Waterproof and rugged used to mean one thing: Your gadget looked like something that belonged in a Jeep commercial or on a military base. But times have changed, and so has the durability of materials. That means that Jacques Cousteau-worthy gadgets no longer look as though they were designed for underwater usage, and Bluetooth speakers are no exception.
The crème of the latest crop of waterproof models don’t necessarily look the rugged part, but looks are far from everything. Many of these models are rated IP7, which means they can handle more than just splashes, smashes, snow and sand — they can be submerged in water 3.3 feet deep for up to 30 minutes. That’s not bad for speakers that might look as nice on your bookshelf as they do on the edge of the hot tub.
Best Speaker for Parties: For parties, bigger is always better. Almost the size of a small boom box, the Fugoo XL delivers the loudest and bassiest audio of the waterproof bunch, whether you’re playing beach blanket bingo at Lake Meade or après-skiing in Bariloche (an IP67 rating means the speaker is waterproof to 3.3 feet, but is also sand- and snow-proof, provided you keep all the inputs closed behind their covers). Rather than blasting music in one direction from the front, eight separate drivers deliver 24 watts of sound from the sides of the unit, making for an all-directional experience that provides a similar sound no matter which side of the Fugoo you’re on. All this comes for up to 40 hours on a single charge.
As with the smaller Fugoo, the XL comes in three configurations, each with different purposes and looks. The Style XL comes with a chic, retro speaker fabric that’s borderline handbag-looking, so proceed with caution, while the Sport XL has some reinforced resin and plastic edging on the border that’s reminiscent of running shoes. Both the Sport XL and the Style XL can float, too. While the Tough XL won’t float, it has steel mesh protecting the drivers on all sides, as well as a durable aluminum body with extra shock-resistant framing to absorb falls. Though not super portable in the carry-on or pocket sense, the Fugoo Tough XL can still be used on the go, thanks to an optional strap mount for attaching to everything from motorboats to mountain bikes.
Best Value Speaker: Good design doesn’t have to be humorless, as this waterproof speaker, which looks like a tadpole-cum-sperm, attests (it is the “Swimmer” after all). With an IP7 rating, the Swimmer can be submerged up to 3.3 feet for up to 30 minutes, meaning it’s designed to handle all kinds of poolside or shower splashes, but don’t take it with you on your next snorkeling excursion.
The flexible tail is more than decorative; it makes it easy to attach the Swimmer to anything from a shower spigot to a bike handlebar to a computer monitor. The tail also screws off, revealing USB charging and audio line-in inputs, and can be replaced with the included suction cup for attaching the speaker to walls or tables, which offer up their reverberative qualities to add more bass or depth to the sound. Speaking of which, the sound this speaker emits won’t fill a room — it’s only $60, after all — but you’ll hear surprising clarity and warmth on vocals and bass, even if many of the mid-range instruments can get lost. Its delivery of dialogue with talk radio soars above any splashing shower sounds.
Best Speaker for In the Pool: When poolside doesn’t bring you close enough to the music — or there is no poolside because you’re, say, taking dip in a hot springs bath — then you can either forego a soundtrack, or you can launch the Nyne Aqua, which looks like a catamaran without the mast. Form follows function in this case, since the Aqua can float on water when placed flat, speakers pointing upwards. And with an IP7 rating, it can be splashed and even submerged up to 3.3 feet. Even so, this isn’t designed to play underwater, and once water does get into the speakers, it cuts back on some of the sound output, in my experience, but it’s reassuring to know that you don’t have to worry about obnoxious mates breaking it entirely when they belly flop into the pool.
The Aqua can also can be positioned upright on its side, like a traditional speaker, in case you just want to put it on a shelf in the shower or on the deck of some tropical rainforest vacation rental without worrying about sudden downpours. Sound-wise, it delivers warm enough audio with some mid-range instrumental details and modest bass, but the volume isn’t too loud, especially once it gets wet. Still, it has a built-in mic and a dedicated button to answer and hang up on phone calls, making it a good solution for anyone who might have to take a phone call while in the pool (and doesn’t want to get their iPhone wet). Despite its shape, the Aqua is remarkably easy to carry around and, being about as thick as a hardcover bestseller, its relative flatness makes it easy enough to slip into a carry-on, backpack, or suitcase.
