These days, it’s hard to imagine going on a camping trip or relaxing by the pool without our favorite tunes playing in the background. But when a battery-powered device is exposed to the elements, worries about damage are surely at the back of your mind. Luckily, a number of manufacturers have developed speakers with such use in mind. I tested nine rugged, Bluetooth-equipped speakers designed for portable use in electronics-hostile environments.
Of course, “rugged” is a vague term, but the industry has developed a specialized standard called Ingress Protection (IP). A product’s IP rating indicates how well that product’s enclosure resists solid particles (such as sand and dirt) and liquids (such as water).
In reviewing the Bluetooth speakers, I was particularly curious about sound quality, given their overall compact size—after all, a rugged speaker that sounds tinny and underpowered may not be a desirable tradeoff. I also gave consideration to each unit’s intended use: Some models forego toss-in-your-bag size in favor of bigger sound, making them more apt for poolside entertainment than a long hike in the woods, while some make too many compromises in the name of packability.
Braven’s $180 BRV–1 (4.5 of 5 rating) is a relatively new addition to the company’s lineup of Bluetooth speakers that sports an IPX5 rating, which means it’s good enough to withstand rain, splashes, and jets of water, though not full immersion. The speaker, which comes in black with a blue or gunmetal finish, also sports a 3.5mm audio-in jack for connecting a non-Bluetooth source, although this requires opening a waterproofed port at the back, thereby reducing its water resistance.
The BRV–1 provides excellent sound quality, even at high volumes, with remarkably deep bass and no distortion whatsoever. When called upon, it’s also surprisingly loud, which is a definite advantage over most compact speakers.
The Braven can also double as a speakerphone thanks to its noise-canceling microphone, which worked well enough in my test calls. The person on the other hand of the line didn’t even realize that I was outside.
The BRV–1’s internal battery is good for 12 hours of continuous playback, and you can charge that battery using the included Micro-USB cable. You can also use the BRV-1 to charge other devices via USB—the speaker provides enough juice to power music players and phones, but not tablets. (Though doing this of course reduces the speaker’s playback time.) Along with its diminutive dimensions and light weight—just a little over 12oz—these features make the BRV-1 an excellent choice for backpacking or camping trips.
The $130 EcoXBT (4.0 of 5 rating) has an unusual IPX8 rating, which means that it’s designed to allow full immersion into water—in fact, the speaker actually floats, making it perfect for listening to music while you’re swimming. Better yet, the unit also doubles as a speakerphone, which means that you could even dial into your next conference call from your pool.
The EcoXBT’s sound quality is pretty good, offering stereo sound and excellent dynamic range, with just a hint of muffling in the midrange frequencies, likely due to the waterproofing. The built-in battery, which can be recharged with a Micro-USB cable, provides up to ten hours of playback time.
At a little over 1.5 pounds, this product is a bit heavier than most, but its weight is dictated in no small part by its waterproof capabilities, and the designers have obviously left no stone unturned when it comes to convenience: It features two large handles on the sides, a built-in carabiner that you can use to secure the unit to prevent it from floating away, and even a wrist strap.
Despite its heft, I wouldn’t hesitate to bring the EcoXBT on a camping trip, particularly if lakes or canoes are involved—somehow, the idea of just grabbing the speakers and tossing them in the water while you float around on a lazy summer afternoon sounds very appealing.
One of the things I like best about G-Project is that the company knows how to make rugged products for the general public. Last year, after reading my colleague Lex Friedman’s favorable review of the company’s larger G-Go, I bought that speaker and ended up hanging it on my gazebo the whole summer. The G-Go served me perfectly, impervious to rain, dust, and the effects of Hurricane Sandy, which flung it across the fence into my neighbor’s yard.
The $70 G-Grip (3.5 of 5 rating) is built using the same level of care, but it’s much smaller and more portable. It weighs just under 11 ounces and can survive drops up to eight feet, or a crushing weight of up to 1,300 pounds. For all practical purposes, unless you routinely drop your speakers from atop a steamroller and then immediately proceed to run it over, the G-Grip should be essentially indestructible.
