Gadgets Off The Grid - UE Boom Portable Bluetooth Speaker
UE Boom Portable Bluetooth Speaker ($199)
I expected the portable speaker component of the system I put together for this trip to be the weakest link. Boy was I wrong!
The fit, finish, and build quality of the Boom is simply stellar. It looks terrific, but more importantly it appears to be built like a tank. I'm glad I took a few pix of it early on in the trip because it's quite dirty and smells like campfire smoke now. The Boom website claims the Boom is water resistant, we did get a little rain but not enough to effect it. Edit: Just took it to the sink and wiped it down with a wet cloth and it cleaned up nicely.
Control and charging of the Boom couldn't be simpler. Push the power button on, and a cool little drum sound tells you it's on. Push and hold the Bluetooth pairing button, and another cool sound tells you it's searching for a mate. Connect to it from your BT device, and it makes another happy chirp. If it's been previously paired with a device and you turn it on, it finds and pairs automatically at power up. Turn it off, and a happy drum roll announces the shut down. But best of all, hold down both the volume up and down button simultaniously and a lovely lady announces, "Sixty percent charged", or whatever the current charge state is.
Charging the Boom did take a little while with the Kickr solar panel. But with a 15 hour (!) battery life I suspect there's a pretty big battery in there. Charging is accomplished through a USB Micro-B connector on the bottom of the unit, where you will also find a 3.5mm stereo Aux audio input jack. A small rubber flap comes with the Boom which clips to the D-ring on the bottom and inserts into the USB and 3.5mm jack to provide more water resistance. The D-ring can also be used to hang the Boom from a tree limb with a piece of string. Volume can be controlled either from your BT player device or with the large "+" and "-" buttons.
Vacation Photo Interlude
The sound quality is surprisingly good for a device of this type. Midrange balance is very good, and nicely neutral. Low to mid treble response is slightly hot, but I found that when listen at a distance outside the treble response was very pleasing and wouldn't want to change it. Sub- and low-bass on a unit of this size is virtually impossible, so I expected pretty poor bass response...but it did much better than I expected. Volume was also surprisingly loud. I could run it up to levels that would cause it to distort, but with only two 1.5" drivers and two 2" passive radiators the player was satisfactory outdoors well beyond my expectations. I rarely ran it up to anywhere near full volume during the week of listening.
The Boom is a stereo device. When standing, the left and right speakers face outwards to either side; the passive bass radiators are low near the table top to provide some bass reenforcement. Bass response does fall off slightly when hung from the D-ring. The only criticism I have of the Boom is that the Aux input is on the bottom, and with a wired source plugged in you can't stand it up in its best sounding position.
It's possible that the coolest thing of all about the Boom is the ability to get a second speaker and rig them up as a stereo pair. UE has an app for both iOS and Andriod devices that allows for configuring two Booms in either a stereo pair or with each device delivering both left and right channels. The app also contains pages to monitor and configure the speaker, provide use instructions, and EQ the Booms. I wished the EQ was more configurable than the three settings (Out Loud-for outdoors and most uses, Intimate-for indoors, and Vocal-for voice intelligibility), but again, to be perfectly frank, it sounded so good that I never felt the need to tweak with it.
The EnerPlex by Ascent Solar Kickr portable solar panel and Jumpr storage battery and device charge worked flawlessly. The panel seemed extremely durable and very well suited to the rigors of an outdoor adventure. The 4400mAh Jumpr had enough capacity to perform charging duties on the divices used. I'd like to have the larger 7800mAh unit...but I certainly didn't need it. I highly recommend them for all your camping and emergency needs.
The Astell&Kern AK120 is terrific sounding and very well built indeed, but beyond the simply playing of hi-rez files it turns into "That Guy" frustrating me at every turn. I'm certain Astell&Kern will address issues over time (firmware updates for DSD playback have recently been released, for example), but until Bluetooth and on-line support issues are sorted out it feels like beta-ware to me. Not recommended, unless you'll be satisfied with simply playing albumswhich it does do quite well.
The UE Boom is simply a stellar little unit; everything I had hoped for in a portable Bluetooth speaker and much, much more. It's as durable as a brick, it looks cool, it's easy to use, and it sounds great. I'll be adding a second one to my collection of moto-gear and giving it a workout at a pasture party this Labor Day with a bunch of adventure motorcycle freaks. Pretty sure there'll be drunken Bluetooth wars with people fighting to connect their phones to the Booms.
Final Vacation Photo