Ultimate Ears - the company probably best known for its on-stage, in-ear monitors and more recent consumer headphones - has released its first Bluetooth speaker to the market: UE Boom. The near-cylindrical speaker looks the part thanks to its selection of colourful finishes, but does it have the sound quality to prevail in an increasingly busy market sector?
It's available in six colourways - pink and red, blue and white, black and grey, blue and yellow, white and red, or plain white; each with a rubberised main panel and mesh-like material finish. But the UE Boom is not just striking to look at, it's a well thought-out product in its design too. The near-cylindrical shape has been designed to project sound at near-360-degrees for a uniform delivery of audio in open spaces, and it genuinely works except for an ever so slight shift in top-end if the main rubberised panel is at a specific angle to the ears.
The mesh material has been plasma-coated for waterproofing, which means the whole unit can survive a soaking. And we should know - the UE Boom lived with us for five days in a 12-man tent at Glastonbury festival 2013 where at the beginning of a four-hour downpour a slightly soggy Boom sat in the centre of our tent and delivered the tunes to appreciative ears. As the hours passed so did the beverages until the combination of wonky surface and stumbling feet caused inevitable spills - the Boom took more than a good swig of beer and survived unscathed. Towards the top (or bottom, depending on which way up you like to sit it) there is an open mini-USB port that's the only danger zone when it comes to liquid.
As well as being positioned flat or stood up on either end, the UE Boom is also designed to sit on a tripod mount, or hang by a tied cord via the included metal loop. Learning the error of our ways, the hanging technique came in handy in the tent and this did an even better job of projecting sound. As the product has a diameter and physical length similar to that of a water bottle it's also possible to slip the UE Boom into a bicycle bottle holder or the mesh slip typical of many backpacks. And there's no need for wires either - it's all Bluetooth so a phone in the pocket can push through playlists without any tangled wires needing to get in the way.
If you want a Bluetooth speaker for use indoors or out - or even as a quick replacement for a broken car stereo, which is just how we used it on a sunny drive to Kent one weekend - you want it to sound decent and be faff free when it comes to connection. The UE Boom delivers on all counts - it has a big, loud yet rich sound that's unrivalled in this market sector.
UE Boom is loud. Like, really loud. The large +/- symbols are integrated controls on the main rubberised panel and can be tapped to make things quieter or louder, but these work independently of your Bluetooth device's output. We paired the UE Boom with an iPhone for our test and the occasional accidental volume up on the Apple device pushed the levels to an undesirable place. It's best to set the sound level of the speaker first and then leave it alone, using the paired device instead to control the output volume. The Boom can take it without suffering distortion - it really kicks out the volume.
Given the device's size and scale, bass isn't massive, but then the low-frequency stuff needs space to deliver and that's just not available here. Saying that, however, it's the best-sounding Bluetooth speaker at this size that we've laid ears on. For example, the bass guitar in Foals' Out Of The Woods was delivered with enough kick for it to stand out among the rest of the mix.
But it's not all about bass. The UE Boom's mid-level isn't overpowering, while top-end has enough snap without sounding too crunchy or overworked. From rock to pop and everything in between we found the mixes of various genres sounded very open and rich considering the small scale of this device.
When it comes to Bluetooth pairing, it's very simple. Turn Bluetooth on using your chosen device, select the UE Boom - which can be renamed to whatever you like within 15 characters - and a bongo rhythm sound will confirm connection. Boom, done - that's it. If you have NFC (near field communication) then that's also supported for touch-based connectivity.
It's even possible to pair two wireless devices and then take turns in delivering tunes to the speaker - a nice idea but one that, ultimately, lacks the more DJ-like control that we think could be delivered via the Boom's free-to-download app. Wouldn't it be cool to have a lead device that could source surrounding friends' tracks all from the one device and stream out to the speaker?
As it stands the existing app is rather clever in the small number of things that it can do. It opens up the ability to pair multiple speakers to act as an independent left and right stereo array, or daisy-chained into a pair of devices that are set apart to deliver sound to a broader area. The app shows up battery life remaining and also includes a "Know Your UE Boom" user manual. The app's not an essential download and doesn't add an extra hoop to jump through as your music is still handled in the typical libraries that you have set up - in iTunes, in this review example.
And if you're moving from outdoors to in or just find that everything sounds a little too hench via the default "Out Loud" EQ preset then the Intimate or Vocals presets can be applied - the former for use in smaller rooms, the latter for vocal-led podcasts and similar. We were happy with the big sound from the default EQ setting - though we do think that the app could include more customisation options, whether a full graphic EQ with multiple bands or additional pre-sets for various musical genres.
Our UE Boom has delivered the audio goods at festivals, while at the desk, in the park and even during broken-radio car journeys.
It's a versatile, well-designed Bluetooth speaker which - and despite its rather steep £169 asking price - delivers on so many levels: it looks great, the sound is immersive and rich, yet remains big and loud considering the unit's small scale. Add waterproofing, a rugged build and a battery life that goes into double figures and Ultimate Ears leaves little to be desired.
The UE Boom is a class act - in fact we're yet to see or hear a better Bluetooth speaker of this size. Perfect for summer park time, winter hideaway time or pretty much any time.
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