The speaker’s Bluetooth sound quality is reasonably good, with some bass thump and decent midrange response. The same, for some reason, cannot be said when using the included 3.5mm audio cable, which, in my tests, produced distortion and overal bad sound. Searching the Web, I found many similar complaints in online reviews.
The G-Grip comes with a USB cable and an AC-to-USB power adaptor, in addition to the aforementioned audio cable (which is bright yellow to make it easy to find outdoors) and a strap that you can use to hang the speaker from a backpack or a branch.
With its stylish enclosure made from aircraft-grade aluminum, and an IP55 rating that indicates resistance to both dust and water splashes, the $99 Nuu Splash (3.5 of 5 rating) looks like it could just as easily find its home in a corporate boardroom as on the edge of your backyard pool—although probably not in your backpack during a hiking trip.
The sound quality of this unit, which is available in silver, black, or red, is good, though I didn’t find the bass response to be quite as impressive as with some of the other speakers here, and human voices tended to sound a bit muffled. As with several other models that I reviewed, the Splash sports a physical on/off button, which is a welcome addition—when on the go, software switches make it too easy to accidentally turn on a speaker and, thus, drain your battery.
According to the manufacturer, the Splash’s built-in rechargeable battery can provide seven to ten hours of playback. Like many portable Bluetooth speakers, the Splash charges via USB, but the company doesn’t provide a USB-charging cable, instead including an AC charger with a built-in USB cable.
The Splash features a microphone that can be used to make phone calls, and it also provides a 3.5mm audio-in jack. The company includes an audio cable and a convenient neoprene sleeve for carrying the device.
The $200 NB-250 (4.0 of 5 rating) is a bit larger and heavier than most of the other units here, but it features a rich, full sound thanks to its use of larger stereo drivers, two passive radiators, and a digital signal processor (DSP) that delivers excellent dynamic range.
At full volume, this speaker is surprisingly loud—perfect for a party where you want the music to be heard across a wide area—yet I heard virtually no distortion, as the NB-250 sounded great across the frequency range.
The NB-250 is weatherproof, can withstand water splashing, and comes with a very handy carrying case with a shoulder strap that makes carrying the speaker easy and convenient, whether you’re on a trip to the beach, organizing a family picnic, or just walking around your favorite fishing hole.
The NB-250’s battery is good for up to ten hours of continuous playback, and, as with the Braven speaker, can even be used to recharge an external device via USB, although a dedicated power adapter is required to recharge the unit itself—you can’t charge the speaker via USB. A 3.5mm audio input lets you connect a non-Bluetooth source, and the company includes a high-quality 3.5mm cable.
Outdoor Tech Turtle Shell
Outdoor Tech’s $150 Turtle Shell (3.5 of 5 rating) is unique among the speakers I looked at, in two ways. The first is the speaker’s shape, which, for lack of a better description, looks like something out of a futuristic space program. The second is a threaded receptacle at the back that allows you to mount the speaker on your bicycle using the company’s $20 Turtle Claw Bike Mount. Alas, the threads in the speaker aren’t compatible with the standard used for camera mounts, which could have opened up some interesting opportunities.
From a sound perspective, the Turtle Shell does an adequate job, although it doesn’t sound as good as some of the other speakers in this article. Bass response isn’t bad, but the midrange frequencies sound muffled, even if you try to compensate by using the iPhone’s equalizer feature.
The Turtle Shell features an omnidirectional microphone, which is useful for making phone calls, and the speaker is IP6X certified, which means that you can safely take it on the road with you. It weighs a little over 11 ounces, and it’s available in seven colors.
The Turtle Shell also includes a good selection of accessories, including a USB cable, an AC-to-USB power adapter, a 3.5mm audio cable, and a convenient carrying pouch. The company says the speaker’s rechargeable battery is good for up to ten hours of playback.
Philips Shoqbox SB7200
The $180 Shoqbox SB7200 (4.5 of 5 rating) packs an amazing number of features in a small package. It’s weatherproof and drop resistant, and its menu system can be navigated entirely through voice prompts in a variety of languages. It even sports a light sensor that lets you use hand gestures to start and pause music, answer the phone, and skip between songs.
