(The Gear Loop) - Summer is just around the corner and the warmer weather and longer days means plenty of opportunities to head outdoors with friends and family for days at the beach, camping trips or perhaps a paddle.
But just because you’re heading outside doesn’t mean the tunes need to stay at home - a plethora of rugged Bluetooth speakers are here to make sure your summer has an epic soundtrack.
Some years ago, the best portable speakers were small, wired things that boasted poor sound quality and were fragile to say the least. A dip in the sea would’ve been the writing on the wall for these cheap and cheerful gadgets.
However, as with most things, technology is here to make our lives better (most of the time), as things like wireless connectivity, smart assistants and rugged, waterproof exteriors means there’s nowhere this collection of outdoors speakers can’t go and not many audio duties they can’t handle.
Today, there is a huge array of wireless speakers available on the market, so we’ve assembled the pick of the bunch so you can get the best one for you and your adventures.
Also, if you head to the bottom of this feature, you'll also find a handy guide on what to look for in a rugged Bluetooth speaker, with some waterproof rating jargon busted and some tips on connectivity and charging.
The best rugged Bluetooth speakers
- Looks staggering
- Great sound
- Awesome battery life
- Lacks smart assistant
- No wireless charging
Think high-end audio and it wont be long before the mind settles on Bang & Olufsen, the Danish powerhouse that has been responsible for some of the best looking and best sounding audio systems money can buy.
It therefore might seem a little incongruous that B&O offer a small, rugged Bluetooth speaker that is "crafted for adventure".
As a complete antithesis to the utilitarian design of the Bose, the B&O Beosound Explore is a piece of stunning design in itself: a stout aluminium cylinder with 360-degree grilles makes for a stylish and sophisticated object and it’s got some premium feeling heft too, weighing in at 0.63kg.
IP67 rating means that it can be submersed in water, much like the other speakers in this roundup, yet the weatherproofing doesn’t impact the audio quality, with the two 30W speakers dishing out beats at a decent volume. The audio is also highly customisable via B&O’s app which is a great touch for those looking to extract the maximum sound from their speaker.
Battery life on the Explore is monstrous, clocking in at a whopping 27 hours at a reasonable volume and it is easily recharged via the USB-C port, however there’s no wireless charging, which is a disappointing omission at this price point.
The B&O Beosound Explore is a beautiful thing to look at and listen to, but we’re hard pressed to see why you wouldn’t go for the Sonos Roam at only £10 more for the added smart assistants and wireless charging.
Bose SoundLink Flex
- Simple design
- Great sound tech
- Pair up for stereo sound
- Battery life not great
- Not as rugged as others
Although a stalwart of the consumer tech scene, Bose has been flying under the radar with its rugged outdoor speakers and the Soundlink Flex is no different.
The design is comparatively conservative and it’s essentially a black, white, or blue rectangle with a grille on the front and some buttons up top. It’s also got a handy loop to attach it to a rucksack.
However, Bose has integrated some clever tech into the Soundlink Flex, namely PositionIQ. Due to the speaker being suitable to be hung, laid flat and generally moved around, PositionIQ automatically adjusts the EQ to optimise the sound and provide uniform audio quality however it’s positioned.
The Soundlink Flex carries an IP67 rating - the same as the Sonos and UE Boom. We wouldn’t be so blasé about dropping this one though, as the chassis is made from polymer and encased in soft touch silicone, which probably won’t repel bumps as well as the UE Boom, for example. The Soundlink Flex can also be paired with another Soundlink to provide a stereo listening experience and the 12 hour battery is charged up via USB-C.
The Bose Soundlink Flex is a strong competitor in this segment but it is pricier than the UE Boom 3 and to us at least, doesn’t seem quite as rugged.
- Superior sound
- Great Sonos integration
- Not the most rugged
The undisputed kings of in-home audio, Sonos ruffled a few feathers some years back with the introduction of the Move, a large Bluetooth speaker that integrated with your existing Sonos system. It was a weighty beast, however, and wasn’t really suitable for anything further than travels to the bottom of the garden.
This is where the Roam comes in. It’s a cylindrical speaker weighing in at just 0.43kg, but still integrates with your existing Sonos network when at home, or functions over Bluetooth when venturing further afield.
It’s this integration that really impressed us, as with the rest of the Sonos ecosystem, all of the speakers in your house appear on the smartphone app and music can be played out of any of them, including grouping them together for that stereo experience.
When you’re out of range of your Sonos network, which operates over WIFI, the Roam jumps over to a Bluetooth connection and continues to pump out crisp tunes with aplomb.
