2011. My first Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. Saturday AM, Hangover and tucked into breakfast at the Hilton Hotel, directly across the road from the Marriott in which the show was being held. Hangover was in a vocal mood. I had yet to connect altitude with whisky indulgence. Still, a lesson learnt, and (*cough*) a mistake never to be repeated.
Two tables across Michael Fremer held court with several other similarly suited gentlemen. For those who don’t know, Mr Fremer is the editor of Analog Planet, a full-time writer for Stereophile and has often been attributed with keeping the vinyl message alive, especially during the dark digital days of the nineties and early noughties. In Mr Fremer’s hand was a greenish-greyish object. “How can such a good sound come out of such a small device?”, he queried. Hangover muttered something about keeping it down but I ignored him. Like Mr Fremer’s breakfast companions, my curiosity was piqued. What was that thing?
Turns out, Mr Fremer was holding a FoXL Bluetooth speaker (not pictured) – and the fifty-percent full restaurant was about to enjoy an impromptu demo of its capabilities. The first bars of Bob Dylan’s “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat” rang out. Hangover swears it was “Like a Rolling Stone” but I’m certain it was Blonde on Blonde. Besides, Hangover was grumpy that morning. “Turn that darn thing OFF!”, he menaced through gritted teeth. I sat amazed at what I was hearing. Dylan – LOUD but distortion free. What is this voodoo?
I’d spent the best part of the previous week driving through the belly of Texas before bending upwards through New Mexico toward Colorado. Each night and each morning my hotel room sat silent. If I wanted music, I had to reach for a pair of headphones and my smartphone – this all took place P.A. (Pre-Astell&Kern). I recall sitting alone in the deserted outside dining area of the Best Western Plus in Ruidoso, NM wishing I had more than laptop speakers with which to let music run free. If only I’d then known about the FoXL Bluetooth speaker. Sure, I knew that Bluetooth speakers existed but hadn’t heard any that I’d liked the sound of. Times had changed.
2012. It took another 12 months of quiet hotel rooms before I finally dropped US$249 on FoXL’s Platinum V2.x model. Inside the box, an AudioQuest Emerald cable was supplied in case the user intended to direct-wire a line-level source into the FoXL’s side-facing 3.5mm input socket. However, I used it as a Bluetooth speaker: folding out the grille-like support stand to clear more space for the rear-firing passive radiator, pairing a smartphone and firing up Pandora. The FoXL talks higher-quality aptX if your connecting device does.
The FoXL Bluetooth speaker proved to be indispensible whilst I went a-travelling. More importantly, to this audiophile’s brain, it didn’t sound horrific. In fact, it sounded pretty darn good. The musical picture was scaled down to a more manageable size such that its pair of 2.5cm drivers wouldn’t struggle to maintain composure. Lower frequencies weren’t surrendered per se. Quality was maintained; even when outright scale and SPLs were not.
I found myself ultimately sharing Michael Fremer’s enthusiasm for the FoXL device because it was fit for purpose. I can’t take my Zu Audio loudspeakers and my Peachtree Nova220SE amplifier with me on an airplane. A portable speaker that plates up a reasonably high-quality audio meal as a smaller, nutritious portion is the order of the day. If we think of laptop speakers as the FKC of audio reproduction the FoXL unit might be a Subway or a Denny’s; far from gourmet but you don’t feel dirty on the inside after the dining is done.
2014. I gave the FoXL Bluetooth speaker to a friend. (I think Americans now calling this process ‘gifting’?) My buddy seemed to derive even more pleasure from it than I. Better the FoXL than to let him fall back on the frankly horrific ‘Bassburger’ speaker he’d been using previously. You’ve probably seen them selling for around fifteen bucks in your local office supply store.
Silence returned to hotel-bound evenings and mornings.
At RMAF 2014 I found myself once again in a silent Hilton hotel room. Michael Fremer was again present during breakfast but this time bereft of any noise-making machine. Hangover was pleased – he’s a man of few words and he digs serenity.
When Hangover’s not around, I like to sing in the shower. But how to accomplish this in show hotels without ruining IEMs and DAPs? My plan was to ask around at RMAF. What Bluetooth speaker was turning heads in 2014? Several times, the answer came back “’Logitech’ UE Boom. Interesting. Logitech had helmed what I consider to this day to be the biggest bargain in audiophile history in the Squeezebox Touch, so why wouldn’t they attain similar levels of accomplishments in the portable Bluetooth speaker field? AU$199 got me into the game but I’ve since seen it sell for as low as AU$139.
The UE Boom’s packaging is neat. Unsheath the plastic tube to see it hinge into two sections. In concealed compartments above and below the UE Boom itself sit colour-matched wallwart and microUSB-terminated USB cable; the same that ships with most Android smartphones. Power and Bluetooth pairing buttons sit at one end, a microUSB recharging socket at the other. Pairing can also be achieved using NFC if your smartphone supports it.
Both ends of the cylinder are connected with a similarly rubberized strip upon which sit large ‘+’ and ‘-‘ volume control buttons. You’ve zero chance of missing them. Behind the wraparound mesh, left and right channels fire sideways: 2 x 1.5” mid/high drivers and 2 x passive radiators – forget about sound-staging and imaging, this speaker sounds the same whether you stand in front of it or behind it.
