It’s usually unwise to generalize about the fans of any music genre, but I think it’s safe to say that jazz fans aren’t known for their love of pumping bass and flashing lights. So it might seem strange for us to focus on a new type of speaker that at first seems tailor-made for hip-hop dance parties. And yet, once you get past the sound and fury, it turns out that these products may be even better for Billie Holiday fans than they are for Billie Eilish fans.
There’s no official name for this new category, but “party speakers” seems appropriate. They’re like the little portable Bluetooth speakers that people use in the bedroom or on the beach, but much larger: Some stretch past 2½ feet high, and they typically weigh between 20 and 35 pounds.
Many party speakers have dual 6½-inch woofers built in to pump out the deep synth bass on today’s hip-hop and pop hits, and almost all of them have a bass boost mode. Most can play well over 100 decibels (10 to 20 decibels louder than small portable Bluetooth speakers), which is enough to cover a good-sized backyard. To add to the party effect, most have LED lighting that flashes in various colors and patterns—which might be fun if you’re playing ’80s Miles tracks, but it’s definitely a weird vibe during “Waltz for Debby.” Fortunately, the lights can be switched off. Most of these speakers are also waterproof.
Once you turn off the bass boost, you’ll be surprised at the sound quality. Unlike most portable Bluetooth speakers, which struggle to fill a room with sound, these party speakers have power to spare. And the best come pretty close to the natural sound quality of a good set of bookshelf speakers. It might seem odd to be streaming Charlie Parker through a speaker designed with tailgating in mind, but it sounds great.
The Real Fun’s Out Back
Turn these party speakers around, and you’ll find a feature musicians will cherish: instrument and microphone inputs, which let you connect guitars, keyboards, basses, and common dynamic microphones, such as a Shure SM57 or SM58. Some of the speakers have just one input with a volume control, while more advanced models have two inputs with separate volume controls, so you can mix, say, a guitar and a microphone.
Although none of these speakers offers tone controls, effects loops, or any of the other features common to professional P.A. systems, they have one thing pro systems lack: a rechargeable battery. So a keyboard player and singer could go out to the park and play an impromptu set for a few hours with no need for an AC outlet.
My group Tonic Trio—which consists of alto sax, electric guitar, and double bass—recently took a gig playing outside in, as Johnny Carson used to say, “beautiful downtown Burbank” (California). We weren’t sure what to do when we found out there was no AC power for our guitar and bass amps. Fortunately, I happened to have Sony’s $448, 12-pound SRS-XG500 party speaker in for testing. I plugged the guitar and bass into a small mixer, then plugged the mixer’s output into the SRS-XG500’s single ¼-inch input. I can’t say it sounded as good as our amps, but we got a lot of tips, so it couldn’t have been too bad.
Besides the Sony SRS-XG500, perhaps my favorite party speaker is the JBL PartyBox 110, which measures 22 inches high and weighs 24 pounds. The $349 PartyBox 110 is one of the smoothest-sounding party speakers I’ve found, and it has separate instrument and microphone inputs. The $499 PartyBox 310 plays a few decibels louder but weighs 14 pounds more. Jazz fans who don’t dig massive audio gear should check out Ultimate Ears’ $399 Hyperboom, which lacks lights and instrument/microphone inputs, but is only 14 inches high, plays almost as loud as the JBLs, and sounds a tad more refined.
The only real problem these speakers might present for jazz fans is that their friends might, upon seeing one, reasonably assume that they’re about to be blasted with the latest tracks from Cardi B or the Weeknd. I advise you to shut off the LED lights, turn off the bass boost, and get the speaker playing before you bring it out in front of people. Your friends may be a little shocked by the size, but they’ll be pleasantly surprised by the sound.