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Wireless speakers buying guide: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and AirPlay

What to look for: AirPlay, AptX and more

Bluetooth wireless speaker: Chant

These days, most of us carry our music collection, or at least some of it, around with us on a smartphone or tablet. Alternatively, you might use any number of music streaming services including Spotify, Pandora or Google Play Music.

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You've a number of options for playing that music, including using headphones, the tinny built-in speaker, a dedicated speaker dock, a standard Hi-Fi system or a wireless speaker.

The latter option is becoming ever more popular as you can keep hold of your device and control music playback, while enjoying louder, higher-quality sound than its internal speaker could ever provide.

The choice of wireless speakers can be pretty confusing, though.

First, you need to decide whether you want something portable (typically with a built-in battery so you can use it without being tied to a power socket) or a speaker that will stay in one place and use mains power.

Mains-powered wireless speakers tend to offer better-quality sound as they have bigger drivers and don't have to be frugal on power usage.

B&W A7 wireless speaker

Portable wireless speakers vary in size and sound quality, as well as battery life and price. Some portable speakers charge via USB, while others require a dedicated power supply for recharging.

Wireless speakers buying guide: Bluetooth, AirPlay and other features

By far the most common standard is Bluetooth, since virtually all smartphones and tablets have it.

Within the Bluetooth standard, there are different levels of quality. Stereo A2DP typically delivers an MP3-like quality, but aptX is preferable as it's near-lossless. But you'll only get the benefit of aptX's better quality if your smartphone, tablet or other Bluetooth sending device also supports it.

As of yet, Apple hasn't included AptX in any iPhone or iPad. Instead, they support Apple's own AirPlay standard, which is rarer to find in portable wireless speakers (it's more common in high-end mains-powered wireless speakers). This gives the best quality for iDevices as it's lossless and doesn't further compress the music tracks you're playing.

Bear in mind that AirPlay works only with Apple devices, so it's worth opting for a speaker with Bluetooth as well as AirPlay to ensure you'll be able to use it with other gadgets you might buy in the future, or those that friends own.

Bluetooth has a range of about 10m, so it's best used within one room. AirPlay uses Wi-Fi so your playback device doesn't need to be in the same room - it needs only to be within range of your wireless router.

Bluetooth tends to be easier to set up than speakers which use Wi-Fi: no special apps or other hardware are needed. Check our wireless speaker reviews to find out if a particular model is a real pain to set up and use.

Almost all wireless speakers have a wired input as well. This means you can connect a music player that doesn't have Bluetooth or AirPlay: you simply use its headphone output.

More rarely, you might find a wireless speaker that has Wi-Fi and / or an Ethernet port. This opens up more possibilities including multi-room systems, internet radio and streaming audio from PCs or NAS drives.

Wireless speakers buying guide: Controls, remote control and speakerphone

Most wireless speakers offer no controls over the sound they produce, except volume. It's rare to find bass / treble adjustment, but some manufacturers provide this via apps for iOS and Android devices.

i-box Twist speakerphone

Some, but not all wireless speakers allow you to control music playback with play/pause and track skip buttons. This can be useful, but isn't an essential feature in our experience.

Finally, some portable Bluetooth speakers have a built-in microphone which means they can double up as a hands-free speakerphone. If you're already playing music from your smartphone, they should allow you to take an incoming phone call seamlessly.

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