Review: Stellé Audio Couture The Pillar Bluetooth Wireless Speaker
Because our editors truly appreciate great industrial design -- but also believe that the pricing and sonic performance characteristics of speakers need to make sense for their prices -- we were somewhat pained by last year's release of the distinctive but sonically underwhelming Libratone Zipp, a tube-shaped wireless speaker with interchangeable speaker grilles. "Audio quality for the price" was cited as Zipp's critical issue, a problem exacerbated by its use of AirPlay streaming technology and expensive zippered wool jackets for the novelty of color swapping. At the time, we wondered how a speaker like Zipp might have rated at a lower price point, but suspected that the overall conclusion wouldn't have changed much.
Although its name isn’t well-known yet, Stellé Audio Couture—a young, fashion-focused speaker company founded by key members of the Vestalife team—has given us the opportunity to answer that question. One foot tall and 4.5” in diameter, The Pillar ($349) is a taller, thinner alternative to Zipp that’s even more aesthetically and functionally appealing. Gone are Libratone’s wool, leather, and plastic body elements, replaced in The Pillar with your choice of three stunning brushed metal enclosures, or high gloss white if you prefer it. While there’s no color-swapping here, each Pillar looks so impressive that you won’t want to change its looks after selecting the right color for your needs. Rather than using Apple’s troubled AirPlay standard, Stellé picked the more popular Bluetooth wireless streaming technology, and instead of getting four to eight hours of battery life on a charge, The Pillar offers fifteen.
While we weren’t totally thrilled with Stellé‘s choice of a rear-mounted power button—does anyone really want to reach back there to turn a speaker on?—that’s one of The Pillar’s only noteworthy limitations by comparison with Zipp, and there are some interesting similarities there. Each unit has a power-in port, as well as a USB port capable of charging a connected iOS device; Pillar’s port recharges only when the speaker is connected to a wall outlet with its included international wall adapter. There’s also an auxiliary input port for audio, coupled with an included 3.5mm audio cable for devices without Bluetooth, and a soft cleaning cloth for the speaker.
Once the power’s turned on—and The Pillar has spoken the word “hello” to you—you can access four other buttons mounted on Pillar’s top, all internally illuminated with white lights. Two change the volume level, which notably isn’t mirrored on iOS devices despite the presence of an on-iOS speaker battery level indicator icon, while the other two are for wireless pairing and using integrated speakerphone functionality. The latter is unique to Pillar and a somewhat surprising addition, offering sound quality comparable to the iPhone 5’s integrated speakerphone, albeit without the same ambient noise cancellation capabilities. Ideally, the calling button would double as a Siri trigger, but it doesn’t; you’ll typically need to initiate calls on an iPhone, or answer incoming attempts with The Pillar’s button as they come in.
The only other arguable limitation in The Pillar relative to Zipp is a difference in speaker drivers, though that difference doesn’t actually weigh in Zipp’s favor. Stellé chose to load its tube with two 1.5-inch drivers, plus a 3-inch subwoofer, which raises obvious comparisons with Zipp’s twin 1-inch drivers and 4-inch subwoofer. On paper, Libratone could have had the edge here, as a larger subwoofer normally can be expected to deliver deeper and potentially louder bass, while smaller tweeters tend—if tuned correctly—to enable crisper treble. But in reality, The Pillar and Zipp are very close to peers, as the performance of Zipp’s drivers wasn’t particularly impressive. For instance, Zipp’s peak volume level is a little higher than The Pillar’s, but there’s enough distortion in Zipp at that point that you won’t want to keep it up there for long.
Describing The Pillar’s sound quality isn’t simple, but a quick summary is that it sounds good—good enough to justify the just-above-mainstream $349 price tag, all things considered. Bass is a dominant element in the audio, but there’s just enough treble for songs to sparkle where they need to above the strength of lower-end beats and midrange voices. Clarity is respectable rather than amazing, though it should be said that by Bluetooth speaker standards, The Pillar performs really well—we experienced zero hiccups in the audio even when moving an iPhone or iPad two full rooms away from the speaker, and had no issues with responsiveness. Bluetooth is far faster to respond to track and volume changes than AirPlay, making for a much better overall user experience under most circumstances.
That said, The Pillar and most tube-shaped speakers suffer from a common sonic limitation: despite “2.1-channel” speaker arrays, neither this nor Zipp delivers meaningful stereo separation. Stellé‘s design fires the two 1.5-inch drivers upwards through a classy dotted grille at the top, and lets the single 3-inch bass driver radiate through a ring-shaped set of holes at the bottom, such that you’ll be hard pressed to discern much left- or right-channel separation beyond the unit’s edges. Additionally, while there’s no serious shortage of treble or midrange when you’re sitting right in front of The Pillar, you’ll hear more of each when you’re above the unit, a simple reality of its ventilation design. Zipp instead pushes all of its sound through a larger ring-shaped set of openings under its flat top surface, and doesn’t deliver a better experience for that choice; both put out very similar sound no matter where you happen to be in a 360-degree circle around their bodies.
Choosing the “right” rating for The Pillar isn’t easy: on one hand, Stellé Audio has done a superb job of selecting chassis materials, the right wireless streaming technology, and a feature set that many users will love. Regardless of whether you plan to tether it to a wall or use it for hours at a time with the integrated battery, The Pillar will look great and sound good, while fitting in small spaces that conventionally wide 2.1-channel systems would find cramped. The only question is whether you’re willing to compromise on some of the sonic frills that are generally associated with speakers at this price point, such as additional audio drivers and obvious stereo separation, in favor of The Pillar’s distinctive material quality and attractive shape. Our advice would be to give that option serious consideration: Stellé has done a seriously impressive job with this new audio system, and if you understand its tradeoffs before making a purchase, you’ll likely be thrilled by the design and build quality. It’s worthy of our strong general recommendation.