The Shoqbox’s two drivers offer pretty good dynamic range along with excellent bass for the size, with only a tiny bit of distortion at the highest volumes. Although the device works just fine on its own, you can pair two Shoqboxes with your Bluetooth source and have them work independently in a left-channel/right-channel combination for true stereo sound without additional wires.
The speaker’s rechargeable lithium battery provides eight hours of playback, and you can recharge it via a USB cable (the company includes an AC-to-USB adapter). The speaker’s diminutive size, rugged design, less-than-one-pound weight, and convenient loop for attaching it to a backpack make the Shoqbox an idea travel companion.
Interestingly, the $150 BoomBottle (4.0 of 5 rating) is designed to fit in the water-bottle holder of a bicycle to provide you with entertainment while you’re sweating it out on the road. The speaker features dual 40mm drivers with diffusors that ensure even distribution of sound around a wide angle, along with a passive woofer that enhances low-frequency response.
Ironically for a product this small and light—it weighs a mere 15 ounces, far less than the water bottle it’s designed to replace—the speaker’s audio is geared a little too much toward the bass range, resulting in a lot of chest thumping that overwhelms the rest of the spectrum. I imagine, however, that this is exactly what you would want on the road, where a good rhythm can help you keep pace or climb a steep hill. And, in fact, the overall sound fidelity is very good on the go.
The BoomBottle’s lithium-ion-polymer battery provides up to ten hours of continuous playback, and it recharges surprisingly quickly using a standard Micro-USB cable. A built-in omnidirectional microphone allows the speaker to double as a speakerphone, while a standard 3.5-inch audio input makes it compatible with devices that don’t support Bluetooth.
One thing that I really liked about the BoomBottle is its construction, which is obviously very rugged, yet somehow manages to feel very light thanks to the weight being evenly distributed.
TDK Wireless Weatherproof Speaker A33
At a little over two pounds, the $200 Wireless Weatherproof Speaker A33 (4.0 of 5 rating) is not the kind of speaker that you’d want to take on a long hike or a backcountry camping trip, but its additional heft is due to the fact that the A33 forgoes space-saving compromises in favor of the best sound quality of any of the speakers I tested.
With two full-range drivers and a 2.5-inch woofer in the front, and two passive radiators in the back, the A33 delivers sound clarity that rivals much larger Bluetooth speakers, with excellent stereo separation, essentially no distortion even at maximum volume, and chest-thumping bass that will get your guests dancing in no time.
The speaker is IP64 rated for protection from dust and rain, comes with a built-in rechargeable battery that delivers up to six hours of playback, and can even be used to recharge an external device via USB. On the minus side, the A33 can be powered or charged only using the include power adapter, which is not as convenient as a USB port and requires you to pack—and keep track of—one more item.
The A33 incorporates a microphone that allows it to double as a Bluetooth speakerphone, and it also offers a 3.5mm audio jack. (As with the Braven unit, using this jack requires opening a waterproof port.) Of note is a useful panel of indicators that make it easy to determine whether you’ve successfully turned the device on or off.
If you’re looking for speakers for outdoor use, you’ve got plenty of options. Which you should choose depends largely on where you plan to use it. Overall, Braven’s BRV-1 and Philips’s Shoqbox offer the best combination of ruggedness, portability, and sound quality. Either would adapt well to a wide range of situations: The BRV-1’s device-charging capabilities are going to be handier on a long trip, but the Shoqbox can be used in a two-unit configuration that gives you a bit more oomph in a noisy environment. A special mention also goes to Scosche’s BoomBottle, which will be a welcome option for cyclists but also performs admirably under more-general conditions.
If you spend a lot of time on the water, the EcoXBT is a great choice due to its true submergibility. Finally, if you’re looking for an all-season music solution for your patio or car-camping, both TDK’s Wireless Weatherproof Speaker A33 and Nyne’s NB-250 are excellent choices. The latter is probably more rugged and portable—its carrying case is terrific—while the former offers superior sound quality.
[Updated 5/15/2013, 8:55am with copyedits throughout.]
Mobile Phone Accessories
Marco Tabini is based in Toronto, Canada, where he focuses on software development for mobile devices and for the Web.