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This Is The Waterproof, Bass-Bumping Bluetooth Speaker You Want

The softball-sized UE Wonderboom produces clear, robust sound with surprisingly full bass.

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BuzzFeed News; Ultimate Ears

No outdoor summer scene is complete without a portable Bluetooth speaker, the quintessential good-weather gadget. Their popularity is due largely to the fact that they’re affordable, and, like most technology these days, mobile-friendly. But with over 25,000 results for “portable Bluetooth speaker” on Amazon alone, the number of speaker options to choose from can be overwhelming for someone who’s looking for something that’s cheap and good.

The thing is, most of those speakers on Amazon are bad (I know, because I’ve tried dozens of them). But the Wonderboom, Ultimate Ears’ new $100 entry-level speaker unveiled in March, doesn’t suck. It’s actually pretty great. I’ve been reviewing the speaker for a month and a half, alongside its closest competitor, the JBL Flip 4, which is also $100.

The two models have everything you’d want from party-friendly, portable speakers. Both are waterproof and rugged, come in a variety of colors, and have day-long battery lives. But in my testing, the Wonderboom was better than the Flip 4 where it really counts: playing music.

The Wonderboom was made for head bangers.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

The Wonderboom is is designed to make up for the lack of bass in its predecessor, last year’s UE Roll. The speaker handled songs like Chance the Rapper’s "No Problem" impressively well, with full-sounding bass and crisp high frequencies.

In a blind music test, BuzzFeed video producer Allyson Laquian decisively chose the Wonderboom as the better speaker as soon as LCD Soundsystem’s "Dance Yrself Clean" came on. The Wonderboom accentuated the song’s *thump* very clearly, while the Flip 4 sounded stilted in comparison.

My boyfriend Will also prefered the Wonderboom, but for a different reason. The treble on the JBL Flip 4 is so high, he said, that it’s “like having a snake in your ear.”

I agree. The JBL Flip 4 tends to overaccentuate treble at its highest volumes (close to 90 decibels, its maximum output). And while I found that the Wonderboom is better at producing bass than the JBL speaker, it too starts to break down at high volume levels (close to 86 decibels, its volume max).

The Wonderboom sounds better than the JBL Flip 4 not only because of the quality of its speakers, but also how those speakers are placed in the actual device.

The JBL speaker is shaped like a cylinder, and has two “bass radiators” on its ends that vibrate to the beat. It’s designed to play music while upright or on its side but, during my testing, sounded distorted while upright (because it mutes the bass). Additionally, there’s a “front” and “back” to the speaker. You can tell when you’re behind the speaker, because the music gets quiet.

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Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

The Wonderboom, which is shaped like a small but portly grapefruit, only has one orientation: upright. It also doesn’t have a “front” and “back,” thanks to what Ultimate Ears calls “360-degree sound,” created by two active and two passive drivers positioned around the speaker. Music comes out in all directions on the Wonderboom. So whether you’re in front of, behind, or to the side of the Wonderboom, it’ll sound the same, no matter where you are.

The Wonderboom will save itself in bodies of water.

BuzzFeed News / Nicole Nguyen

Pictured here is my beloved UE Roll, which is, sadly, now at the bottom of Lake Berryessa in California. The UE Roll is waterproof and comes with a floating life preserver, designed specifically for the speaker, but because I naively thought the stretchy bungee cord that comes with the speaker was strong enough to hang onto the side of the boat, I didn’t bring the preserver along. The Roll did not survive a choppy ride back to the marina.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

That day would have gone differently had it been the Wonderboom. The Wonderboom is not only waterproof (it can be submerged for up to 30 minutes in depths of up to 1 meter), but it has the unique ability to float. Inside the speaker, there’s room for the internals to push around air, which helps the speaker produce that full-sounding bass. That air has the added bonus of giving the Wonderboom the unique ability to float, without the aide of a mini-speaker preserver. I imagine that this feature alone will save quite a few speakers from being lost to the depths of rivers, lakes, and oceans.

The JBL Flip has the same waterproof rating as the Wonderboom (IPX7), but sadly can’t float, so Wonderboom wins this round.

The JBL Flip 4’s controls are easier to understand than the Wonderboom’s.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

There are three buttons on top of the Wonderboom: a circle, a UE logo, and a line. With that information alone, could you guess which button does what? No? Me too.

Using the Wonderboom is a lot like using Snapchat. The interface is hidden behind non-obvious buttons and gestures. For example, to check the battery level, you press the volume up and down buttons at the same time. You actually need to read the instruction manual for this device. JBL opted for more obvious Bluetooth and power icons, so it was much easier to use. The Wonderboom’s sticky buttons are also hard to press, compared to the JBL’s.

The JBL Flip 4 can be connected to multiple Flips, and has an app that makes multi-speaker pairing easy.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

One of the biggest gripes from customers in reviews on Amazon and Ultimate Ears’ own site is that the Wonderboom can only connect to one other Wonderboom – and can’t pair with other Ultimate Ears speakers like the Boom or Roll, both of which can play music over more than 50 speakers simultaneously. In “double up” mode, the Wonderboom can also only play in mono, rather than in stereo mode, where you can designate a left and right speaker.

The JBL Flip 4 can connect to many more than two devices (in fact, JBL recently connected 1,000 Flip 4 speakers at once and broke a Guinness World Record). But the Flip 4 can only pair with speakers compatible with JBL Connect+, which for now only includes the Flip 4 and upcoming Pulse 3. The company’s older Xtreme and Charge 3 speakers will soon be compatible, but timing for the update has not been announced.

The Wonderboom also doesn’t have app support. Other Ultimate Ears speakers do, allowing users to access equalizer controls, alarms, “double up” settings (putting two connected speakers in and out of stereo mode, for example), and a neat feature called “Block Party” with which a group of people can add songs to a single, shared playlist. The Wonderboom was designed to be “app-less,” according to a spokesperson – in other words, hidden behind those hard-to-press on-speaker controls – and with that comes some limitations, like less control for audio tinkerers.

The JBL speaker, on the other hand, does have a companion app, which can be used to update the speaker’s software and connect it to other JBL speakers (the app makes it very easy!), and…that’s about it. It pairs with an app, but that app doesn’t offer any advanced features. Womp, womp.

Despite a few drawbacks, the Wonderboom turned out to be the better speaker overall.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

Point blank: The Wonderboom just sounds better than the Flip. Admittedly, streaming 96-kilobit-per-second tunes off Spotify over a subpar wireless Bluetooth connection may make audiophiles cringe, but for the majority of us who can’t tell the difference, a high-performance Bluetooth speaker like the Wonderboom is perfectly fine.

Ultimately, it’s still a Bluetooth speaker, and one shouldn’t expect it to match the richness of hi-fidelity monitors.

If you need a speaker that’s portable, affordable, and colorful, you won’t go wrong with either of these options. I prefer the Wonderboom for its audio quality, ruggedness (it’s drop-proof up to 5 feet), and floatability, but there’s plenty to like about the JBL speaker too. It’s easier to figure out right out of the box, and it can pair with many, many speakers. The JBL and Wonderboom had the same battery life in my testing (about 10 consecutive hours) and are equally waterproof, so they’re both built to last – but comparing the two speakers’ sound really shows the difference between a good Bluetooth speaker (the JBL) and a great one (the Wonderboom).

Oh, and, if you’re a *shakes fist at Bluetooth speakers* kinda person, I hear/have heard your complaints, and agree that your $$$$ high-end audio gear sounds UH-mazing. Be nice in the comments. 😊

Nicole Nguyen covers products and personal technology for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Nicole Nguyen at nicole.nguyen@buzzfeed.com.

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