A great pair of headphones is all you need to enjoy music from your portable device, but for those moments when you want to share your tunes with friends, a speaker is a better option. And a compact model that connects using Bluetooth lets you enjoy that experience anywhere your legs will carry you, without the hassle of wires. Whether you're looking for an eye-catching design, innovative features or just great sound quality, we've got options for you as we take a look at four popular models.
The Beats Pill, Braven 650, CubEdge Edge.Sound, and Definitive Technology Sound Cylinder are similarly priced models with comparably lightweight, bag-friendly designs. The trade-off for this portability is that none of the offerings will likely satisfy bass addicts. During my testing, I compared the four speakers to the $180 Jawbone Jambox and the $200 Jabra Solemate, two popular speakers with roughly the same footprint, features, and sound quality.
Winning points for design is the $200 Pill by Beats (the Dr. Dre imprint, formerly affiliated with Monster), which features an interesting shape befitting of its name. This oblong speaker measures 7.5 inches in length and 1.8 inches in diameter and weighs about 11 ounces. Volume buttons adorn the front of the slick-looking unit while the back features a power button, a USB port, an auxiliary-input jack, and a Bluetooth indicator light. The Pill comes in the usual Beats color array, so you can choose from black, white, or red models; and it includes a USB cable, an AC-power adapter, a rigid case with a carabiner, and an auxiliary cable for the times when a wireless connection just won't do.
In addition to streaming audio from your phone, tablet, or laptop, the Pill includes an internal microphone that lets you use the unit as a speakerphone. The integrated rechargeable battery is rated for seven hours of playback. That should be plenty for most picnics, BBQs, or trips to the beach, but it's the shortest use time among all the speakers I tested here.
Pitted head-to-head against the Jambox, the Pill sounds a bit cleaner and more open, although its bass response doesn't extend as deep. The Pill matches the Jabra Solemate in sheer volume, although both units suffer from distortion at the highest volume levels. Overall, music sounds crisp rather than warm.
With its simple, rounded-edge rectangular design, the $190 Braven 650 looks perhaps more like a speakerphone than a speaker. The brushed-aluminum, wrap-around grille also makes the 650 the heaviest (at 16 ounces) and sturdiest-feeling of the bunch. At 6.2 by 2.5 by 1.8 inches, it's plenty compact, just slightly overshadowing the Jawbone Jambox in overall size.
Split between the ends of the unit are two USB ports (more on that below), a pairing/call button, a power switch, and indicator lights for battery level and Bluetooth status. The 650 includes a USB cable, an AC adapter, an auxiliary cable, and a soft carrying pouch (that won't offer much protection from anything beyond minor scratches).
The Braven 650 offers several compelling features beyond standard Bluetooth music streaming. A built-in noise-cancelling mic lets you use the 650 as a speakerphone. You can also skip tracks forward and back, and pause and resume playback, from the speaker, as well as daisy-chain multiple units for bigger sound. But perhaps the coolest extra is the capability to charge small USB devices (such as a Bluetooth headset) directly from the speaker. Unsurprisingly, given this feature, the 650 offers the most-impressive battery life, estimated by the company at 20 hours of playback (when not charging other devices, of course).
In terms of sound quality, the 650 offers the most-open and -encompassing sound of the speakers I tested (including the Jambox and Solemate). It doesn't get quite as loud as the Solemate, but audio sounds great at all levels, with clear highs, warm midrange, and solid bass for the size. In fact, the low-end is the tightest and punchiest of the bunch, though not as boomy as the Solemate.
Much like the Jambox, CubEdge's $150 Edge.Sound offers a cut-and-dry rectangular design, but with one little exception: a small, triangular pyramid has been "cut off" from the upper-right corner on the front, giving the speaker a little bit of a unique edge (as it were).
At 5.9 by 2.4 by 2.1 inches, the Edge.Sound is the narrowest in this group. (It's the same width as the Jambox but noticeably deeper.) The unit is available in either white or black, with buttons for pairing/call and volume level on the top; a power switch, aux-in jack and USB port on the back; and a funky Bluetooth indicator light in the aforementioned cut-out corner. Like the Braven 650, the Edge.Sound comes with a USB cable, an AC adapter, a line-in cable, and a fabric carrying pouch.
The Edge.Sound includes a electret condenser microphone for making calls and offers a rated 10 hours of battery life. (Not enough? CubEdge says it intends to offer an optional solar panel accessory, though that is not yet available.) And call me a sucker for simplicity, but I also appreciate the Edge.Sound's minimalist, easy-to-open packaging, which is easier on both the environment and fingers. Indeed, CubEdge is the rare Bluetooth-speaker vendor that touts its speaker's low-impact design: The Edge.Sound uses all PVC-free materials as well as a recyclable aluminum enclosure.
The Edge.Sound gets about as loud as the Braven 650, but the former tends to get muffled and distorted above roughly 75-percent volume. At lower volumes, the speaker offers clear audio with reasonably crisp highs, though bass is lacking. Midrange frequencies are also lacking the buttery warmth I crave, making this my least favorite of the speakers in this roundup in terms of sound quality.
Definitive Technology Sound Cylinder
Like the Beats Pill, Definitive Technology's $200 Sound Cylinder has a name that's indicative of its design. The cylindrical unit measures 7.5 inches in width, 1.9 inches in diameter, and weighs 12 ounces, which puts it right on par with the Pill in terms of size and weight. The similarities end there, though. The Sound Cylinder features a silver, brushed-metal enclosure constructed of an aluminum and magnesium alloy. Two other distinguishing characteristics are its built-in device clamp and kickstand. The former lets you attach the unit to any seven- or ten-inch tablet or to the top of a laptop screen, while the latter comes in handy when you want to use the speaker to prop up a tablet (using the clamp) for, say, watching a video.
Unfortunately, the Sound Cylinder doesn't include a built-in mic, so it can't function as a speakerphone. However, it does have an auxiliary line-in jack for wired audio, and it's rated for a reasonable 10 hours of audio playback.
Of the four speakers in this roundup, the Pill and the Sound Cylinder are the most alike in terms of sound, with music sounding crisp rather than warm. However, the Sound Cylinder offers slightly weaker bass response, so if you're looking for low-end, this is not the option for you. On the plus side, audio playback is exceptionally clear at all volumes--unlike with some of the other models here, it doesn't distort when you crank up the volume.
Of the four speakers I tested, the "cool factor" goes to the Beats Pill, thanks to its sleek design and hardshell carrying case. The Sound Cylinder gets brownie points for its tablet stand, though if you're not using a tablet, that feature looks a little silly. However, both of these models are lacking at the low end. While I appreciate the Edge.Sound's environmentally friendly leanings and the intent to add a solar charging option, its unimpressive sound quality moves it to the bottom of the group. The best audio of the bunch, hands down, comes from the Braven 650, and its integrated noise-cancelling mic, device-charging capability, and impressive battery life cement it as my favorite. I even prefer it to Jawbone's Jambox--the Jambox sounds great in the overall comparison, but it gets nowhere near as loud as the Braven 650.