After moving in with my spouse, there has been a desperate need for a new concept for ubiquitous music playback in our daily lives. Requirements have been tough. Music had to be possible all around the house (living room, bath, kitchen, bedroom, garden,...) and with my spouse being a teacher, she also wanted a solution she could at times integrate with her lessons at school. Plus it had to sound good. After some research, I ended up with Ultimate Ears’ (UE) Alexa-enabled MEGABLAST smart speaker. Even though not too big a fan of Amazon’s business practices and ethics, their consumer services are quite worthwhile which is why I happen to be a Prime member, also owning several Alexa-enabled smart home devices which is why this decision made perfect sense.
UE’s way of presenting products and their seeming love for esthetics remind a bit of Apple. I love when design meets technology.
Build quality, haptics and ruggedness are exceptional. It really makes you feel comfortable when taking this speaker outdoor, also given its IP67 rating.
The MEGABLAST isn’t just a dumb Bluetooth speaker, but also a full-fledged cloud music streamer, integrating with Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa, therefore making it a so-called smart speaker, directly competing with the likes of Amazon Echo and Apple HomePod. I extensively used the smart part over the past two weeks to control and “direct-play” Spotify and TuneIn, totally having fallen in love with this new way of approaching my music libraries and favorite radio stations, representing a paradigm shift in how music and audio is controlled. Some quirks do exist though…
Alexa works quite well… well… most of the time. The MEGABLAST can however get very loud, so loud that the speaker’s speech recognition won’t be able to extract the Alexa wake word from the playing music anymore. In fact, you will at times already find yourself screaming at the speaker halfway through the volume scale. It just lacks this magical ability of the Apple HomePod, still being able to pick up commands even in very noisy environments in which the MEGABLAST remains mostly deaf.
One major annoyance is that when calling up Alexa, the MEGABLAST oftentimes stops sensing for speech input almost immediately after activation, harshly interrupting the not yet finished spoken command by resuming music. I also tried hooking up an Amazon Echo Dot in parallel. The times in which the MEGABLAST errored out early (sometimes even spanning several attempts in a row), the Echo continued sensing for speech input, waiting for the commands to be finished, properly executing them. Checking out Alexa’s history revealed that there has been some interaction with the cloud, stating that “audio was not intended for your device and was automatically deleted”. With the MEGABLAST stopping the recording early, it probably hasn’t sent anything useful to the cloud.
Alexa’s Follow-Up Mode is a bit awkward on MEGABLAST as the speaker is kept in the muted state while waiting for follow-up commands. I therefore suggest to leave it disabled which it is by default.
In order to improve the Alexa experience, one might want to use UE’s POWER UP dock, permanently powering the MEGABLAST, therefore preventing it from entering some low power state, also making it stand upright for optimal alignment of the built-in far-field microphone array. Also make sure to have somewhat beefy WiFi and internet connections. Mine are optimized for 4K video streaming even during internet peak hours.
It still feels like one has to learn a specific syntax in order to get Alexa to do something. Siri is clearly leading the game with respect to A.I., letting you interact with her in a much more natural manner. Alexa’s back-end is constantly improving though, so will the experience with the MEGABLAST. Alexa on the other hand has its strength in home automation with lots of compatible devices and activatable skills. Controlling my Sony BRAVIA via Alexa made everybody wow. Nobody understood how all this came together. It just magically works.
Cool thing about Alexa integration is that the MEGABLAST will get smarter over time. Amazon will for example soon open up Apple Music support for third parties.
The MEGABLAST lacks any physical audio connection, however beside Bluetooth also supporting WiFi, directly integrating with various cloud music streaming services such as Spotify and TuneIn Radio which I both extensively use.
In order for my spouse’s music taste not to pollute my curated playlists, I even went through the hassle of setting up two separate accounts under the family umbrella, also requiring two Amazon accounts belonging to the same Amazon Household with the respective Spotify accounts linked to them which Alexa can then switch between. Works like a charm. Even though Alexa is capable of discerning different voices, she doesn’t yet automatically switch accounts accordingly.
BLAST/MEGABLAST also supports Spotify Connect, similar to Google Chromecast and Apple AirPlay letting your mobile device control playback instead of querying Alexa, also allowing for some collaborative music experience. I however stumbled across an issue with Spotify Connect via my iPhone X with quite some songs (like for example Guns N’Roses - Live And Let Die) only exhibiting a short crackling noise before the speaker’s audio gets muted altogether. I found the problem to somehow be related to the parallel Bluetooth audio connection. Setting the iOS system-level audio output to the iPhone’s internal speakers resolves Spotify Connect playback of those songs on the MEGABLAST for some reason.
Another supported cloud streaming protocol is Alexa Cast, currently only being integrated with Amazon’s own music services though.
Even though Amazon recently opened up their Multi-Room Music (MRM) protocols for third parties, allowing several interconnected speakers to play different music simultaneously, UE confirmed not to support this feature on BLAST/MEGABLAST. UE’s approach to solving the multiroom problem is portability. Simultaneous playback is a non-requirement in most households anyway.
