Bluetooth speakers

4 Bluetooth speakers: Improve your mobile sound

Today's smartphones and tablets still have less-than-stellar speakers. Try one of these for a better audio experience.

Bluetooth speakers

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Native Union

Dimensions: 7.5 x 2.8 x 2.0 in.

Weight: 21.1 oz.

Price: $149.99

The Switch from Native Union looks, at first glance, nearly featureless: When standing the 7.5 x 2.8 x 2.0 in. rectangular device on one end (it can be played either standing upright or on its side), the only external feature that stands out is a volume control on one end.

Native Union Switch
Native Union Switch

That volume control -- an oversized circle that surrounds the power on/off button -- gives the otherwise modernistic device an old-fashioned touch.

Most of the other controls are hidden under a discreet door on one edge of the speaker: a micro-USB port for powering the speaker; an Aux line-in; a speaker/mic line out and a USB port that you can use to power other devices (a handy addition that the others in this roundup didn't have). The device's three speakers are behind a grille that covers one full side.

Press a tiny button in the base and up to five LEDs will light up to let you know how much battery power is left. A small LED near the volume control also tells you when the Switch is on or off. The device comes in one of five colors: black, red, grey, blue or white. According to the company, it will play up to 14 hours.

How did it sound?

Along with the Beats Pill, the Switch was the best of the four speakers reviewed here. Audio was very full and rounded, with great bass. It got quite loud without any distortion and offered very clear sound -- almost too clear; when I listened to an older rock recording, the slight distortions resulting from the transfer of analog to digital were audible. While the Pill sounded a bit more forceful when I played Blood, Sweat & Tears, the Switch excelled on complex music such as the chorale finale of Bernstein's Candide.

As a speakerphone, the Switch performed the best of all four devices. There were no digital skips or drop-outs at all, and the sound seemed about as good as your typical speakerphone -- in other words, a bit hollow, but understandable. If I were looking for a speaker that I expected to use reasonably frequently as a speakerphone, this would be the one.

Bottom line

The Switch is an excellent mobile Bluetooth speaker with very nice sound quality for a range of music; it also was the best speakerphone of the four devices. Its rectangular design allows it to fit in a variety of spaces, but it would probably not be as convenient to use on the go as the Beats Pill.


Beats Electronics

Dimensions: 1.8 (diameter) x 7.5 in.

Weight: 11.5 oz.

Price: $199.95

It's immediately obvious why the Beats Pill has been given that particular moniker: It's shaped very much like a the kind of capsule you find in a medicine bottle -- although at 1.8 (diameter) x 7.5 in. and 11.5 oz., it's a bit large for human consumption.

The Pill's speaker grille (which protects four small front-facing speakers) is divided in the center by a solid strip of plastic that holds a large LED (decorated with a prominent "b") that shows when the power is on; above it are the volume up/down buttons. On the back of the device are the power button, a 3.5mm line-out port, an audio-in port, a small LED that shows you if Bluetooth is engaged and a micro-USB power port. According to the vendor, the Pill offers about 7 hours of play time.

Beats Pill
Beats Pill

Alone of the four speakers reviewed here, the Pill comes with NFC -- if your smartphone or tablet is similarly equipped, you can to tap it on the Pill to connect it. A small light on the back indicates whether an NFC connection is in use. I tried it with my Galaxy Nexus smartphone, and after a few seconds of holding the phone to the Pill, it made a Bluetooth connection. Which was fun, but to tell you the truth, just pairing it normally via Bluetooth was a lot easier.

The Pill is definitely made for travel. To begin with, it comes with its own plastic case -- in a matching color, natch. And speaking of colors, the Pill is available in a variety: black with red highlights, red with white highlights, white with red highlights, black with blue and red highlights or (if you're feeling particularly patriotic) red, white and blue.

You also get a separate 1.5mm audio cable, a USB power cable with a separate AC adaptor, and a carabiner (presumably so you can attach the case to your backpack).

How does it sound?

Beats is known for its sound enhancement software -- many higher-end smartphones are equipped with it -- and the Pill lives up to the hype. I was generally impressed with the quality of the audio; it had a clean, high-fidelity sound with great bass and good volume. Of the four, it performed best with music that had a driving beat such as Spinning Wheel by Blood Sweat & Tears.

It did feel a bit muted on quieter music tracks, as if the enhancement algorithms were interfering a bit. But on the whole, I felt that I got a good listening experience.

As a speakerphone, the Pill was reasonably well-behaved. The sound was a bit hollow and, during my conversation, there was an occasionally dropped syllable. But both my caller and I agreed that we could understand each other perfectly well.

Bottom line

The Beats Pill is an excellent mobile Bluetooth speaker that handles most music quite well, especially the type that depends more on a louder, bass beat.

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