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).
All wireless speaker, smart speaker and smart display units in our test undergo the same listening and ease of use assessments. For example, a speaker attached to a smart screen undergoes the same listening assessment as a dedicated Bluetooth speaker.
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 access, activate and use the features in wireless and smart speakers. This is called the 'everyday score' in our test.
Our experts 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.
Smart functions and digital assistants
These tests don't factor in any smart functions that may be included, such as Google Home, Siri or Alexa support. These tools are not available across the board so it would be unfair to criticise a standard speaker for its lack of support, when it was never designed to have smart functions in the first place. However, smart displays do undergo an additional screen assessment.
Many wireless speakers, smart speakers and smart displays have accompanying apps and some are actually designed to be controlled via a smartphone or tablet. While scores for app performance is shown were applicable, it doesn't contribute to the overall score. General ease of use and sound quality are the most important aspect of the speaker's performance.
Smart screens also undergo a quality assessment which contributes to their CHOICE Expert Rating. We mainly assess various aspects of image quality when the screen is at mid and full brightness.
This includes front on viewing, angled viewing in landscape and portrait mode, dark room viewing and a reflection assessment. However, we also look at auto-dimming performance, touch screen speed and accuracy and ease of cleaning
Battery life, power scores and costs
Different assessments occur depending on whether the speaker, smart speaker or smart screen is powered by battery or mains connectivity. These tests don't contribute to the overall score.
Battery life (hours)
This test applies to models designed to be used with battery power. It provides an approximate playback lifespan before you need to recharge.
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.
Power consumption score
We measure power consumption in standby and active mode for mains powered speakers and smart displays. When active, speaker volume is set to a normal listening level. Lower scoring models are less energy efficient than those with higher, or perfect, scores.
Annual running cost
This is only measured for speakers and smart screens connected to mains power, as they're designed to be 'always on'. Measurements include when it is sitting idle and being actively used for a few hours per day.
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.
We recommend speakers, smart speakers and smart displays with a CHOICE Expert Rating, and listening score, of 70% or more.
The overall score for Bluetooth wireless and smart speakers that are battery powered is made up of:
- listening performance (60%)
- ease of use (40%).
The overall score for home or multi-room (Wi-Fi) speakers that can be mains powered is made up of:
- listening performance (70%)
- ease of use (30%).
If a speaker supports battery and mains power then it is assessed under battery powered conditions. Smart displays have an additional component that factors in smart performance. In this case, the CHOICE Expert Rating is made up of:
- sound quality (50%)
- ease of use (25%)
- smart screen (25%).
Changes to our method
We adjusted our method and score weighting in November 2021 and applied this to previously tested models as well as new ones. Some scores and recommendations may have changed as a result.
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.
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.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.