“If you’re looking for Alexa, she’s in the bath with me” is not a sentence we ever pictured ourselves uttering but it’s actually become surprisingly common since we started reviewing the new Ultimate Ears Megablast.
Ultimate Ears is a brand known for its excellent and sturdy Bluetooth speakers and with its new Megablast it’s thrown Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant into the mix.
With the Megablast you get the 360 degree sound, portability and durability of the excellent UE Boom speaker with the smarts of an Echo. It’s a marriage made in speaker heaven.
- Update: Ultimate Ears have just announced that it's bringing Spotify voice commands to its UE Blast and UE Megablast speakers. Also, starting today, you can the speakers will both now be recognized by Spotify Connect as well.
It makes a lot of sense to combine a Bluetooth speaker with a smart home speaker – it takes away the need to have two devices where one could do. And if we could have had one brand make it happen it would certainly have been Ultimate Ears.
As far as design is concerned, the Megablast looks good. Yes it’s chunky, but its tall cylindrical shape means it looks simultaneously robust and neat. You wouldn’t fly into a panic if it fell from its table - this is a speaker that can handle itself.
It’s also nice to see a smart home speaker in colors that aren’t black or white but are still home friendly. Ultimate Ears has created some muted jewel tones in yellow, blue, red, and green which make things a little more interesting. There are, of course, black and white options available if you'd prefer to play it safe.
Performance and features
UE Megablast is the smart home speaker dream for young families. It's multifunctional and its robust design means it can take the inevitable accidental beating that it’ll get from being in a home with a young child. It's not cheap - at $299.99 / £269.99 convenience and peace of mind come at a steep cost.
Admittedly, we don’t have a young child but as careless young adults we also greatly appreciated it. When you throw a house party with the Megablast, you don’t feel the need to cordon off the part of the room it’s in. You’re actually more likely to find yourself pulling the basin from the kitchen to show your guests that it can still play music submerged in water.
While it has great potential and many positives, though, the Megablast certainly isn’t perfect. Fortunately, some of its biggest issues aren’t permanent.
The most notable issue with the Megablast is that unlike an actual Echo speaker it doesn’t support popular music streaming apps like Spotify and Apple Music – you’re pretty much limited to Amazon Music. You can still use these services over a Bluetooth connection but you can’t use Alexa to control them with your voice.
Perhaps to offset this limitation, Ultimate Ears has made it so that anyone that purchases a Blast speaker gets three months of Amazon’s Music service for free, but we're unlikely to cancel our Spotify subscription anytime soon.
If you’ve already got a music streaming subscription for a service like Spotify where you’ve been steadily building up personalised playlists, it is somewhat galling that you can’t ask Alexa to put one of them on. Particularly when a standard Echo speaker would be able to do so.
We did, however, ask a UE rep whether or not other streaming services would be coming in the future and we were told that it’s in the pipeline, but there’s no exact time frame just yet.
Speaking of apps, controlling the Megablast will require two - Ultimate Ears' own app for set up and minor controls like volume, and the main Alexa app for Alexa customisation and skill installation. This isn't the most simple and streamlined approach in the world, but we didn't find it grating as post-setup neither app was required especially often.
A social network
Another thing that will come in a future update is speaker linking. At the moment it’s not possible to link your Megablast speaker to any other Ultimate Ears device. This is something that’s possible with earlier Ultimate Ears models and is a big advantage that Sonos systems have. Fortunately, Ultimate Ears has said that it’ll make networking possible in a future software update.
It’s not clear whether it’ll be possible to only link the new blast models together or whether older models will also be able to be linked up but both would be welcome for multi-room voice controls if not simply multi-room sound.
Regardless, having this function would make the Ultimate Ears’ system preferable to Sonos’ as not only would you get the networking capabilities, you’d get the portability and durability Sonos lacks. You certainly wouldn’t catch us taking our decidedly non-waterproof Sonos speaker into the bathroom.
We're halfway there
It’s hard to call the Megablast a like-for-like Amazon Echo replacement out of the box as it does require that you purchase the sold-separately Power Up dock to truly recreate the Echo experience. This dock connects to the silver D-ring on the base of the speaker and charges it, though unfortunately it won't work with the D-ring on the Boom or Megaboom speakers.
Though the Megablast can run for an impressive 16 hours, without the dock and no music to keep playing it'll go into power saving mode of its own accord. This means that no matter how loudly you shout, Alexa won’t hear you.
Power saving mode is, of course, really useful for a Bluetooth speaker that you’re inclined to leave lying around but it doesn’t make for a particularly convenient smart speaker. While it acts as a charger and an Alexa cradle, purchasing the dock is also an added £34.99/$39.99 to an already expensive speaker.
We did try simply plugging the speaker in via its USB port and leaving it connected in this way but it doesn't look great given the cable sticks straight out of the top. Plus, it's also a problem as the speaker doesn't seem to pick up requests quite as well when it's propped upside down.
With the dock, however, we found that the Megablast was a perfectly good Echo replacement. Not only is its voice recognition as good, the Megablast offers much better sound too.
In terms of sound quality the Megablast delivers excellent 360-degree sound. In every room we used it in it filled the space with sound. Even when we used it in a more open garden space, it didn’t struggle with the higher volume one bit - not only was it able to go loud, it was able to go loud without any discernible distortion. This is probably thanks to the addition two tweeters which make it more able than previous Ultimate Ears speakers to deliver well-rounded high frequency sounds.
Impressively, at a sound level that's on the higher-end of acceptability for indoor listening, the Megablast doesn't fail to register Alexa requests.
Something that’s worth bearing in mind is that you can only access the Megablast’s Alexa capabilities when the speaker is connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot. This isn’t really much of a problem as when you’re outside your home and away from Wi-Fi, you’re unlikely to want to control your smart home devices.
You can still connect to your mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, though, if you want to access Alexa’s hands-free music controls on the go. Without your mobile hotspot or Wi-Fi, this will revert back to a standard Ultimate Ears Bluetooth speaker.
Largely, the Megablast feels like a speaker with some smarts rather than an outright smart speaker but that’s not a bad thing. Ultimate Ears is primarily a speaker brand and with the Megablast it’s done an excellent job. It’s loud, solid, looks great and boasts a stable Bluetooth connectivity.
It’s nice to be able to grab Alexa from the living room where you’ve been using her to control the TV and take her without an issue into the Kitchen to help with recipe measurements, and from there into the bathroom from there to listen to music while you shower.
Then, if you’re going out in the evening to a friend’s party or down into your garden you can take the Megablast with you and Alexa’s functions are just a Wi-Fi connection away. It’s a smart speaker with flexibility which almost makes up for the ways in which it's lacking next to the Echo.
That said, the Amazon Echo is significantly less expensive than this speaker. At $299.99 / £269.99 (and that's not even including the dock) the Megablast will set you back more than the most recent Amazon Echo or a Sonos One speaker.
The Ultimate Ears Megablast feels very much like an excellent speaker with smarts rather than a straightforward smart speaker. If you're looking for some Alexa skills but you're not particularly fussed about having the best and loudest sound or taking your speaker out of your home, it's best to save some money and opt for a cheaper but much more suitable alternative.
Overall, the Megablast is a great addition to the Ultimate Ears lineup and may be its best sounding speaker yet. It hasn’t quite lived up to all of our expectations but when it gets Alexa support for a wider range of music services and can create a multi-room speaker network it’ll be pretty damn close.