Ultimate Ears Blast review: The best-sounding portable Alexa-enabled speaker
In recent years, Ultimate Ears' Boom speakers have been among our favorite portable Bluetooth speakers. Compact and well-designed, they deliver big sound for their small size and are particularly well suited to outdoor use.
So, we were excited when the company introduced its next-generation Blast and Megablast portable speakers. Shaped like the earlier Boom 2 and Megaboom, they add Wi-Fi connectivity and Amazon Alexa voice control.
Yeah, they're a little pricey at $230 (£200, AU$279) and $300 (£270, AU$379) respectively with an optional Power Up charging base costing $40 (£35, AU$50), but we've tested expensive portable speakers like the Bose Revolve and Revolve Plus that seemed well worth considering.
First, the good news: These are arguably the best-sounding portable Alexa-enabled speakers you can get right now. Now for the bad: The move from Boom to Blast isn't an entirely uplifting experience.
It all starts with a new Ultimate Ears app that gets your speakers connected to your Wi-Fi network and Amazon account. I didn't have a problem setting up my Blast and Megablast review samples and updating them with the latest firmware (the app will allow you to add new features over time). But the app does seem rather stripped down and bare-bones, particularly compared to the Sonos app.
As with Amazon's Echo devices, to use Alexa you have to be connected to Wi-Fi or a mobile hotspot. You get access to the more than 25,000 skills available for Alexa, including the ability to control smart-home products.
Currently, only Amazon Music, iHeartRadio and TuneIn music services are Alexa-enabled. UE expects to add voice control for Pandora and Deezer in the future, but there's no word yet on when the speakers will get voice control support for Spotify. However, you can stream any music service via Bluetooth just as you would with the UE Boom 2 or Megaboom, both of which cost a lot less.
The Blast is very similar to the Boom 2, but UE says the Megablast has been completely redesigned from the "ground up" and is equipped with new drivers that deliver enhanced sound with a top volume that's 40 percent louder than the Megaboom's. It weighs in at 2.8 pounds or 1.3kg, while the smaller Blast tips the scales at 1.4 pounds or 0.64kg. That's a 2X difference for those keeping score.
After listening to both, I can attest that the Megablast indeed offers a step up in sound quality from the Megaboom, while the smaller Blast sounds a lot like the Boom 2. You'd hope that the sound quality of both could have improved, but I can see where UE would have an easier time wringing out better sound from the larger Megablast.
Both are fully waterproof, with an IP67 rating that allows them to be "immersed in liquid up to 1m for up to 30 minutes." They have a range of 330 feet (100 meters) on Wi-Fi and 150 feet (45 meters) on Bluetooth.
Battery life for the Blast is up to 12 hours, and 16 hours for the Megablast. Those number will vary with volume levels and your network connection, but I found the speakers' battery life to be pretty decent.
However, there's a big downside to not buying the Power Up charging base: It's actually a little bit of a pain to access the USB charging port. The speakers have a threaded tripod mount on the top, which is cool, but you have to unscrew and take off the flap (which keeps moisture out) to access the charging port. If you plan on using these primarily inside your home, the charging base seems like more of a must-have accessory, which adds to the total price of the speaker.
It's also worth mentioning that while the earlier Boom 2 and Megaboom remain in the line, they're only compatible with the old UE app. That means you won't be able to link older UE speakers with the new Blast and Megablast. And currently, you can only play music through one Blast or Megablast at a time -- you can't link them -- which is a bit disappointing.
Strengths and weaknesses
While the Blast and Megablast join an increasingly crowded Alexa smart speaker market, the fact that they're battery-powered and water-resistant set them apart from AC-powered, indoor-only competitors like the new Sonos One, second-gen Echo and Echo Plus. As I said, these are currently the best sounding -- and best designed -- portable Alexa-enabled speakers out there right now. But they're not the best sounding voice-enabled portable speakers.
That distinction goes to JBL's Link 10 ($120) and Link 20 ($160), which have Google Assistant built-in (that's Google's competitor to Alexa). Both the Link 10 and Link 20 sound fuller (they have better bass) and more natural than the Blast and cost less. The Link 20, which is almost half the price of the Megablast, sounds better than the Megablast.
Since those JBL speakers use Google Chromecast technology, you can link them and create a multiroom audio system (the JBL Link line also includes the AC-powered Link 300 and Link 500, which are not portable). They also have voice support for Spotify.
While not as compact as the Blast, the Link 20, currently discounted to $160, arguably delivers the most bang for the buck as far as voice-enabled portable speakers go.
If I hadn't compared the Blast and Megablast to anything else I'd tell you that they're very good sounding portable wireless speakers, particularly in an outdoor setting (for whatever reason, I find that UE's cylindrical portable speakers sound best dispersing their sound in an open environment). The Megablast, which is capable of filling a small to medium-size room with sound, delivers significantly more bass and makes the Blast sound a little thin. My inclination would be to spend the extra money and choose it over the Blast, especially if I was planning to leave it home the majority of the time. But the smaller Blast is obviously more portable and a good choice if you're looking for a speaker you can easily throw in a bag.
Both speakers had some trouble with the Alt-J track "3WW" that we use to test bass response -- there was a little bit of a warble as the speakers couldn't quite process what was being thrown at them. Encountering a bit of distortion is pretty typical when listening to these compact speakers (the JBL Link speakers have some issues at higher volumes), but you'd hope that a $230 speaker would perform a little better.
A few other things bothered me. Aside from the fact that I couldn't link the speakers, I also was unable to remotely control their volume using the app (in Wi-Fi mode) or the physical volume buttons on my phone. To control volume, you have to tell Alexa to lower or raise the volume or press the physical buttons on the speaker. And sometimes Alexa couldn't hear me over the music I was playing; she wouldn't respond.
One other design issue of note: There's no visual acknowledgment that Alexa is listening to you. There's an audio beep, but you don't get the lights you get on an Echo speaker. (You can mute the microphone from the app.)
I did come away liking these speakers, but they seem like they're a work in progress. The Alexa feature is a nice addition, but with this being a Wi-Fi speaker, it'd be nice to be able to group speakers together like you can with Chromecast or Sonos systems. As with other UE speakers, they should get better in time -- and come down in price -- so we'll revisit this review as software updates are released.
Note: The speakers are available in six colors, though some colors are limited to certain regions: The US gets Graphite (black), Blizzard (white), Blue Steel and Merlot (red), but Mojito (green) and Lemonade (yellow) will only be available in the UK. UE will also sell speakers bundled with the Power Up charging base at a small discount.