Review: Ultimate Ears Roll waterproof speaker creates a splash

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Gizmag reviews the latest Ultimate Ears Roll waterproof Bluetooth speaker(Credit: Stanley Goodner/Gizmag.com)

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Ultimate Ears boasts an impressive record with its line of Bluetooth speakers since the release of the original UE Boom in 2013, which it followed up with the smaller UE Mini Boom and the larger UE Megaboom. All of these speakers pack big sound, loud colors and a portable form factor. Ultimate Ears’ latest and most compact speaker, the UE Roll, launched just in time for the Northern Hemisphere summer and we dive in to see how it hangs, dunks, floats, and sounds.

Design & Connectivity

Ultimate Ears is no stranger to unique speaker designs, and this is especially true for the Roll speaker. Is it shaped like a disc? A saucer? A double-convex lens? Any of those descriptions would fit, and the form factor makes for a portably-slim speaker. At 5.3 in (134 mm) in diameter and approximately 1.5 in (38 mm) at its thickest point, the UE Roll is easily gripped by hands big or small.

Although the UE Roll is perfectly comfortable playing music inside, it’s been designed to withstand the rigors of the outdoors. Those familiar with the Ultimate Ears Boom or Megaboom speakers will find the same plasma-coated acoustic skin on the Roll. Combined with the tough silicone body, which also protects and covers the auxiliary and USB ports, the UE Roll is IPX7 waterproof for splashing, dunking, and immersing (not to exceed 3.3 ft (1 m) for more than 30 minutes). Even the auxiliary and micro USB connectors are waterproof for those rare instances when liquid does sneak its way in a bit.

In addition to the unique shape, the UE Roll features a marine-grade bungee cord. It doesn’t matter that this speaker can’t stand up on end like the rest of them, since users can hook or hang the UE Roll in so many more imaginative ways. Umbrella poles, bicycle handlebars, backpacks, and shoulder straps suddenly become mounts for your speaker. The only real limiting factor towards creative placement is the depth of the attachment point. Objects that are too thick won’t let the bungee reach around and stay clasped. Too thin, and all it takes is a light bump to unintentionally unlatch the bungee cord.

Just as with the UE Roll’s larger siblings, the UE Boom and UE Megaboom, there are buttons for volume, power, and Bluetooth pairing. Track controls will have to be handled through a connected device, which may not be convenient for some. But at least users can have the remaining battery percentage announced by pressing both volume buttons simultaneously. Aside from that, the only other system sounds come when the UE Roll turns on/off or has hit max speaker volume (it’s a cute little "boop" noise).

Powering the UE Roll on/off requires a single press to its concave button, located on the speaker’s belly. It’s practically impossible to accidentally shut the speaker off, even if you’ve been skipping it across a pool like a smooth stone. The UE Roll can pair with multiple devices at the same time by way of the belly button-looking Bluetooth button next to the power. When a new device happens to connect to the Roll, it usurps control over the music. If you like to play the "music-hijack game", this is a speaker to do it with.

The UE Roll's Bluetooth wireless range extends double that of most standard speakers' 33-ft (10-m) distance. With favorable conditions, the UE Roll has maintained a stable connection more than its listed 65 ft (20 m). But once you introduce walls, floors, and especially water, the range quickly shrinks. If the UE Roll is going to float around on the pool, plan on keeping the connected smartphone/tablet within 40 ft (12.2 m), give or take. Splashing water and/or submerging either device can momentarily sever the Bluetooth connection unless they’re within a couple of feet of each other. But once clear and in range, pressing play resumes the music.

Now if all this wasn’t crazy-cool enough, Ultimate Ears has created an inflatable pool floatie specifically for the Roll. In order for a speaker to float on its own, sacrifices have to be made, usually to size, weight, and/or audio quality. Arguably, this accessory for the UE Roll is better than having a built-in floating capability. Not only does it raise the speaker higher above the water’s surface to minimize the amount of liquid collecting on top – the Roll’s curved skin material also helps to prevent pooling – but it deflates and folds compact enough to store underneath the bungee cables when not in use. No speaker-design sacrifices required.

As of the time of publication, Ultimate Ears is offering a free pool floatie accessory with each purchase of a UE Roll (while supplies last). But even if you have to pay for it, it’s money well-spent for water lovers.

Audio Quality

Despite its compact size, the UE Roll is loud enough to compete against the din of a dozen kids playing in a pool. The same applies to a party atmosphere. While this speaker provides music to fill the background, it doesn’t quite have the chops to rise above all the noise. For music appreciation, the UE Roll is ideal for small-/medium-sized rooms. Moderate volume levels – between 30 and 65 percent on a connected device with the Roll’s volume maxed out – maintain the 360-degree projection of sound with minimal (if any) added distortion.

