14 of the 36 models tested in our labs. Photo: CHOICE
After testing 36 speakers in our custom-built sound lab, we think the Polk Audio Woodbourne delivers great sound at an unbeatable price.
Our expert listening panel rated its high end audio performance on par with the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Wireless, a speaker
that's more than twice the price. Add in slick style and a seamless Bluetooth experience and you have a standout performer in a highly competitive market.
Here are the products we recommend:
Best value for money
The Polk Audio Woodbourne is a powerful speaker that delivers high end sound at a market-beating price. It plays nicely with both Apple AirPlay and Bluetooth.
This is a speaker that will make your audio collection sing, particularly if you like sound that's heavier on the low end. It's loud enough to fill a large room, with a retro form factor that looks as good as it sounds. The inclusion of TV-friendly sound smarts earns it bonus points.
The Zeppelin Wireless dominates all 35 other speakers with its audio performance score, only held back by a prohibitively high price tag.
A $999 RRP pushes this model towards the luxury end of the spectrum, so it's worth querying bang for buck. Yes it's pricey, but if you're after a speaker that doesn't compromise on sound quality or wireless connectivity, the Zeppelin is the one to choose.
Best budget buy
When it comes to price for performance, the Audio M over delivers, comfortably topping our budget speaker category.
The Audio M beats many higher cost, top-brand speakers, but our recommendation comes with caveats. Compared to the speakers above, it doesn't have the same generous 'stereo' sound. Crank up the volume and you'll find it begins to eat into the audio quality. Still, if wallet-friendly is a priority, we believe this is the best value speaker in the sub $150 category.
Why you should listen to us
CHOICE is an independent, nonprofit organisation dedicated to representing consumer rights. Not relying on advertisements means our team of expert testers can speak honestly about a product's performance. We have 13 dedicated testers -- many are experienced scientists -- operating in seven custom-built laboratories. We also employ a certified engineer on-site to maintain our testing equipment to NATA-accredited standards.
We buy all of the products we test from retail stores -- just like you do. This is different to how other reviewing sites operate. They're given products for free and accept trips to overseas media junkets. Going ad-free,
buying products ourselves and paying our own way are some examples of how we maintain this independence. And testing comes at a price - this test alone cost over $40,000.
Why use Bluetooth?
Bluetooth is a wireless open standard that's widely supported across devices, including computers, tablets and smartphones. Two devices will speak the language of Bluetooth within a range of 10 to 15m. This intimacy offers a level of
security absent from larger networks.
Bluetooth is easy to use, energy efficient and has improved in quality throughout the years. A single speaker can connect to multiple phones and tablets, so it's possible to switch seamlessly between your music library and that of a friend.
The downsides are relatively small. Bluetooth compresses a file before it's wirelessly transmitted to a speaker. In the past this was believed to lower audio quality. These days our listening panels find little difference between wireless speakers operating on Wi-Fi and those using Bluetooth.
Another downside is that Bluetooth is mostly used to control music playback on a single speaker. Wi-Fi, by comparison, can coordinate music playback across a network of speakers.
A Bluetooth speaker is the ideal option if you want to spend less than a $1000 and fill a single room with music. It's high performing, cheap and easy to use. But if you want a multiroom speaker system, where one smartphone controls the music playback
over a network of four or five speakers throughout a home, then consider Wi-Fi multiroom speakers.
How we pick and test
Our dedicated team of researchers emails manufacturers selling Bluetooth speakers in Australia. We ask them for the products in their range, their specifications, retail availability and pricing. It's
not uncommon for us to receive hundreds of products vying for a spot in our review.
The products in our review have to be relevant to Australian consumers -- this is paramount. We don't test speakers that you can't buy; our reviews are focused on the Australian
We aim to cover all of the speakers available on the market. If we can't review every single model, then we'll include some models from a range, usually those that are the most and least expensive. We
could test the Bose SoundTouch 10 and SoundTouch 30, for instance, and then test the SoundTouch 20 at a later date.
We buy all of the products we review from retailers, just like you do. The 36 speakers in this review are priced between $119 and $999.
There are multiple segments of Bluetooth speakers. For a speaker to be included in this review, it has to produce loud enough audio to fill a room with music. Some of the speakers pack a battery and are considered
portable; others require mains power to operate. We've included portable speakers that will effectively double as a home Bluetooth speaker, such as the Bang & Olufsen BeoLit 15, for the convenience of
people interested in a speaker capable of catering to both needs.
