We were excited to get our hands on the Sonos One, one of the earliest examples of Alexa stepping out into an established speaker brand. But when we learnt that Ultimate Ears was joining this party, our interest was turned up a notch.
The Sonos One is a great speaker: it delivers that Sonos sound experience with the convenience and connectivity of Alexa to enhance the experience that you get from the regular Amazon Echo. With Sonos' keen eye on design, it's about as sophisticated an Alexa speaker as anyone could want.
But some people don't want sophistication. Some people prefer to walk on the wild side and need something a little more radical, even if it is just a smart speaker.
We got ourselves an early look at the new UE Blast and Megablast.
A design for life
- IP67 protection
- Rubber and mesh designs
The UE Blast and Megablast step away from the Boom 2 and Megaboom to form a new family of Ultimate Ears speakers, but with much of the same story to tell. These are speakers that are designed to be used anywhere, any time. While that makes sense for a rugged Bluetooth speaker, it's a little more unusual for a connected speaker.
Of all the Bluetooth speakers out there, Ultimate Ears always manages to acquit itself well. It's that combination of waterproofed convenience, a design that's tough so it's well suited to an active life, while also delivering great 360-degree sound, with plenty of volume and bass.
None of that changes in the Blast and the Megablast. They are big, bold, and very Boom-like, but they stick to that cylinder design with rubberised ends and a rubber strip down the side carrying the huge volume controls. The rest of the body is wrapped in mesh, but the colours aren't quite as bright as you get on the Boom 2, Megaboom or Wonderboom.
It will come in a range of hilariously-named colours Graphite (black), Blizzard (white), Blue Steel, Merlot (red), Mojito (green) and Lemonade (yellow). These colours are slightly more subdued to fit into your home décor, where you might not want things like Lava Red or Urban Zebra, although the yellow is still pretty bright.
The Blast is essentially a tricked-out version of the Boom 2 and it's about the same sort of size, but you'll notice the top is slightly different, as it houses those Alexa skills. The Megablast, however, gets a bit of a lift over the Megaboom, as it's a larger and louder speaker. Basically, the Megablast is designed to be your go-to Alexa-powered party speaker.
Both the new speakers are IP67 rated, so they'll be fine to fill your pool house with tunes or on the rear deck of your yacht and they won't mind if they get thrown in, soaked in beer or just kicked across the floor by an enthusiast reveller. If you just want to listen to Phil Collins in the shower, that's no problem too.
But seriously: What can Alexa do on the UE Blast? Does it support Spotify?
- Alexa Voice Services
- No Alexa calling
- No Spotify support at launch
The Blast and Megablast use Alexa Voice Services to essentially mirror the experience that you get from Alexa on the Amazon Echo. It works in the same way - always listening for your voice - so you can just talk to the speaker and Alexa will respond.
Alexa is a cloud-connected service, so the Blast and Megablast add Wi-Fi to their connectivity so that you can connect to you home network, giving Alexa access to all the skills it needs. The setup of the speaker starts with the UE app, but then shifts over to the Alexa app to complete the process, letting you sign in with your Amazon credentials.
It's through the Alexa app that you'll assign skills to the Blast, as well as manage the information and services that Alexa can access. This covers a huge range of things from smart home control, like setting your Nest heating to turning on your Hue lights, as well as being able to buy things from Amazon, track your Fitbit weight or set timers and alarms.
Of course the biggest thing you're likely to do is ask the Blast to play music. The UE Blast and Megablast will work seamlessly with Amazon Music (and pre-orders will get a 3-month free trial of the full Unlimited service), but if you're an Amazon Prime subscriber you'll have access to Prime Music.
You'll also be able to use other services, like TuneIn, providing all the radio stations you can think of, just by saying "Alexa, play BBC Radio 4". There will be support coming for Deezer in the near future and Pandora in the US, but there's still some work to be done with Spotify.
Officially, the UE Blast doesn't support Spotify at launch, not in the same way that the Amazon Echo does. This is because work needs to be done between Spotify and third-party Alexa manufacturers to enable that functionality: it's not a standard part of the Alexa Voice Services suite.
UE haven't confirmed when this might happen, but be warned: just like the Sonos One, Spotify support won't be there on launch day - not if you want to control it with voice (it will work through Bluetooth, of course). UE confirmed that this was on the radar and that it was something they were working on, but we can't confirm a timescale.
You also won't get Alexa's calling functions. This is fairly new to the Amazon Echo and we suspect it will remain exclusive to Amazon's devices for some time.
