We all walk around with a brick full of music in our pockets, and having a high-quality way to disseminate that music throughout your home can really improve the day-to-day lives of music lovers. To that end, we bought and tested 6 of the best home wireless speakers to find the optimal way to free your music from the confines of your phone. Our main takeaway: unfortunately you have to pay for great sound, but you can get good sound without paying too much. Regardless of whether you want a powerful speaker that can become the center point of a multi-room speaker system, or just want a convenient way to listen to some pump up music as you get dressed in the morning, our testing results can help you find the perfect musical companion.
Best Home Wireless Speakers of 2018
Best Overall Home Wireless Speaker
Bose SoundTouch 20
If you're looking for a single speaker to put in your main living area, we think the Bose SoundTouch 20 is the best and most versatile option. Its deep and resonant yet crisp and controlled bass easily fills a room and provides a solid foundation, on top of which pretty much any type of music sounds great. Nice, clear treble and midrange compliment the bass for a full, rich sound, and make this a good platform for listening to podcasts and talk radio as well. Alexa compatibility also lets you pair this device with an Echo and turn it into a smart speaker. Plus, if you've got a particularly large living room you can upgrade to the larger and louder Bose SoundTouch 30.
Besides the obvious higher than average price tag, there are a couple of downsides to the SoundTouch 20. We found Bose's multi-speaker management to be a bit glitchy, so if you're looking to eventually build a multi-speaker system you may want to invest in the Sonos ecosystem instead. Also, though the Soundtouch 20's clarity is impressive, we found that Sonos speakers are just a bit clearer, so if you solely listen to acoustic numbers and talk radio you may prefer the Sonos soundscape. That being said, we think the SoundTouch 20 is the best single speaker for most people.
Read review: Bose SoundTouch 20
Top Pick for Multi-Speaker Systems
If you're looking for the foundation of a multi-speaker, multi-room system, the Sonos PLAY:3 is the perfect first step. Sonos has mastered the art of managing multiple speakers from a streamlined, intuitive app, making it a field leader when it comes to sound systems. The PLAY:3 backs that functionality up with the crispest treble and mid-range of all the speakers we tested, and some decent, resonant bass to round out the sound. Like the Bose, it also easily integrates with an echo to create a smart speaker, or you can pair it with one of the Sonos speakers that already have Alexa built-in.
The major downside of the PLAY:3, and many of Sonos' products, is the lack of Bluetooth connectivity and any sort of physical input, meaning everything must be streamed through the Sonos app. Thus you can't watch a show on your laptop and have the audio play on the PLAY:3 (without the help of some very glitchy 3rd party apps), and you're out of luck if your preferred streaming service isn't compatible with the Sonos app (the vast majority are, with YouTube Music/Premium being the most notable exception). The only way to rectify this is to get one of Sonos' more expensive offerings that actually do have physical inputs, like the PLAY:5 or the Beam.
Best on a Budget
Harman Kardon Onyx Studio 4
We would call the Harman Kardon Onyx Studio 4 a cross between a home speaker and a portable Bluetooth speaker. While this hybridization results in a device that isn't the best in either category, it does offer a low-cost option for mimicking the functionality of a multi-room speaker system. The Studio 4's 10.5 hour battery life, carrying handle, and 4.5 weight lets you easily move it from room to room with you as you amble about the house throughout the day. Sure, carrying a speaker around with you isn't as elegant as having a speaker in each room, but it's a fraction of the cost. Plus, it sounds good enough to give your daily routine a pleasant soundtrack.
The major thing you sacrifice with the Studio 4 when compared to a wired speaker is sound quality. While the Studio 4 sounds quite good, it just can't match the clarity or bass power of the Bose and Sonos offerings. So if you're looking for a more refined listening experience, the Studio 4 probably isn't for you.
Read review: Harman Kardon Onyx Studio 4
Analysis and Test Results
The Ubiquity of music streaming services has turned our smartphones into the de facto devices through which we listen to music. This also means we often default to using earbuds or headphones to listen to said music. Home wireless speakers make filling your home with the music being beamed through your phone easy and seamless.
We scored these speakers using four different weighted metrics: overall sound quality, volume, general user friendliness, and how easy they are to connect to the mobile devices through which we consume media. We used each products' performance in all of these categories to award them a score between 0 and 100, which you can see in the table above. Below we go into further detail about all of these tests.
