Blast and Megablast bring Alexa to UE’s portable speakers

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With Alexa baked in, UE's new Blast speaker will be right at home in the kitchen.
With Alexa baked in, UE's new Blast speaker will be right at home in the kitchen.
Photo: Ultimate Ears

SAN FRANCISCO — Ultimate Ears’ punchy portable speakers just got smart. The new Blast and Megablast speakers bring built-in support for Alexa, Amazon’s voice-operated smart assistant.

Bringing the always-listening, voice-operated helper to a battery-powered speaker proved “nontrivial,” said Benjamin Falk, principal software product manager at UE, during a demo of the new speakers.

The new UE offerings are the latest entry into the burgeoning smart speaker market. Amazon’s surprise hit Echo speaker line brought Alexa to the masses in 2015. Google Home, with Google Assistant built in, followed a year later. Apple’s $349 HomePod, which lands in December, is a late entry that will put high-fidelity audio (and Siri’s smarts, or lack thereof) front and center.

Meanwhile, companies like UE are baking Alexa into speakers of all shapes and sizes.

Blast and Megablast: Like Boom and Megaboom but smarter

The new UE speakers look much like the company’s popular Boom and Megaboom line. They are slightly larger and a bit heavier.

That’s especially true for the larger Megablast, which added a pair of tweeters to the hardware mix. Like the Megaboom, it boasts two 2-inch drivers and two 2-inch-by-4-inch passive radiators. (The Blast operates on the same architecture as the Boom.)

UE says the Megablast is 40 percent louder than the Megaboom, which is impressively loud and sweet sounding.

Not quite the full Alexa experience

Three microphones (as opposed to Amazon Echo’s seven) listen all the time for the wake word that triggers Alexa. The smaller number of mics is better for power consumption. During the demo, the voice recognition worked well. It’s hard to say exactly how well it compares to Amazon’s line of speakers, though.

As with Echo and other Alexa-empowered speakers, you can enable thousands of Alexa skills. That means you can do tons of cool things, from the powerful (controlling compatible smart home gear) to the fanciful (ordering a pizza by voice).

Unfortunately, the UE speakers launch with only a subset of Amazon’s voice-controlled music partners. Amazon Music, iHeartRadio and TuneIn work out of the box. Pandora and Deezer should come online in the future, according to UE. There’s no word on Spotify Premium, which works with Echo speakers. And Apple Music, which doesn’t work with Echo either, seems like a distant dream.

Buy one of the speakers ​​​​between now and January​​​​ 23,​ ​​​2018, and you’ll get a free, t​​​hree-month subscription to Amazon Music Unlimited (for new users of Amazon’s premium music service).

UE Power Up charger for Blast and Megablast

The optional Power Up simplifies charging the Blast and Megablast.
The optional Power Up charger simplifies charging the Blast and Megablast.
Photo: Ultimate Ears

Both the Blast and the Megablast also work with an optional charging dock that should make keeping the speakers juiced up extremely easy.

The white Power Up charger seems like a no-brainer for setting up one of the new speakers in, for instance, a kitchen, where you could summon Alexa to read recipes, serve up news or set timers, all hands-free.

It’s when the Blast and Megablast stray from the Power Up that the demands of an always-on Wi-Fi connection and an always-listening AI assistant become a challenge.

“That part definitely gets tricky,” said Falk.

Battery life becomes a real issue for an always-listening speaker, but UE says it managed to squeeze 12 hours out of the Blast and 16 out of the larger Megablast.

Blast and Megablast: Portable and ‘lifeproof’

The waterproof Blast and Megablast ain't afraid of no pool
The waterproof Blast and Megablast ain’t afraid of no pool.
Photo: Ultimate Ears

UE touts its speakers as “lifeproof,” and the new ones are no exception. They are drop-proof up to 3 feet (Megablast) and 5 feet (Blast).

Like the iPhone 8, both the Blast and the Megablast are IP67 rated, which means they are dustproof, ​​waterproof ​​and ​​can ​​be dunked ​​in 3 ​​feet ​​of ​​water ​​for ​​up ​​to a half-hour. That means Blast and Megablast are ready for the pool, the beach or the shower.

“We’re really about taking your music with you anywhere,” said Falk.

Even the Power Up charging dock, which works with a metal D-ring that’s slightly different from the one that comes standard on UE speakers, is built to withstand a day at the pool or beach.

“How they made it waterproof, I have no idea,” Falk said.

Order Blast and Megablast today (but not in yellow)!

Unfortunately, the speakers won't be available in the eye-dazzling Lemonade color (at least in the United States).
The speakers won’t be available in the eye-dazzling Lemonade color (at least for the U.S. launch). You know you want it!
Photo: Ultimate Ears

The speakers will be available today from the Ultimate Ears website and from Amazon. They should land in stores Oct. 26. The Megablast retails for $299, the Blast for $229, and the Power Up for $39. Buying a speaker bundled with the charger will save you $10.

The speakers come in ​​six ​​colors: ​​Graphite​​ (black), ​​Blizzard ​​(white), ​​Blue ​​Steel (royal blue)​​ Merlot ​(red), Mojito ​​(green)​ ​and​ ​Lemonade ​​(yellow), although strangely the green and yellow models won’t be available in the United States (at least at first).

One thing you won’t get with the new speakers is the iconic, vibrant yellow charging cable that comes with UE’s previous speakers. It’s been replaced by a similar flat cable in white, which matches the Power Up charger and coordinates with the white accents on Blast and Megablast speakers.