Review: The best portable Bluetooth speaker for summer 2021

Bluetooth speaker review: UE v Sony v JBL.
Battle of the Bluetooth speakers: UE v Sony v JBL. Photo credit: Newshub.

If you have a few dollars left over from festival season and haven't had your fix of loud music and summer vibes, a Bluetooth speaker can be the ideal companion for beach trips and pool parties.

But what makes a good Bluetooth speaker? More importantly, which one should you pluck out of a crowded market?

I've been using three of the best options over the past few weeks and here are my thoughts.

The contestants

There are a lot of Bluetooth speakers out there, but only a few are really equipped to deal with sand, spilt drinks and occasional dips in the pool.

That's why the JBL Charge 4, UE Boom 3 and Sony XB33 are the models I'm reviewing for this feature.

The style

A speaker is more than just a sound box, it's an accessory. With that in mind, was it ever a contest as to who had the best speaker design?

The sleek, refined look of the UE Boom 3 is difficult to look past, despite being almost eight years old. UE really coined the recognisable can-shaped design with their first Boom in 2013, and still does styling best in my opinion.

The other speakers aren't unpleasant to look at. The JBL Charge 4 looks stylish in either blue or black, and is one good-looking oblong. I'm disappointed we don't get the full 12-colour palette available in the rest of the world or the ability to customise your own speaker online, but I suppose you can't have everything in this COVID-19 hellscape.

The Sony XB33 is less attractive than its competition. Exposed speaker cones beneath a matte-black mesh might be a good look for a car speaker, but you need it to look pretty sitting on the deck too.

I also don't like its LED party strips, and while I get the rave vibe Sony was going for, I feel it looks tackier than it actually is.

Clear winner: UE Boom 3

UE Boom 3 bluetooth speaker.
The UE Boom 3. Photo credit: Newshub.

The features

For me, a Bluetooth speaker is a simple concept - I just want to quickly turn it on and crank it up. If I want to get the beats going on the beach, I have no time for apps or fiddling with the EQ.

Despite on-point styling, Ultimate Ears (UE) still has a lot to learn from its competitors when it comes to putting together a simple speaker. 

The Boom 3 features a very outdated Micro USB port and while a separately wireless charging pad is cool, there's no excuse for outdated hardware on a premium device.

UE has implemented a 'magic button' on the Boom 3 - a feature meant to help navigate through songs via the streaming apps. Customising the magic button involves a boring setup that's entirely worth skipping, however your Boom will chime annoyingly to remind you if you haven't done it.

I'm a big fan of what the Charge 4 is packing. It has a USB-C port you can't take for granted, very sturdy buttons, a 7500mAh battery that doubles as a power bank and best of all, an all-important AUX port! 

Finally, my iPod Nano is usable in the modern world.

The Sony XB33 differs from the other speakers. Where they're both content with just being the oversized toilet paper tube that plays music, the XB33 insists on being an all-in-one party system.

I'm talking customisable lighting and an in-built power bank that rivals the mighty Charge 4, with one minor caveat: the battery capacity is a tiny 2700mAh, which is almost three times smaller than the JBL.

One cool feature of the XB33 is it's implementation of NFC for quick pairing. Switching between paired devices is as simple as waving your phone above the speaker, which I found to be an innovative way of incorporating new technology.

Close winner: JBL Charge 4


The JBL Charge 4 bluetooth speaker.
The JBL Charge 4. Photo credit: Newshub.

The sound

So, the moment you've been waiting for: which speaker has the best sound?

The Charge 4.

The Charge 4 has an unrivalled clarity and rich, powerful bass that doesn't come at the expense of mids and highs. I was shocked at the volume the Charge 4 can put out, and just how crystal-clear it is, even when the speaker is absolutely cranking.

The Sony XB33 comes in a very close second. For its size, you get a good amount of bass and a rich range of sound that hits on every note. Only a song with oodles of bass will send everything fuzzy and kill a lot of the midrange.

Languishing in a very distant third is the poor UE Boom 3. 

By itself, it sounds alright. Against either of the competition, the cracks really start to show.

Putting out a bit of bass that comes at the expense of the rest of the sound, the Boom 3 just doesn't have the grunt, depth or clarity either of the other speakers have. And when you do get decent bass, it's marred by a very weak top end that dampens any song you're playing.

As someone who has at least two UE devices in house, I was shocked at just how good the competition is.

Close winner: JBL Charge 4

The Sony XB33 bluetooth speaker.
The Sony XB33. Photo credit: Newshub.

The cost

The RRP of each speaker was supplied to Newshub as follows:

  • UE Boom 3:  $279.90
  • Sony XB33:  $248
  • JBL Charge 4:  $249.95

The verdict

One-in-three households in Aotearoa have a UE speaker in it, making New Zealand the highest UE ownership per capita in the world. After seeing what the rest of the market has to offer, I think that's unjustified.

If you're looking for a Bluetooth speaker that pumps out sounds, takes a beating at the beach and looks damn good doing it, leave the fashion statement behind and consider a JBL or Sony. 

Your summer buddies will thank you for it.

If I had to choose an overall winner, I'd be inclined to go for the Charge 4. Its sleek design, strong range of useful features and brilliant battery life let it edge out the XB-33 - but I would totally understand someone else favouring Sony's speaker instead.

Oskar was supplied each of the three speakers reviewed for this article