Best Speaker for Big Spaces: The super-sized version of the UE Boom is not only about a third bigger than its predecessor — say, a Jamba Juice “Power”-size juice versus a standard long drink glass — it’s also fully waterproof. The IP7 rating means it’s dust-proof, waterproof, and impact-proof. Unlike some of its competitors, though, the Megaboom looks as unadorned as a non-waterproof speaker, which is a good thing for anyone who just wants something that looks stylish and sounds great. The sound is about as good as it gets for a speaker of this size, offering loud volumes, full bass with oomph, and warm, articulated sound even when the volume is low. Setup is a breeze, with telltale pitched beats that indicate whether the device is being turned on, paired, or shut off — nothing groundbreaking there, but just a further indication of the distinct design thinking that went into this product.
The device can also be paired with a second UE Megaboom to create even bigger stereo sound — easily done with the UE iOS and Android app, which also serves as an equalizer and lets you turn the speaker on remotely via your phone. Also improved: battery life (about 20 hours now) and Bluetooth range, which lets you wander off up to 100 feet with your phone without losing a connection to the speaker. Though certainly possible, the UE Megaboom isn’t ideal to carry around with you everywhere — it weighs about 1.9 pounds — but it’s more the kind of speaker you’d throw in a tote for a day at the beach or a weekend at the lake house.
Best Speaker for Travelers: Another floater, the Monster Backfloat delivers lots of volume and decent bass, despite being smaller than many of its competitors — about half the size of a foot-long sub. Its compact footprint means it’s easy to toss into even small backpacks, and there’s no degradation in sound quality, even when it gets splashed heavily in the shower — though there is some distortion when you turn it up all the way.
Unlike some of the other waterproof models, the BackFloat is only IP6, which means it can handle rain and significant splashes, but isn’t designed to be submerged deeply or for too long. In other words, keep it floating or poolside (for around five hours, before it needs to be recharged). It’s also shock-proof, but be wary: During our tests, the speaker knocked itself off a shelf in the shower during a blasting of Kraftwerk’s bass-heavy “Man Machine”, accidentally forcing open the waterproof enclosure for the mini USB and audio inputs, making them suddenly vulnerable to water damage. Still, the portability and durability in one device is hard to beat, making it ideal for travel to any kind of climate.
Skullcandy Air Raid
Best Speaker for Poolside: Most overtly retro gadgets are all cheap surface, but the Skullcandy Air Raid, which looks vaguely like some kind of 1940s military radio, has a solid silicone boot covering it, making it drop-, dust-, and water-resistant, though not waterproof (it’s rated IP5). So it’s really just okay with spilled piña coladas or getting caught in the rain. (Use the built-in carabiner to hang it from a hook to avoid the spilled drinks, at least.) It comes in a variety of traditional colorways (black and army green) and more outré designs (like the forest-themed “Realtree” and the two-toned “Hot Blue”), but other traditional touches include a physical switch to turn the device on and off (handy in that it will keep the Air Raid from accidentally turning on if it’s rolling around in your bag). Also adding to the anachronistic vibe is an audio sample of an old radio’s startup crackle and static, which you hear every time you turn the Air Raid on or go into pairing mode.
Under the on/off switch is an LED battery life indicator — I got about seven hours playing at moderate to loud levels. Press-down volume buttons in the shape of plus and minus signs are located on the front of the device. On either side of the volume controls are two speakers with 50mm drivers, which deliver respectably loud sound, with articulated vocals, discernible mid-range instruments, and respectable, though not full-blasting, bass, at both high and low levels. Overall, though, the sound doesn’t offer the warmth you’d get from pricier speakers, but we haven’t heard much better at this size, price, and level of ruggedness.