The MEGABLAST is very well thought through and designed with respect to portability. Its battery and power efficient hardware makes it survive over 15 hours at moderate volumes. Then there is the POWER UP wireless charging dock, two of which I strategically placed around my house where the MEGABLAST is used the most. And it is still much cheaper than buying multiple speakers with similar sound quality.
UE recently introduced a proprietary protocol for hooking up several BLAST and MEGABLAST speakers in order to create a stereo and „surround“ sound experience which, strictly speaking, isn‘t a multiroom technology. Since the protocol builds on top of WiFi, it is also not compatible with PartyUp in BOOM/MEGABOOM.
Despite the MEGABLAST’s lack of Chromecast and AirPlay 2 support, there is hardly anything one can’t accomplish via Bluetooth, being service independent due to its system-level integration in modern mobile operating systems. What I like about the MEGABLAST is that native cloud streaming capabilities and playback via Bluetooth do not feel like two distinct systems. The handover between the two is seamless (except for the mentioned Spotify Connect flaw) with Alexa even being able to control playback over Bluetooth.
It quickly becomes apparent that the BLAST/MEGABLAST has been designed with Alexa in mind. In case of no internet connection, there is not much choice left apart from constantly fumbling for your mobile as BLAST/MEGABLAST lacks tap control and the Magic Button from BOOM2 and BOOM3/MEGABOOM3 respectively. I am quite confident that the hardware would be capable enough to process some simple voice commands without querying the cloud. One can however still connect to a mobile hotspot in order to access Alexa's hands-free music controls on the go. Results might be a mixed bag though, depending on stability and speed of the mobile internet connection.
Another missing Bluetooth feature from BOOM/MEGABOOM is Block Party, allowing for up to three simultaneous Bluetooth connections with the involved mobile devices being able to alternately take control of the speaker in order to play music. One can argue that Bluetooth is not the primary playback source anymore. Then again, there are the mentioned WiFi protocols which solve the multi-client problem in an even more sophisticated way.
UE still refuses to pay license fees for higher quality Bluetooth codecs such as aptX and AAC, leaving it with SBC only which however doesn’t hurt at all, not making one hell of a difference for such a speaker form factor. I at least couldn’t discern playback via Spotify Connect from transcoded SBC via Bluetooth using an iPhone X.
UE has done everything to make the initial setup as easy and straightforward as possible. Due to the distributed service nature, one might however need up to four apps in order to get everything up and running. Amazon and Spotify apps for signing up to and managing the respective accounts (a Prime subscription is not needed though), the Alexa app for linking Spotify and managing her skills, finally UE’s app for getting the MEGABLAST acquainted with the Amazon cloud. The app automatically connects to the MEGABLAST without having to go through the hassle of manually pairing it with the mobile device, courtesy of Bluetooth Smart. Hooking the speaker up to WiFi and signing into the Amazon account is also a no-brainer.
The UE app might only be needed once unless you frequently have to switch to yet unknown WiFi networks. MEGABLAST does remember multiple networks you have been connected to, automatically reconnecting to the predominant one (and not just to the least recently used one as written in UE’s FAQ). It can even autonomously perform firmware updates.
The app can however also be used to control volume and change equalizer settings. I found the feature to be quite flaky though, oftentimes not properly syncing settings with the speaker. Luckily the default sound tuning is pretty decent though.
One thing I would love to see for the app is some control to trigger Alexa in case music is too loud for the MEGABLAST to pick up the wake word. I would suggest using the already present mic button on the app’s main page, moving the current privacy toggle to a less prominent place like the settings.
Unfortunately, the BLAST app misses the remote on/off switch found in the BOOM app. Might be due to the supposed always-on nature of such a smart speaker.
I am a huge fan of music and I really appreciate good sound, but I am certainly no audiophile. Soundstage is pretty impressive for a speaker this size, also given the MEGABLAST’s 360-degree sound projection. It is capable of delivering a clean and well balanced sound experience across the entire dynamic range at volumes up to about 75%, over which sound becomes noticeably flatter with higher frequencies clearly dominating. Sound hardly distorts in a bad way even at 100% though. The out of the box EQ tuning is a pretty darn good compromise for various music genres.
What caught my attention in a negative way was a constant and distinct white noise which has for example clearly been audible for audiobooks, but also some low volume instrumentals. I wouldn‘t have expected that for a speaker in this price category, also considering UE‘s commitment to quality.
UE has made some tough but sensible design decisions, leaving out features like Google Chromecast and Apple AirPlay 2 or support for aptX and AAC. There is hardly anything one can’t accomplish with the current feature set, also not leaving much to be desired sound-wise. It is however those buzzwords that typically sell products.
The MEGABLAST offered pretty much everything I have been looking for, combining portable and smart speaker in a nice and rugged packaging, working seamlessly together with all my gadgets, also delivering decent sound. There are however some annoying woes I stumbled across on a daily basis, compromising the experience quite a bit which I hope UE is able to fix in a future firmware update.