After establishing a firm grasp in the headphone market, Beats by Dr. Dre is turning its attention to the portable speaker world. The $199 Beats Pill portable speaker combines the company's patented audio technology with a bold minimalist design that delivers quite the aural wallop. But in such a crowded field, is this just what the doctor ordered?
If it were an actual pill, the 7.5 x 1.8-inch, 10.8 ounce Beats Pill would be impossible to swallow. However, the portable speaker is lighter than both the Jabra Solemate (6.8 x 2.8 x 2.5 inches, 22.4 ounces) and the Monster ClarityHD Micro (7 x 3.25 x 1.5 inches, 13.3 ounces). The Pill slipped into most large purses with ease.
Click to EnlargeThe cylindrical speaker rocks the fire-engine red we've come to expect from the Beats by Dr. Dre brand. The Pill's front is dominated by a see-through grille that shows of the four speakers underneath. A thick soft-touch band sandwiched by a pair of shiny thin bands sit in the middle of the grille, and wrap around to the back of the device. The speaker's back and bottom also have a red soft-touch finish. A flat soft-touch foot extrudes slightly from the bottom, keeping the speaker from shaking itself off your desk or table.
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The Pill is also available in white or black for people with more subdued color palettes.
Click to EnlargeAudio in and out jacks, a Bluetooth status light and a microUSB port sit on the rear of the device. The Beats button in the center of the speaker pulls double-duty as the Play/Pause, Answer/Ignore calls and Bluetooth pairing button. The band also holds a pair of volume buttons and the all-important power button. A gray icon between the power and volume up button indicates where to place your phone or tablet for NFC pairing.
To protect your $199 investment, the Pill comes with a sturdy hard-shell carrying case shaped like, you guessed it, a pill. There's also a 3.5mm input cable, a microUSB cord and AC adapter.
Setup and Ease of Use
Click to EnlargeWe paired the Pill with a Samsung Galaxy Note II, iPhone 4s and a Nokia Lumia 920. Placing the speaker into pair mode is as simple as pressing the Beats button for 1 to 2 seconds. The iPhone 4s connected in 5 seconds while the Note II and Lumia 920 finished in 7 and 9 seconds, respectively. Pairing with a Dell XPS 13 notebook took only 4 seconds.
Connecting using NFC was even faster, delivering nearly instantaneous pairing on the Galaxy Note II and the Lumia 920. The Pill can remember up to eight paired devices.
Unlike the ClarityHD Micro and the Solemate, the Pill doesn't employ a voice guidance system to assist with the pairing process. Once connected, the Pill lets out a cheery little chirp.
The volume buttons adjusted volume as expected. The multifunction Beats button performed its duties admirably. A quick press of the button answered incoming phone calls. Holding the button down for approximately 2 seconds ignored calls. We were disappointed that Beats' design team didn't add buttons to skip forward or backwards through tracks.
Click to EnlargeThe Pill's quad of speakers blanketed our test room in loud, crisp audio. In a side-by-side test with the Jabra Solemate, the Pill was the clear-cut winner.
We were impressed with the audio quality on Queen Latifah's rendition of "Close Your Eyes." Her warm alto blended perfectly with the clear strumming of the bass and the rich chords of the piano. We also heard minute details such as the delicate tinkle of the triangle and the gentle dusting of the cymbals. Minnie Riperton's classic, "Loving You" was just as clear, right down to the birds chirping in the background and the artist's legendary whistle register.
However, the Pill does lack bass. Whereas the Solemate's bass was overwhelming, the Pill doesn't sound like it made an attempt. It's weird for a company that's built its empire on bass-rattling audio to bungle the lows.
Listening to Dr. Dre's "The Next Episode," we heard crescendoing trumpets and the deliberate plucks of a guitar. However, the bass fell flat, robbing the song of a key element. We heard the same lack of bass on Kanye West's "Mercy" and Kendrick Lemar's "Backseat Freestyle."
When not busting out the jams, the Beats Pill also functions as a competent speakerphone. When a call comes in, the speaker paused the track and beeped to alert us.
Calls on both ends were relatively loud, but there were hints of distortion. We could not, however, ignore the 3 to 4 second delays when speaking. During some of our test calls, the conversation became awkward as we had to wait for the speaker to transmit the audio.
We were disappointed that features such as voice command and call announcement, which are available on the ClarityHD Micro speaker, are missing on the Pill.
Battery Life and Bluetooth
Click to EnlargeBeats by Dr. Dre claims that the Pill portable speaker's Lithium-ion battery can last 7 hours. During our testing, we were still going strong after 4 hours of nonstop play. The ClarityHD Micro, by comparison, lasted nearly 6 hours, surpassing its estimated 5-hour battery life. The Pill also has a 30-minute auto shutoff feature to preserve battery life. A white LED light around the microUSB port acts as a battery indicator. When the battery needs to be recharged, the light begins to blink red.
Similar to most Bluetooth speakers on the market, the Pill has an estimated range of 30 feet. When connected to an iPhone 4s, we were astounded that the speaker still worked 105 feet away in a clear hallway in our office. The audio remained loud and clear with only a small amount of sputtering. However, the Solemate worked at an even more impressive distance of 140 feet.
Click to EnlargeAudiophiles might turn up their noses at the Pill, but the speaker delivers impressive sound quality for such a relatively small package. For the same $199 price tag, consumers can pick up the Monster ClarityHD Micro Bluetooth speaker, which offers voice command and a better balance of bass and volume. However, consumers looking for a fun design and solid audio can take one Pill and call us in the morning.