It’s Tailgating Season! What’s the Best Rugged Boombox?

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Labor Day may mark the official end of summer, but between football, leaf-peeping, and haunted hayrides we can — and should! — spend as much time outdoors after the leaves turn as we do between June and August. Whether it’s tailgating in the parking lot or heading to the wilderness, the ION Audio Job Rocker Max and the Milwaukee Tools M18 Jobsite Speaker are two of our favorite devices for rocking out while keeping connected.

Engineered to take the abuse of construction sites and still get the job done, these modern day boomboxes are great for around the house, at the stadium, or in the campground. They come with the latest in high-tech connectivity and rechargeable battery technology and even include AM/FM radio for those times when you’re out of cell tower range. We field tested both over the course of several weeks to pick a winner, but like a pair of heavyweight fighters going the full 12 rounds, our head-to-head challenge resulted in a split decision. It did, however, reveal the strengths and weaknesses of each.

The Job Rocker Max from ION Audio (from $158 at Amazon) gets high marks among those who favor big portable speakers over smaller table top varieties. With 50W of power, the Job Rocker blasts out distortion-free tunes for up to 50 hours without needing to recharge — although we found that streaming Pandora or Spotify the entire time shrank that considerably. In our tests, the unit routinely ran out of juice after about 14 hours.

To say the Job Rocker Max is rugged is an understatement. Weighing in just shy of 20 pounds, the composite rubberized cabinet and full-length metal speaker grille took every punch we threw at it and kept right on playing. We tumbled it from counter height several times and even drop-kicked it down a flight of stairs. We barely scratched the cabinet.

Plug-in power is essential when camping or tailgating. A big plus for the Job Rocker is the 12V input jack to charge the unit from your vehicle, a feature lacking in its competitor. The Max also gets brownie points for the dual AC power outlets, allowing you to power multiple lights or tools. Unfortunately, these outlets only work when the unit is plugged into 120v power. The unit also comes with a USB port to charge your tablet or smartphone — especially useful for streaming the pregame show during your tailgate party.

For camping and job sites where cell service is spotty, the Job Rocker Max has an AM/FM radio with 6 preset buttons. Campers will also appreciate the conveniently located LED light strip on the front, which we rarely used except that time we lost our cell phone in the weeds and it was the only light available. The built-in onboard battery will eventually need to be replaced once it loses its ability to hold a charge, but is easily accessed and sourced online for around 20 bucks.

The Job Rocker’s case is water-resistant, so if it starts sprinkling, you should be fine — but don’t drop it in the river and expect it to survive. Still, we purposely exposed our test unit to a thundershower on several occasions and it suffered no ill effects.

One flaw we found was the Bluetooth connection. It was a bit finicky and hard to determine if it was on or off, or connecting or not. The other thing we didn’t like is the lack of onboard storage for the power cords — meaning, of course, we’re going to eventually lose them.

The Milwaukee Tools 2792-20 Jobsite Radio is part of the M18 tool system. It has a slightly smaller footprint but weighs exactly the same (19.5 pounds) as the ION, and is powered by 120v household current or the M18 Lithium-Ion rechargeable battery from Milwaukee.

The 40W amplifier gives up some bass to the Job Rocker Max, but the M18 delivers richer sound with better speakers and a customizable equalizer. The Bluetooth receiver beats the ION hands-down in connectivity and distance; in our test the M18 remained connected at 100 feet with a clear signal.

There’s a small weather-sealed compartment to store your smartphone or iPod (if you’re still using one of those) with an audio plug to connect directly to your device without the need to connect via Bluetooth. This unit also has a digital AM/FM radio with an external antenna, which beat the Job Rocker for picking up weaker signals. There are no additional power outlets on the M18, but there is a handy bottle opener, a feature we found useful several times.

Our only nitpick is the placement of the on/off/volume button on the front of the unit, which took only the slightest nudge to actuate when carrying it. 

For the home improvement DIY’er the Milwaukee is probably the best choice here, as the battery is interchangeable with all of Milwaukee’s M18 tools and it readily pulls double duty as a charging station when plugged into 120v current. It’s rugged and just as durable as any unit on the market, and the attached power cord means you won’t be left searching for a replacement. The Milwaukee Jobsite Radio is available from Home Depot for $179 — but the required M18 battery is not included, and it does not come cheap; expect to pay around $60 for one from Amazon.

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