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UE Boom review: A Bluetooth speaker for the great outdoors

Judged from an audiophile perspective, the Ultimate Ears Boom has a few shortcomings, but on a practical level, it's a versatile and durable speaker that plays loud and is great for on-the-go use.

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David Carnoy
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David Carnoy

Executive Editor / Reviews

Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable e-reader and e-publishing expert. He's also the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks and Nook e-books, as well as audiobooks.

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7 min read

Shaped like an energy drink and named like one, the Ultimate Ears Boom has some kick to it -- and that kick lasts all day long.

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8.0

UE Boom

The Good

The <b>UE Boom</b> is a compact, durable wireless Bluetooth speaker that plays very loud for its size and is water- and stain-resistant. It offers up to 15 hours of battery life, has speakerphone capabilities, and is well-suited to outdoor use. Also, if you buy a second speaker, you can create a completely wireless pair of true stereo speakers using the UE Boom app for iOS and Android devices.

The Bad

Somewhat pricey; while the sound quality is very good for a speaker this size, the bass could be fuller.

The Bottom Line

The $200 UE Boom is a versatile and durable wireless Bluetooth speaker that plays loud and is great for on-the-go use.

This rugged wireless Bluetooth speaker is being touted as a more powerful and durable version of the Jawbone Jambox and has a special "acoustic skin with plasma coating" that makes it water- and stain-resistant. That means you can wash it should it get dirty, and UE is marketing it as a speaker you take with you everywhere you go -- indoors and outdoors. At 1.2 pounds, it's not heavy, but it's also not light and has a little bit of heft to it.

What's interesting about the speaker is that using it indoors I was initially a tad underwhelmed. Yeah, it delivers good sound for a speaker its size, but at $200, it's pricier than competitors such as the JBL's cylindrical Flip and Charge, so I was expecting a little more, particularly in the bass department.

However, my appreciation for it grew when I took it outside. Over the course of the day, I stuck it on a table out on the patio, left it sitting on a bench near the edge of a basketball court, and perched it in a small tree, wedged between two branches while doing a little pond fishing (the fish didn't seem to mind and I took some perverse satisfaction in equipping a tree to have speakerphone capabilities).

I was impressed by how loud the Boom played and how long the battery lasted. I still wished it cost a little less, but in taking it for a weekend spin outside the office, I found myself becoming attached to it -- enough to think I wouldn't regret paying $200 for it.

Design
The Boom comes in six different colors -- red, black, white, blue, pink, and moss green -- and is designed to sit horizontally or vertically, though it seems better suited to being propped up vertically.

Part of the speaker has a soft-to-the-touch rubberized finish, and the darker-colored models have tendency to show the the oil from your skin, while the lighter-colored models will show dirt and grime over time. The good news is that you can simply wash the speaker off or wipe it down with a damp cloth and it cleans up well.

The Boom has a coating that makes it water- and stain-resistant. Sarah Tew/CNET

Since the speaker is water-resistant, you could use it as a shower speaker, though you probably wouldn't want to keep it directly in the shower stream for too long. While UE failed to include rubberized caps for the USB and audio input ports on the first units it shipped, all units now come with those caps, and Logitech says it will send the caps to any customers who didn't them get for free.

On the end of the speaker where the audio input and USB connection are, there's a hook, so you can clip the speaker to a backpack with a carabiner. If you unscrew that hook, you'll find a threaded tripod mount.

Most people will use the UE Boom in a vertical orientation, but it can also sit horizontally. Sarah Tew/CNET

The speaker charges via USB and is rated at 15 hours of battery life, which is very good for a portable Bluetooth speaker (I ran it for a full day from about 9 in the morning to 10 at night and then for a couple of hours the next day before the juice ran out -- that brought me to about 14.5 hours playing at mostly moderate volume levels).

There are volume controls on the speaker, but most people will simply use their smartphone or tablet as a remote. And as noted, this speaker, like the Jambox, has speakerphone capabilities.

UE reps gave us a sneak peek at the drivers inside the speaker (the speaker cover is not removable). David Carnoy/CNET

Behind the fancy fabric covering the speaker are two 1.5-inch full-range drivers and two 2-inch passive radiators. UE, which is owned by Logitech, has designed the Boom to produce 360-degree sound, so it sounds the same whether you're standing in front of it or behind it.

