Ultimate Ears speakers’ get voice upgrade that lets you ‘say it to play it’

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With the UE Boom 2, Ultimate Ears makes a great speaker even better.
A firmware update lets you bark song requests at your Boom 2 speaker. But you'll have to push a button first.
Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

A firmware update to Ultimate Ears’ Bluetooth speakers lets you use simple voice commands to make song requests.

After you install the over-the-air update, just tap the Bluetooth button on the top of your paired Boom 2 or Megaboom speaker, then say something like, “Play ‘Iron Man’ by Black Sabbath.” Soon the track will play as if by magic.

“Music lovers can now truly stay in the moment, playing their favorite song from the middle of the pool or even while diving off a cliff with their UE speaker in hand,” said Charlotte Johs, general manager of Ultimate Ears, in a press release. “No matter how wet, muddy or wild the situation, with Siri and Google Now voice integration on UE Boom 2 and UE Megaboom, fans no longer need to pick up their phone to play DJ. Now, they can just say it to play it.”

The free update is available today in the iOS and Android app stores. It turns Siri into a DJ if you’re using an iOS device, while Android users’ voice recognition is powered by Google Now. And therein lies the only niggling problems with this handy update to this tough, lovable speaker line that just keeps getting incrementally better.

Paired to certain music services

If you’ve used Siri or Google Now to trigger tunes on your smartphone, you know those AI helpers are joined at the proverbial hip to their corporate parents’ music services. Since the UE speaker in this case is just a microphone for firing commands at your smartphone, it’s limited to applications supported by Google Now or Siri.

“Siri users can access local music and Apple Music,” a UE rep told Cult of Mac. “Google Now users can access local music, Google Play Music and Spotify. Default music program on UE Boom 2 or UE Megaboom will reflect the default music program of Siri or Google Now. Users can check Siri and Google Now’s websites for a full list and for updates to their supported streaming services.”

If you use one of the supported services, the experience will be seamless for you. You’ll no longer need to dig for your phone to change songs. If you’re an iPhone-toting Spotify user, you’re slightly out of luck.

Sorry, but Siri is just a tad slow

The Amazon Echo.
The Amazon Echo might have spoiled us when it comes to voice commands.
Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

And then there’s the lag. As anybody who’s used Amazon’s Echo smart speaker knows, it’s a total blast to use voice commands to queue up tracks on the fly. If you’ve been spoiled by the Echo’s lightning-fast DJ skills, you might be a tad disappointed by the tiny lag in the UE speakers’ new feature.

First, after you tap the Bluetooth button on the Ultimate Ears speaker — which is similar to the way you initiate a voice command in Amazon’s Tap speaker — you must wait until you hear Siri’s familiar “ding” audio prompt before you can start your voice command. Then you have to wait again for your track to play. Google Now is similarly “slow,” at least compared with Amazon’s speakers.

That lag is totally due to the way Siri and Google Now implement voice recognition.

“Siri and Google Now voice integration for UE Boom 2 and UE Megaboom give the UE speakers the same capabilities that Siri and Google Now have on users’ smartphones and tablets,” the UE rep told us. “Response times will reflect the capabilities of Siri or Google Now.”

And the lag when using the UE speakers is indeed tiny: In Cult of Mac’s tests using an iPhone, it took four or five seconds longer on average to start playing songs using the UE speaker than with the always-listening Echo. The UE Megaboom we tested began playing tracks 14 or 15 seconds after initiating the request; the Echo generally clocked in at around 10 seconds. (The test phrase we used was, “Play ‘Everybody Wants Some’ by Van Halen.” Obviously, requesting songs with shorter titles would take less time.)

While four or five seconds might not sound like much of a delay, that tiny bit of extra time can seem like an excruciating wait if you’re used to the Echo. Amazon’s 10-second response time is made even less annoying by a bit of clever audio UI: Alexa, Amazon’s personable AI assistant, responds to your request almost immediately, reassuring you that your track is on the way — and seemingly shortening the pregnant pause while you wait for the music to begin.

It’s a great little trick. While Siri does the same sort of thing on your iPhone screen, there’s nothing but silence coming from the UE speaker as you twist in the wind, waiting for the music to start.

Despite these minor quibbles, voice integration is yet another smart and useful update from Ultimate Ears, which previously added Block Party mode for sharing friends’ music, whatever streaming service they use. In the arms race to add features to smart speakers, everybody wins.