Ultimate Ears are the ones to watch in the Bluetooth speaker game, with their cylindrical BOOM and MEGABOOM being regarded as some of the best around.
Now those speakers have turned smart, with the addition of Amazon Alexa in the BLAST ($279.95) and MEGABLAST ($379.95).
On the surface, the BLAST and MEGABLAST are extremely similar to their predecessors. The exterior is rubbery and streamlined, with a cloth grill wrapping most of the way around the body. The edges are a little more squared off than the BOOM series, but the core design is the same.
There are no protruding buttons, with everything living under the rubber skin. This is a little less satisfying to press than traditional buttons, particularly in the case of volume control, but it helps keep the speakers rugged.
With an IP67 rating, these speakers are both dustproof and waterproof. They're made to be thrown into a bag and taken wherever you fancy, and are thus built to last.
The real drawcard with the BLAST and MEGABLAST is the addition of Alexa. Now you can ask the weather, play music or control smart home routines using only your voice.
By now most people are familiar with voice assistants, which are becoming more and more intelligent. I find Alexa cold - she's less impressive and less useful than Google's voice assistant.
Google responds in a very natural, warm manner and can decipher your meaning from rather casual and even mildly mumbled commands. You can string a few commands together and Google will have you sorted.
Alexa, on the other hand, feels quite clinical. You have no illusions about the fact that you're talking to an AI, and you can't be quite so conversational. It took me several goes to get her to play a particular song from Spotify, and she was unable to give me traffic updates for my commute.
Beyond that, Alexa took some time to respond to me. So long, in fact, that I often assumed she hadn't heard me or that I'd accidentally muted her. This could be down to my internet connection, though I found no similar delay with my Google Home Max (and my internet is generally great… by Australian standards).
Most of Alexa's settings are controlled through the app, which I found surprisingly difficult to use. Settings seem hidden in unintuitive places, and it even took an internet search to find how to change the weather readout to celsius.
The BLAST and MEGABLAST feel more like really great Bluetooth speakers with some smart features thrown in. They're nice for the novelty of smart home technology, but they don't feel designed to be integrated into a fully fledged routine.
This is in part due to the fact that they're super portable, and made to be taken out of the house - away from the Wi-Fi connection required for Alexa to work. You can grab a POWER UP charging dock ($49.95) to give your little guy a home, which makes it feel more like a permanent smart home device. It also allows the speaker to stay in standby for your commands, rather than have it automatically power down.
I really like the POWER UP dock - it's the convenient way you'd want to charge your device each time - but it is pretty pricey. It's also the same size as the MEGABLAST, meaning your BLAST won't look as sleek. If I'm paying $50 for a charging dock, I want it to look sleek.
It also can't be connected to power using a standard micro USB cord, which feels ludicrous. The port is recessed in a shape that essentially only allows the supplied cord to be used, and the dock itself doesn't come with an additional cord - you'll need to use the one supplied with your speaker. If I'm paying $50, they can give me another one of their ridiculously-shaped micro USB cables.
You will, however, get a new D-ring to screw into the bottom, to make it compatible with the POWER UP's contact charging. The D-ring is a classic part of the speakers' design, allowing you to string it up in the middle of a room for 360 degree sound. And what a sound.
Both speakers sound great, especially for their size. They're perfect for listening around the house, or a party. Neither is particularly detailed, but then again these aren't audiophile speakers.
In fact, a party might be where these speakers really shine. At max volume the MEGABLAST still sounds open and surprisingly clear. The BLAST suffers from a little more distortion, but is still passable.
Unfortunately the popular PARTY UP mode, which allows you to connect multiple speakers to play music together, isn't available here. UE have said it'll be coming later in the year, but it's a shame to see a new speaker with fewer features.
The new BLAST series is a little upgrade from the BOOM series. They're a little louder and a little clearer. As expected, the MEGABLAST offers richer bass than the BLAST. Without the MEGABLAST to compare to the BLAST seems perfectly adequate, but side-by-side the difference is clear.
The bigger speaker is richer, warmer and more balanced, with a pleasant amount of air. In comparison the BLAST is quite thin and tinny, with overdominant mids, and feels much more in-your-face.
Both can reach impressive sound levels - "don't stand directly near the speaker" levels. I even had to take myself outside to test out them out properly, and feel very confident that they would suffice for any get together I'm likely to have.
Listening to them side by side, the MEGABLAST is a clear winner, and the better fit of the POWER UP base solidifies it as the one to get in my mind. However, if you're really keen on the portability of the BLAST it's certainly no slouch, but that's the only scenario where I'd recommend it over its big brother.
Overall, UE are still at the top of the game when it comes to Bluetooth speakers. At the moment the BLAST series are still lacking some of the features that made the BOOM series so attractive, but with promises of updates later in the year it's worth keeping an eye out.
At this stage, the inclusion of Alexa feels more like a novelty than a draw card. But at only a small cost increase over the BOOM, it's definitely worth considering a BLAST speaker.
- Minor sound upgrade over BOOM series, and Alexa enabled.
- Lacking some features, such as PARTY UP, with promises of their addition later in the year.
- Same great rugged design and impressive sound.
- MEGABLAST sounds markedly better than the BLAST, but BLAST is great if portability is an important factor.