Beats Pill XL review

The Beats Pill XL punches well above its price class, sounding bigger and badder than much of its like-priced competition.
The Beats Pill XL punches well above its price class, sounding bigger and badder than much of its like-priced competition.
The Beats Pill XL punches well above its price class, sounding bigger and badder than much of its like-priced competition.

Highs

  • Lots of thoughtful features
  • Clever design
  • Long-lasting battery
  • Huge sound, lots of bass
  • Clean, controlled treble a refreshing change

Lows

  • Bass can be overwhelming at close range
  • Bass can have a “one note” effect at times
  • Mids/vocals a little recessed

Key Specifications

Features
Battery Powered, Portable, AUX Input, Media Streaming
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The Beats by Dre brand is edgy, glamorous, eye-catching, and undeniably, extremely popular. It is also polarizing. Among the audio enthusiast community, Beats has taken … well, a beating. I’ve read or heard Beats’ products called everything from “a sham” to “the most overrated audio brand of the 21st century.” Yet, I can’t help but notice dozens of people each day who seem blissfully content – prideful, even – with their Beats portable audio gear.

It’s hard not to grin at the Pill XL’s clever shape.

As an audio reviewer, it is my responsibility to be critical of a device or speaker’s sound quality – and I am. But it is also my responsibility to take a look at the big picture; to consider all of the elements that have an impact on how much we enjoy using and living with our technology. For that reason, I have been known to bemoan a Beats headphone’s sound quality in one review paragraph, then praise its comfortability and apparent build quality in the next. In the end, sometimes the score comes out relatively high, and that’s partly because I know that my opinion of ideal sound isn’t shared by everyone and that, for many, good is good enough.

I believe there is a very broad line between garbage audio and decent audio. From there, the distance from decent to good, good to great, and great to excellent is much shorter, and subject to a person’s personal standards. Nobody should listen to garbage, but not everyone is an audiophile.

That’s why I think the Beats Pill XL is going to pop right off store shelves and into the hands of an enthusiastic audience. While I don’t think this speaker is for everyone, I do think it is good enough that it deserves to be considered with an open mind. Here’s why.

Beats Pill XL unboxing video

Out of the box

The Beats Pill XL packaging is exactly as we had expected: heavy and cleverly compartmentalized. Inside we found the speaker in a black cloth sack, with a box of accessories underneath, and a manual tucked into a sleeve in the box lid above. The accessories box held a small AC power brick, an AC cord and a bright red 3.5 mm audio cable.

The Pill XL weighs 3.3 lbs and stretches 13.3 inches in length. The heft is respectable yet manageable, and it will fit into a backpack, though it will hog some space, and you’ll certainly know it is there as you tote it around.

Knocking on the speaker’s cabinet produces a dead thunk, indicating its plastic walls are rigid and dense. When sitting on a surface, only the Pill XL’s matte black speaker grill is visible, with silhouettes of its drivers underneath. The back of the speaker is a combination of matte black plastic and the sort of glossy stuff that looks great until you touch it. Directly underneath the built-in handle, another section of speaker grill hides and protects a rectangular bass radiator.

Features and design

Beats doesn’t disclose certain specs such as driver size and amp wattage, but we’d estimate its two tweeters are ¾-inchers, and the larger drivers come in at about 1.5-inches – small, but no smaller than most portable speakers at this size. There is the aforementioned bass radiator as well, which may be passive or active – we’re not sure. We can say, however, that it is very good at moving a significant amount of air.

It’s hard not to grin at the Pill XL’s clever shape. Though it appears to be a perfectly rounded from the front, the handle that has been carved into the back not only makes the speaker truly portable, it also acts as part of its base, and is home to most of its controls.

Lining a strip that runs along the back of the Pill XL’s handle are a series of control buttons and jacks. There are enough of them that the speaker comes with clear stickers that clearly label what’s what. To one side, flush control buttons for volume up/down and power rest between an NFC chip and a series of five pin-sized LEDs, which indicate battery level. On the opposite side, a power port sits next to a 3.5 mm input jack, 3.5 mm output jack, a firmware update port and a USB charging port.

That audio output jack is a notable inclusion, because it allows the Pill XL to act as a Bluetooth receiver for any audio system. You could conceivably connect the audio output to an A/V receiver, for instance, to enable wireless music streaming to a much larger audio system.

We were really pleased with the level of detail and color resolution the speaker was offering.

On the front of the speaker, a Beats logo pulls double duty as a control button of sorts. It acts a lot like the control button on a pair of headphones in that it will play/pause and advance/back up music tracks based on a single press, double press or triple press of the button. Holding the button down puts the speaker in pairing mode, though it goes into pairing mode automatically when powered on. The button will also answer and end phone calls through the speaker’s built-in speakerphone.

Some may balk at the fact that the power and volume keys are on the back and not accessible when the speaker is set down, but we never found that to be a problem – we generally prefer to control volume using our source device.

Beats claims the Pill XL’s battery will last you about 15 hours, give or take based on volume level. This may be a conservative estimate, as we played the speaker for hours and hardly made a dent in the battery meter. Speaking of battery indicator, the Pill XL will display a battery meter icon via Bluetooth on compatible devices – a feature we’ve always found especially handy.

