You are probably wondering why two sailing vagabonds are writing about the best boat speakers for sailing. Well, you might not know this, but both of Two Get Lost are professionally trained musicians. Emily is a theatre soprano with a haunting, ethereal voice that could charm the fish from the ocean. Adam is an audio technician, with a voice that can scare away pirates and stun a seagull at 50 yards. He is largely banned from singing aboard.
We both love music, and we’ve really gotten into audiobooks too since we moved on to Hot Chocolate. Both of them are a great way to raise your spirits, and keep you entertained while leaving your hands free to work. We love an audiobook when we’re tidying the boat, tackling routine maintenance or even to pass a night watch – they’re perfect for passing the time without taking up too much of your attention (you can get your free trial of any two audiobooks here).
Hot Chocolate even came with inbuilt speakers, carefully installed in classy rosewood backboxes by her lovely previous owners. Unfortunately, not long their glorious debut, a rat decided they were food and ate through the cable loom in four or five different places. RIP speaker system, 2001 – 2001.
When we first moved aboard, being the poor nomads that we are, we contented ourselves with playing music directly from our phones and laptops. But we always knew that when the budget permitted, we would either recommission the original audio system or invest in new one. We ended going down the latter path, for reasons that will be explored in this article.
We thought we’d talk a little about how we chose the best boat speakers for sailing and share some of our experiences auditioning different speakers, in the hope that it might help the curious reader to select a portable speaker for sailing, backpacking, camping or even just the odd weekend away. [Link to skip straight to our top picks]
How Far Can You Throw It?
First of all, what should you look for in a portable boat speaker? The beauty of a portable speaker is that it can accompany on your adventures, wherever you go. In our view, that means it should be able to stand up to a certain level of abuse – drops and knocks, water, sand, extreme heat and cold.
Most manufacturers publish an “IP rating”, which stands for “ingress protection”, and is designed to give you an idea of what the device can stand up to. If you’re a nerd like me you can read more about IP ratings here, but otherwise all your really need to know is that the first number after “IP” tells you how resistant it is to things like dust and sand, and the second one tells you about water. Water resistances of 5 or above means it can stand up to being washed down with a garden hose, which is enough for most people.
IP ratings only tell you so much though. It’s also useful to look at whether the speaker is drop-proof – some manufacturers will state something like “impact resistant to 3 meters”. Our top pick in this test actually floats in water, which gives us a great chance to practice our man overboard drill if we ever drop it in the sea. You can even find “destruction tests” for some popular models on YouTube, where somebody drags them behind a car and sets fire to them and in one cases, shoots them with a 12-gauge shotgun (!) to test how rugged they are.
Battery Life Of The Best Boat Speakers
Go-anywhere toughness is one aspect, but if you’re heading off the grid you’re going to want to think about power as well. Power breaks down into battery life, charging, and ancillary charging. With today’s ultra-efficient T-path amplifiers and lithium batteries, it’s not at all unreasonable to get 24 hours of continuous playback from a portable speaker nowadays. Even our best budget pick, which you can normally snap up for less than £25, held out for 22 hours at low volume and over 12 at max in third-party tests.
If you’re eyeing up outdoor speakers for a multi-day festival or a week in the woods, you might be tempted to swing for something with a battery life measured in days. But massive batteries normally cost a lot more, and tend to be found in speakers that might exceed your needs in other areas – they might be very (VERY) loud, or have built-in lighting or even microphones for karaoke. As an alternative, consider a speaker than can be recharged via USB. You can recharge it from a car, or bring along a portable power bank like the brilliant Anker Powercore 20100 to massively extend your private disco. It’s often more cost-effective, and it’s definitely more versatile than buying a huge speaker with features you don’t really need.
As an aside, a lot of medium or large portable speakers actually moonlight as power banks nowadays. They provide charging for other USB devices like phones and tablets via a second USB port, which isn’t something we thought we’d use but actually has come in kind of useful. Whether size matters or not will depend on the kind of travelling you do. A larger speaker will typically be louder and able to enunciate lower base notes, because of physics and reasons that we won’t get into. If you’re backpacking around Sri Lanka you want something pretty light and small. In our case, the outdoor speaker will do most of its travelling between the boat and a beach, so it wasn’t too much of a concern. We’ve provided options for the best ultra-portables as well larger picks for a cruising sailboat or live-in van.