Best All-Around Speaker: Along with its 12-hour battery life, the 1.5-pound Braven is protected to up to 1 meter underwater and has a shockproof rubber exterior, meaning you can let it roll down a cliff into a lagoon and it won’t be worse for wear. Separate indoor and outdoor modes make the most out of the speaker’s volume to fill big areas, and a strap connection lets you hang it from a tree, kayak or backpack. And if you buy two they can be paired to work as left and right stereo speakers.
NudeAudio Super M
Editor’s Choice: Of NudeAudio’s first three portable, durable bluetooth speakers, the pocket-sized M speaker was by far the most popular, so the founders redesigned it to be waterproof and sand-proof and, most noticeably, able to produce 360 degrees of sound. The speaker, with 8 hours of battery life, features 2 full-range drivers and a passive subwoofer on each side of the speaker, which is unprecedented for a speaker this size. The Super M model is still in its Kickstarter phase, so the price hasn’t yet been released, but the Move M is available for only $69 as part of the founders’ “fair price policy” — so don’t expect to break the bank.
Altec Lansing Life Jacket
Worst-Looking Waterproof Speaker: The Life Jacket looks like something out of Tron (not in a good way), but the 1-pound speaker is the most durable in Altec Lansing’s line of outdoor speakers. Waterproof, dirt-proof and washable, the speaker features a 16-hour battery life, CD-quality audio and dual 2.5-inch Neodymium drivers, along with the ability to remember up to eight devices. Built-in caller-ID and voice operated commands allows you to accept and reject phone calls via the speakerphone if anyone calls while you’re jamming.
Best High-Endurance Speaker: This speaker has the best battery life on the list; the ability to play for 40 hours at 50 percent volume makes it ideal for a weekend trip. It’s snow-, mud-, shock- and waterproof and a speaker strap (sold separately) allows you to strap it to a tree — just to let everyone know you aren’t joking around about the Fugees. Complete with six symmetrically placed drivers, producing sound from all four sides of the speaker, and Siri/Google Now integration, this speaker is one of the best on the market and is also available with more fashionable (but less tough) exteriors.
Ultimate Ears Boom
Best-Looking Waterproof Speaker: These speakers lean more toward water and stain resistance than being fully water- and stain proof. Looking like a giant pill, these are the most stylish on the list and come in a selection of colors and limited-edition designs (hunt for the sold out colors on eBay). The speakers offer 360-degree sound, pair with speakerphones and can even be used as alarm clocks. They’re better suited to an outdoor summer BBQ than a full-on rugged adventure, especially if you use the iOS app to enable two of them as stereo speakers.
Grace Digital EXOXGEAR ECOXBT
Best Speaker for Kayakers: This 6-watt speaker isn’t the most powerful on the list. It doesn’t deliver 360 degrees of sound, or have an exceptional battery life (10 hours). But it floats. It’s designed to be attached to your kayak, waterski or boat for easily listening while you don swim trunks. And as one of the cheapest speakers on the list, it’s an easy add-on for any boating kit.
Outdoor Technology Big Turtle Shell
Biggest, Baddest, Loudest Speaker: The Big Turtle Shell is the biggest, loudest speaker on the list. At over 2 pounds and almost a foot in length, it’s double and triple the size of these other speakers — which means it isn’t designed to blast its 110 decibels on a hike or kayaking trip, but rather at an outdoor party or large campground shindig. The speaker lasts for 16 hours of playing time and features simple navigation buttons. Because of its size, it can recharge your iPhone four times over and, when placed on its side, can go from 360-degree room-filling sound to directional blasting.
Best Value: Delivering an output power of 15 watts, this is a surprisingly potent speaker for its price (you’d have to buy two of the ECOXBTs listed above for the same sound). It has a battery life of 12 hours; the speaker can answer you calls with a Bluetooth range of 30 feet; and at around 7 inches in length and 1.5 pounds, it’s the perfect entry-level speaker for your hiking bag.
Additional Contribution by J. Travis Smith