Beats recently announced an update to its original Pill wireless Bluetooth speaker, the new Pill+. The new model incorporates a revised 2-way design, with a separate midbass and tweeter for each channel, driven through an active crossover system. The Pill+ is charged via Apple’s proprietary Lightning connector, and is also equipped with a USB port to serve as a portable charger for any USB-powered device.
Whereas the prior model allowed the pairing of two Pills for dedicated left and right stereo playback via NFC-based tap-to-pair, the new models are pairable via the Beats Pill+ mobile app. The Pill+ will be available at US retail in November at $229.
Bowers & Wilkins recently launched a new version of its iconic Zeppelin Air speaker, the new Zeppelin Wireless. Priced at $699 compared to $599 for the prior model, the new version eliminates the Apple Lightning physical dock from the prior version and adds both Bluetooth and Spotify Connect compatibility.
For enhanced audio fidelity, the new Zeppelin Wireless now supports AAC streaming over Bluetooth, CSR’s aptX codec, and 24-bit up-sampling of all audio input. The new device incorporates a 3-way design with two tweeters, two midbass drivers, and a 6.5 inch subwoofer, with 150 watts of total power output. Retail availability is expected mid-October in the US.
The new Pill+ shows Apple’s design direction after the company dropped Ammunition, the design firm behind Beats’ original iconic product designs. A bridge between the prior look and Apple’s design language, the Pill+ is indicative of Apple’s intentions to leverage consumer familiarity and cachet with the old Beats line. The product’s most important change is in incorporating a higher-fidelity 2-way driver design with an active crossover, in a price range where many devices rely upon either full-range drivers or drivers backed by passive woofers/radiators for added low-end punch. Consumers will likely benefit from competitors responding with 2-way designs of their own within the $150-$250 price range.
Apple’s influence is most evident in the move to make the Pill+ rechargeable only via Apple’s proprietary Lightning connector, bucking the industry trend towards Micro USB. While this is beneficial to Apple and iOS device owners already possessing Lightning cables, it is a move away from common consumer standards. The Pill+ is the first in what is likely to be many more new Beats products with features favoring those already in the Apple device ecosystem. It is likely, with no great surprise, that Beats will become the audio accessory company most oriented towards iOS device owners.
While Apple has chosen to send Beats down an iOS-friendly path, Bowers and Wilkins has in contrast chosen a path the rest of the industry is increasingly choosing – agnosticism. With Android now commanding a high majority share of the global mobile device landscape, companies now find themselves unable to ignore the appeal of broadening their audio accessories’ total available market. B&W’s new Zeppelin continues the trend of speaker and dock manufacturers moving away from proprietary Apple docking connections and towards Bluetooth as an all-platform wireless connectivity solution with a 3.5mm cable connection as a physical backup. It is expected that this move away from Apple connectors will continue throughout B&W’s line as new products are introduced over time.
The most telling aspect of B&W’s move to drop the Lightning connector is that it is taking place in a product that is considered expensive within the portable/wireless speaker category. The speaker’s price is indicative of a BOM cost that could easily absorb the cost of inclusion of the dock and associated Lightning connector licensing. Thus, the move seems more due to market and strategic considerations than the types of cost-saving considerations that would be relevant to portable/wireless speakers in the sub-$100 range.
While AirPlay will remain a staple Wi-Fi based standard for wireless speaker manufacturers to support in higher-end products, Apple 30-pin and 8-pin physical connectors are expected to die out in nearly all portable speakers and home speaker docks over the next two years. The exclusion of physical dock connectors is benefiting manufacturers in savings in design complexity, physical package size, materials cost, and connector licensing costs paid to Apple.
As use of the Google Cast standard for Wi-Fi based audio increases over time, aided by the release of the new Chromecast Audio and the support of streaming music apps such as Spotify, manufacturers are also expected to increasingly incorporate it into Wi-Fi based speakers as a less-expensive alternative to AirPlay, that is a broader-reaching solution than AirPlay, AllPlay, Play-Fi, or Spotify Connect, and that is a more agnostic multiplatform solution than AirPlay or Spotify Connect. Eventually, it is expected that any new wireless speaker launched that supports AirPlay will also support Google Cast.
AirPlay’s principal factor irritating speaker manufacturers is the cost of inclusion, and should Apple fail to substantially alter the AirPlay cost equation, the appeal of free-to-inexpensive alternatives (particularly Google Cast) in an increasingly-competitive wireless speaker market will be impossible for most companies to ignore.
While the audio industry’s momentum towards agnostic mobile device compatibility continues to increase, the new Apple-owned Beats is expected to distinguish itself over time as one of the few, if not the last, remaining company continuing to display favoritism towards one ecosystem over another.