Beats Pill XL Bluetooth Speaker Review

01
of 05

Can Beats' Bigger Pill Improve on the Original?

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Brent Butterworth

Beats has won the biggest victory in the history of the audio biz, stealing the title of "brand the audio enthusiasts most love to hate" from Bose after the latter held it for decades. With that title comes zillions of dollars in revenue, fawning articles in business magazines, and far fewer calls from annoyingly persnickety customers.

But Beats wants respect. Rumor in Los Angeles audio engineering circles is that the company has brought in some major technical talent to handle its product development -- thus breaking free, apparently, of the whole "voiced by Dr. Dre" schtick on which the company was founded.

Nowhere were their skills more needed than in Beats' Bluetooth speaker offerings, which originally consisted only of the Pill. The fact that I was compelled to write an article titled "8 Bluetooth Speakers Better Than the Beats Pill" tells you what you need to know about that.

The ​Pill XL is much larger, as you can see in the photo above. (That's the original Pill in blue.) It's also much beefier internally, with what looks like a 3-inch woofer and a 1.25-inch cone tweeter for each channel (i.e., left and right). You can see the driver layout in the photo from my CES report on the Pill XL.

I thought the original Pill was a feeble-sounding, bass-less little thing. Let's find out if its bulked-up brother can do better.

02
of 05

Beats Pill XL: Features and Ergonomics

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Brent Butterworth

• Bluetooth wireless audio capability
• Two 3-inch/75mm woofers
• Two 1.25-inch/32mm tweeters
• One passive radiator
• 3.5mm aux stereo analog input
• 3.5mm aux stereo analog output for daisy-chaining
• Five-segment LED battery gauge
• Micro USB output jack for charging
• Can be paired with another Pill XL for left/right stereo, or dual play for multiroom use
• Dimensions 4 in/100 cm diameter, 13.3 in/33.8 cm long
• Weight 3.3 lbs./1.5 kg

I'd say that's a reasonable feature set. It's a much much more muscular driver complement than the quartet of little 1-inchers in the original Pill. It also comes with a wall-wart style charger; like most of the larger Bluetooth speakers, its battery is too big to recharge off USB.

The pairing feature is especially cool. Yeah, lots of Bluetooth speakers have pairing now, but almost all offer only left/right stereo pairing -- i.e., one speaker does left, the other does right. The Pill XL's dual play function lets two of the units play the same tune, effectively daisy-chaining them wirelessly, so you can put one in one room and the other in an adjacent room, as long as they're still within Bluetooth's 15- to 30-foot range. And all you do to mate them is tap them together: once for dual play, twice for stereo left/right pairing.

I never had any problem operating the Pill XL. I never even bothered to look for the manual. There's a Bluetooth mating button on the side, and the speaker mated quickly with my Samsung Galaxy S III phone and iPod touch every time.

I also loved the little handle molded into the back, which makes it easy to lug the Pill XL around.

03
of 05

Beats Pill XL: Performance

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Brent Butterworth

I almost dropped the Pill XL the first time I fired it up. I didn't realize my Samsung phone's music player was on pause, so I cranked the volume of the phone and the Pill XL up all the way. Then I realized my error, took the music player out of pause, and was scared out of my wits by how loud the Pill XL can play -- louder than any of the 100 or so battery-powered Bluetooth speakers I've tested. But it didn't sound distorted, it sounded really clean.

While I might expect a Beats product to play pretty loud, I wouldn't expect it to sound refined. So I put on my toughest "refined" test: the live version of "Shower the People" from James Taylor Live at the Beacon Theatre. I can't say the Pill XL nailed it, but it did well above average for a portable Bluetooth speaker. The overall balance of bass to mids to treble was right on. The bass sounded amazingly tuneful; it wasn't the high-Q, boomy, overextended bass I expected.

The one characteristic -- outside the general sonic goodness -- was an emphasis in the low to mid treble, which made Taylor's voice sound a little emphasized and a little sibilant, and also exaggerated the sound of the cymbals in the mix. But it made the sound more vivid and exciting, too, which I guess is why Beats' engineers put that peak in there.

I already knew the Pill XL could play really loud and clean, but I wanted to see how it could handle a real torture test: "The Blue Whale," from saxophonist Dave Binney's Lifted Land album. "The Blue Whale" starts with a pugnacious upright bass solo packed with intense upper-bass energy that can just about shred most Bluetooth speakers and soundbars. The Pill XL played it loud and clear, with just a few barely audible traces of distortion.

Meanwhile, Binney's alto sax suffered or benefited from (depending on your point of view) the same treble emphasis I heard with Taylor's voice. It wasn't offensive to me at all; although it did change his tone a tad, I liked the way the Pill XL brought Binney out a bit. The piano in the recording sounded fuller and more lifelike than I'm used to hearing with a Bluetooth speaker. And as with the Taylor recording, the treble peak amped up the sound of the cymbals a bit.

I'm pretty sure whoever voiced the Pill XL was listening more to stuff like Wale than to Dave Binney sides, so I put on the rapper's "Love/Hate Thing" to get a more balanced perspective. Wow. The Pill XL pumped out the powerful bass line with surprising authority and definition, and beautifully highlighted Wale's rap and singer Sam Dew's croon.

This is exactly the kind of vivid, exciting sound most fans of pop, hip-hop and rock would like. Yet it doesn't suck. In fact, I actually enjoyed it! That's quite a trick.

04
of 05

Beats Pill XL: Measurements

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Brent Butterworth

Frequency response on-axis
±6.2 dB from 80 Hz to 20 kHz

MCMäxxx output level
102/104 dB at 1 meter

To measure the Pill XL, I ran my usual quasi-anechoic frequency response measurements, with the speaker atop a 2-meter-high stand and the measurement microphone at 1 meter,  using the gating function on my Clio 10 FW audio analyzer to eliminate the acoustical effects of surrounding objects. The blue trace in the chart above shows the frequency response on-axis, with mic 1 meter from the left-channel driver array. The dark green trace is the response at 30 degrees to the left (closer to the tweeter) and the light green trace is the response 30 degrees to the right.

Pretty amazing result, huh? The response is almost dead flat from 200 Hz to 2.5 Hz, which is where the real "meat" of the music is. Yep, there's a big peak centered at 3 kHz, which is surely the cause of the treble emphasis I heard. The inconsistency in off-axis response at 30 degrees is due to the side-by-side arrangement of the tweeter and woofer -- and, I presume, to a fairly simple crossover circuit (if there's a crossover in there at all).

For a product like this, though, crankability is as important as anything else, so I did my MCMäxxx test: cranking Mötley Crüe's "Kickstart My Heart" as loud as the Pill XL could play while still sounding fairly clean (which in this case was full volume, at which the Pill XL still sounds very clean), then measuring the average level at 1 meter. .

Wow. I got average output of 102 dB with plenty of peaks at high as 104 dB. That's by far the best output I've measured from a Bluetooth speaker of this size, with peaks 1 dB louder even than the much larger Soundcast Melody outdoor Bluetooth speaker. Some serious and smart engineering went into this thing, that's for sure.

05
of 05

Beats Pill XL: Final Take

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Brent Butterworth

My fellow reviewers will surely make fun of me, but I have to confess I think the Pill XL is really good. No, it's not the most neutral-sounding Bluetooth speaker. It's not your best value in a Bluetooth speaker. But it's a great product and I think a lot of people are really gonna like it.