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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, smart speaker or even a smart display, sound quality is obviously an important consideration. Ease of connectivity and electricity consumption should be on the list of things to look for 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.

Here's a breakdown of how we test wireless speakers, smart speakers and smart displays. Our rigorous testing lets you make an informed buying decision (and will help you avoid any duds).

How we test wireless and smart speakers

Listening performance (sound quality)

A panel of experts listens to musical passages across various genres, assessing the overall quality of the speaker's performance. 

Our experts listen to and assess pieces of music covering jazz, classical, pop and rock, along with several radio broadcasts, so you can be sure that whatever you listen to, it'll sound great if it earns a CHOICE Recommended tag.

Ease of use

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

Our testers assess the set-up process for all wireless speakers, then assess the speaker for everyday use by looking at things such as connecting the speaker to your devices – be it Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or via a wire. We look at how clear the instruction manual is and whether it's easy to understand, and also look at the mobile app if one is available.

  • For Bluetooth or portable 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 or home 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, 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 assess 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 speakers with lower scores required us to repeat commands even in quiet rooms.
  • Good speakers can pick up your voice, even in a busy situation. But don't expect miracles – your smart speaker is unlikely to perform well in a noisy environment like a party.
  • While scores for the app performance are shown if the speaker supports the feature, it doesn't contribute to the overall score, with general ease of use and sound quality the most important aspect of the speaker's performance. 

Scores

We recommend products with an overall score of 70% or more.

The overall score for Bluetooth or portable speakers is made up of:

  • listening performance (60%)
  • ease of use (40%).

The overall score for Home or multiroom (Wi-Fi) speakers that can be mains powered is made up of:

  • listening performance (70%)
  • ease of use (30%).

Battery power

These tests don't contribute to the overall score but are shown to indicate the battery life you can expect to get out of the speaker when you're out and about.

  • Battery testing is carried out with a constant music source connected to the unit through the auxiliary input. The times we were able to achieve may be longer than the claimed times, but it gives an indication of their comparative battery capacity performance.
  • Annual running cost is based on sitting idle for most of the day and playing music and using as a smart device for a few hours a day for speakers that are mains powered. The energy cost is calculated at 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've 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) and 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, but 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. The times we were able to achieve may be longer than the claimed times, but it gives an indication of their comparative battery capacity performance.
  • Annual running cost is based on 19 hours sitting idle, with the cost at 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've asked it to perform.

Features

  • Additional tests we carry out include a range test, where our tester places each speaker in an identical position to assess the point at which a signal is lost or the audio quality drops.
  • Three measurements are 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, but this does not contribute to the overall score.

Scores

We recommend products with an overall score of 70% or more, with the score made up of:

  • sound quality (50%)
  • ease of use (25%)
  • smart performance (25%).

Our expert testers

To test as many speakers as possible to the depth that's required, we share costs and expertise with our sister consumer organisations around the world. We use professional labs in Europe that specialise in sound testing and test almost a hundred speakers every year. From their tests we then pick out the models you can buy in Australia. 

We put every speaker through the same assessments, regardless of brand or price, so you get an unbiased verdict. Our tests involve a mixture of audio assessments from our professional listening panel, technical lab testing and an ease-of-use analysis.

How we choose what we test

Just like CHOICE, our partners in Europe buy the speakers and smart displays they test from retail stores and online to make sure they're testing the same product the consumer buys. All the models they choose are commonly available worldwide, or have local variants. This means we can report on far more products than we could test here in Australia, and in more detail.

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE