8.5

Ultimate Ears Bluetooth Speakers Review: Stand Tall

Tech Reviews
Share Tweet Submit Pin
Ultimate Ears Bluetooth Speakers Review: Stand Tall

Ultimate Ears has made itself a huge player in the world of Bluetooth speakers the last few years with its well-received Boom line. In late 2015, the company updated its workhorse, the original UE Boom, when it introduced the Boom 2, which increased the wireless range and made the speaker fully waterproof. The update came shortly after the company added the Roll and Megaboom to its portfolio, giving it a range of speakers for every price point, all offering stellar sound and rugged, durable design.

We were lucky enough to get all three speakers in house at Paste and have spent the last month or so putting them through the daily grind. We’ve thrown everything their way, from podcasts to hours of Hamilton, to see if the UE speakers could live up to their label as the best Bluetooth speakers on the market.

Hardware
uebuild.jpg

Ultimate Ears’ larger speakers, the UE Boom 2 and UE Megaboom have a distinct cylindrical design, whereas the less expensive UE Roll looks like something closer to a UFO. All three are made out of a rugged rubber material that makes them feel solid and durable. Fingerprints are prone to show up on the devices, particularly in darker colors like the black and grey combination our Megaboom came in.

Otherwise, the build is fantastic. Not elegant like Sonos’ line of wireless speakers, but with what Ultimate Ears has built you won’t fear bringing them on a camping trip, a day to the beach or pool party. It helps that all three are waterproof, with claims they can be immersed in water for up to 30 minutes. I was not brave enough to test that myself, but the knowledge did make me less nervous to have them anywhere I went. In order for the speakers to be waterproof, there are hefty flaps covering any plugs that can be quite cumbersome but the tradeoff is worth it. The UE Roll even comes with a floaty, essentially begging users to bring it on their next trip to the pool.uerollbuild.jpgYou can also rest easy thanks to each speaker having healthy battery estimates, 20 hours for the Megaboom, 15 for Boom 2 and 9 for Roll. My experience saw results a hair under those numbers, but they still lasted long enough to fit my use. I did put them to the test during an 11-hour road trip from Metro Detroit to upstate New York in which I used the speakers as my primary audio source. On a full charge, at full (or nearly full) volume, the Megaboom made it through most of the trip, having to hand duties over to its smaller brother in the tail end.

That’s a tough task to ask any speaker, and I imagine the 20-hour estimate is not applicable when using the speaker at its peak output. Given the environment, I was impressed with the battery performance of the Megaboom, and the Boom 2 which handled similar duties on the initial trip from NY to Detroit, fared similarly. The real disappointment is how long it takes each speaker to charge, 2.5 hours for the Boom 2 and Megaboom and a ghastly 5.5 for the Roll. You also can’t immediately plug and play if the speaker does happen to die, so despite the lofty estimates it would still be wise to keep a close eye on where your battery stands lest you end up at the beach with a dead speaker. One nice feature is the speakers will turn off after 15 minutes of not being in use, so if you forget to do it yourself you aren’t dead in the water.

Besides their unmistakable shapes, which offer a full 360 degree sound (save for the Roll, of course) UE’s line of speakers have two other recognizable characteristics. First is the array of colors the speakers come in. No matter your tastes, you’ll be able to find a color combination that suits your style. There are even limited edition versions of the speakers that come out every so often, like the Rabbit Eye Movement one designed by Nychos currently available.

uemegaboomtop.jpgThe second distinguishing feature are the oversized volume buttons, which work both functionally and aesthetically. They work so well as a design feature, in fact, that I often had people think, to their own embarrassment, they were just for show. While I like them as an aesthetic feature, they are not the world’s best buttons. They are incredibly mushy and can be, at times, difficult to press. Often I wasn’t sure if I was actually doing anything because the feedback was so poor. Again, it’s a small price to pay for the entire speaker being waterproof, and you can usually adjust the volume to your liking on your smartphone effectively enough.

Besides the volume up and down, the only other buttons found are the power and Bluetooth on the top of the device (on the bottom in the case of the Roll). There is a slight difference here between Boom and Megaboom. The former was updated this year and the power button was changed from a cutout style to a recessed dimple. The Megaboom features the original UE Boom’s cutout style, while the Roll shares the Boom 2’s dimple design. All the Bluetooth buttons are the same, small little bumps that look like mosquito bites. Each speaker also includes a Micro-USB port for charging (in a stylistic touch, all the chargers are a fluorescent yellow color) and 3.5mm headphone jack for those times you can’t connect via Bluetooth.uerollside.jpgThe Roll, again the most visually different of all three speakers, has an interesting addition in the form of a bungee cord attached via a built-in loop on the bottom allowing users to dangle it (from what, I’m not entirely sure. A showerhead? A rearview mirror?). Contrary to my initial beliefs, it can be removed if you wish to do so. Mostly, it’s benign as it tucks under the device so as to be inconspicuous.

I’ve been a fan of UE’s design language since the original UE Boom, and finally seeing the speakers in person only confirmed my stance. They aren’t devoid of personality, but you can hide them away in bookcases or behind your television if you choose to. The stand-up style is perfect for a bluetooth speaker, and the reasonable footprint makes them easy to travel with (they fit great in cup holders!) plus the durability and waterproof factor is huge.

Sound
ueboom2vertical.jpgHow good they look means nothing if they can’t deliver in the sound department, however. I am not an audiophile and don’t claim to know all the vagaries of audio quality but I can say that, based on other Bluetooth speakers I’ve owned or heard, UE’s line sounds phenomenal. The most impressive part is that, from the $99 Roll to the $299 Megaboom, the difference isn’t astronomical. This is not to say there isn’t a clear upgrade worthy of the $200 discrepancy, but even in the lowest model the sound quality is fantastic. Each speaker is impeccably loud, able to fill a moderate sized room easily, with the Megaboom capable of saturating every nook and cranny of a small theater with sound.

The dollar difference is heard mostly, to my ears at least, in the low end and general fullness. None of the speakers are especially heavy with bass, but you definitely get more low-end and detail from the Megaboom as compared to the Boom 2 and Roll. If sound quality is the biggest factor in your purchasing choice, the Megaboom is a no-questions buy, but $300 is a tough sell for most people.

The best choice for most listeners is, likely, the $199 UE Boom 2. I won’t deny that the sound is a step down from the Megaboom, but that’s most notable when you have the two directly next to each to compare. On its own, the Boom 2 (and even its predecessor, the original Boom) is a great Bluetooth speaker. They are all incredibly versatile as well. It didn’t matter what I was listening to; podcasts, YouTube videos, electronica, folk, hip-hop, jazz, rock, country, the UE speakers performed admirably.

Software

uedoubleup.jpgWhile hardware and sound are apparent strong suits for Ultimate Ears’ fleet of Bluetooth speakers, software is a clear area in need of improvement. To its credit, the app is well designed and easy to use, but it is incredibly annoying to have three separate apps, one for each speaker. Particularly when the app will recognize a different type of speaker when you use the Double Up feature (i.e. if you connect a Boom 2 to a Roll, the app knows the difference). I imagine at some point the company will consolidate everything, but where it sits right now is a decidedly inelegant solution.

Once you’re in one of the three apps, though, the experience is mostly fluid. It’s simple and intuitive to use, offers an equalizer, alarm function and more. You can even turn off your speaker via the app, a nifty feature to have if you happen to be in a separate room (claims are 100-foot Bluetooth range for the larger speakers and 65 for the Roll, and I never ran into anything to discount them). Beyond that, though, the app offers very little.

The most important feature, Double Up, was the biggest frustration during my time with the speakers. What is supposed to be a simple, intuitive process was often infuriatingly complicated, whether through the app or the manual way of pairing multiple speakers. The issue arose primarily when attempting to connect the Boom 2 and Megaboom, a process that almost never worked with the app and usually took more than a dozen attempts to connect manually. Once they finally did, the speakers thankfully stayed connected until I turned them off. The odd thing is that I had little trouble connecting the Boom 2 and Roll, or Boom 2 and Boom 1. Hopefully, my issue was a rare exception, or UE will fix the problem with future updates.

Verdict
uefamily.jpgDespite its software shortcomings, the UE experience is a positive one. The speakers sound great, the Megaboom in particular (though it should for $300). A solid hardware build that allows users to take the speaker wherever they want is a huge boon, but the company would be smart to greatly improve the simplicity of pairing speakers together, and the supposed ability to connect more than 10, which was said to be coming last summer, had better come quick if UE wants to seriously compete with Sonos.

The core experience of listening to, and enjoying, music at a high quality is what Ultimate Ears knocks out of the park with the Boom 2, Megaboom and Roll, and that’s most important. The enticing, youthful energy the company has infused these products with is fun, but it doesn’t matter if the sound is subpar. Luckily, that isn’t the case. Any way you cut it, these are three of the best Bluetooth speakers you can buy.

Also in Tech