When earbuds get in the way, and you’d rather cast the music into the air so it can be heard by anyone in earshot, portable speaker options abound. Stereo speakers with decent sound can travel with you easily.
Moveable speakers are small, lightweight and often operate on their own power. The battery is either rechargeable or there’s a compartment to insert your own disposable batteries. The most adaptable portable speakers come with an AC or car adapter. The least expensive models are passive speakers, meaning that they rely entirely on power from the player.
Where being able to pack petite speakers in oversubscribed luggage is essential, audio volume will be adequate for hotel room listening. However, if you want to rock a party with your iPod in the park or at the beach, you’ll want a heavier-duty portable speaker system.
The surest way to plug any manufacturer’s music player into portable speakers is by connecting a line to your player’s standard 3.5mm mini-jack. A retractable cable is often hard-wired to the speaker or speaker system and you simply tug and plug it in like earphones. Beyond MP3 players, this method is compatible with the earphone jack on smartphones, portable CD and DVD players, notebooks, eBooks and some camcorders. (If the line from the speaker is shorter than you’d like, you can always get a 3.5mm male to stereo mini female extension cable.) When the speaker doesn’t have a tethered line, it may come with a cable you plug into the speaker system’s auxiliary audio input.
If you own an Apple iPod and the speaker system has an iPod dock, you should dock the player rather than use the earphone jack. The dock’s digital connection offers higher quality than the earphone’s analog output, and you may be able to charge the iPod, too. Ideally, the speaker system has both a dock and an auxiliary audio line input, so you can accommodate an iPod or non-iPod.
You can be extremely choosy when it comes to color and style. Unlike the black or silver finish and boxy geometry common to home audio, portable speakers come in a variety of hues and shapes. Some look like yo-yos; others are trim and wide; still others are slim and tall and have built-in handles.
Some portable speaker systems are more robust than others. Better-sounding systems contain more, or larger, drivers but the speakers also weigh more. Don’t expect boisterous volume from a featherweight speaker. The difference between a model measured in pounds versus one calculated in ounces can mean the difference between listening to decent audio versus hearing distorted sound. In a quiet, private setting the distinction may not count, but it does become important when you need to crank up the volume.
There are heftier portable sound systems that double as on-the-fly public address systems and accept an iPod as readily as a microphone. Such powered speakers are in a different class than a personal model since they can put out 40 watts and weigh 17 pounds. For such heavy-lifting models, you’ll likely want to pack one in its own rolling luggage.
Beyond docks and auxiliary audio line inputs, some portable speakers are designed with a USB input or card slot for playing music directly from a storage device or memory card. At the other end of the digital time line is the conventional “boom box” with stereo speakers flanking a CD/cassette player and AM/FM radio complete with battery compartment and carrying handle. If your idea is to roller-dance on pavement while balancing a boom box on a shoulder, you can’t beat the impact of a boom box versus rollerblading with earbuds and a headband-embedded iPod nano.
Wireless connectivity is possible with a handful of portable speakers. Typically, they use a Bluetooth connection so that the speaker can be placed at up to about 30 feet away from a Bluetooth-compatible music player. (Bluetooth-enabled players include iPads, iPhones and many notebooks.)
Other enhancements to consider: a digital sound processor such as SRS TruBass that adds extra bass and more clarity on mid-range frequencies; a down-firing subwoofer; and color LEDs that indicate charging status on the built-in battery. Some speakers double as a travel alarm clock with a readout to remind you that body and time zone may not be in agreement.
So, earphones don’t have to cuff your lifestyle. Shedding buds in favor of portable speakers is a handy option you’ll want on those occasions when you’re alone and unencumbered, almost alone or in a group setting.