Soon after buying my first cell phone in 1999, I came to enjoy the freedom offered by those hands-free wired headsets included in the accessories kit. (I also rather enjoyed the stares of alarmed passers-by who assumed I was conversing with myself.) There were drawbacks, of course: The unwieldy wires regularly got tangled up in my CD player headphones, and the device usually self-destructed after a few months. And so, however much I dug the hands-free lifestyle, I'd soon end up shackled to my handset yet again.
Little did I know that the year before, an international consortium of tech companies had gotten together to give birth to Bluetooth—a short-range, low-power communications standard that connects electronics devices via radio chips instead of cables. The name Bluetooth is a tribute to 10th-century Danish Viking King Harald Blatand (Bluetooth in English), renowned for unifying the battling tribes of Denmark and Norway. Bluetooth similarly unites different electronics devices, transferring small files of sound and data over short distances (up to about 30 feet) without the mess of cords and cables. For example, it can wirelessly connect your laptop to your printer, your speaker to your stereo, and your cell phone headset to your cell phone.
When Bluetooth cell phone headsets—which are still the most popular incarnation of this protean technology—first hit the market, I was an interested but wary potential customer. I am not, by nature, a gadget girl, and in my neighborhood, the only "early adopters" of these space-age suppositories seemed to be contractors and FedEx guys. After hurting my shoulder, however, I had no choice but to go hands-free permanently.
Sadly, not everyone applauded my leap into the wireless future. Every time I called my father, he'd bellow, "Hello? Hello?" before hanging up in frustration. But I've stuck with Bluetooth, and my loyalty has been rewarded. In the past two years, I've cycled through three different headsets, each one a marked improvement over the last.
Still, when it came time for my next upgrade, I was determined to find the absolute best headset by thoroughly testing the products in this ever-expanding market.
I tested eight Bluetooth headsets ranging in price from $39.99 to $149.95. Because I found little variation among charging times, talk/standby times, and range, I judged the devices on design, comfort, stability, sound quality, and value. I tested them first using a T-Mobile Nokia 6103 cell phone, then a Verizon BlackBerry. I tried each device out on both ears and when speaking, cocked my head exaggeratedly up, down, and side-to-side. A technology-intolerant older gentleman (my father), an impatient former roommate, and a professional movie-sound recordist assisted in the testing.
1) Form and Function (10 possible points): Does the device look cool? Does it have any design features that improve its performance? I also considered comfort and stability: Did the Bluetooth stay put in my ear? Could I shake my head, or rush down the street, without sending it flying? Were there options for different-sized ears? Did the device pinch, dangle, poke—or did I occasionally forget I was wearing it?
2) Sound Quality (10 possible points): I tested each headset from four locations: inside my apartment, on a wind-whipped 24th-floor rooftop, beneath an elevated train, and across from a construction zone. At every location, I asked myself, and the person on the other end of the line, the same questions: How well can you hear me? How well can I hear you? Is the sound muffled or fairly clear? How much worse is it than speaking directly into the phone? Several of the higher-end devices come with thrilling promises of noise-canceling powers—how justified are these? Could I easily adjust the volume or (if available) activate these noise-canceling features, midcall?
3) Value: I calculated value by adding the previous two scores, multiplying by 10, and dividing by the price. Bluetooth prices change frequently, so for consistency, I stuck with the manufacturer's suggested retail price. Note that, in general, online retailers tend to offer much better deals than cell phone stores, though availability can be unpredictable.
Here are the results, from say-what to sensational …
Samsung WEP410, $99.95 This sleek little number is extremely lightweight and has a few commendable design elements, including the handsome little charging "cradle." But less isn't always more in headset design. This Samsung is a bit too pared-down to function properly: The earpiece has no loop to stabilize it around the ear, so the little bugger refused to stay put. I rarely got through a sentence without dropping down to retrieve the errant device, which made sound testing difficult. Whenever I moved my jaw, or neck, or toe, it'd fly right out. Unless you spend your days in an MRI machine—or you don't mind holding the device into your ear for the duration of your conversation (thereby defeating the purpose of the "hands-free" accessory)—this Samsung is pretty impractical.
Form and Function: 1
Sound Quality: 6
Nokia BH-208, $39.95 Probably my favorite of the more basic, affordable Bluetooths (I greatly prefer it to the similarly priced Jabra BT125, which I did not review here), this Nokia is neither spectacular nor spectacularly flawed. The minimalist design is agreeable and the rubber ear loop comfortable, if not as infinitely pliable as advertised. The teensy control buttons could have been easier to use, but for the money, this Bluetooth is a good bet if you conduct most of your conversations in a relatively quiet indoor environment. It works fine in a car, too, provided the windows are up and the AC on low. But on the building roof and the street, outside interference on both ends of the line was intolerable.
Form and Function: 6
Sound Quality: 2
Motorola H700, $99.95 The H700 has a feature so obvious and indispensable that I don't understand why every competitor hasn't copied it: Instead of a microphone built into the headset (like the mic you probably have on your cell phone), the H700 features a microphone that flips open (see this image). The best part about it—flipping open the mic turns the Bluetooth on, flipping it closed turns it off and disconnects it from your phone. To appreciate the brilliance of this innovation, initiates must understand one of the biggest Bluetooth annoyances: When your headset is turned on, you cannot speak directly into your cell phone—you must answer the call via the Bluetooth. So, unless you live with your Bluetooth grafted to your ear, chances are you'll miss many a call while scrambling to locate the small headset. I certainly have. The problem with the H700—and it's a big one—is that despite this extended microphone, it offers subpar sound quality. While I could hear everything fine, my listeners had real difficulties, complaining of "fuzzy" and "static-y" reception with lots of white noise.
Form and Function: 10
Sound Quality: 1