Connecting To The Best Boat Speakers
The next thing to consider is connectivity. Almost all portable speakers will sport Bluetooth of some kind, but not all Bluetooth is created equal. If you check the speaker’s specs, it should give you a Bluetooth version number like “4.1”. Higher numbers are later versions, and unlike Adam’s singing, it’s definitely gotten better over time. We find anything from 4.2 onwards gives a solid connection over a very decent, practical distance without any annoying pops, clicks or missing words. Earlier versions are a bit more prone to interference and we found them a little bit annoying for watching films.
Speaking of films, all Bluetooth has something called “latency”, which is the time gap between your phone or laptop sending the audio and the speaker receiving it, decoding it and playing it back. In practice, it means the actor’s mouth movements will always be out of sync with the words you hear when watching films over Bluetooth. Some people don’t even notice it. Some people, like Emily, find it totally unwatchable! A lot of speakers will give you a headphone jack as well, meaning you can physically connect your phone or laptop to them and get effectively zero latency. It’s a nice feature to look for if you’re a film or box-set buff.
Getting The Best Audio Quality From Your Boat Speakers
Finally, let’s talk about audio quality. Why last? Well, because audio quality is very subjective. Not only do some people just naturally prefer the tone of one speaker to another, the quality of the sound will also be heavily affected by the listening environment, the genre of music you like to listen to, the quality of the source… If you’re in a big city, you can usually go to a department store and audition different options side by side (although they’ll only have big-name brands and not any of our thrifty budget picks).
If not, listening to YouTube comparisons can help you to get a feel, or you can even order a few from Amazon, audition them at home WHILE BEING VERY VERY CAREFUL WITH THEM and return the ones you don’t love. Just make sure you’re buying directly from Amazon and not a third-party marketplace reseller, and check and double-check the returns policy to make sure you don’t get stuck with half a dozen speakers.
But the real reason we’ve left audio quality until last? Because honestly, with today’s cost-effective digital amplifiers and drivers, most modern portable speakers really do sound “good enough”. If you’re a bit of an audiophile there are standout rigs, don’t take me wrong – and we’ll highlight the star performers in our rundown below – but for the casual listener just looking to migrate away from thin, tinny laptop speakers to something with a little more feeling… honestly, even the cheaper options sound very acceptable.
But we’ll spare you the finer details of frequency response curves and signal-to-noise ratios… unless you really really want to know, in which case comment below and we’ll write a follow-up article for nerds.
For bonus points, a lot of modern speakers have a “party mode” where you can pair many speakers together and they’ll all play in sync. It’s ostensibly for multi-room audio, so you can place speakers in different rooms and listen without annoying lag. Some will let you configure two speakers as a stereo pair (i.e. they’ll send different audio to the left and right speaker), which can make two small portables sound like a much larger system.
Audio separation is great for improving immersion in films by creating a larger “soundstage”. We only went for one speaker in the end, but it’s nice to know we could add on more if we ever feel the need. The top-end pick even lets you add one or more portable subwoofers for serious low-end grunt!
So without further ado, here are our top picks for portable travel speakers.
The Best Boat Speakers For Sailing: Ultra Affordable (Best Under £50)
You might know Chinese manufacturer Anker for their outstandingly good powerbanks. A few years ago they turned their hands to speakers, and the result was the wildly popular Soundcore and Soundcore Mini.
The Mini is about half the size of a can of Coke, but somehow packs in 16 hours of battery life, 60+ feet of Bluetooth range, AUX and SD card inputs, and even an FM radio tuner. It lacks a little in low-end because physics, but it sounds very acceptable, and more to the point it costs about £15 – which is simply incredible. At the time of writing it has an almost perfect five stars on Amazon with over 7,000 reviews. As long as you’re happy with “acceptable audio” it’s pretty much a no-brainer.
