It seems as if everyone is making portable Bluetooth speakers these days, so it makes sense that a big company like Beats by Dre doesn't want to be left out. Last year witnessed the appearance of the Beatbox Portable, which wasn't particularly portable, and consumed batteries like an old Sega Game Gear. However, the Beats Pill is a smaller, rechargeable, Jawbone Jambox-like speaker that doesn't have the huge footprint of the Beatbox line.
At £170, it's also not far off half the asking price, though it’s still more expensive than other Bluetooth speakers in its own class. This offering is well designed and functional, but some of its characteristics make it a bitter Pill to swallow, such as the fact that it can't handle strong bass at all.
As its name implies, the Beats Pill looks like a giant pill. It's a 195mm long, 310 gram cylinder with rounded ends and a band in the middle that hosts the controls. It measures 45mm across, and is cut in half on an angle with the front holding a metal grille and the back consisting of a rubberised shell, with an even more rubbery flat "foot" running the length of the bottom side.
The middle band has a large, glowing Beats button that serves as a multifunction play/pause/answer calls button, a pair of volume up/down buttons, and a power button near the back. The band also holds an NFC decal that lets you automatically pair your NFC-enabled smartphone, like my Samsung Galaxy S3, with the speaker just by tapping your phone to it. A microUSB port for charging the speaker, a 3.5mm input and output, and a Bluetooth indicator light also sit on the back panel.
The Pill comes with a few accessories besides the speaker itself. A USB compatible AC adapter is included, along with a USB-to-micro-USB charging cable. If you don't have a Bluetooth device, the speaker comes with a 5 foot, 3.5mm audio cable to connect your devices directly.
The speaker also includes a hard shell zippered case with a loop on it. The case fits the speaker perfectly, but isn't particularly useful. It doesn't present the Pill in a more convenient-to-carry package besides the loop of fabric, and when zipped up – the only way to keep the speaker secure – the case muffles all sound. Since the speaker is already fairly rugged in its design and can be used outside as long as you don't get it too wet or dirty, the case doesn't really serve any useful function.
You can't expect too much bass from a speaker so small, but the Beats Pill is particularly weak on that front. The speaker employs a processing algorithm that softens parts of tracks so they don't blow out the speaker, but the processing can take a second to kick in, so it might as well be useless.
The dark, atmospheric sounds of Bathory's "Odens Ride Over Nordland" filled our test room comfortably, with the beat of hooves occasionally popping before the speaker could adjust but otherwise sounding natural. Our bass test track, The Knife's "Silent Shout," produced notable popping throughout the track, distorting heavily on the drumbeats.
The distortion occurs primarily when the volume is maximised on both the audio device and the speaker. At slightly lower volume levels, songs like Green Day's "Kill the DJ" and Maximum the Hormone's "Louisiana Bob" sounded clear and full, lacking notable bass but not distorting. However, it feels like you're missing out on how loud the speaker could be, if it had better audio processing to reduce distortion at high volume levels.
The Beats Pill doubles as a speakerphone, and serves well in that function. While not exceptionally clear, I could hear the caller well, and the caller could make out everything I said. The Pill puts enough power behind the speaker and sensitivity behind the microphone that it significantly improved the speakerphone feature of my Samsung Galaxy S3.
The Beats Pill offers a unique form factor and doubles as a good speakerphone, but it simply doesn't offer a good enough level of sound quality to justify its £170 price tag. While you might get a reasonably loud and clear listening experience on one track, the next might pop distractingly and force you to tweak the volume just because it has slightly more bass.
If the speaker handled bass distortion slightly better, it would have been a much stronger contender. As it is, you're better off getting the similarly priced Jabra Solemate for its superior audio quality and better bass handling. Indeed, the Logitech UE Mobile Boombox handles low-end better, and is half the price of the Pill.