For the last few years, when anyone asked me what Bluetooth speaker they should get, my answer was easy. Anything from Ultimate Ears, I’d say. Whether you value big sound, long battery life, portability or affordability, UE has you covered with its varied line of excellent offerings from the UE Roll all the way up to the $300 Megaboom.
In that time, though, my exposure to Bluetooth speakers has grown and I’ve discovered a fertile field of great options that offer much the same features as what Ultimate Ears’ provide. One such contender is the Super Life Jacket from Altec Lansing, the company’s top-of-the-line Megaboom equivalent.
Like UE’s best, the Super Life Jacket, as the name implies, is meant to be the speaker you can take anywhere and put through anything. The company claims it is “everything-proof” and there is a laundry list of features to back it up.
It’s IP68 rated, meaning waterproof, dustproof, shockproof, sandproof and snowproof. Plus it’ll float if you do happen to drop it while in the pool or on the boat. I was disappointed to find that, while it does float, it does so with both sides submerged so you can’t hear the music. I don’t know how Altec could have engineered it so it would flip to one side once it hit the water, but it would have been neat. The way it is, the floating aspect is more of a safety feature should you kick it overboard.
Overall, the Super Life Jacket is built like an absolute tank, which is fitting considering it resembles the track one would use to move about. It has a larger footprint than the Megaboom and is heavier, making it less portable but does come with a nifty handle so you can carry it around the campsite or at the beach. The rubbery exterior helps give it that durability, but also does a hell of a job picking up dust and grime.
In the black version, it’s easily noticeable and the only other color option I found doesn’t change the base color from black, only adds some electric blue accents. You can easily wash the speaker given that it’s waterproof, but every time I did the grime just came back.
On top are your basic function buttons, which are covered in the exterior rubber and thus quite mushy. It’s not clear you’re pressing a button until there’s an appropriate response from the speaker. The far end has a flap that suctions closed (to keep everything watertight) covering two USB ports, an AUX port and a DC in for the power cord. The USB ports allows you to use it as a power bank for your phone, a handy feature for a device that will be taken on roadtrips.
There is no denying you pay for the quality of the hardware. There is nothing cheap about the speaker, which retails for $299.99. At that price, it had better withstand the elements and last you a good, long time. Thankfully, it lives up to all the claims Altec makes on its behalf. I tossed it around, threw it in a lake, generally beat the crap out of it and it handled everything without skipping a beat.
Rugged hardware is a great thing for a Bluetooth speaker, which begs to be taken on your adventures, but it means nothing if it craps out after a few hours of playback time. The Super Life Jacket is slated to have 50 hours of battery life, an astronomical number and more than double what the Megaboom offers. It’s so big a number, in fact, that it’s nearly impossible to test for.
I can’t say if I got a full 50 hours, but I can say that I used it for roughly 1-3 hours every day two weeks before I had to recharge. That means it lasted anywhere from 14-42 hours, and I would guess it landed somewhere in the middle at around 25-30. Not quite the sky high number Altec promises, but still more than enough to satisfy me and, I would imagine, most consumers.
A lifeproof design and 50 hour battery life are great features. So great they might be able to cover up for subpar performance in the sound department. But you can’t be a serious contender against UE’s line if you don’t bring great sound, and I consider this speaker to be strong competition to the Megaboom. That means the sound here is excellent.
It’s hard to directly compare the two, because they are great in different ways. The Megaboom has a warm sound with healthy, thumpy bass whereas the Super Life Jacket is not as strong in the warmer tones, but excels with separation and highlighting vocals. Ultimately, I prefer the sound of the UE device but it’s just that, personal preference. You may think UE’s speaker sounds muddy compared to Altec Lansing’s, and may value the latter’s wider soundstage and separation, allowing more instruments to stand out.
In the end, it’s all splitting hairs, and if I didn’t have the ability to directly compare them, or was none-the-wiser, I would not be disappointed with the sound offered here, nor do I think you would be upset with what you get for the money.
There’s more than enough power to fill a room, and it worked fabulously as a party speaker when I put it to the test near the end of the summer. The strength is in the mids and highs. They are crystal clear and the amount of separation is lovely. You can hear fantastic layers in any kind of music, from rock to indie to hip hop to folk. It’s the best separation I’ve heard from a Bluetooth speaker, period. Though the bass isn’t quite as warm as on the Megaboom, that doesn’t mean it’s missing. Not even close. There is plenty of bass, the overall sound is simply cooler, meaning more focus on higher frequencies than lower.
No matter what I was listening to, I enjoyed it through the Super Life Jacket. It’s omnidirectional, so you don’t have to worry about which way it’s sitting and there’s a serious amount of hardware at work on the inside. Delivering all that sound are two 2.5-inch subwoofers, two 2-inch neodymium woofers, two 1.2-inch tweeters and two 3-inch passive radiators. It’s no surprise that the sound is as crisp as it is when you consider the dedicated woofers and tweeters doing all the work.
You can also pair two Super Life Jackets together for extra oomph, which is nice, but all the companies in this field have work to do after UE launched its Party Up feature which lets users connect more than 50 of its speakers together.
If the standard output doesn’t satisfy you, there is an accompanying app that lets you customize the sound. Sadly, it’s the worst part about the speaker. Though I admit Ultimate Ears’ suite of apps aren’t the most savvy in the world, the recent update improved their looks and usability. By comparison, the Altec Connect app looks like a half-finished beta. It’s outdated aesthetically and lacking in features, letting you do just the basics; see battery percentage, connect two speakers together, change the equalization and that’s it.
The worst part, though, is that often the app flat out does not work. I have not gotten it to run once on a device operating anything higher than Android Marshmallow and on the phones I have gotten it to work with, the result was not long lasting. Generally what I receive an error message saying either the speaker or the phone (I am honestly not sure which) is not supported.
I’ve been told by the company the app is currently being updated, which is why it may not currently work with Android Nougat (or iOS 10), but it’s been months since the latest versions of each operating system was released, and the Altec Connect app should work. There are no excuses if you pay $300 for a gadget and can’t get the accompanying application to run on your phone.
The good news is that, as with any Bluetooth speaker, you don’t need the app to use it. You can connect to your phone without it and won’t lose much besides the EQ feature, which is better than it not working at all.
Like the smartphone market, the portable speaker game has quickly become crowded. It’s difficult to offer a single, umbrella recommendation that will satisfy every type of listener. But there is no denying a speaker is not nearly the same kind of device, in terms of importance, as a smartphone or laptop. You don’t have to fret so much about a device you may use while only at the beach, or doing dishes or lounging by the pool.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy the best possible option within your budget. The Super Life Jacket is nearly that. I would still recommend the UE Megaboom to anyone willing to shell out $300, based primarily on the experience of using the UE app versus Altec Lansing’s. In every other category, the difference between the two is a push.
If you decide to buy the Super Life Jacket, you won’t be disappointed in the most important categories: hardware and sound. It’s an incredibly durable machine that delivers a sound you’ll be happy to listen to for hours, it’s just not quite the best Bluetooth speaker on the market.