The larger Soundcore is also very, very good value. It’s double the volume, and incorporates a larger battery for up to 24 hours playback. In most tests, it hits a very respectable 16-ish hours at higher volumes, which really is enough for most people. Again, you can’t expect audio miracles from a device that costs £22 at the time of writing, but if you’re upgrading from phone or laptop speakers it’ll be night and day.
Anker use a clever trick to extend the bass end lower than it really ought to go – a flexible bass port that you can watch jumping in and out to the beat. It’s also got Bluetooth 4.2, which we find to be very solid and reliable.
There are much better sound options out there, and they’re not waterproof (although they’re more than rugged enough for general travel) – but the Anker Soundcore range just offers such outstanding value that it deserves a strong commendation for the budget-savvy nomad.
The Best Boat Speakers For Sailing: Mid Range (Under £100)
I really wanted to hate the Ultimate Ears Boom range. As a snobby audio engineer, I’d usually run a mile from anything called “Boom” – particularly when it comes in colourways called “Squad”, “Brainfreeze” and “Cherrybomb”.
But you know what? The UE Boom 2 actually sounds great. It’s got an expressive, articulate sound that stays clear and focused whatever you throw at it. There’s definitely some distortion at higher volumes, but for listening in a tent or hotel room it’s not an issue at all.
The Boom 2 is drop-proof from two meters, and waterproof to IPX7 – which means you can submerge it in a meter of water for 30 minutes and it won’t care it a bit.
Its unusual “360 degree” configuration of speakers means you don’t need to be too careful where you place it in a room, unlike traditional front-facing stereo pairs like the Anker Soundcore. It can also be ganged into stereo pairs or larger multi-room audio systems using UE’s “Party Mode”.
My main gripe with the Boom 2 were that the charging port resides under a flap on the base of the device, so you can’t charge and play music at the same time – or rather you can, but you have to lie it on its side, and it sounds a lot worse when you do.
The UE Boom 2 is actually a couple of years old now – the Boom 3 has been out for a while, as well as larger “party speakers” like the MegaBoom 3. But we like the Boom 2 for a couple of reasons – most importantly, it trades at a solid discount on Amazon, and you can pick one up for about £80 at the time of writing where the Boom 3 will set you back £130. The Boom 3 also does away with the AUX input, which is a bit of a gamebreaker for us. Without that AUX input you can’t connect a laptop directly to eliminate latency, so films will always be frustratingly out of sync. Whether that matters to you will depend on what kind of content you enjoy.
The Best Boat Speakers For Sailing: Top Notch (Under £150)
JBL Charge 4-Our Favourite!
This is the one we actually ended up buying, after many hours of painstaking deliberation! We’re a good few hundred listening-hours in, and we still just love how the Charge 4 sounds. It’s nimble and articulate, but rich, deep and authoritative in a way that makes you forget it’s the size of a pint glass.
It’s also absolutely bomb-proof!
As soon as you unbox it, the Charge 4 just screams quality – it’s covered in a satin mesh and tactile rubber, with a solid weight that feels great in the hand. The black version looks fairly grown-up, although brighter colours are available if you want to make a statement. The rugged exterior grants it extreme resistance to drops and knocks, IPX7 waterproofing, and it even floats – which is perfect for us as full-time liveaboards.
But the sound is where it the Charge 4 really shines. It’s classy and refined, with excellent clarity right through the frequency spectrum. Vocals are clear and lucid; the bass end is rich and deep while remaining very natural and tasteful. And it’s LOUD – much louder than you’ll ever want for an enclosed space like a sailboat.
There are always going to be limits on a smaller speaker, but the Charge 4 does a great job of making you forget its size. It’s got Bluetooth 4.2, which in our experience has provided a flawless connection. 3.5mm AUX input is there for films, and it even provides a second USB port that functions like a power bank for charging a phone or tablet.
