There’s nothing like having a summer moment free to listen to your favorite music with your friends. The combination of portable Bluetooth speakers and great music apps like Apple Music with Beats 1 radio can make this an instant spontaneous event as long as you’ve got the right gear. There are tons of Bluetooth speakers around but we’re cutting through the noise and signaling the best from three top brands today: Bose, UE and JBL.
In last year’s exhaustive holiday season Best Bluetooth Speaker Review, I gave the title of best speaker to the JBL Charge 2 for having nearly the best sound, cylindrical portability, great looks, long battery life and the ability to charge your phone for around $120. JBL has updated their game with the Charge 2+ but both Bose and UE have really doubled down on their product functionality this year. It is going to be a tough call…
JBL Charge 2+
JBL’s Charge 2+ looks almost identical to the Charge 2 (a good thing!) as the only outwardly facing improvements are the new color options and darker drivers. Internally it has been “splashproofed” but the grill and ports are exactly the same so I’m not sure what this entails. The biggest problem with the original Charge 2 was distortion on the low end with low volume. Even though I never experienced this issue – and I had the 138 firmware that was responsible for this – JBL has fixed that in the Charge 2+. A push on the Bluetooth and power buttons after startup notes that I have firmware 148 which is distortion free.
All of the good stuff that made JBL’s Charge 2 my choice for the holidays is still there in the Plus. It looks great and yet fits in a cupholder. It is a speakerphone and can charge your phone or any other USB device. It has the biggest battery in this group at 6000mAh, giving it a solid 15 hours of play time – which means you can probably forget about charging it on a long weekend getaway or camping trip. It isn’t quite the best sounding in the group, but it is very close with solid base and very clear mids and highs for a portable speaker.
The quibbles: Charge 2+ isn’t fully waterproof which means that it is OK for the shower and a few splashes around the pool, but who knows what will happen if it falls in. Also JBL doesn’t do apps like UE that really add functionality – including battery metering, equalizing, stereo pairing and alarm clock. The sound also isn’t quite as clean and deep across the spectrum as the Bose Soundlink Mini – though it is as loud. Finally, the base of the unit is pretty small and makes it prone to rolling over. You can stand it on an end but then you are putting one of the drivers in the ground.
I would absolutely still reccomend the JBL Charge 2+ if long battery life, charging phones and great sound are a priority at a great price. Currently, the Charge 2+ can be found for about $145. But the original Charge 2 is a bargain at $110. Oh, one more thing: JBL announced a new Flip 3 and Xtreme which will be available in September and may Osborne these Charge 2s. Expect a review update before they launch.
UE Roll, MegaBoom (and Boom/Mini)
Logitech’s UE brand really brought their “A Game” this year. They’ve been adding features to the UE Boom apps and both new hardware products are easy to love. On the low end, UE replaced the popular Mini Boom with something that sounds almost exactly the same! – The UE Roll 360 (review)
But sound quality is where the similarities end with the UE Roll. UE packaged the speaker inside a rugged, waterproof enclosure that is just 1.6 inches thick – and that’s an incredibly important dimension when you are packing your backpack or purse. Width-wise it is about the size of a DVD at just over 5 inches and it weighs in at just over 300 grams or 2/3rds of a pound. That makes it by far the most portable on this list and the one I ended up taking with me on most short trips.
The “marine grade” bungie cord housed in the back means it is easy to connect to handle bars, backpacks, beach umbrellas or even your wrist or body. Is it tough? I played catch with my 6 year old with it for most of Taylor Swift’s 1989 album. It took many, many hard falls on asphalt without any degradation of packaging or sound. I also threw it in the pool a few times. NBD.
Quibbles on the UE Roll are basically tradeoffs. It doesn’t have a mic (like the Mini) so it can’t be used for speakerphone calls. It also doesn’t have the kind of bass that bigger/thicker/heavier speakers have. Even though I love the app, I wish UE would have one app for all of their portable Bluetooth speakers and make it a little easier on the eyes.
