UE Blast

Score

Pros

  • Great sound by smart speaker standards
  • Rugged design
  • Decent battery life

Cons

  • Low end can be a little fat
  • Still some issues with Alexa smart features

Key Features

  • Review Price: £200
  • Maximum Sound Level: 90 dBC
  • Frequency Range: 90Hz-20kHz
  • 2x 35mm active drivers and 2x 81x39mm passive radiators.
  • Amazon Alexa built in
  • Multiple microphones with noise cancellation
  • 12-hour battery life
  • Dual-band Wi-Fi supports 802.11 a/b/g/n (2.4 and 5 GHz) networks
  • Bluetooth (up to 8 paired devices)
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What is the UE Blast?

The Blast is the smaller option in Ultimate Ears’ current line of smart speakers, sitting below the company’s huge Megablast smart speaker.

From a distance, it looks all but identical to the older UE Boom 2. Dig under the hood, however, and you’ll find a number of bodacious upgrades – chief of which is the addition of Amazon Alexa support.

The smart functions, coupled with ear-splittingly loud volumes and marathon battery life, make the UE Blast one of the best Alexa-powered portable speakers on the market.

Related: Best Bluetooth speakers

UE Blast – Design

From afar, the UE Blast looks almost indistinguishable from its predecessor, the UE Boom 2. It’s a vertical-standing cylinder, with a wraparound speaker grille that’s broken up by a rubber strip that runs up the unit’s long side and top and bottom faces. Up top sits the power and Bluetooth pairing button, while down low is a port that grants access to its Micro USB charger. The Blast will also work with UE’s Power Up stand charger, but that will set you back a further £35.

On the front of the speaker you’ll find clearly marked physical volume controls. Plus, this unit shares the same IP67 waterproof and dust-proof certification of the Boom 2, meaning it’ll survive being submerged in liquids of depths up to 1m for up to 30 minutes.

Following an encounter with my neighbour’s labradoodle, which accidentally mistook the Blast for a chew toy, I can confirm that this speaker is pretty darned rugged. Despite Princess’ best efforts, the Blast continued playing Meatloaf throughout the ordeal, surviving the attack scratch- and mark-free.

Any physical differences between the Blast and Boom 2 only become apparent on placing the two speakers side by side – once I’d given the Blast a thorough wash, obviously. The Blast is roughly a centimetre or two taller than its sibling, measuring 188mm. It also has Ultimate Ears branding etched into the bottom of its front band.

There are more significant differences under the hood, with UE having tweaked the speaker design and added two omnidirectional microphones to accommodate its new Alexa support.

Alexa support functions as it did on UE’s larger Megablast speaker. Setting it up requires you to download the Ultimate Ears app (iOS and Android). From there you follow a series of on-screen instructions to pair the speaker to your Wi-Fi and Amazon account. After a minute or two of “setting things up” and installing software updates, you’re good to go.

Alexa works pretty much the same way as any other smart speaker. Shout the voice-assistant’s name with a command and she’ll jump into action. These include everything from skipping or pausing music, to playing a specific genre or band from Amazon Music. Note that the speaker comes with a three-month free subscription to Amazon Music, which is a must; Alexa still doesn’t play nice with Google’s own music service.

Commands work well enough. In my home office, which is about the size of a double bedroom, I never once struggled to get her to hear my commands. Alexa still isn’t the smartest digital assistant around, struggling with complex commands and multi-layered questioning, but she’s more than good enough for basic music playing.

If anything, I was surprised by how well she used my Amazon data to discern my tastes. On one occasion I flippantly told her to “play something good”, only to be met with a playlist devoted to Rush and other classic prog bands. The machines are learning.

As before, my issue with Alexa stems from the slightly fiddly pairing system. To work, Alexa needs to connect to the internet via Wi-Fi. This is fine, but it means that whenever you try to ask her a question whilst streaming music via Bluetooth – which is what most people do – she’ll take over and switch the Blast to Wi-Fi, killing off whatever you were streaming.

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Personally, I’d like Amazon and speaker makers to produce a more intelligent system that knows to return to the original audio connection’s source. However, given that no speaker offers such functionality, I can’t be too harsh on the Blast for it.

I’m a little more annoyed that one of UE’s more interesting features has been cut to make room for Alexa. Unlike UE’s non-smart speakers, the Blast doesn’t support “Party Up”. Party Up was a staple selling point for UE’s products; it let you pair multiple speakers via Bluetooth. I can’t see any true audiophile viewing speakers with this feature as a true multiroom solution, but Party Up is great for house parties and frolics in the park, and its absence is a little disappointing.

Related: Google Home vs Amazon Echo

UE Blast – Sound quality and battery life

If you’ve been experienced an UE product before, then you’ll be well aware of the feature for which it’s most famous: eardrum-splittingly loud, 360-degree audio. Every UE speaker I’ve tested since the original Boom has been louder than its dimensions initially suggest, which is a great considering their focus on party and outdoor environments. The Blast continues this trend and is one of the best-sounding, small-form-factor smart speakers I’ve tested.

Although it may look near- identical to the Boom 2, the Blast has a slightly tweaked internal speaker setup. Specifically, the Blast features two 35mm active drivers and two 81mm x 39mm passive radiators; the Boom 2 houses two 45mm active drivers and two 80mm x 45mm passive radiators.

Testing the two side by side, I couldn’t detect much of a difference between the two’s max volumes. However, this is mainly because on reaching 70%, I was already well into ‘annoying the neighbours’ territory.

Audio quality does feel a little more refined here than UE’s previous offerings. Highs and trebles aren’t as ably handled as the competing Bose SoundLink Revolve 360 speaker, but they’re a clear-cut above what you’ll find on the Amazon Echo, or Google Home.

Listening to post-rock, the reverb-heavy guitars displayed a pleasing twinkle and were wonderfully detached from the rumbling base and mid-heavy drums. Jazz piano sounded suitably sparkly, and in general the Blast dealt with more complex arrangements surprisingly well.

The speaker also managed to remain distortion-free at volumes the Boom 2 began to show signs of struggle. Blasting out mid and high heavy punk music, the guitars and drums managed to retain their bite and dynamism without any sign of sibilance creeping in.

The low end is a little fat and warbly on more bass-heavy genres, but in general is OK and a little more forceful than that of the Bose Revolve – which at times can sound a little lean.

All-in-all, the Blast’s sound quality is a cut above what you’ll experience with the Amazon Echo, and more than good enough for non-audiophiles looking for a Bluetooth smart speaker for casual listening.

Battery is also solid. Though I never got the full quoted 12 hours when playing the Blast at high volumes it consistently lasted a full working day off a single charge.

Why buy the UE Blast?

If you’re in the market for a rugged smart speaker then the Blast is one of the best options out there right now.

It offers significantly better audio than Amazon’s Echo and even comes close to matching the Bose SoundLink Revolve. Add to this its close-to-indestructible design and insane maximum volume levels, and the Blast easily earns its place as one of 2018’s best portable speakers.

The downside is that it only supports Alexa, which is annoying for those embedded in Google or Apple’s ecosystems. For the latter, the Bose Revolve remains a better option.

Verdict

The UE Blast with Alexa is the one of the best portable Bluetooth speakers with Alexa money can buy.

Score