Another notable feature is the ability to pair one Beats Pill XL with another for double the output, or true stereo sound. As we only had on review sample, we were not able to test this feature. We did discover, though, that the Pill XL would only pair to one device at a time – so, no pairing with a phone for speaker phone and a tablet for music at the same time.

Operational performance

Dealing with the Pill Xl was never a hassle because its controls are easy to understand, it is quick to react, it is quick to auto-pair when turned on, and it maintains a solid connection. But one thing we especially appreciated is that its power-on, power-off and notification chimes are both cool to listen to and programmed at a reasonable volume. So many of the Bluetooth speakers we’ve tested have unreasonably loud chimes, sure to disturb anyone nearby who isn’t expecting. We’re glad Beats got this right.

Speaker phone quality

The Pill XL worked surprisingly well as a speaker phone. Its microphone is sensitive enough to make you sound like you are sitting right next to the speaker, even if you are 6 feet away. Move too far away, though, and room echo gives your proximity away. We never suffered any problems with echo on either side of call, but we did note that our voice suffered that sort of compressed sound that you often get with lower quality Bluetooth headsets.

Battery performance

We’d like to be able to comment on how long it takes to charge the Pill XL, but as of this writing and after 10 hours of use, the speaker’s battery level had barely budged. We’ll update this section when we’ve finally managed to drain it and gauge its recharging time. For now, we’re going to say we are more than pleased with the Pill XL’s battery life so far.

Audio performance

We tested the Pill XL using music files stored on an iPhone 4S, Spotify tracks played from an Asus Zenbook Prime laptop, and movie audio from a second-gen iPad. For comparison, we pulled out our Braven 850, a portable speaker similar in price, size and capability to the Beats Pill XL and Jawbone Big Jambox.

After listening to the Pill XL straight out of the box for a couple of minutes, we felt pleasantly surprised that we walked away with generally positive impression. It didn’t seem like it did anything especially wrong, keeping it well away from the “garbage” category we talked about earlier. In fact, we were waffling between good and great, certainly above the “decent” level. Then we settled in for a long, extended listening session, and a few things became apparent.

Beats By Dre PillXL logo

The Beats Pill XL is unapologetically big on bass. In fact, what the standard Beats Pill lacks in bass, the Pill XL more than makes up for. The bass radiator is well placed and very effective at imparting a warm, well-supported low end with plenty of presence. In fact, at close proximity, the bass response is a little overboard. But step back a few feet, and things snap into a better balance, with the bass still on the forward side, but no longer overbearing.

As for the quality of the bass, we’re on the fence. With all of our tracks bass was punchy with plenty of heft at the very bottom, and harmonic bass lines had plenty of tone. But with other tracks, we got a sort of “one-note” bass resonance that took away from the rest of the sound because it had a way of calling attention to itself. We think some will find the Pill XL’s bass on the heavy-handed side, but most will find it impressive and welcome.

Midrange, regardless of bass response, had a tendency to sound just a touch recessed at times. The effect was most obvious when listening to certain vocals. With the exception of our Keb Mo and Dianna Krall tracks, where vocals are super hot, we felt like we could have used just a touch more out of the midrange. Vocal harmonies didn’t seem to have the separation we were used to hearing, even from smaller speakers. But, when we took off our hyper-critical, analytical reviewer hat and just went about our business around the house, not once did we catch ourselves thinking the midrange was recessed. For casual listening, the Pill XL did extremely well.

We played the speaker for hours and hardly made a dent in the battery meter.

It was treble response that came as the biggest surprise. For all the complaining we’ve done about Beats headphones having unnaturally hot treble, we were shocked to find the Pill XL didn’t follow suit. In fact, at times we were really pleased with the level of detail and color resolution the speaker was offering. There were several jazz cuts where the drummer’s ride cymbal sounded dry and full of character, with just the right amount of attack and decay. If you ask us, this is a big step in the right direction for the company.

We learned in our comparisons that the Braven 850 and Beats Pill XL are vastly different speakers. The Braven sounds anemic in the bass by comparison, though in reality it just can’t reach as low and is much less bass-forward in general. The Braven is much more forward in the midrange and lower treble, and it exposes more inner detail in general, but it doesn’t sound nearly as warm or rounded as the Pill XL. While we’ll acknowledge that the Braven is a more balanced speaker on the whole, and likely to be preferred by pickier listeners, we know the Beats Pill XL is going to be a more satisfying listen for a much broader spectrum of people.

Conclusion

Whether or not audiophiles sneer at the brand, the Beats Pill XL is not an over-hyped, sham-y, glitzed-up toy of a speaker. And while we know some will balk at the speaker’s intentionally robust bass response, we feel like it has been kept in check this go-around, as its boom seems less egregious than with previous Beats products. One thing is absolutely certain: The Beats Pill XL punches well above its price class, sounding bigger and badder than much of its like-priced competition. Overpriced? We don’t think so.

Highs

  • Lots of thoughtful features
  • Clever design
  • Long-lasting battery
  • Huge sound, lots of bass
  • Clean, controlled treble a refreshing change

Lows

  • Bass can be overwhelming at close range
  • Bass can have a “one note” effect at times
  • Mids/vocals a little recessed