A small audio sampling from all of our speakers. Music courtesy of www.bensound.com
The most important aspect of any speaker is how it sounds, which is why sound quality was our most heavily weighted testing metric. Sound quality is an inherently subjective thing, but after testing audio products we've realized that bass and treble quality, dynamic range (the volume difference between loud and soft notes), and overall clarity are the things that most people really respond to when assessing if something sounds good. Our testing thus focuses on listening to a wide range of music on our speakers, one right after another, and judging those four qualities. In the end all of the speakers sounded good, and we think most people would be pleased with even the lowest scoring model. However, if you're willing to pay a bit extra for one of the top scoring models, you can get exceptional sound.
Bose vs. Sonos
Most of you probably aren't surprised to see the top models from Bose and Sonos (the SoundTouch 20 and the PLAY:3, respectively) at the top of our sound quality scoresheet. In fact many of you probably came to this review specifically trying to decide between Bose and Sonos. In terms of sound quality we think both brands sound exceptional, but have slightly different profiles. The Bose SoundTouch 20 has incredibly rich and clear bass. That low end lends a very full sound, especially when backed up with Bose's great overall clarity. The Sonos PLAY:3 is able to produce even greater clarity than its Bose counterpart, with exceptional feeling like the only fitting adjective. Its bass, while still great, is not quite as powerful and just a bit less clear than that of the Bose.
When looking at these high-end offerings, the Bose SoundTouch 20 feels a bit more versatile. As most music has at least some low end, the incredible bass quality tends to make most music sound a bit better overall. However, lyrics and staccato notes almost always sound better with the field leading clarity of the Sonos PLAY:3, and acoustic music definitely sounds better when played on the Sonos.
When you step down to the smaller offerings from these companies, the Bose SoundTouch 10 and the Sonos PLAY:1, we feel that the Sonos has the clear edge. Both of these speakers are significantly less melodious than their larger siblings, but the reduction in size leads to a huge decline in bass quality in the Bose. The Sonos PLAY:1 actually has a slightly more powerful low end than the Bose SoundTouch 10, and has noticeably better clarity. If you're looking to get a smaller speaker, or possibly multiple smaller speakers to pepper around your home, the Sonos PLAY:1 is definitely the way to go.
The Best of the Rest
Outside of the Bose and Sonos models we tested, the Marshall Stanmore was the best sounding speaker. We scored it even with the Bose SoundTouch 10, but the two speakers have very different sound profiles. The Marshall, true to its heritage, has treble and bass characteristics that are ideal for listening to guitar-heavy music. If you'd mostly like to listen to Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix this is a great speaker. However, the Bose SoundTouch 10's sound is a bit more well rounded, and does justice to a wider range of musical styles.
The Lowest scoring speaker in our testing was the Harman Kardon Onyx Studio 4. This speaker did not sound bad by any means, we think most listeners would be satisfied with its quality. However, when compared side-by-side with the other speakers we tested, it does have some clear downsides. Its bass is on the weak side, and its clarity is the worst of any of our speakers. We would not call its sound muffled or muddled, but the other speakers are noticeably more crisp.
While home wireless speakers are generally simple devices, certain touches can make some easier to use than others. This is particularly true if you want to link multiple speakers together. Having a separate remote control can also be helpful if you want to connect the speaker to a smart device like Alexa or Google home. That way you don't have to yell, "Alexa, volume up," twelve times when you're favorite jam starts playing. We tested user friendliness by using, adjusting, tinkering, and playing with all of our speakers side-by-side, paying close attention to how easy it was to complete both basic and more advanced tasks.
Smart Home Compatibility
Any speaker with a physical line in can generally be connected to a smart home device, though you may have to wake the speaker up periodically to make sure it actually makes noise when you talk to your smart home device. The only speakers we tested without physical line ins are the two Sonos Speakers.
Sonos and Bose both offer Alexa skills that allow them to work seamlessly with Alexa devices. The new Sonos One also has Alexa built-in.
Both Sonos and Bose also claim to be in the process of creating Google Home friendly software, but neither company has given a firm date on that release.
Multi-Speaker Systems: Bose vs. Sonos
Bose and Sonos differentiate themselves from other speakers by allowing networking, so you can connect multiple speakers to create true surround sound, or put a speaker in each room of your home and control all of them from a central hub.
If you want to create a multi-speaker system, we think Sonos is the clear way to go. The Sonos app makes managing multiple speakers, playing different music in different rooms, and even connecting speakers to a Sonos soundbar to create 5.1 surround sound, very intuitive. In contrast, the Bose app is fairly well designed, but tends to crash frequently (according to hundreds of online user reviews, we're not the only ones who have experienced this). It was fine for connecting two speakers to play the same thing, but doing anything more complex often involved a frustrating app crash.
