Beats has been on an absolute tear over the last couple of months, with a swathe of new headphones and audio gadgets. The Pill 2.0 is the California company's latest attempt at a portable, battery-powered Bluetooth wireless speaker, with a few tricks learned along the way from its competitors.
What Is It?
- Inputs: 3.5mm stereo, microUSB (charging), NFC
- Outputs: USB (charging)
- Bluetooth: Yes (2.1)
- Colours: Black, White, Red, Blue
- Weight: 310g
- Accessories: Case, charging cable, 3.5mm cable, AC adapter
The $269 Pill 2.0 is a 190mm x 45mm, pill-shaped (well, obviously) cylindrical speaker available in blue, black, red or white. For my money, the black is by far the most attractive, but I full expect the fashionistas out there to go for blue or red.
Constructed predominantly out of glossy plastic and with paint-sprayed metal grilles for its stereo speakers, the Beats Pill 2.0 is smoothly contoured, with a single Beats logo on the front central strip that also serves as a play/pause button for any connected Bluetooth device.
Tap it twice and you'll skip forward, thrice and you'll skip backwards. Hold it for three seconds and the Pill 2.0 enters Bluetooth pairing mode. There's no real reason why Beats couldn't have used two or three or four buttons for the same purpose, but you'll pick up the Pill's operational procedures quickly enough.
Around the back, the new Pill's suite of buttons and inputs mean that it is both easy to operate and relatively versatile if you're not a fan of Bluetooth. There's a power button, volume up/down, microUSB charging port, audio input and output, a NFC tag for automatic wireless device pairing, and a hidden full-size USB port for outputting charge to a connected smartphone.
There's an integrated microphone, if you use Bluetooth, that lets you use the Beats Pill 2.0 as a speakerphone. It actually works surprisingly well considering the device's relatively small dimensions and the odd downward-facing location of the microphone -- in testing I found it quite clear and useful for handsfree calls.
As usual, Beats' accessories are top-notch. The Pill 2.0 comes with a soft neoprene carry case, a 1.5-metre 3.5mm to 3.5mm stereo audio cable, a similarly long microUSB to USB charging cable, and a 2.1-amp USB charger which can serve multiple duty for topping up the battery of your smartphone or tablet when it's not working on your Pill. You pay a premium for the Pill 2.0 in the first place, so it's nice to see these included.
What Is It Good At?
For the purpose of actually listening to music, the Beats Pill 2.0 is a good personal audio device. That is to say, it doesn't have the absolute loudest maximum volume, and it doesn't have that room-filling quantity of bass, but it's able to produce clear and detailed sound and fill a small room or personal space with appropriately musical audio.
The Pill 2.0's sound is clean. It's less musical than Beats' headphones like the Studio Wireless, with less bass a function of its smaller size and wide-firing four-speaker stereo arrangement, but there's plenty of clear treble and decent midrange. There's no audible difference between Bluetooth and wired 3.5mm audio input, a sign that the Beats' speakers are the device's limiting factor rather than the wireless connection.
You can tap your NFC-enabled smartphone to the tag on the rear left of the Beats Pill 2.0 to force an instant Bluetooth connection, although the NFC tag doesn't work when the speaker is powered off. In reality I found it easier to pair the Pill 2.0 manually over Bluetooth and then let it connect automatically whenever I powered it back on.
More useful is the NFC tag's ability to connect two Pill 2.0 speakers. If you're connected to one Pill 2.0 and playing music, you can tap a second Pill against the first, touching the two NFC tags. Operating in the same way as my benchmark UE Boom's brilliant Double Up mode, two Pill 2.0s working in unison will separate into stereo left and stereo right channels, giving you a wider soundstage and twice the audio power. In practice, it actually works pretty well for filling a larger room with sound, although it won't fix the Pill's relatively weedy bass response.
One of the big improvements the Pill 2.0 makes over its predecessor is the inclusion of a full-size USB port, hidden away under a rubber cover on the base of the speaker, that doesn't accept a USB drive for playing music but instead functions solely to output the Pill 2.0's own battery charge and funnel it into your smartphone in case of low-battery emergency. Given the Pill 2.0's relatively small battery it won't top up a phablet or tablet, but will give enough extra power to get your iPhone or small Android phone through the day.
What Is It Not Good At?
The Pill 2.0 starts to strain its four tiny 1-inch speaker drivers when you reach towards the maximum end of its audio output power. There's no outright clipping from its high frequency reproduction, but it starts to sound a little sharp and fatiguing, and the already weedy bass starts to distort as the small speakers attempt to push more air than they're built for. This is a speaker best enjoyed at 80 per cent of its maximum power, where the sound it produces is loud and enjoyable without being coloured or impeded in any way.
More generally, though, the Beats Pill 2.0 lacks any kind of lower mid-bass reproduction, as is the hallmark of the UE Boom. It's a speaker that can handle mid-range and high notes, but simply doesn't bother with lower notes -- which is odd for a Beats product, usually so focused on that bass-driven music and the thumping notes that accompany it. It's highly likely the larger Beats Pill XL will fill that niche.
The battery of the Pill 2.0, too, is quite small, so it doesn't have quite the playback time of its competitors like the Braven BRV-X and similarly doesn't have the ability to output as much juice to charge a flat mobile device. Beats rates the Pill 2.0 at seven hours' life. It's capable enough for a solid eight hours of playback at a relatively loud volume, in my testing, to be fair -- and that's enough for a full day out at the beach or on a picnic. You just make a small concession in battery capacity for the Pill 2.0's slim profile.
Should You Buy It?
The Beats Pill 2.0 is quite expensive for its size and for its audio power, but that's not novel or even especially noteworthy when you consider that it's a Beats product -- you're always going to pay more for that giant stylised B on the front of your headphones or boombox.
It's attractive if you choose the right colour, and the accessories that are included -- as little a part of the overall experience of owning the Pill 2.0 as they are -- are the best I've seen included with a Bluetooth speaker.
As with any other wireless battery-powered speaker, though, the Pill 2.0's biggest threat comes from the Logitech UE Boom. It's bigger, but it's also waterproof, sounds better, is just as versatile, and now comes in plenty of bright colours.
Considered on its own, though, the Beats Pill 2.0 is nonetheless a high quality portable speaker and stands out from the crowd in that it can be paired up with a second device for twice the volume and a wider stereo image. If you pick one up, and don't try to push it to its absolute limits, you'll be happy.