The mesh is ‘plasma coated’ to protect against water and stain damage. You can’t drop it into the pool but you can take it to one and not worry that every stray splash will cause it mortal damage.
The UE Boom’s sense of durability is arresting. It calls out to be manhandled rather than placed on a shelf out of harm’s way, which is how I read the FoXL’s more delicate build.
Some nice usability touches are what separate this product from the audiophile world where convenient niceties are readily surrendered. Power on brings with it a short ‘tom tom’ sound. A slightly different variation sounds out upon Bluetooth pairing lock. Hold down both volume buttons simultaneously to hear a female voice speak the Boom’s remaining battery percentage – way cool! Ultimate Ears promises around 15 hours between charges. For those playing at home, that’s five hours fewer than the FoXL speaker.
The review unit’s first public outing was to a buddy’s New Year’s Eve barbecue. He’d recently bought a Sonos Play:1 which we both agreed played a little louder and sounded slightly fuller than the Ultimate Ears tube but to our host’s considerable frustration, the Sonos demanded wall-socket power which was (obviously) unavailable in the nearby park. Strike one for the UE Boom.
Interest was sparked further when guests asked “how much?” These non-audiophile pals are aware of my review gig but they also think that $1000 for an amplifier and pair of loudspeakers is utter madness, not to mention the boxy clutter and the wires. At less than two hundred bucks, the UE Boom’s unobtrusive form factor and wireless ways definitely got their attention. Several guests commented on how good the sound was for such a small device. I could only concur. Nothing about the sound of the UE Boom annoys my audiophile sensibilities.
To divert into audiophile talk for a moment. I’d say the UE Boom plays louder, offers greater dynamic punch and serves up a more revealing midrange than the FoXL. Unlike the latter, it doesn’t need to sit on rubber mat to prevent it walking across the tabletop when SPLs get pushed on LCD Soundsystem after a BBQ beer or two. Maxing out the volume on the UE Boom brings a warning ‘bloop’ but zero audible distortion. That’s quite an audio engineering feat.
The UE Boom’s next trip would be to the CES hellmouth in Las Vegas. No way would I go without hotel room tunes. I bet you cram socks inside your suitcased shoes? I don’t. Black&White hair wax gets shoved into one of my size 12 Reeboks, the UE Boom into the other (for better shielding against baggage mishandling). I dropped the Boom twice during the review period and nothing broke. Excellent.
Within three minutes of checking into the Vegas hotel I was up and running with Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders. Shower singing immediately commenced.
A week later I was in Honolulu committing thoughts on the UE cylinder to Evernote. A casual stroll up to Diamond Head to see what’s what turned into a full-blown hike. The backpacked UE Boom unwittingly came along for the ride, a summit photo its reward. I wasn’t game enough to fire up the UE Boom amidst the surrounding gaggle of tourists but here was proof positive that this Bluetooth speaker could go anywhere.
That same afternoon I took the UE Boom for a quiet spin at the pool bar and then back to the room to play at more robust volume levels on my 34th floor balcony. When my Facebook feed announced previously unreleased concert footage of Talking Heads, I switched from smartphone to MacBook Air as Bluetooth source. Until this point, I’d not considered what the UE Boom could do for enhancing the sound quality of YouTube viewing. Sometimes you just have to experience it to get it – I sat back, sipped on Kraken Black spiced rum and took it all in; something I wouldn’t have tolerated for more than a few moments had I been using the MacBook Air’s in-built tizzy-fizzy speakers.
The penny dropped further when I recalled that two UE Booms could be wirelessly paired via UE’s smartphone app (Android and iOS) to each work left and right channels. You can’t pull that stunt with two FoXLs.
Back at home in Sydney, I plonked the UE Boom beside the bath, then later beside the coffee maker in the kitchen and finally next to the laptop where these words coalesced. The UE tube can go where I go, even at home. It has displaced the need to crank the Zu/Peachtree combo in some instances. I can take it to the park across the road whilst I read the papers over coffee in the sunshine.
The UE Boom is a sharp reminder of why the traditional hifi setup of amplifier driving a pair of bookshelves in a slowly dwindling niche concern. It sounds better but is nowhere near as convenient; the latter word need not be a dirty word in audiophile circles. We need not look down on products like this just because they aren’t Wilson loudspeakers or Burmester monoblocks. Instead, we should embrace the UE Boom as a considerable step up from the hideous chirping of speakers built into smartphones and laptops.
I’ve not heard every Bluetooth speaker on the market. As is patently obvious from this review, I’ve spent considerable time with only two models. The UE unit trumps the FoXL in nearly every respect. Some will baulk at the absence of aptX support but those same folk should know that I found it almost impossible to pick the sonic differences between Tidal and Spotify streams that present so readily in my lounge room rig. If ultimate sound quality is your priority, the UE Boom won’t be replacing your integrated amplifier and standmounts anytime soon. To lament that fact is to miss the point of this device entirely. It’s a portable Bluethooth speaker whose sound doesn’t suck.
The UE Boom is fit for purpose as a travel companion without qualification: affordable, extremely durable, easy to use and sonically enjoyable. What more could you ask for from such a modest outlay of cash? That question, dear reader, is rhetorical. I need to tell Michael Fremer about it, stat. Although Hangover still doesn’t wanna know.
Further information: Ultimate Ears