"You gotta hear it," says Luke Wood, president of Beats Electronics, as he ramps up the volume on 50 Cent’s "In Da Club" in his hotel room, a trendy spot in downtown Manhattan. Wood blares the bass-heavy song through two speakers: Jawbone’s popular Jambox speaker and Beats’ new competing device, called the Pill. He toggles between the two speakers, and flashes a knowing grin as the Jambox’s sound quality begins to deteriorate while the Pill’s remains crisp and clear. Won’t other hotel guests complain about the noise?
"No! It’s the Mercer [Hotel]!" Wood hollers. "Let me put it up all the way!"
Today, Wood, alongside Dr. Dre and Interscope Records chairman Jimmy Iovine, is set to unveil the $199 Pill speaker in downtown New York City. The rechargeable device, which boasts seven hours of continuous play, is yet another sign of the fast-growing consumer interest in high-end speakers that are both compact and portable, and that can easily sync with mobile smartphones, tablets, and laptops (via Bluetooth, say, or NFC). But just as important as the sound quality is the Pill’s design. The Tylenol-capsule-shaped speaker designed by Robert Brunner, of design firm Ammunition, is perhaps its most significant point of differentiation. "We didn’t want to be derivative, and we didn’t want it to look like anything else," Wood says. "We’re starting to develop a design vocabulary that’s unique to Beats—a continuity across our family of products."
The cylindrical speakers feature a ribbon of simple controls that wraps around the device’s center. With its curved surface and glossy finish, the Pill fits in nicely with Beats’s rounded headphones and earbuds. "Like a car that you immediately know—like, 'Oh that’s an Audi or a Mercedes,' from across the parking lot—you can just tell this reads Beats, even before you see the 'B,'" Wood says.
Yes, the device’s pill shape is certainly gimmicky, given Dr. Dre’s involvement. Opening the Pill’s packaging, which I’ll admit is clever, is like opening a Nyquil tablet; the device’s slogan is: "Just what the doctor ordered." (Wood is wary of letting the medical-themed marketing go too far. "I mean, you can obviously see [Beats] Prozac and Cialis," he jokes.) But the pill-shaped device is also practical. Having been an avid user of Jawbone’s Jambox for the past year, I know first-hand that the popular speaker’s rectangular shape and sharp corners make the device less than portable. The Jambox is hard to fit into one’s pockets, whereas the Pill slides in nicely and feels good gripping in one’s palm.
On the other hand, the Jawbone speaker, with its stout shape and herringbone pattern, is perhaps more elegant from afar, reminiscent of a fireplace crackling with delightful noise. The Pill has a more playful design, but I’d be ignoring the obvious if I didn’t point out that the device looks and feels, well, a bit phallic.
The Pill’s navigation is far less obtrusive than the Jambox’s, however. With Jawbone, nearly every button on the device beeps and boops. These sounds can be satisfying, as is the case with the device’s bird-call-like sign-off; they can also be incredibly annoying, as is such with pressing the volume down and up keys. The associated sounds, along with an ever-present-bordering-on-overbearing narrator’s voice, can make interacting with the Jambox a frustrating experience. "While I’m getting into my jam, I don’t want it to go beep, beep, beep, beep, bang!" Wood cracks. "Initially, we built in a lot of audio commands, but we ended up removing about 80% of them."
The result on the Pill is far more simple navigation tools. Pairing your iPhone with the speaker is simple and self-intuitive; changing the volume of the Pill does not interfere with your music. "Initially, we even had it so there was a notification when you got to the top [of the volume]," Wood says. "But then we realized that you know you’ve reached the top because it doesn’t get any louder."
On the Pill, the music takes center stage, narrator navigation be damned. "As a music fan, I don’t want someone talking over my music," Wood says, as he turns up the volume even higher on a Tom Petty song.
Audiophiles are likely to argue over the tech specs of the Jambox and Pill, and over which device actually has studio-quality sound. But for the average consumer, the choice this holiday season is likely to come down to which design they prefer: the more modern-looking Jambox, or the more playful-looking Pill.