Zak Khan / Android Authority
There may be a natural gravitational pull towards smart speakers if you’re looking for home audio in 2022. Voice and casting controls are inherently handy — even Sonos now has its own voice assistant — and companies like Amazon and Google offer inexpensive speakers that punch above their weight to get you in the door of their smart home ecosystems. Yes, many audiophile speakers still lack smart features, but even prestigious labels like Bang & Olufsen are implementing technology like AirPlay and Google Cast.
However, there are drawbacks to smart speakers and sometimes a simple Bluetooth speaker may be the better option. This is why.
Sound Guys’ picks: The best Bluetooth speakers money can buy
Starting playback on a smart speaker can sometimes be a minor hassle, depending on how well it works together. When it works, it’s genius – asking for a song and hearing it right away feels like magic, and casting through an app like Spotify can enable some unique features, such as multi-room audio.
However, sometimes apps can’t detect smart speakers, and even if you have a reliable connection, it usually takes a while to select an output and establish a pairing. Voice commands, meanwhile, can be a hit and miss proposition, influenced by your accent and choice of music. Scottish accents, for example, are notoriously difficult for assistants to understand, and good luck asking for an artist or song with a foreign name. When I want to listen to Nachtmahr, I don’t even have to ask out loud anymore – I go straight to the Spotify app.
Turn on a speaker, fire up audio in an app and boom, you’re listening.
Bluetooth speakers do require pairing and can often only be paired with one device at a time, but the trade-off is simplicity. Turn on a speaker, fire up audio in an app and boom, you’re listening. You’re not limited to specific apps, and you don’t need to configure any settings for a platform like Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant.
This can be especially helpful if you’re buying a speaker for someone less tech-savvy, such as a child or elderly parent. But even we tech journalists sometimes want to go to extremes, like putting on music for a quick shower or a backyard cookout.
More control in social environments
Adam Molina / Android Authority
An often ignored truth, it seems, is that smart speakers are only great if you live alone or with people you can trust not to hijack your music. Since music services usually limit you to streaming on one device at a time, it’s easy for a kid, roommate, or anyone else in your house to interrupt your listening with a voice command, like the time my son accidentally plays the gym’s soundtrack. my phone so he could hear Elmo in bed. While you can sometimes assign separate music accounts to individual voice profiles, not everyone knows how and not everyone is willing or able to create additional accounts.
To see: How to set up Amazon Alexa voice profiles
With or without voice protection, there’s the problem of casting someone to a speaker when you want to use it or keep it quiet. I’ve found casting is less of a problem – 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 great if you live alone or with people you can trust not to hijack your music.
All these worries disappear with Bluetooth. There’s of course the potential for abuse through re-pairing or multi-device connections (when speakers support them), but the barriers are high enough to make Bluetooth speakers better for restricting access.
While not all Bluetooth speakers are battery-powered portable models, many of them are. That usually makes them more flexible, both inside and outside the house. If you have a typical smart speaker, such as the Amazon Echo or Sonos One, you can only use it anywhere that has Wi-Fi and a power outlet. The Bluetooth-based JBL Charge, on the other hand, works just as well on the beach as it does in a workshop or bathroom.
Crucially, “smart” features almost always disappear when there’s no Wi-Fi. Assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant won’t work properly or at all without an internet connection. Sonos’ new voice technology works around this limitation, but even then you can only control music outside of Wi-Fi if you’ve connected the company’s Bluetooth-enabled Move or Roam products to a phone or tablet. (Sonos won’t let you use Bluetooth unless you’ve previously set up a speaker over Wi-Fi, we should note.)
Even if there’s Wi-Fi where you’re going, Bluetooth speakers can be more convenient for travel. Products that rely on Wi-Fi have 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 with the risk of encountering tethered data caps.
The pitfalls of Bluetooth
Before you pull the trigger on a Bluetooth speaker, it’s worth remembering the drawbacks. The biggest, of course, is that you might miss those smart features. Even if you don’t care about voice commands, stereo and multiroom groups are a lot easier to create and control with smart technology. All grouping features with Bluetooth speakers are usually brand-exclusive, where they already exist. And no smarts means no integration into smart home automation, and probably no way to link to a media streamer without introducing lag.
Thanks to the easy audio output of Bluetooth speakers, you can hear everything from your phone or tablet. That includes interface sounds and the sounds of any app you switch to, so you can’t load things like games or YouTube without disrupting music in the background. Phone calls completely stop the audio until you hang up or mute.
In some cases, you can get better sound quality from smart speakers because Wi-Fi offers more bandwidth for formats like lossless audio and Dolby Atmos. If you’re a particularly discerning audiophile, smart speakers may be the best choice for home listening. Recent Bluetooth codecs offer surprisingly good sound, mind you, and you have to spend a lot of money to hear the nuances of lossless formats.
Dig deeper: Bluetooth Codecs 101
The last problem is the range. Bluetooth 5.x devices can theoretically handle a connection of up to 240 meters, but in practice this is usually less than in practice due to walls and other factors. Bluetooth 4.x officially comes out at 33 feet (10 meters). That means you often have to keep a speaker and its audio source close by, which can be inconvenient in situations like parties and outdoor activities.
Do you opt for smart speakers, Bluetooth speakers or a mix of both?
What are the future prospects for Bluetooth speakers?
Despite the allure of smart technology, it seems that Bluetooth speakers have become indispensable. They serve specific interests, mainly simplicity and portability, and upgrades to Bluetooth itself keep them relevant. It doesn’t hurt that Bluetooth is sometimes cheaper, though big batteries can drive up the cost of portable options.
Expect both types of speakers to live side by side until a fundamental shift aligns their functions. It’s not hard to imagine Sonos-style offline assistants spreading to more brands, or a day when voice and casting access are more sophisticated. At this point, you can choose the format that best suits your needs with peace of mind.
Next one: This is the first setting I change on a smart Google speaker