With the vast (and ever-growing) sea of audio products available, it becomes harder and harder to get noticed. It takes the right combination of elements to get that attention and then deliver with quality that people will love and keep.
Ultimate Ears has performed such a feat. The amount of thought that went into the UE Boom Bluetooth speaker answers to the desires of many audio enthusiasts. It certainly drew me in.
It takes more than some unique shape or gimmicky features to create a product that can withstand time and outperform its competitors. I recently had the opportunity to put the UE Boom to the test to see how it stacks up.
Design & Controls
I almost never comment about a product’s packaging, but I have to give a nod to Ultimate Ears. It was both fun and delightful to open up the UE Boom.
The speaker is constructed to last everything up to and including light outdoor use. It could be considered outdoor rugged, but I wouldn’t want to chance it and dent up the speaker grill.
The grill itself is a mesh of woven fabric over metal, which is both eye-catching and water resistant. The rest of the UE Boom is covered with a smooth, thick rubber that does absorb some shock.
I (unintentionally) dropped it while on a ladder while attempting to hang the speaker up in a tree. No marks. No damage. It was a relief, because something like this looks too good to scuff around.
There’s not much for buttons: power, Bluetooth, volume up, and volume down. I do like how the UE Boom plays unique sounds when it powers on/off and connects with Bluetooth. It’s pretty quick to power on/off too.
The more recent units of the UE Boom include a rubber ring to cover the 3.5mm AUX input and USB port on the bottom, ensuring liquids stay out.
The USB port is charge only, so non-Bluetooth devices are out of luck. If you choose to hang the speaker, which ends up being upside down, the power and volume controls are in easy reach.
The UE Boom automatically shuts off after a period of inactivity, preventing it from ever accidentally running the battery down.
Another smart feature is that you can have the battery level announced to you by pressing the volume buttons at the same time.
The speaker quality is pretty good, for when you need to use the UE Boom for calls. Incoming calls will ring your smartphone, but the actual conversation happens through the speaker. While not considered “business class” in terms of filtering out background noise, anyone can still have a clear and distinct conversation.
The UE Boom delivers quality audio that has depth. I can hear how some instruments are further away from the mic than others. Ones that are meant to be heard in the background are heard in the background, which makes complex recordings really pop out instead of being flat. Vocals are cleanly separate from instruments, for the most part.
The amount of detail heard from the UE Boom is amazing. It delivers a sense of realism and body behind everything that comes out. I can pick out the percussiveness of piano, drums, and saxaphone buttons. You can hear a vocalist give an extra push in the middle of singing a drawn-out word or sound. These little aspects aren’t always reproduced by speakers, but they make the music more real and less like it’s coming through electronics.
The unique 360 degree design of the UE Boom lets me place the speaker in a central location to evenly blanket an area with sound. There’s practically no dead-zone.
The drawback is that it’s hard to get a sense of space and atmosphere from the edges. The front-to-back of the soundstage is clear. But the way the left and right sides overlap (acoustically) actually ends up throwing off the perceived locations of some instruments. It goes with the territory of the design, I suppose.
Volume levels from the UE Boom can get pretty high. Like seriously, guys. Only when I’ve cranked the volume (on both the speaker and connecting device) close to max does any of the sound start to suffer from distortion, creeping towards cruddy. But up until that point, music comes out practically distortion-free, depending on the recordings themselves.
Light jazz (and similar) can likely max the volume out and still sound fine. Harder music, such as KoRn’s entire album, Take a Look in the Mirror, pushes the boundaries of what the UE Boom can effectively handle before losing out on quality due to volume.
The UE Boom handles fast changes in instrumental and vocal volumes with precision. Music can go from being quiet to exploding and back to quiet again, all the while staying tight and punchy. It maintains a good clarity with distinct edges, though there is a slight amount of blurring noted in the higher octaves.
Orchestrated music has been delightful to listen to, although the UE Boom can’t handle the high-end crescendo of singing choruses (or similar). That’s the point where it tends to flatten out at the top and muddle the music. When it comes to individual (or few) vocalists, the UE Boom handles the peaks competently. Overall, there is no distortion, no tinniness of hi-hats, and no sizzling of cymbals.
I listened to the entire album, Southwind: Traditional Celtic Music, by Glenn Morgan, and it practically transported me back to this one Renaissance Faire when I heard him play live. The UE Boom does an excellent job with the intricate hammering on the dulcimer. All the stringed instruments sound natural, especially as notes and chords slowly fade from being hit, plucked, and drawn.
The UE Boom represents the mids faithfully with no fuzzing and little blending of sounds. Full brass sections blare with intense accuracy. I can tell separate drums sets apart, and the acoustic bass has a wonderful resonance to it. The UE Boom does well to not overpower the mid-range vocals with instruments (and vice versa).
When it comes to balance, the UE Boom takes care to make sure the highs, mids, and lows each shine without receiving extra emphasis. With that being said, those who are accustomed to having their bass heavily-accented may be likely to think the UE Boom is “not as good” as other speakers with artificial inflation.
The reality is that the bass and lows coming from the UE Boom are technical and full-flavored. For most of my music, I’m totally fine with and love where it’s at.
Having a proper balance across the levels helps to create the wonderful listening experience that comes from the speakers. If you want to add more body to fill in that low-bottom booty, then that’s what equalizers are for.
While listening to such artists as Brooklyn Bounce and Shy FX, I had/wanted to bump the bass up. Does it need it? Well, that’s like asking if a home-baked apple pie “really needs” a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top; you can’t help but say yes, because good on good makes everything better. The lows are quick and lively, with or without the equalizer. The added boom by an active equalizer is good at leaving distortion behind (except maybe max volume), which is a problem suffered by many audio products.
Wireless & Battery
The Bluetooth wireless range of the UE Boom gets pretty darn close to the specified 50 feet. I can pull the speaker about 42 feet away from my smartphone before the connection starts to falter (technically, it does make it to 50, but I only care about distance where my music is stutter-free.). Unlike weaker Bluetooth signals, this one isn’t bothered so much about fleshy bodies walking in between the speaker and connected device.
With that being said, I can bring the UE Boom anywhere in my house, through floors and walls, and maintain a steady stream of music. Even with having my smartphone in the garage.
Ultimate Ears nails the battery life almost exactly at 15 hours of playtime on each full charge. The consistency is excellent, and I’ll chalk up the missed minutes to human recording-error.
The Ultimate Ears Boom strikes a perfect balance of audio quality and portability. It’s small enough to grab and stash away in a backpack, but large enough to deliver powerful and accurate music. The unique 360 degree styling works to fill areas with music whether the speaker is hanging, standing up, or lying on its side.
The UE Boom can blast some serious volume, but it does so with even balance across the lows, mids, and highs. The biggest limitation of this speaker is actually the volume itself.
Only when it starts to go too high for the music being played will it suffer audio quality. Harder music will hit that ceiling quicker than lighter music.
If you’re looking for or expecting some thrusting bass, you won’t get it without using an equalizer. It may be a deal-breaker for rap and hip-hop aficionados, but I, personally, appreciate the choice of control over how the rest of my music sounds.
Ultimate Ears provides a free app, which features an equalizer, for Android and iOS. Frequent updates bring new features to the app, adding additional utility to the UE Boom itself.
Overall, the UE Boom delivers, putting you right there with the music, which practically jumps out of the speakers and into your pants. Not all audio products can instill that make-you-MOVE aspect. Some may balk at and consider the price tag of the UE Boom rather steep, but I disagree for the most part. Considering the quality of construction and sound, I believe the UE Boom effectively sets a baseline standard to which other speakers can be compared to. It doesn’t disappoint.