Smaller, inexpensive speakers, priced below $119, have their own review. These speakers are way too small to deliver sound comparable to the speakers featured in this review. Most of them have been designed
as portable speakers small enough that they'll disappear in a backpack, suitable for use when you're travelling.
The Polk Audio Woodbourne
After testing 36 speakers, our listening panel recommends the Polk Audio Woodbourne as the best all rounder. Panelists found it delivered audio that's both loud and clear, with commendable
levels of deep bass, far exceeding most of the speakers it competes against. Only the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Wireless earned a higher audio score, but the difference in audio quality is marginal,
and our panelists didn't believe the Zeppelin warranted a price tag that's twice as expensive.
Best value for money
The Polk Audio Woodbourne is a 180-watt cabinet speaker capable of top-tier audio performance. It supports both Apple AirPlay and Bluetooth.
The Polk Audio Woodbourne is a 180W cabinet speaker housing two 5.25-inch mid-range drivers and two 1-inch dome tweeters. It doesn't have a dedicated sub-woofer, but this doesn't stop it from catering well to low
These drivers are placed in an acoustically sealed MDF cabinet at varying angles; the fact they're outward facing along a curvature is intended to create the illusion that sound is emanating from more speakers
than one. It's still no better than a capable two-speaker system, like the respectable Yamaha NX500, but it comes close enough to compete. We go as far as saying it's a serious contender.
Sure, it's larger than most bluetooth speakers, but good sound necessitates space and the Woodbourne makes good use of its size by allocating its large drivers plenty of real estate. When listening to music
at high volumes, each instrument is easily discernable
across the various frequencies. You can isolate the piano from the snare drums and the bass guitar from the vocals. This separation conveys an enveloping
sense of atmosphere.
The Woodbourne excelled where other speakers fell short. It never 'distorted' and wasn't 'flat' when listening to "Fast car" by Tracy Chapman, like the Sony ZR7 or the Bang & Olufsen BeoPlay A2. Nor did our
listening panel believe the 'bass lacked punch' or was 'harsh', when listening to "New Dorp New York" by SBTRKT, like both the Beats Pill+ and the Yamaha WX-030.
Its sound was described as 'impressive' and 'warm', with 'crisp vocals and 'plenty of bass' on the low end. The panelists noted its level of sustainable volume, calling it loud, 'impressive' and noting it had 'great presence'. Overall, the panelists were impressed with the detail the Woodbourne delivered, particularly its 'excellent' handling of low-end frequencies and the mid-range. And although a solitary
panelist described its high-end performance as 'a little flat', this was only after characterising its sound as 'warm overall'.
The three-person panel awarded the Polk Audio Woodbourne a listening score of 83%, beating 34 other speakers tested, with only the more expensive Bowers&Wilkins Zeppelin Wireless scoring higher at 88%. The
panel found both speakers suited to bass-heavy songs, offering crisp vocals that were warm overall; but they noted the Zeppelin's separation was simply unmatched. This is not a case of one speaker being
bad, more a distinction between great and excellent.
Let's be clear: the Bowers&Wilkins is the speaker to buy if money is no consideration and you want the very best a Bluetooth speaker can offer. We have immense respect for its audio prowess, striking
design and the use of modern wireless technologies. In fact, the original Zeppelin kick started the entire Bluetooth home audio category eight or nine years ago. But you pay more than twice as much for little more performance than the Polk Audio.
The Polk Audio Woodbourne is the high performing speaker that costs less. At $488 this speaker outperformed the $799 Bang&Olufsen BeoLit 15, the $649 Marshall Stanmore and even the $699 Ruark MR1 bookshelf speakers.
One of the reasons why the Polk Audio Woodbourne taps into audio performance previously reserved for bookshelf speakers is its size. At 60cm wide, 17cm tall and 17cm
deep, this isn't a small speaker. It's also heavy,at 8 kilograms. Because this is a mains powered speaker and not designed to be moved, the weight serves it well, making sure the body sits planted.
One of the difficulties associated with making a powerful speaker has to do with keeping the body stationary and rigid. Music, like a painting, should start with the blank canvas. You don't want the speaker's
body adding anything to the sound with a creak. Nor do you want the power of the drivers to cause it to skid backwards or forwards. In this pursuit -- with solid MDF construction and hefty weight -- the Polk
Audio Woodbourne succeeds.