Like I said in my initial review, the UE Roll is a fantastic rugged, waterproof outdoor speaker. It just screams fun, but at a lower decibel than UE’s other new speaker, the Megaboom.
With a name like ‘Megaboom’, you know that UE is trying to tell us that this is their biggest, loudest speaker ever, and it clearly is with its dual 4-inch drivers throwing out 30W of power. What isn’t so obvious is that they’ve also built in some app smarts that lets you daisy chain up to 10 of these like a Sonos throughout the house or around the yard and some niceties like the same IPX7 waterproofing as the Roll.
In practice, I only have one of these so I didn’t try making a stereo or a Sonos. However the sound absolutely is fantastic and it can easily fill a room like a home stereo or a backyard barbecue/picnic like professional grade outdoor speakers. It has the longest range of any Bluetooth speakers I’ve tested at 100ft which means you can play from your phone in your pocket without having to stay the standard 30ft from the speaker.
The Megaboom tradeoffs are mostly obvious. It is much bigger so it doesn’t fit in the same cupholders as the Boom or Charge 2. Its battery is smaller than the Charge 2, so even though UE says it can go 15 hours, on high volume, you are lucky to hit 10 hours. The biggest barrier to entry is the price at $299, more than double the Charge 2 with very few discounts out there. Other quibbles include a recessed, hard to reach Micro-USB charging port which takes 2.5 hours to charge once you are able to get the cable in, and the colorful designs which says “fun!” more than sophisticated professional…
Bose Soundlink Mini II
For the more sophisticated amongst us, Bose recently updated its $199 Soundlink Mini with everything you could ask for…literally?…
From my review of the original Soundlink Mini in 2013:
But Bose has its downsides as well. First of all, it is almost impossible to find it for less than its $199 list price. It also charges via a proprietary AC adapter rather than micro-USB standard, which makes it a hassle to charge on the go – which is made more painful by its shorter, 6 hour battery life. Finally, it doesn’t do speakerphone calling, which hampers its accessibility. Plus, it requires a manual turn on every time it wakes from sleep. But Ohhh that sound.
It’s like Bose was reading my wishlist when they announced the Soundlink Mini 2. The new version is charged via USB, it has a mic for speakerphone calls and its battery now is a more than respectable 10 hours. And yes, the old model is a cheaper $179.
The sound, which I’ve always said and continue to believe is simply the best, is unchanged. In addition to my wishlist, Bose added some new colors – the darker is above and my favorite, but the lighter below is also lovely.
You can still personalize the speakers with $25 gel cases, but I think that the Mini 2s look and feel better without.
Bose also added speakable menus for when devices are connected and disconnected. I initially thought this was a gimmick, but it actually does come in very handy and probably even more-so for Bluetooth speaker novices.
The Bose still does have some downsides. While incredibly small for the awesome sound it puts out, it is a form factor that doesn’t lend itself to activity. It is more like an inside device that wants to sit on a desk, kitchen counter or nightstand. When it does go outside, you’ll not want to drop it or let it go anywhere near water. Also, when I used it as a speakerphone, the people on the other end complained of echo.
Does JBL’s Charge 2+ remain the king? Not this year…
The splashproof Charge 2+ was an improvement, but both UE and Bose really stepped up their game.
I can’t choose an overall winner this time. I need to quantify. You need to decide how much you want to pay.
For fun outdoors, definitely go with the UEs. Waterproof and durable with remarkable sound and apps to fine tune them. I’ve almost always chosen the UE Roll as my companion on small trips because it is so small and light and packs away without taking up almost any room. I went with the UE Megaboom to DJ our last house party and tons of people were impressed. The app means they can keep getting better, too.
On the other hand, inch for inch, Bose produces the best sound – and that’s what we are really here to talk about. It isn’t waterproof, is extremely heavy for its very small size and doesn’t exactly bounce when dropped. But inch for inch, it produces the best sound I’ve ever heard in a portable speaker. Sure some folks don’t like Bose’s bass-heavy acoustic profile, but it suits me and the music I listen to just fine. At $199, or $179 for the previous edition, it won’t break the bank.