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How we test wireless and smart speakers

Sounding out the experts

speaker cone woofer

When you're in a store looking to buy a wireless speaker, or smart speaker, sound quality is obviously an important consideration. Ease of connectivity and how much electricity consumption should also be top of the list of things to look for when buying one as well.

Some models double as speakerphones or can be used as impromptu battery packs that can recharge your smartphone or tablet. Others can be used to control connected, aka "smart," devices around your home, using voice commands are these features of value to you?

Following is a break down of how we test wireless speakers. Our rigorous testing lets you make an informed buying decision.

How we test wireless speakers

Listening performance (sound quality)

A panel of experts listens to musical passages across various genres, including classical, rock and pop. The experts assess the overall quality of the speaker's performance, sitting approximately two metres away. Our experts assess:

  • Bass: impact, presence and defined low-end, rather than flat dynamics that are overly boomy, or those that show evidence of distortion.
  • Mids: clear mids with broad dynamics, particularly in vocals, that gives each layer of sound its space in the mix (the opposite of muddy).
  • Highs: clarity and quality. Speakers with harsh, tinny highs and evidence of distortion score poorly.

Range

Our range test reveals how well a Bluetooth speaker works in different environments. We place each speaker in an identical position and then measure when the signal between it and a smartphone/tablet begins degrading, right up to the point when it disconnects.

  • The total score is the average of three test results. The first measures the signal strength without any interference; for the second we obstruct the signal with three closed doors; while the third measures the range once the signal has passed through a brick wall.
  • Most of the Bluetooth speakers we test connect wirelessly with a smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth.
  • We do test the range of Wi-Fi multiroom speakers, but only include the result if the speaker does not have Bluetooth. This is because a Wi-Fi range assessment is usually defined by the quality and position of your modem/router as well as the strength of the signal. Wi-Fi only models score 100 in our range test as a result.

Ease of use

Our ease of use testing determines how easy/difficult it is to take advantage of the features included in a wireless speaker. 

  • Our testers assess the set-up process for all wireless speakers.
  • For Bluetooth speakers, we assess how the speaker deals with an incoming phone call while the music is playing, and any physical controls on the speaker.
  • For Wi-Fi multiroom speakers, we assess how well music can be played back over one speaker, as well as a network of three speakers and a soundbar. The tester then splits the network in half and plays different songs over the two separate zones.
  • Wi-Fi speakers are designed to be controlled from a smartphone, and so our testers assess the design, functionality and performance of each brand's Apple and Google smartphone app.

Smart speakers undergo additional ease of use tests that assesses aspects of the digital assistant.

  • We look at how well the speaker responds to commands in various environments using the built-in digital assistant, such as Siri (Apple), Alexa (Amazon) or Google.
  • Those with lower scores required us to repeat commands even in quiet rooms.
  • Good speakers can pick up your voice, even in a busy situation. Don't expect miracles however – your smart speaker is unlikely to perform well in a noisy environment, like a party.

Scores

The overall score for Bluetooth speakers over $100 is made up of:

  • Listening performance (70%)
  • Range performance (15%)
  • Ease of use (15%).

Battery power

These tests don't contribute to the overall score.

  • Battery testing is carried out with a constant music source connected to the unit through the Auxiliary input. Therefore, the times we were able to achieve may be longer than the claimed times but gives an indication of their comparative battery capacity performance.
  • Annual running cost is based on 19 hours sitting idle; cost is 30 cents per kilowatt-hour; this is a minimum cost as the cost will vary depending on how often the speaker is used, and the type of task you have asked it to perform.

How we test smart displays

Listening performance (sound quality)

  • Listening performance scores are based on our listening panel's appraisal of rock/pop music passages.
  • The speaker is positioned about two metres away from the listener, with the panel assessing overall quality.

Ease of use

  • This combines: setup, accessibility (physical controls) and, most importantly, how well it responds to commands in various environments such as Siri (Apple), Alexa (Amazon) or Google.
  • Those with lower scores required us to repeat commands even in quiet rooms.
  • Good speakers can pick up your voice, even in a busy situation. Don't expect miracles however – your smart speaker is unlikely to perform well in a noisy environment, like a party.

Display quality

  • Battery testing is carried out with a constant music source connected to the unit through the Auxiliary input. Therefore, the times we were able to achieve may be longer than the claimed times but gives an indication of their comparative battery capacity performance.
  • Annual running cost is based on 19 hours sitting idle; cost is 30 cents per kilowatt-hour; this is a minimum cost as the cost will vary depending on how often the speaker is used, and the type of task you have asked it to perform.

Features

  • Additional tests carried out include a range test, with the performance for each smart speaker to be found in the larger test.
  • Our tester places each speaker in an identical position to assess the point at which music a signal is lost or the audio quality drops.
  • Three measurements were taken including an unobstructed straight line test, obstructed test with up to three solid doors and a test through a brick wall.
  • The results are averaged to calculate an overall range score. This does not contribute to the overall score.

Scores

We recommend products with an overall score of 70% or more, and a sound quality score of 70% or more.

  • Sound quality (45%)
  • Ease of use (20%)
  • Display quality (20%)
  • Features (15%)