Portable Power Mates: Bluetooth Speakers • Docks • PMPs

Portable media players are adding high-resolution-audio compatibility. More important are the developments in portable speakers: They’re larger, produce more sound than ever before and are packed with more battery life than they were 2 years ago.

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Notebook computers, personal media players (PMPs), smartphones and tablet computers allow you to take your music wherever you go, but their headphone jacks and tinny, built-in speakers limit sound quality.

Fortunately, you don’t have to rely on your portable device for sound output. Instead, you can use its Bluetooth connectivity to stream your music to a portable speaker.

In 2013, we counted 20 manufacturers of portable speakers. Today, 160 manufacturers make portable speakers, making it one of the fastest growing consumer- electronics categories, according to Ben Arnold of The NPD Group, which is a market-research company. U.S. sales of portable speakers from February 2014 to February 2015 totaled $1.2 billion, which was a 59 percent increase from the previous 12 months, Arnold says.

“It’s staggering to see how quickly the market has grown,” he says.

SOUND SOLUTION. Two years ago, we found that almost all portable speakers were susceptible to distortion and mediocre bass or treble. Most of those portable speakers used an old version of Bluetooth that transmitted audio poorly and was prone to interference. As a result, the speakers struggled to produce a crisp range of sound, says Paul Barton, who is the founder and chief designer of PSB Speakers and has studied speaker design since 1968.

Almost all portable speakers now include Bluetooth chips that have built-in digital sound processing (DSP), Barton says. The chips allow the speakers to deliver a full range of bass and treble and less distortion than older speakers did, he says. We agree. What’s best of all is that the improved Bluetooth chip hasn’t resulted in higher prices. We found that portable speakers cost the same—typically $30–$300—as they did 2 years ago.

The built-in DSP of the improved Bluetooth chips automatically controls equalization “so that these speakers are more natural sounding and can play louder without sounding overdriven or distorted,” Barton says.

In a welcome change, the power of portable speakers has increased. Most portable speakers have space only for tiny audio drivers. Previously, the result was that the portable speaker not only failed to produce enough volume to fill a room with sound, but it also was difficult to hear music if someone was having a conversation a few feet away.

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That no longer is the case. Because of the improved Bluetooth chips, you now can buy a portable speaker that fits in your pocket yet generates enough volume for people to hear the music clearly within a 10-foot radius.

A larger portable speaker (at least 10 inches in height), which holds a larger driver, can fill a room with sound, and, thanks to the DSP, the sound won’t distort, like it would with older models, when you crank your speaker loud enough to hear from two rooms over.

Unsurprisingly, 10 manufacturers now sell lines of increasingly large portable speakers. For instance, Jabra’s Solemate series comes in three sizes: the 10-ounce Mini ($100), the 1.5-pound Solemate ($150) and the 6.6-pound Max ($300). These portable speakers have the same basic design, but they get louder and more powerful as their size increases because of their increasingly large audio drivers.

If you find that one portable speaker still doesn’t provide enough sound to fill a room or you want to create true left-channel-right-channel stereo-sound separation, then you’ll be pleased to know that 14 manufacturers now make portable speakers that can be synchronized through Bluetooth for stereo sound. For example, if you have two Ultimate Ears Mini Boom speakers, you can download a free Apple iOS or Google Android app to pair the speakers in the same room and play the left channel of your audio on one speaker and the right channel on the other speaker. Portable speakers that deliver that stereo option start at $100; they didn’t exist 2 years ago.

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