A 60cm footprint is tough to hide, but why bother,when a device looks this good? The Woodbourne -- as its name implies -- is finished with a mahogany veneer. Stretching across the
ribs of its MDF body is a similarly pleasant textured fabric. Then also consider this speaker hosts wireless technologies, the likes of Bluetooth and Apple AirPlay. Pair all that with sleek wire-free technology and you have a speaker showpiece that only adds to a room's aesthetics.
A worthwhile feature separating the Woodbourne from its rival speakers is the inclusion of an intuitive remote. The prevailing impression is a device designed to work with its remote right from the beginning. It's as attractive as the cabinet speaker itself. We don't believe a remote control should be the reason why people gravitate towards the Woodbourne, but it's certainly as welcome
as icing is to a cake.
Who else likes our pick
Sound & Image's Jez Ford concludes "Beautiful to behold, spectacular in its impact, and generally friendly in operation, the price of the Polk Audio Woodbourne is entirely justified, and this fine piece
of audio equipment goes straight on our recommendation list."
PC Magazine's Tim Gideon says "There's no denying the [Polk Audio Woodbourne] offers powerful, exciting sound. If a thunderous low frequency response, bright highs, and serious power are what your living
room needs, the Woodbourne is worth a look."
CHOICE expert, and former Good Gear Guide reviewer, Elias Plastiras says "If you want powerful sound from a self-contained and relatively small wireless speaker system, the Polk Audio Woodbourne is an excellent choice.
Its output is surprisingly punchy for a unit of its size, and even allows you to feel the bass in most typical environments."
Little over a hundred reviews have been written on the Polk Audio Woodbourne. The majority (77%) of reviews award it four or five stars, though its average sites at 3.9 stars from a small percentage (15%)
of two- and one-star reviews.
Flaws but not deal breakers
Speaker technology takes a relatively long time to advance. Unlike a smartphone or a computer, which have annual refresh cycles, it's not uncommon for speakers to have product cycles in excess of five years. It's hard to improve on top-tier sound.
This is one of the reasons why the Polk Audio is such a steal. While its price has almost halved since its original 2013/14 release, because advancements in audio are incremental, it continues
to outperform most of its competitors.
Other technologies in the Woodbourne have fared less well. Its version of Bluetooth, for instance, doesn't support a low energy mode. This means the speaker can't be turned on remotely from a smartphone,
whereas other speakers -- such as the Bowers&Wilkins Zeppelin Wireless -- can.
Worse yet is its version of Wi-Fi. While the Woodbourne will work with Apple AirPlay, it only supports the Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b protocol. By today's standards, it's ancient. Downsides (over Wi-Fi) include a marginally
shorter range, and a much slower speed of transferring data, even when it is compared to a single band wireless 802.11n network.
Bowers&Wilkins Zeppelin Wireless
One of the reasons we recommend the Woodbourne is because it strikes an excellent balance between performance and price. But if money is no consideration and you have a thousand dollars to drop on a home
Bluetooth speaker, then we unequivocally recommend the Bowers&Wilkins Zeppelin Wireless. Our listening panel awarded it the highest listening score of 88%. That's a whole 5% more than the next best
speaker, the Polk Audio Woodbourne.
The Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Wireless is the highest scoring speaker in our review, dominating all 35 other speakers with its audio performance score, and only held back by a prohibitive price tag.
Beneath the Zeppelin's grille are five speakers pushing 150-watts of power, including two 1-inch tweeters, two 3.5-inch drivers and a 6-inch subwoofer. Music is played back faithfully, tending
to all of the frequencies with fidelity. This means the songs you listen to differ little from the artist's intentions.
The difference in audio performance between the Zeppelin Wireless and the Polk Audio Woodbourne is negligible. But Zeppelin Wireless excels where the Woodbourne falters, with a suite of
cutting-edge connectivity options. The modern Zeppelin supports dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Spotify Connect and a version of Bluetooth that supports low-energy operations; options that make using it more
Like the Woodbourne, it conceals connections at the back of its base -- including Ethernet and USB ports -- and it features a few discrete physical controls. This, too, is a hefty speaker, with a span of 66cm,
a height of 19cm and a depth of 18cm. Fortunately it too has a design that you'll want to show off.
Ministry of Sound Audio M
No other speaker pushes the value-for-dollar envelope quite like the Ministry of Sound Audio M. It costs a fraction of the Polk Audio and the Zeppelin, at $128, yet its score is in the same ballpark. This
speaker beat 27 rivals, including speakers from Bose, JBL, Marley and Bang&Olufsen, most of which cost a lot more money.