Viewed through the lens of single-speaker systems, we give Bose the user friendliness edge. Only using a single speaker means you don't have to deal with the Bose app. You also get a remote control with all of Bose's speakers. This is great for quickly adjusting volume, switching inputs, and even giving Pandora a thumbs up or a thumbs down. The simple Bluetooth connection also makes it easy to switch between different devices, and to let your guests take over the DJ responsibilities.
Having to connect via the app means you're always streaming over WiFi, which does have some advantages. The music won't stop if your phone rings, and if you subscribe to HD music streaming services the feed over WiFi will likely be higher quality than over BlueTooth. Sonos also does not provide a remote control with any of its speakers, again relying solely on the app.
Both the Marshall Stanmore and the Harman Kardon Onyx Studio 4 are fairly bare bones, using simple Bluetooth connections and forgoing any apps. This makes them quite easy to use, but also limits their functionality when compared to more featured speakers. The Onyx Studio 4 has the added functionality of an internal battery that lasted 10.5 hours in our testing. This means you can easily move the speaker from room to room, or even into the backyard, very easily.
Chances are that you'll want whatever speaker you choose to be able to fill at least an entire room of your home with sound. Spoiler alert: unless you live in a palatial mansion, all of the speakers we tested will be able to do that. However, Some are certainly louder than others. We measured all of our speakers with a decibel meter, but we've found that decibel readings don't really convey how much good sound a speaker can produce. Thus most of our volume was based on the more subjective test of cranking the speakers up as loud as we could get them without degrading the sound quality, and judging how well they could fill up our 600 square foot testing room with sound.
The Bose SoundTouch 20 and the Marshall Stanmore were the two loudest speakers we tested. They easily filled our testing room with sound, even when we had a lot of bodies in the room to absorb it. Both of these speakers would have no problem powering a large house party.
The Sonos PLAY:3 was just a step below the top performers in our volume testing. It is still loud enough for a house party, but lacks just a bit of the oomph of the top scorers.
Next up was the Harman Kardon Onyx Studio 4. This speaker again filled our testing room with sound, but may get a bit dampened if you were to fill that room with people. Still, it could power a house party, and with its battery you can even take it outside for a barbeque.
At the bottom of our volume scoresheet were the Bose SoundTouch 10 and the Sonos PLAY:1. Both of these speakers can again fill a large room, but put 5-10 people in that room and a good amount of the sound will be absorbed.
The more ways you can connect to a speaker, the more versatile it is. Obviously, for wireless speakers a Bluetooth or WiFi connection is paramount. However, it can often be nice to have a physical line in for smart home devices whose software may not play nice with the speaker, or for those days when mysterious atmospheric conditions mess with your wireless networks. Having an app that can communicate with your speaker often allows for more customization of settings.
The Bose Speakers we tested have the most avenues for connections. It offers a standard Bluetooth connection, and the SoundTouch app lets you stream music over your wifi network. However, this app is quite finicky, so unless you're trying to manage a multi-speaker system we would suggest just defaulting to the Bluetooth connection. All of Bose's home wireless speakers have a 3.5mm auxiliary input, and the larger SoundTouch 20 also has an ethernet input. This allows you to stream music directly to the speaker, using the app as a remote control.
The Sonos speakers use the company's very reliable app to stream music over WiFi. All of their speakers also have an ethernet port, so you can rely on a wired connection if your WiFi is a bit spotty. However, you can only play things that are compatible with the Sonos app. This includes basically any music streaming services, but notable exceptions are video services like YouTube and Netflix. Sonos speakers do not have Bluetooth capability, and the models we tested do not have any audio input ports. If you upgrade thePLAY:5 there is a 3.5mm auxiliary input.
The Marshall Stanmore has no app. You connect either via Bluetooth or with the 3.5mm and RCA inputs. The Harman Kardon Studio Onyx 3 has only a Bluetooth connection and 3.5mm input jack.
All of the speakers we tested are capable of providing your home with music. However, some offer more features, greater expandability, and better overall sound than others. We hope our testing results have led you to the perfect speaker for your needs and budget. If you're still not sure, take a look at our buying advice article. It lays out some of the finer points of wireless speaker selection, and can hopefully clear up any confusion you might have.
— Max Mutter and Steven Tata
Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for tips.