In the era of smart speakers, sometimes Bluetooth is still king


A JBL Flip 6 Bluetooth speaker sitting on wet sand by the ocean.
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Zak Khan / Android Authority

If you’re shopping for a home audio system in 2022, there may be natural gravity towards smart speakers. Voice and broadcast control is inherently useful – even Sonos now has its own voice assistant – and companies like Amazon and Google are offering low-cost speakers that trump their weight to get you in the doorway of their smart home ecosystems. Yes, many audiophile speakers are still devoid of smart features, but even prestigious labels like Bang & Olufsen are introducing technologies like AirPlay and Google Cast.

However, there are drawbacks to smart speakers, and sometimes a simple Bluetooth speaker is better. That’s why.

Choice of sound engineers: The Best Bluetooth Speakers You Can Buy

The simplicity of Bluetooth

Megaboom 3 Bluetooth Speaker by UE

Starting playback on the smart speaker can sometimes be a bit of a hassle, depending on how well it interacts. When it works, it’s ingenious – asking for a song and hearing it immediately feels like magic, and casting through an app like Spotify can activate some unique features like multi-room audio.

However, sometimes apps may not detect smart speakers, and even if you have a solid connection, it usually takes a few minutes to select an output and establish a connection. In the meantime, voice commands can be a random suggestion depending on your accent and music choice. For example, a Scottish accent is notoriously difficult for assistants to understand, and good luck finding an artist or song with a foreign name. If I want to listen to Nachtmahr, I don’t even ask out loud anymore – I go straight to the Spotify app.

Turn on the speaker, unmute the app and you’re listening!

Bluetooth speakers must be paired and can often only be paired with one device at a time, but the trade-off is simplicity. Turn on the speaker, unmute the app and you’re listening! You are not limited to specific applications and you do not need to configure settings for a platform such as Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant.

This can be especially handy if you’re buying the speaker for someone less tech-savvy, like a child or an elderly parent. But even we tech journalists sometimes want to get down to business, whether we turn on music for a quick shower or a backyard picnic.

More control in the social environment

Image of the UE Hyperboom portable Bluetooth speaker.

Adam Molina / Android Authority

The seemingly often ignored truth is that smart speakers are only good if you live alone or with people you can trust not to steal your music. Because music services typically limit you to streaming to one device at a time, a child, roommate, or anyone else in your home can easily interrupt your listening with a voice command — like the time my son accidentally stopped the gym soundtrack on my phone so he can hear Elmo in bed. While you can sometimes assign separate music accounts to separate voice profiles, not everyone knows how to do this, and not everyone is willing or able to create additional accounts.

See: How to set up Amazon Alexa voice profiles

With or without voice protection, there is a problem when someone switches to the speaker when you want to use it or silence it. I’ve found casting to be less problematic – it requires deliberate intent and a device on the same Wi-Fi network as the speaker – but it’s still a concern.

Smart speakers are only good if you live alone or with people you can trust not to steal your music.

All these worries disappear with Bluetooth. Of course, there is potential for abuse by re-pairing or connecting multiple devices (when the speakers support them), but the barriers are high enough to make Bluetooth speakers better at restricting access.


Sonos roams the outdoor lawn using speaker and phone

While not all Bluetooth speakers are battery-powered portable models, many are. This tends to make them more flexible both inside and outside the home. If you have a typical smart speaker like the Amazon Echo or Sonos One, you can only use it anywhere there is Wi-Fi and an outlet. The Bluetooth-based JBL Charge, on the contrary, works both at the beach and in the workshop or bathroom.

It’s important to note that “smart” features almost always disappear when Wi-Fi is not available. Assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant won’t work properly or work at all without an internet connection. Sonos’ new voice technology gets around this limitation, but even so, you can only control music away from Wi-Fi if you have Bluetooth-enabled Move or Roam products connected to your phone or tablet. (It should be noted that Sonos won’t let you use Bluetooth unless you’ve previously set up the speaker via Wi-Fi.)

Even if there’s Wi-Fi where you’re going, Bluetooth speakers can be more travel-friendly. Wi-Fi dependent products need to be manually connected to each new router, which can be more trouble than it’s worth. You can use your phone as a hotspot at the risk of limited data.

Pitfalls of Bluetooth

The Anker Soundcore Flare is shown from top to bottom so the logo and LED indicators are clearly visible.

Before you pull the trigger on a Bluetooth speaker, it’s worth remembering the downsides. The biggest one, obviously, is that you can skip these smart features. Even if you don’t care about voice commands, stereo and multi-room groups are much easier to create and control with smart technology. Any grouping features with Bluetooth speakers tend to be brand exclusive, if they exist at all. And the lack of smart features means no integration with smart home automation systems, and likely no latency-free connectivity to a media streamer.

Simple Bluetooth speaker audio output means you hear all coming from your phone or tablet. This includes interface sounds and the sounds of whatever app you switch to, so you can’t load things like games or YouTube without interrupting the background music. Phone calls will completely stop the sound until you hang up or mute the phone.

In some cases, you can get better sound quality from smart speakers as Wi-Fi offers more bandwidth for formats like lossless audio and Dolby Atmos. If you’re a particularly discerning music lover, smart speakers can be a great choice for home listening. Keep in mind that the latest Bluetooth codecs do deliver surprisingly good sound, and you need to spend a lot of money to hear the nuances of the lossless formats.

Dig deeper: Bluetooth codecs 101

The last question is range. Bluetooth 5.x devices can theoretically maintain a connection up to 800 feet (240 meters), but in practice this is usually less due to walls and other factors. Bluetooth 4.x officially reaches 33 feet (10 meters). This means you often need to keep the speaker and its sound source in close proximity, which can be inconvenient in situations like parties and outdoor activities.

Do you prefer smart speakers, Bluetooth speakers, or a combination of the two?

249 votes

What are the future prospects for Bluetooth speakers?

Bose portable smart speaker

Despite the pull of smart technology, it seems like Bluetooth speakers aren’t going anywhere. They serve specific interests, primarily simplicity and portability, and updates to Bluetooth itself keep them up to date. It doesn’t hurt that Bluetooth is sometimes cheaper, although larger batteries can drive up the cost of portable options.

Expect both speaker types to live side by side until a fundamental shift equalizes their performance. It’s not hard to imagine Sonos-style standalone assistants expanding to more brands, or a day when voice and streaming access become more advanced. For now, you can feel safe choosing the format that best suits your needs.

Next: This is the first setting I change on any Google smart speaker.

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