Like a few other premium wireless speakers, the Boom has its own app -- it's called UE Boom -- which is available for Android and iOS devices. The app allows you to tweak the speaker's bass and treble, and if you have a second Boom, you can use the app to daisy-chain two speakers together to help fill a larger space with sound. Or you can have one speaker act as a left channel and one act as a right channel to provide real stereo separation.

The Boom charges via USB and comes with a lime-green AC adapter. Sarah Tew/CNET

UE says the speaker has a range of about 50 feet, which is better than the usual 33 feet that your typical Bluetooth speaker is rated for. But outside 50 feet isn't as far as you think; the connection with my iPhone 4S started to break up when I walked off into the yard with my phone (I looked back at the speaker on the patio and calculated that yes, indeed, I was at right around the 50-foot mark give or take a few feet). I also tested it with a Samsung Galaxy S4 and achieved similar range.

The speaker will remember up to eight devices it's been paired with, which makes it easier to make a connection once you've set up the initial pairing. And while there's currently no aptX support, company reps said that could be added at some point through a software upgrade. (Certain smartphones, such as the Samsung's Galaxy S3 and S4, support aptX streaming, which allegedly offers better sound quality for Bluetooth transmission, though it matters less with smaller speakers such as the Boom.)

There's also NFC support -- sometimes referred to as "tap-to-pair" -- which works with certain smartphones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S3 and S4. It helps make pairing a device easier, but it really doesn't save any time.

The Boom comes in packaging reminiscent of that of premium Scotch. Sarah Tew/CNET

Performance
I've listened to a lot of these compact Bluetooth speakers and the Boom plays very loud for its size. If it has a deficiency, it just doesn't deliver a ton of bass, though few if any of these small speakers put out great low end. You'll also get some distortion with bass-heavy material, particularly at louder volumes, and while it's got a bit more dynamic range and fuller sound than speakers such as the JBL Flip and Charge, it's not a huge advantage.

The speaker offers decent though not exceptional clarity and like most of these small speakers, it's strongest in the midrange, so it sounds best with acoustic tracks.

As I hinted in the intro, I listened with a more critical ear indoors, where the speaker's limitations are more apparent. Outdoor listening is a different ballgame. You're dealing with wind and ambient noise and what a lot of folks are looking for is a portable speaker that can play loud and sound decent doing it -- and that's just what the Boom can do. It easily bests the Jawbone Jambox, which just isn't well suited for outdoor use -- especially if it's windy. It can also play louder than the JBL Flip and Charge and seems more durable than those models (no carrying case is included because UE says the speaker can hack it unprotected). It also has better battery life.

One side of the speaker has an audio input, a USB connector, and a threaded tripod mount. Sarah Tew/CNET

As far as speakerphone performance goes, it seemed good. If it's windy outside, people will have hard time hearing you, but when I set the speaker in the middle of large table on the patio on a windless day, my children and I were able to have a conversation with their grandparents without a problem. We could hear them fine and they said we sounded "pretty clear."

And what about combining two Booms? Well, if you can afford it, you'll definitely get augmented sound -- with the same flaws (the bass doesn't sound any fuller). I'd say the left/right configuration works a little better indoors (it's nice to get some stereo separation), but I found myself gravitating toward the double mono setup outdoors to widen the footprint of the speakers, so to speak.

The UE Boom app, which allows you to combine two speakers. David Carnoy/CNET

Conclusion
The UE Boom is one those products that grows on you the more you use it. Judging it purely from an audiophile perspective, it has some shortcomings, particularly in the bass department. But on a less nitpicky level, it's a well-designed compact speaker with sleek looks, good build quality, and long battery life. It also happens to be water- and stain-resistant, making you more confident about taking it places -- and perching it in spots -- that might seem a little precarious for other speakers.

Where the speaker excels is outdoor use. If you trot it out at the next barbecue, you're sure to get a guest or two asking what company makes it and what it costs. Yeah, it's a bit pricey at $200, but once you use it for a while, I don't think you'll regret buying it. It bests our recent outdoor Bluetooth favorite, the Grace Digital Ecoxgear Ecoxbt, on nearly every front -- design, features, audio quality, and battery life -- except for price.

Of course, if you have any doubts about the Logitech, buy it from a place that has a decent return policy and give it a test run yourself. Just make sure to try it indoors and outdoors before you make your final decision.

Closeup of the app (click image to enlarge). David Carnoy/CNET

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8.0

UE Boom

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Sound 8Value 7