Review: Ultimate Ears UE Boom
After the speaker experts at Logitech acquired headphone developer Ultimate Ears, the latter name began to fade in favor of "Logitech UE" branding. Coinciding with today's launch of the Bluetooth wireless speaker UE Boom ($200), Logitech is bringing back the Ultimate Ears name, and will release all of its mobile audio products under the Ultimate Ears brand. That's a welcome development, as the company's UE-branded speakers and headphones have featured particularly striking and distinctive industrial designs: the $250 UE Boombox and $100 UE Mobile Boombox are now being joined by a mid-range option with a different shape and its own identity.
Unlike Logitech’s earlier UE models, which were all based substantially on Logitech’s earlier, non-UE speaker designs, UE Boom is a completely new product. Offered in six different color choices, it’s shaped like a tube, standing 7” tall with a 2.5” diameter, just slightly bulging thanks to a rubber grip that runs on one edge from the speaker’s top to the bottom. Up top are small power and Bluetooth buttons, each with their own tiny white indicator lights. The rubber edge is designed to face forwards, with huge + and - volume controls in contrasting colors, while the bottom has micro-USB power and aux-in ports alongside a flip-out, detachable D-ring for attachment to a camera tripod or lanyard. This ring is the speaker’s only odd feature, as nothing specific is provided for this purpose. Ultimate Ears bundles each UE Boom with a flat USB charging cable and boxy wall charger, both coated in soft touch rubber. Instructions suggest that a rubber port cover is also supposed to be included, but we didn’t find one in either of our review units’ packages. (* Updated: See the bottom of this review for new details.)
Having seen dozens of speakers in UE Boom’s “ultra-portable” size category, we feel strongly that UE Boom has one of the nicest overall designs in its class. Beyond the iconic look, which is different from most competitors and yet consistent with both prior UE Boombox designs, UE Boom also feels great in the hand, and offers a cool interface, besides. The top buttons and volume controls are entirely intuitive, augmented by nice drum-like power and pairing sounds, plus a beautiful spoken voice battery remaining system; you can press the volume buttons together to make UE Boom vocalize how much power remains. This speaker notably includes a 15-hour rechargeable battery, up considerably from the 6-hour run time of the UE Boombox and 10-hour battery in the UE Mobile Boombox.
Designed to be splash- and stain-resistant, features that shouldn’t be taken for granted given their rarity in portable speakers, the wraparound speaker grille has a woven fabric texture that looks great and feels resilient, while the thick rubber provides satisfying stability for the upright tube while it’s in use. Ideally, the absent rubber port covers would water-seal the bottom,* but the ports are inside a concave recess that is virtually unreachable when the speaker’s standing upright. Should you want to spin UE Boom around to hide its controls, you have as minimalist of a speaker as such things get—even simpler than the highly comparable Jawbone Jambox, albeit with a slightly larger chassis and a much smaller footprint. Additionally, Ultimate Ears’ tube-shaped packaging is just as thoughtful as the speaker, and another really nice way to distinguish this product from its increasingly huge collection of rivals.
The single biggest difference between UE Boom and competitors is in Ultimate Ears’ selection and placement of speakers. Unlike JBL’s tube-shaped Flip, which was made to lay on its side when performing music—an orientation that expands its stereo sound field—UE Boom is primarily intended to be used standing upright. Consequently, you’ll only hear properly-oriented stereo sound when it’s up, and there’s really no point to turning it on its side. Most of its audio comes from two 1.5” drivers mounted near the top edge, with two 2” passive bass radiators emitting lower-pitched sound closer to the center. Ultimate Ears accurately pitches the design as offering “360-degree sound,” as audio can be heard with nearly equal clarity and range from UE Boom’s front, back, or sides. The only thing you give up when turning the tube around is proper stereo separation, and even then, the stereo field isn’t particularly wide.
