Kevin Hunt: Review: The UE Boom Bluetooth Speaker

Doesn't anyone sit still anymore? Music is now consumed like fast food, on the go, with a mobile phone.

Private listening requires nothing more than headphones. In party mode, people frequently turn to a portable Bluetooth speaker. The new Ultimate Ears Boom might not be perfect, but it is so good that it might quickly define what's possible in a $200-or-less streaming Bluetooth speakerphone.

When I last auditioned Ultimate Ears products seven months ago, the Logitech UE Smart Radio and the Logitech UE Boombox were competent, if somewhat regressive (in the radio's case), updates of previous Logitech products. Logitech, which acquired Ultimate Ears in 2008, has now untethered the UE brand with the Boom — a fresh, from-scratch design and no sign of "Logitech" on the packaging.

Technologically, the Boom moves to the head of the class. Some highlights:

•Bluetooth range of up to 50 feet, or 20 feet more than standard Bluetooth speakers. The Boom is the first Bluetooth speaker I was able to escort from an upstairs bedroom where it was linked wirelessly with a docked iPod Touch to the downstairs living room without losing the signal.

Yes, the signal finally lagged when I moved into the kitchen, but it would take a speaker equipped with Apple's Airplay technology connected to a home network to beat it.

•NFC-enabled mobile devices — some Android and Windows phones (but not Apple) among them — that use near-field communication will establish almost instant pairing with the Boom. No more negotiating the menu-pairing ritual.

•Excellent battery life, up to 15 hours, with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery.

•How much battery life remains? Press the oversized plus/minus volume controls on the side panel simultaneously and a female voice will tell you. Did Madame Boom just say 60 percent?

•The Boom, available in six colors, connects to up to eight devices, including two simultaneously. How the latter might work: In a mixed-interest crowd, The Lumineers are up first before the guy with the trendy, talking-head glasses flips on some Dvorak from his connected device.

•Using the UE app (Android or Apple), you can pair two Booms and play them as dual stereo speakers or a traditional left-right stereo pair. I didn't have a second Boom to try this, but spending $400 for two Booms might be overkill. Better hope for a Boom-owning friend.

The Boom, a tall can of Red Bull in disguise, can be oriented vertically or horizontally but will be more likely used upright with the push-button power and Bluetooth pairing controls on a rubber-textured top. The water-resistant rubber coating continues in an inch-plus strip, past the volume controls, to the bottom end.

There, between a 3.5 mm input (to connect a device by wire) and the micro-USB connector for the power/charger cable, is a D-ring for attaching the Boom to a backpack or lanyard. The D-ring also unscrews, revealing a threaded receptacle for mounting the boom on a tripod.

Ultimate Ears says the Boom is the first battery-powered speaker with 360-degree sound. Technology or hyperbole? Ultimately, the rubber strip interrupts the attempt. But eyes closed, I detected only a slight change in presence and volume when first facing the Boom's rubber-stripped side, then the other side's textured water- and stain-resistant acoustic skin.

Beneath that skin, Ultimate Ears placed a 11/2-inch driver on each side bordering the rubberized strip and a pair of 2-inch passive (unpowered) radiators for lower-frequency sound. The sound, indeed, is wide and surprisingly textured for its size — excellent for outdoors — although it distorts at the highest volumes.

But what a package. The only complaint, a minor one, concerns those plus-minus volume controls, which only respond when struck just right in a central sweet spot.

I have not heard the Jawbone Jambox, but the Boom beats every other portable that's ever paired via Bluetooth in my home. For ultraportability, I might still take Soundmatters' fits-in-a-shirt-pocket foxL. The Boom, however, shows that Ultimate Ears once again deserves to stand on its own. Welcome back.

UE Boom portable

Bluetooth speaker

Price: $200

The good: Great Bluetooth range, long battery life, NFC-enabled, above-average sound.

Not-so-good: Oversized volume controls that only respond when touched at their midsection.


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