Best budget buy
When it comes to price for performance, Ministry of Sound Audio M scores notably higher than you'd expect from a budget price tag. This speaker cost $128 at the time of review.
But there are limitations. The Audio M's cylindrical speaker contains a 4.5-inch bass driver and a 1-inch tweeter. Compared to the recommended speakers above, it's small, standing 29cm,
measuring 20cm wide and 20cm deep. That means it's an easy speaker to hide, but that small size affects its overall audio quality.
The Audio M's soundstage is narrow. Different instruments in a song can sound like they're overlapping one another, leading to a lack of clarity and what is known as 'muddy' sound. This is particularly
noticeable at high volumes, approximately 70% to max.
But the audio below 70% is loud enough to fill a small-medium sized room comfortably. Our panel gave it a listening score of 78%. It earned the same for its overall score, with its range performance lowering
the average, but ease of use pulling it back up.
And a couple more features are worth noting. The first is an embedded NFC chip, which means compatible devices can be paired just with a tap. We're also fond of its ability
to pair with a second Audio M speaker for a louder, more immersive playback experience.
A note on Wi-Fi multiroom speakers
Where Bluetooth is predominantly used to manage a single speaker, Wi-Fi has enough bandwidth to control four or five speakers from a single smartphone or tablet, each speaker scattered across different
rooms in a home. So a song can be played on one speaker or cast to all of them. It’s even possible to divide the network into separate zones, to play two songs at the same time.
But there’s no need to go and buy all five speakers at once. These systems are modular, which means you can upgrade over time. The speakers must belong to the same brand; Wi-Fi speakers from Bose,
for instance, won’t work as intended with the speakers from Sonos. Modular speakers, then, are less about buying a speaker and more about investing in an ecosystem.
There's no point in buying a single Wi-Fi speaker. They're generally more expensive, and our listening panels struggled to notice any difference in sound. And our testers found them harder to set up.
For more information on their performance, you can read our review of four ecosystems here.
Will a portable battery powered speaker cut it?
Portable speakers are an effective way to fill a small or medium-size room with your favourite tunes. They're also convenient -- you can pick them up, take them them outside and keep the party going.
But portability comes with some concessions. For starters, genuine portability means a speaker that's smaller in size. And no mains power means more space devoted to heavy batteries and less to sound quality.
Home systems are unapologetically large. They offer bigger drivers, better performing amplifiers and a heavier chassis. These type of systems tap into performance that's unavailable to portable speakers. That means enveloping audio that reaches higher volumes with minimal distortion.
That's not to say portable speakers can't be powerful; they can, only most of them aren't as powerful as a dedicated home Bluetooth speaker. The Bang & Olufsen BeoLit 15 comes to mind, a Bluetooth speaker
donning rectangular prism styling, a leather carry handle and a battery that'll operate for a claimed 24 hours. Our panel awarded it a listening score of 80%, but its excellent range and ease of use
lifted its overall score to 82%. You'll pay for its versatility, however, with a retail price tag of $799.
What about soundbars?
Most modern soundbars support Bluetooth and will play music from a smartphone, tablet or computer as easily as the Polk Audio Woodbourne or Zeppelin Wireless. These wider systems produce a broader stereo
image and most of them are more powerful. Many come with standalone wireless subwoofers that'll eclipse the low-end performance of almost all of the speakers featured in this review.
That makes a strong case to overlook a home Bluetooth speaker in favour of a soundbar. We don't believe this solution is ideal for everyone, but if you're spending around a thousand dollars, want
a speaker to go with your television, and think it's already in an ideal place in your home, then it's worth considering. Why buy both a Bluetooth speaker and a soundbar when one system can
do it all?
Soundbars are intended by design for watching a movie or a television show. Modern models come with digital signal processing (DSP) technology capable of creating a virtual multichannel sound experience.
For this reason, our listening panel assessed both stereo and multi-channel capabilities for 23 different soundbars.
The soundbars that earned higher stereo scores were more expensive, such as the $2499 Yamaha YSP-5600BSW and the $999 LG Music Flow HS8. Less expensive soundbars, such as the $399 Samsung HW-K360, earned
a scored 67% for stereo listening and would be suitable for a night of casual music playback.
If you want to spend $1000 or less on a device with music playback in mind, then a home Bluetooth speaker is the specialty tool of choice.
A final word
We've identified the best three Bluetooth speakers across the price range. The best all rounder is the Polk Audio Woodbourne, and the best value for money is the Ministry of Sound Audio M. But if you want
the very best Bluetooth speaker money can buy, go for the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Wireless.