Review: Logitech UE Boombox
Unlike many developers, Logitech's track record with speakers is so strong that our primary question for each new release isn't whether the accessory is good, but rather whether it's great. With numerous A-level speaker ratings already under its belt, Logitech in 2011 released the particularly impressive Logitech Wireless Boombox, which leveraged Bluetooth, eight speakers, and an eight-hour rechargeable battery to earn some of our strongest and most enduring praise. Now there's a sequel of sorts called the Logitech UE Boombox ($250), and while it doesn't deliver as much bang for the buck as its predecessor, it will likely appeal to a somewhat different segment of the Bluetooth speaker-buying population -- users who are willing to pay a premium for a fancier industrial design or richer bass.
While the plasticy original Logitech Wireless Boombox was vaguely alien and bone-like in shape, the Logitech UE Boombox looks like an astronaut’s toolbox: a sleek, silver aluminum frame with a full-length carrying handle on the top, a gray wraparound metal grille, and rubberized accents that liberally mix blue with the same gray. Logitech’s prior chassis went out of its way to emphasize each of the eight speakers inside, but this model deliberately obscures all of them, providing absolutely no visual clue as to its contents. Neither system is a “neutral” design, but the UE Boombox is certainly more fashion-forward—in photos and in person, it looks like a futuristic 3-D rendering somehow brought completely intact into reality.
Just a hint over 15” wide, 6.25” tall, and 3” deep, the Logitech UE Boombox has no frills in the package: you get the speaker and a matching modern-looking wall charger for its six-hour battery, but no carrying case, remote, or extra cables—items that were gradually dropped from the Wireless Boombox and its same-priced docking predecessor, Logitech’s S715i. A similar minimalism is evident in the new speaker’s design: there’s no dock, no stand, no rear compartment for ports, and no controls on the top or front. The back actually looks identical to the front but for the absence of a blue UE logo. Sensibly and inconspicuously, Bluetooth pairing and power buttons are found on its left side, right above aux-in and power ports, while huge + and - volume buttons are on its right side. Virtually every one of these design touches actually works and makes sense; it’s clear that Logitech really thought about what a modern “boombox” would really need in an era with Bluetooth-enabled playback devices, and stripped everything else out.
As a Bluetooth device, Logitech UE Boombox’s earliest surprises are in the pleasant musical notes and chimes it plays to signal power on, power off, and pairing—rather than using bleeps and blips, you’ll hear a strum of a string instrument or what sounds like the tapping of a note on a synthesizer. And under the hood, there’s a bigger improvement over the prior model: the UE Boombox actually can remember eight paired devices, and allows three to be paired at the same time. Consequently, you can automatically switch between separate non-overlapping streams within a second; as soon as one already-paired device stops playing songs, you can press play on another paired device and hear music without using the iOS device’s Bluetooth menu or source selection button. Additionally, pairing is simple and quick, and wireless signal strength is as promised on the packaging: we were able to stream music from an iPad mini and iPhone 5 at roughly 50 feet away, with only quick drop-outs at the very edge of that range.
From our perspective, the Logitech UE Boombox’s single biggest hurdle isn’t in the aesthetic or wireless departments, but rather in topping the performance of the still-impressive $150 Wireless Boombox. Two years ago, Logitech wowed users with an array of eight separate speakers—two 0.5” tweeters, two 3” mid-range drivers, and four 2” passive bass drivers that were spread between the Wireless Boombox’s front and back, collectively outperforming more expensive desktop speakers in a much smaller, portable chassis. This time, the UE Boombox pairs the same tweeters and mid-range drivers with four slightly larger bass drivers, each jumping from 2” to 2 5/8” in size.
These new drivers do change the Logitech UE Boombox’s sound, though reasonable people will disagree as to which system sounds better—they each have different strengths. While we were really impressed by the original Wireless Boombox’s treble, midrange, and bass balance, the new UE Boombox produces considerably bass-heavier sound, which works better with some songs than others. Tracks such as Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy gain additional body and richness that’s undeniably appealing, but other tracks sometimes sound a little bloated and distorted in the bass department at higher volumes. Despite similar treble and midrange hardware in both units, highs don’t sound quite as sharp in the UE Boombox as they do in the Wireless Boombox, a difference that’s more noticeable during direct comparisons than when the UE Boombox is heard in isolation. Small room-filling volume levels are roughly the same between the two units, with the UE Boombox possessing a small edge; however, neither unit properly mirrors your iOS device’s volume, so you’ll need to make manual adjustments to optimize sonic quality.
Overall, the Logitech UE Boombox is a very good portable wireless speaker system, benefitting as much from its striking new industrial design as its added Bluetooth conveniences and enhanced bass performance. Users who are wowed by its looks are likely to be pleased with its sound, which is strong and clean enough to be impressive for a speaker of this size, if not its price. That having been said, the relatively low battery life and lack of pack-ins aren’t thrilling, and the less expensive, prior-generation model offers a sonic experience that’s on par with this one, though slightly different in balance. This new model would have been a bigger winner if it was head and shoulders above its predecessor in clarity or frequency response, which it’s not. As a result, the $100 price gap between versions weighs in favor of the prior Wireless Boombox, unless you really love bass and/or aluminum enough to pay the premium. It’s to Logitech’s credit that the UE Boombox comes close to fully justifying a relatively high price for a portable Bluetooth speaker; our hope is that the next version will include some battery and sonic enhancements, as well as some way to protect the beautiful metal chassis from travel damage.