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Ultimate Ears Blast review: The best-sounding portable Alexa-enabled speaker

The new Ultimate Ears app.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 Onesecond-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. 

The USB port is underneath a protective flap.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

These colors are only available in the UK.

Nic Henry/CNET

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. 

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