If I had to be really picky, I’d criticise its “soundstage” – the single forward-facing speaker just can’t create the same sense of space and volume as a stereo pair, and unlike the Boom 2 it matters where you place it in a room. But you can gang multiple JBL speakers together into stereo pairs, or up to 100 into a multi-room audio system – so if we can ever justify the cost, we might one day add a second.
A word of warning, too – the Charge 4 isn’t svelte. It weighs about a kilogram, it’s a good 10cm in diameter and more than 20cm long. It’ll happily disappear into a rucksack, but not a purse or pocket. Again, it’s ideal for a boat or a van, but if you want to take it backpacking it’s worth hefting it in your hand to understand the size and weight.
Overall, we really love the Charge 4, and the sound quality more than makes up for its bulk.
The Runner-up – Denon Envaya DSB-250-BT
Man, I really wanted to love the Denon Envaya DSB-250-BT. When it works, it sounds AMAZING. Better than the Charge 4 that we actually bought. Better than anything other than the MiniRigs, really. Denon has an outstanding pedigree in the audio world, and it really shows in the Envaya. It’s got a grown-up sound that really doesn’t belong in a tiny portable speaker – it’s powerful and balanced, every part of the spectrum is well-defined and textured; the stereo image is incredible for a unit the size of a pencil case.
I love how it looks – others may prefer the bright poppy colours of Ultimate Ears, but the Envaya is timeless and classy, and it’s just about rugged enough for adventure travel – although nowhere near as tough as our other options.
So why didn’t we buy it for our sailboat? The key phrase in this review is “when it works”. The Envaya is supposed to use the higher-quality aptX Bluetooth codec for lower latency and top-end audio integrity. I had high hopes, but in practice I just couldn’t get it to work reliably. I don’t know if they’ve just managed to put the Bluetooth radio somewhere where it’s swimming in interference from other components… but however I positioned the Envaya, I just couldn’t get a clear, stutter-free connection.
The rich articulation of strings and vocals was plagued by low-level hiss and pop. You would miss key parts of the dialogue in films or audiobooks. It was just a deal-breaker for me. Other buyers have complained of parasitic drain that flattens the battery overnight – rendering it not quite as portable as many people would want.
Make no mistake, it’s one of the best-sounding portable speakers ever made, but it comes with compromises we couldn’t make and so didn’t quite make our list for the best boat speakers.
The “Money no object” option – MiniRig
If I didn’t live in a floating money-pit, I would buy the MiniRigs in a heartbeat. They’re made in Bristol by a collective of audio engineers, musicians and DJs. In just a few short years they’ve earnt a cult following among professional musicians and DJs, including some pretty famous faces. Also, I definitely can’t afford them.
There are three kinds of Minirig – the mini-mini, which I’ve never heard in person; the MiniRig, and the Minirig Sub. The Minirig Sub is an actual, bone-fide subwoofer that fits in a backpack runs on batteries like a conventional portable speaker. You pair it with Minirig speakers in either a 2.1 configuration – a left and right channel, and a single sub adding low-end grunt – or you can buy a second sub and run them 2.2, which sounds a lot more like a pair of decent floor-standing speakers than a battery-powered portable.
I’m not crazy about how they look, but if you’re eyeballing the Minirigs you’re wasting your time – they’re a feast for the ears, and they’re not at all shy. The battery also reportedly lasts up to a hundred hours, but I haven’t been able to test that myself.
But man, they’re expensive, even if they might just be the best boat speakers. Not truly expensive in the world of audio, where you can easily spend phone-number money on a set of solid floor-standers or drop thousands on cable alone. But for a boat-dwelling nomad, they’re way too much. Two MiniRigs and a Sub will set you back about £400; the 2.2 system comes to about £550. Maybe someday – but definitely not today! If you buy them for your boat or van, just be kind enough to invite us over for a beer and a listening session.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this mini-guide to the best boat speakers, and it’ll be a help to you in selecting your perfect portable companion. If you do decide to purchase any of the speakers using the links in this article, we’ll get a small commission which will help us to keep producing free articles like the one you’ve just read. We also welcome your comments below and do our best to respond to everyone who writes, so let us know your thoughts!