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
Jawbone, $119.99 One glance at the Jawbone and you'll understand why Apple peddles the device alongside the iPhone. It shares Apple's chilly, mod aesthetic: My chrome-gray Jawbone could be a prop snatched off the set of Total Recall. But I was still a little disappointed with what's been touted as the Holy Grail of Bluetooth headsets. I didn't mind its relative bulkiness, but the concealed buttons represented an irritating emphasis on style over function. Several times, I ended calls when trying to navigate the noise-cancellation feature, and I never managed to jack up the volume to a satisfying level.
I might have forgiven those defects if the Jawbone had been exceptionally comfortable. The device comes with four different ear buds and ear loops for a more "customized" fit. But I spent the better part of an afternoon experimenting with different loop-bud permutations, and I'll be damned if I ever figured out which pairing worked best. The morning after I finally settled on one such combo, the loop snapped off, forcing me to perform an advanced surgical operation with eyebrow tweezers. The Jawbone was never the same again—it wouldn't sit snugly against my cheek, so I could never tell if the noise-cancellation technology (triggered by the vibrations of the speaker's voice) had kicked in. I suspect it didn't, as the sound quality was only so-so. Background noises were minimal, but people complained of my voice "cutting out" and "distorting" during calls.
Form and Function: 6
Sound Quality: 7
Jabra BT 8010, $149.95 This device might suit humans with Brobdingnagian ear canals, but others might find its supersize proportions impractical. When I tightened the loop enough to keep the hefty device in place, my ear felt pinched and sore. Which is a shame, because the Jabra offers excellent sound quality, especially if you elect to use the optional second earpiece for a headphoneslike effect. (The Jabra can also play music if your phone has an MP3 player.) Other pluses? The Jabra has a little LCD screen that shows battery life and the number (but not the name) of the person calling or being called. But despite these neat add-ons, the awkward outer-ear design and painful ear loop made the Jabra a no-go for me.
Form and Function: 5
Sound Quality: 9
Blueant Z9, ($99.95) I love the Blueant's signature graphic—a little ant that flashes blue when in operation. Press the ant during a call, and a cheerful Australian voice tells you if the noise-canceling feature has been activated. Though I initially enjoyed these jaunty interruptions, they soon grated on me, especially when I was walking down the street and unable to understand the intentionally thick antipodal accent. Still, at either setting, the Blueant delivered consistently above-average sound quality, though a few times, my sound-recordist friend found my voice "over-modulated and a little robotic, as if you're on speakerphone." The short, plump Blueant never feels invasive, even after prolonged wear. And should you forego the clear plastic ear loop (which I don't recommend), the Blueant fits much more securely than the strapless Samsung.
Form and Function: 7
Sound Quality: 7
Nokia BH-803, $149.95 Three cheers for the lipsticklike shape of this device, which goes on sale in early November. It stays firmly in place even without the optional rubber wire. It also boasts outstanding sound quality, and I certainly felt less like a Home Depot employee than usual wearing it. The main problem: The device has only one confusing all-purpose button, used both for power and volume adjustment. I often ended calls when trying to turn up the volume.
Form and Function: 7
Sound Quality: 8
Plantronics Voyager 520, $99.95 The Voyager 520, one of the newest devices from the all-audio company Plantronics, isn't shooting for high-end status here, but I frequently found myself grabbing this number on my way out the door when I wanted to chat en route to the gym or the grocery store. Its one button—an on/off switch that doubles as a volume toggle—was incredibly easy to operate, and the squishy rubber loop/in-ear earpiece design was by far the most comfortable I tested. Though considerably lower-tech than Plantronics' latest-and-greatest 855 Voyager, which I didn't review here, I found the 520 a more durable, user-friendly headset. It's also $50 cheaper. The sound quality isn't exactly glorious: It can get static-y on the speaker's end and "echoey" on the recipient's, especially when outdoors. Then again, that's the trade-off you generally make for the convenience of Bluetooth. Despite the manufacturers' claims, Bluetooth headsets still don't offer sound as good as you'll find in an old-fashioned handset. But for people who spend a great deal of time driving, typing, or otherwise multitasking while on the phone, a decent Bluetooth can be a godsend. For the price, you really can't beat the Voyager 520.
Form and Function: 9
Sound Quality: 7