and a USB charging cable. The speaker can remember up to six Bluetooth-paired devices. The built-in mic is used when paired with a phone.

Creative Labs offers three Bluetooth speaker models, each heftier than the Aluratek. The D100 Portable Bluetooth Wireless Speaker (Black) is the only one in our roundup that can run on replaceable (four AA) batteries. The included universal power adapter lets you plug the speaker into a wall outlet, too. Dual 3-inch drivers are embedded in this cylindrical 13.2-inch wide, 2.2 (1 kg) speaker.  The heavier 3.63 lb (1.65kg) D200 Bluetooth Wireless Speaker must be plugged into an electrical outlet. It adds a rear bass port. The Inspire T12 Bluetooth Wireless 2.0 Speaker System is the only system here in which you can adjust the stereo separation to please. That’s because there are two separate speakers, a miniature version of what you’d expect from a traditional stereo system. Like the D200, the T12 needs to be plugged into an electrical outlet via its external universal power adapter. The T12 puts out 18 watts (9W per driver), which makes it the most powerful system in this review.

iLuv, meanwhile, has taken the idea of a wide sound stage in a different direction by building opposing high fidelity speakers on each end of a silver-colored dockless cradle called the iSP245 Mo'Beats Portable Stereo Bluetooth Speaker Stand. Able to support most any tablet in portrait or landscape mode, the Mo’Beats excels at letting you listen to music or watch videos hands-free. Thanks to the Bluetooth connection, your tablet or other device can be used across the room from the speaker stand. The built-in mini-USB rechargeable lithium-ion battery provides enough juice to let you watch two full-length movies on a single charge. And there’s an auxiliary audio input for devices without Bluetooth.

Like the Aluratek above, the Monster ClarityHD Precision Micro Bluetooth Speaker 100 is mic-equipped, so it can be used as a speakerphone. According to Monster, the model offers advanced noise cancellation, enabling clear wireless hands-free calling and conferencing. The internal rechargeable lithium-Ion battery provides up to 5 hours of play time at full volume on a single charge. A travel pouch and USB charging cable are included, but you’ll have to supply your own stereo mini male to mini male cable if you bypass the speaker’s Bluetooth capability.

The Wolverine BTunes 100’ Range Bluetooth Speaker is unusual because Bluetooth range typically tops out at about 33 feet, but Wolverine claims its device offers an unobstructed range of 100 feet or, when traveling through walls, 60 feet. Also, the speaker’s built-in lithium battery is said to last for more than 10 hours on a charge. And this is one of the few models in our roundup in which an AC adapter is included so you can power or charge the speaker directly from a wall outlet or power strip.

If you decide on a battery-powered speaker that charges through a USB port, consider your options. Since you may not always be near a USB port, especially if you’re using the speaker away from a computer, a USB-to-AC-plug adapter could come in handy. Also, charging from an electrical outlet is faster than USB charging. All that considered, it’s prudent to purchase a USB power adapter that plugs into a wall outlet or power strip. They include the 201 USB Wall Power Supply from Acoustic Magic or USB Power Adapter from Audioengine. For charging multiple devices, check out the i.Sound 4 USB Wall Charger Pro. With four USB ports stacked on one electrical plug, you’ll have the wherewithal to charge a quartet of wireless speakers or a speaker, phone, notebook and tablet all at once. A low-cost alternative is the single USB port Xuma USB Wall Charger. For a kit that includes both a USB electric outlet adapter and car cigarette light adapter, consider the Xuma USB Wall & Car Charging Kit. With the latter, you’re empowered to use a speaker phone hands-free. Both Xuma models also include a 3-foot charge/sync cable for direct connection to all pre-Lightning port iPhones and iPads.

Pairing a phone or other Bluetooth source to a Bluetooth speaker allows your devices to make music together. Wireless portability is a beautiful thing to behold.

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Thanks for the great review. With so many options it gets hard to choose.

I have tested the Creative D100 and it has great sound and power for the price & size. I just see that the "I.Sound bowtie" has a rechargeable battery, which is a nice feature.

Would you be able to comment on how the I.Sound bowtie compares with the Creative D100?