We’ve long been fans of Ultimate Ears’ portfolio of great-sounding, fun and portable Bluetooth speakers - as the armloads of five-star reviews and What Hi-Fi? Awards demonstrate - so we’re rather excited to see and hear its take on smart speakers.
The new Ultimate Ears Megablast and Blast speakers have Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant built in, and they’re the first portable speakers to do so.
Thanks to Alexa's integration into each speaker, you can control your music and elements of your smart home using simple voice commands.
Once connected to wi-fi (and thanks to the microphones now built into the new speakers) you can ask the Blast and Megablast speakers to dim the lights, set a cooking timer or play your favourite 80s power ballad.
A white LED on top of the speakers will indicate if Alexa is listening or not. It glows brighter when you say the wake word ‘Alexa’, and blinks when processing the request and talking back to you. You can also mute Alexa on the speakers (indicated by a small red LED).
In our demo, the speakers have no problem hearing commands when playing music at a reasonable volume (about halfway through the 10-step volume level). Any louder (beyond level seven, say), and you’ll have to shout or come closer to be heard by Alexa - but it will still hear you perfectly.
Full volume? You’re probably better off using the large volume buttons or your smartphone’s controls.
Alexa-controlled music playback is limited to Amazon Music Unlimited and TuneIn radio at the time of launch, while Deezer support is coming soon after. We’re hoping support for more streaming services - especially Spotify - will be available soon, too.
As always, you can stream songs using Bluetooth (it’s the standard 4.1 version - no aptX or Bluetooth 5 just yet).
More after the break
Design, build quality and other features
Design-wise, the speakers are near-identical to the Boom 2 and Megaboom speakers.
They’re a touch flatter at the ends, but sport the same rugged, durable build quality that makes them perfect for outdoor use.
They’re waterproof as well (IP67 rated), so they’ll survive being dunked in the pool or splashed in the rain.
Battery lives are respectable at 12 hours (Blast) and 16 hours (Megablast). It’s worth noting both numbers are down from the original Boom 2’s 15 hours and Megaboom’s 20 hours.
Despite retaining its portable, outdoorsy design, there’s been a conscious effort to make the Blast and Megablast more home-friendly (which makes sense, as smart speakers are more useful inside the home than outside).
For starters, the six finishes - Graphite (black), Blizzard (white), Blue Steel (blue), Merlot (red), Mojito (green) and Lemonade (yellow) – are more muted than flashy and vibrant.
There’s also now an optional charging dock - the Power Up (£35) - which doubles up as a neat stand.
It’s an elegant solution, as it keeps the speaker standing upright rather than upside down (as it would if you were plugging the microUSB cable into the bottom slot in a more ungainly fashion).
Ultimate Ears has also removed the 3.5mm auxiliary input, stating that - with smartphones now removing the 3.5mm headphone jack and people speaking to speakers to play songs - it sees no real need to hardwire music players to these new smart speakers. It may have a point, we will grudgingly concede.
There will be a bespoke control app as usual, but at the time of launch you won’t be able to employ staple UE features such as pairing two Blasts or Megablasts to play in tandem or stereo mode. We expect these features to roll out via firmware updates eventually, though.
While the Blast mirrors the existing Boom 2's build and sound, the Megablast has been redesigned from the ground up - it has two new active drivers, passive radiators and tweeters to give it a sonic lift.
Ultimate Ears says the Megablast is its loudest speaker yet, measuring a maximum of 93dB and being 40% louder than the Megaboom. It's bigger physically, too.
In our brief demo, Megablast certainly sounds loud. It has no problem filling the medium-sized room, and that is only at half its volume. Even when pushed to its maximum volume – and bearing in mind this is being heard in a normal office meeting room – the loudness doesn’t teeter into hardness, nor does it make us wince.
The Megablast (and Blast) aren’t just about a big, powerful sound, though. We hear evidence of UE’s customary punchy and energetic character, too.
Bruno Mars’s 24K Magic seems to charge along with an enthusiastic sense of rhythm and genuine solidity throughout the frequency range. There is a decent level of detail, and that 360-degree spread of sound seems even and clear around the room.
We’ll have to hear how our review sample fares against the Megaboom to fully pinpoint all the sonic differences, but we’re also keen to find out how both the Blast and Megablast perform next to smart speaker rivals such as the Amazon Echo, new Echo Plus and Sonos One.
But it’s not that straightforward. The Blast and Megablast are for portable use (current alternatives are mostly mains-powered), and they’re a touch pricier at £200 and £270 respectively (all Echos are sub-£200).
The Sonos One is available for £200, but it has more multi-room features than the Ultimate Ears speakers.
Still, Ultimate Ears has good form here. In sound quality alone, we’re expecting the same level of performance - if not better - as the five-star speakers the Blast and Megablast are based on.
Add in Alexa skills to the mix and you have a duo of what appear to be great-sounding speakers with the latest tech trend as a bonus.
We’ll update this page as soon as we get proper review samples into our listening rooms, so stay tuned for a full review very soon.