If a floating, waterproof speaker is going to play in a pool, it really needs powerful volume to "spit" water clear of the grilles. Splashes happen, and it’s no fun to have to constantly retrieve a speaker in order to dump off music-muffling water. You can dunk the UE Roll (with floatie attached), and it will pop back up and clear itself. If not, then it means you just need to raise the volume in order to watch the Roll blast water up and away.

When the UE Roll is not being used for loud background music, it’s best to dial the volume down to a more moderate level. The trade-off for having increased projection is, generally, a greater amount of distortion. You know you’ve gone too far with the volume when the highs bleach a bit and instrumental edges turn sharp. Mids can develop a warm grain and/or haloed blur (depending on the track), especially as the complexity of music increases. Lows can create a popping sound in lieu of light drum hits, while deeper hits can thin out as they expand.

Considering the max-volume output of the UE Roll versus similarly-sized speakers, the Roll delivers "listenable" distortion by comparison. It’s not so crunchingly cringe-worthy, which is certainly a tick in the win column. The tone of voices and instruments remain pretty spot-on across a wide variety of genres. Vocals carry well and true throughout the highs, down to the upper lows, with the mid-range area remaining the strongest. But distortion-generating levels of sound can be excessive if you’re sitting nearby in the same room as this speaker.

Due to its 360-degree sound design, you can place the UE Roll in a central area and hear music the same no matter where you are in relation to it. As such, there are no left/right edges to the small soundstage, but there is a surprising level of depth considering the UE Roll’s one-handed size. The depth sufficiently separates the various elements in order for ears to pick them out accurately and individually. As mentioned, vocals show much strength, positioned front and center ahead of instruments. The instruments themselves are imaged well, maintaining distinct sound from each other despite the overlap. The imaging does get a little loose when song complexity increases and/or when you’re paying closer attention.

The highs are pretty good for the size. The UE Roll does exhibit a tinny sound, sometimes with some sizzling, when playing cymbals and hi-hats. But this is to be expected from portable speakers of this size. Although this tinny element is often present, it’s not so distracting as to stand out from the music like a sore thumb. The highs balance well in support of the mids, which is where the UE Roll performs the best.

Vocals maintain their quality far better than the instruments, clear and vibrant, all the way from the upper registers and down throughout the low-mids. Although they sound best in the mids, the vocals aren’t overly forward in this area with respect to the highs and lows. And behind all the midrange vocals and instruments flows a ton of energy, which makes the UE Roll a very fun speaker to listen to. The mids are a lot more accurate to tone and are able to handle loud/soft dynamics better than the highs and lows. Although there is a bit of added warmth in the lower-mids, the instruments sound better off for it.

When it comes the lows, the audio reproduction is, for the most part, limited to the characteristic sound of drums, bass, and synth. The UE Roll isn’t equipped with the mass and hardware to fully articulate much of anything deeper. Mostly. Some tracks can showcase a surprising amount of bass, sounding fuller than one expects for the UE Roll’s size. If you’re sitting close enough to the UE Roll, and if there isn’t a wild party racket about you, you can feel a bit of that "boom" impact with the right track. It’s subtle, a little scaled down, but it’s there.

While the lows may not be "big", they, along with the highs, support the mids very well. Attempting to boost the low-end output (e.g. DAC/AMP or equalizer) leads to instruments sounding hollow, with more leading toward expression of the aforementioned distortion. Maintaining moderate volume levels matters more for indoor listening. But if you’re outside with some noise around, by all means crank it up.

The Verdict

The Ultimate Ears Roll proves that it’s possible for a pint-sized portable speakers to feature an original design with a well-rounded sound signature. While some similarly-sized speakers may have "better" audio output, they tend to be more expensive and the kind intended to stay indoors away from dirt, concrete, and water. Those who want to adventure outside will appreciate the UE Roll’s tough, waterproof exterior and go-everywhere attitude. The extended Bluetooth range and marine-grade bungee cord also lets the UE Roll be carried further and in more ways than your standard wireless speaker.

Despite all of the UE Roll's attractive attributes, users may notice some missing elements common to many a modern speaker. Those who like to enjoy hands-free phone conversations won't be able to with the UE Roll, as it has no built-in microphone. The lack of dedicated track controls may also disappoint people accustomed to managing music without having to reach for a smartphone or tablet. And while the overall audio is enjoyable and solid for the price, it's not going to blow anyone away with high-end quality and detail.

But what you get with the UE Roll is fantastic for the price. It's ultra-portable and has powerful enough projection to blanket an area with an appreciable amount of background music. It's great for everyday listening, be it in the shower, tub, pool, lake, or the cozy comfort of your room. Those who want to enhance their audio experience can download the UE Roll app, which is available free for iOS and Android. The app provides equalizer options, alarm functionality, personalized settings, wireless speaker updates, and stereo pairing with another UE Roll, UE Boom, or UE Megaboom. You can pick up the UE Roll speaker in one of six colors for US$99.99.

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