It also integrates with Apple AirPlay and has a raft of Smart Assistants from Google, Apple, and Amazon to answer those pressing trivia questions, or just skip the track when you can’t find your phone.
All of this tech is wrapped up in a IP67 rated body with charging over USB-C and Qi Wireless, claiming to be able to run for 10+ hours.
The Roam is a great choice if there’s already a Sonos network at home, but you do pay a premium, as this speaker is the most expensive on test. And when it comes to ruggedness, we feel the UE Boom and JBL Flip might have it pipped.
Ultimate Ears Boom 3
- Really rugged
- Easy to use
- Basic design
- Sound quality is middling
Ultimate Ears was arguably the first company to realise that people wanted top quality sound from a rugged, wireless speaker and its Boom line-up has been providing the beats to many an outdoor party for the past few years.
The key focus of the Boom 3 is naturally improvements to said audio quality. Ultimate Ears has been constantly refining the audio experience with every generation and its latest speaker is definitely the best.
Featuring specialised drivers, the Boom 3 has been tailored to deliver 360-degree sound and the proprietary digital signal processing algorithm has been tuned to deliver clean but powerful bass. It's an improvement but still not the best on this list.
Thanks to a beefy battery, the UE Boom 3 can last for up to 15 hours in the wild, which is mightily impressive, although it won't play while charging.
It's all well and good having exceptional sound quality but if it’s too fragile to be stuffed in a backpack, then what’s the point? Fortunately, the UE Boom 3 is IP67 rated and can be submerged in water for 30 minutes and still pump out music. Even better, it floats, so you don’t need to retrieve it from the pool or ocean floor.
The entire speaker is wrapped in a rubber and mesh ensemble which feels super rugged, and we’d have no concerns if we dropped this on a pebbly beach or knocked it off a camping table.
Ultimate Ears has an accompanying app that allows users to tune the EQ and customise the buttons… it also allows up to 150 Ultimate Ears speakers to be paired together into a vast wall of sound, if that’s your thing.
JBL Flip 6
- Robust exterior
- Solid sound
- Average battery life
- No wireless charging
Now in its sixth iteration, the Flip line-up from JBL has been packing exceptional sound into small rugged packages for a number of years now. While it might not be the most feature-rich speaker in this round up, it more than makes up for in pure sonic ability.
The speaker array is made up of an "optimised racetrack-shaped driver", tweeter and dual bass radiators. That might not mean much to most, but it is testament to JBL’s approach of sound over styling.
Sporting a 12 hour battery life, it should be more than enough for a few evening sessions around the campfire. Alas, there’s no wireless charging to be found, but USB charging protection means that a tone will sound if the speaker detects water or salt to shield itself from damage.
With the USB charger removed, it’s rated to IP67 levels to keep the music playing through most conditions. A row of chunky rubberised buttons along the top provide music controls and a lanyard means it can be attached to almost anything.
PartyBoost allows two compatible speakers to be paired together to provide even more noise and this feature is cross compatible with other speakers from JBL, not just the Flip 6.
The main competitor to the Flip 6 is the UE Boom 3, they’re both similarly priced, equally robust and offer similar battery life so it’s probably more down to individual taste and how much you value wireless charging.
What to look for in a rugged Bluetooth speaker
IP stands for ingress protection, which is just a fancy way of describing how water and grit-proof the product is. The first number describes the level of protection against solids, sand, grit, dust etc. and the higher the number, the smaller the particles it can keep out. The second number refers to the protection of the internals against liquids.
The numbers refer to the specification (size and type) of foreign object it can withstand, and the full charts are available to read online, but ideally the higher both the numbers, the better when it comes to selecting the most robust wireless speaker.
All the speakers in this roundup feature Bluetooth connectivity, which has been around for years. It’s rock-solid connection with decent range make it the perfect application for outdoor rugged speakers, as your phone can live safely in a pocket, rather than be tethered to the speaker with a cable. The Sonos integrates with Wi-Fi too, which means it can connect to its own network as described above.
Thankfully, the days of having various sizes of USB sockets on devices are largely on their way out, as all the speakers use USB-C connections, which offers brisk charging.
Bear in mind that while the speaker is charging, it won’t be fully waterproof, so be sure to charge it up before you head out. Wireless charging has become more widespread in recent years thanks to advances in the wattage it can deliver. In our eyes, wireless charging for a rugged speaker is the perfect use case, as there’s no risk of water or grit getting in via the charging port.