Once setup there's little that you have to do with any apps, you just talk to the speaker and it responds, but obviously, in these early days, it's best suited to Amazon Music users. We mentioned UE's app previously, and this will let you update the firmware on the speaker, but there's no support for features like PartyUp! (the daisy-chaining option you get on the Boom 2).
Naturally, these speakers - just like the Echo - also work as standard Bluetooth speakers, so if Alexa won't play the music you want, then you can connect using Bluetooth and play music as you would through any wireless speaker.
It's all about the Power Up base
- 12-hours battery for the Blast
- 16-hours battery for the Megablast
- Power Up charging base
Now the big thing that's different about the Blast and Megablast, setting it aside from devices like the Sonos One or Echo, is that it's battery powered. The Blast will give you 12 hours of music and the Megablast will give you 16 hours of music. That gives you portability that those others don't, so your Alexa experience isn't limited to the one room you happen to set it up in. If you want to move it to your garage while you're servicing your bike (with no need to worry about touching it with greasy hands) or if you want to send it into the den with the kids to get them out of the way, then it's perfectly suited to that.
UE say that the Wi-Fi is good for about 330 feet and the Bluetooth for 150 feet, meaning that you should have the range to get out in the garden and move around the house without getting disconnected.
But it's the Power Up base that's really important here. This is a charging plate that both the Blast and Megablast can sit on. It costs £34.99 and it's a real shame that you don't get one in the box, because it's this that means you can give your Blast a home and then treat it like a normal connected smart speaker.
The Power Up plate plugs into the wall and the Blast or Megablast then just sits on the top. The only thing you have to do is change the bottom screw to a different type to allow the charging of the battery.
At the moment we don't know how long it takes to charge or how the charge is managed, but it's the flexibility that appeals to us. This is both a connected speaker and a great Bluetooth speaker for your home or travels. When you're not connected to the base, it will just charge through standard Micro-USB.
UE Blast and Megablast sound quality
- Megablast is the loudest ever UE speaker at 98dBC
It's here that we know the least about these two new speakers. While we've had the chance to see them all and toss them around a bit, our listening time is actually fairly limited. We did spend some time soaking up the tunes from the UE Megablast, however, and first impressions are good.
Rich audio is what you expect from a UE speaker. That's what the Boom speakers in all sizes have delivered and first impressions are that this is very much the same. It's room-filling with meaty bass, but we'll need to spend a lot more time with the speaker to see how it handles different genres of music and importantly, how it handles the regular voice of Alexa, which is a big part of the experience.
When it comes to volume, UE say that the Megablast is some 40 per cent louder than the Megaboom. This is no shrinking violet, this is a serious connected speaker.
How does it compare to the Sonos One?
- Sonos One is £199
- Sonos One supports Sonos multiroom functions
We're not going to deny that we love the Sonos One. It's a great sounding speaker from a really established brand. We can't yet tell you which sounds better quite yet, but these are different devices giving you different choices and both better the regular Echo when it comes to sound quality.
Sonos is more contemporary in design, fitting in with existing Sonos speakers as well as being compatible with Sonos' wider system, so it can be grouped with other speakers for the normal Sonos experience. It also brings a huge amount of flexibility for music sources and even Alexa might struggle to give you all those options. Sonos also isn't fully compatible with Spotify yet, with no support for voice control.
But Sonos is strictly a home-based system and always needs to be plugged in, which is where the Blast will appeal to a different type of user. While both will offer a similar Alexa experience, the UE Blast gives you protection, portability and ultimately, a great speaker you can take with you anywhere running off its internal battery.
There's a lot to love about the Blast and Megablast and our first impressions are good. We've always been fans of what UE is doing with speakers, because they offer great quality without having to worry about where you take them or what you do with them. It's a dependable party speaker, travel speaker, camping speaker.
We're also fans of how Alexa has revolutionised the connected home. With the connectivity that Alexa adds in the Blast and Megablast, your speaker will be a lot more useful in the home. It's not only about music, it's a kitchen companion, your shopping list complier, your heating controller and always evolving to get better.
The lack of Spotify support on day one might be a cause for concern and certainly that's one of the biggest negatives so you might want to wait to see how that pans out before you buy. However, if you're an Amazon Music user, the world quite literally just became your oyster.
We'll be fully reviewing the Blast and Megablast as soon as we can. The new UE speakers are on pre-order now, with the Blast costing £199 and the Megablast costing £269. The Power Up base costs £34.99.
The UE Blast and Megablast are due in store in late-October 2017.