How does UE Boom compare sonically with earlier options? Your opinions will depend on your frame of reference, but from our perspective, this is a good rather than great unit in overall audio performance. While its stereo separation isn’t much better than the $100 Mobile Boombox, UE Boom does perform songs with considerably better dynamic range, including higher, clearer highs, somewhat lower lows, and the ability to reach decidedly louder volumes. At its peak volume, the Mobile Boombox can serve as a desktop speaker for near-field listening, but can’t come close to filling a room. By comparison, UE Boom’s 40% volume level is roughly equivalent to the Mobile Boombox at 100%, and UE Boom’s 100% volume level is dangerously loud for near-field listening—enough to fill a room with decent sound. This isn’t surprising given the considerable price and size differences between the models, but UE Boom is indeed better. Just like the Mobile Boombox, UE Boom includes a microphone, which enables it to double as a speakerphone. However, unlike most speakerphones in its class, callers said that UE Boom sounded nearly indistinguishable from the speakerphone mode of the iPhone 5, while their audio was significantly louder on our side. That’s very good performance.
If this doesn’t sound like high praise, a little additional context is necessary. Logitech has for years produced truly superb $100-$150 portable speakers with even more horsepower than UE Boom, though they were all considerably larger and weaker in battery life than this model. After the overpriced but compact $200 Jawbone Jambox came out, speaker makers stopped chasing Logitech’s unbeatable larger portable speakers and focused on making smaller Jambox clones, instead. Now Logitech has joined them: UE Boom is the Ultimate Ears response to the Jambox, and it blows Jawbone’s design away in every regard. All of the above comments on treble, bass, and volume apply equally to the Jambox; despite their similar pricing, UE Boom’s performance is in another league, just like many of the recent Jambox competitors we’ve tested.
UE Boom also includes a trick that we haven’t seen in any Bluetooth speaker this small—the ability to use two wireless speakers simultaneously in a dual-streaming mode. We’ve previously seen the same feat accomplished with special Bluetooth hardware in Soundfreaq’s Sound Platform 2 and SuperTooth’s Disco Twin, with small hiccups, but the Ultimate Ears implementation is somewhat different. Rather than enabling users to pair two speakers with confusing hardware button presses, Ultimate Ears uses a free UE Boom app to manage pairing. Formatted for the iPhone/iPod touch but compatible with iPads, the UE Boom app identifies the specific colors of your first and second units, shows you how to do a one-time pairing process, and lets you choose between stereo and monaural broadcast modes—complete with the ability to choose which speaker is left and which is right. These app-assisted configuration modes are actually superior to the options we’ve seen in Soundfreaq’s and SuperTooth’s designs, but you need to run the UE Boom app each time you want to do simultaneous streaming, a small inconvenience. As is the case in single unit mode, the sound quality in dual-streaming mode is good rather than great; we wouldn’t take two UE Booms over a single excellent $300 or $400 speaker, but the simultaneous streaming works well, and may really appeal to some users given these speakers’ small footprints.
Overall, UE Boom is a very good ultra-portable wireless speaker. While we wouldn’t pick it for raw sound quality over Logitech’s top $150 models, such as the now-discontinued Wireless Boombox, its considerably smaller size, nicer industrial design, improved battery life and speakerphone functionality are all assets that will endear it to iOS users. At $150, it would have been a slam dunk, but at $200, it seems just a little too expensive for the audio performance it delivers. The fact that it can be used with some confidence in wet conditions is also appealing, though the missing bottom port cap might concern some users,* and its dual streaming mode works well with only modest caveats. Due as much to great industrial design as features and performance, UE Boom is worthy of our B+ rating and strong general recommendation.
Updated May 23, 2013: Ultimate Ears notes that the initial production run of UE Boom units were missing the rubber port cover shown above, and that any user who didn’t receive the cover can contact the company to get one for free. The cover is designed to stay in place with or without the detachable D-ring, and can independently expose each port as needed. It’s not as beautifully implemented as the rest of the speaker, but it works for its intended purposes.