How to Buy a Bluetooth Headset or Car Speakerphone

Jabra Extreme Bluetooth headset
A Bluetooth headset or speakerphone can set you free. When paired with a compatible cell phone, a Bluetooth headset or car kit allows you to make calls without having to hold the phone in your hand. And such Bluetooth products are more than just a convenience--in some places, using one is the law. It may be illegal for you to use your cell phone without a headset or speakerphone while driving.

Even if you live in a state where it isn't a violation to talk on a cell phone while driving, you should invest in a headset or car kit (or both) anyway. Using a Bluetooth accessory can be a liberating experience. Plus, companies are increasingly providing features that go beyond simply managing phone calls. For example, some products, using voice prompts, will indicate the battery status or read text messages to you.

Which type of product you choose depends on your habits. If you spend a considerable amount of time in your car and it doesn't have built-in Bluetooth support, think strongly about investing in a portable Bluetooth speakerphone. Sure, you can use a mono headset in your car just fine, but wearing headsets for extended periods can become uncomfortable or distracting after a while.

If you are addicted to your music and you like the idea of having a headset that can handle both tunes and calls, consider purchasing a set of stereo headphones. But do not drive while wearing them: It's probably illegal in your state to cover both ears with headphones when you're behind the wheel. (And deep down you know that would not be a sensible thing to do.) Of course, you can wear a set of headphones in a vehicle when somebody else is driving.

The Big Picture

It's a Bluetooth jungle out there. Expect to find a large number of manufacturers, different designs, and a wide range of prices. Call quality can vary considerably, too.

The Specs Explained

Unclear about the performance that a given headset or speakerphone is supposed to deliver? Confused by the jargon? We explain the terminology.

Bluetooth-Headset Buying Tips

Do your homework to ensure that you choose the right headset for your style, the first time around. Remember that one size does not fit all.

Bluetooth-Speakerphone Buying Tips

Find a car kit that will match your preferences. Some speakerphones may not work for you, depending on your area's climate.

For Additional Information

If you're ready to research Bluetooth headset models or to learn more about selecting a cell phone, check out the following PCWorld resources.

The Big Picture

Bluetooth technology lets two devices talk to each other wirelessly over low-frequency radio waves in the 2.4GHz range. Both devices, such as a phone and a headset or a phone and a speakerphone, must be Bluetooth-enabled.

The devices connect through a process called pairing. To start pairing between a headset and a phone, you use your Bluetooth phone's interface, making sure that the headset is turned on and in pairing mode. The phone then searches for and locates the headset. To establish a connection, depending on the version of Bluetooth that your phone and headset support, you may need to enter a PIN on your phone's keypad; afterward, your phone will recognize the headset. And, you hope, the devices will talk--nicely--to each other. The process is identical when you pair your phone with a speakerphone. (For more details about Bluetooth specifications, see "The Specs Explained.")

Manufacturers and Flavors

Headsets: You'll encounter a huge variety of Bluetooth headsets on the market. A monaural (or mono) unit has a single earpiece and a design that puts the microphone close to your mouth. Stereo headsets or headphones come with two earpieces. Though they bring you stereo sound and let you listen to your tunes as well as make calls, their microphones typically sit much farther away from your mouth.

You can find models from traditional headset makers (such as GN Netcom--the name behind the Jabra products--and Plantronics), cell phone manufacturers (such as Motorola and Samsung), and Bluetooth-only companies (such as Aliph and its Jawbone line). At the low end, Bluetooth mono headsets start at about $15; at the high end, you can expect to pay at least $100. Stereo headphones can be $50 to $200, sometimes more.

As far as headset design and style go, take your pick: over-the-ear or earbud (some do both); silver, gold, candy-colored, black, or gray; sleek or boring; bulky or discreet; long or short; lightweight or superlight. Over-the-ear (aka earhook) headsets can have wide, loopy hooks or thin, narrow ones; they can be plastic, rubberized metal, or leather, too. Some headsets have earbuds that are completely round, while other buds have tips that protrude. Some stereo headsets have earpads that sit on the outside of your ears and are connected either by a neckband or a cord.

Headset makers handle the arrangement and feel of the function buttons differently, too. Some buttons are recessed, others are raised, while still others are flush with the headset's surface. Some buttons sport notches or markers; others lack indicators entirely.

In-car speakerphones: You'll find plenty of Bluetooth car units--from companies such as BlueAnt Wireless, Jabra, LG Electronics, Motorola, Parrot, and Plantronics--that are portable and ready to pop into your car. Expect to pay about $20 or more for an entry-level model or an older unit; from there, prices can go up to $100. You position the speakerphone unit on your sun visor, your windshield, or on your dashboard. (Note: In some states it is illegal to attach any item to your windshield.) In addition to managing calls, some speakerphones let you stream music and transmit audio through your car stereo.

Many brand-new cars have Bluetooth kits factory-installed. If yours doesn't, you can have a professional wire up your car with a speakerphone.

Performance and Packages

We'd like to say that these days call quality through a Bluetooth headset or speakerphone is consistent and comparable to--or better than--what you get from a cell phone on a good day. But it isn't. In our testing, even the best-sounding headsets overall still had their off moments, producing faintness, voice distortion, echoes, and disappointing background-noise cancellation, for example. And judging from our tests of car speakerphones, their audio quality is even less impressive. Interference of various kinds made a regular appearance. Car kits don't handle background noise as successfully as mono headsets do, either. Furthermore--and not surprisingly--voice commands ("Call Julianne mobile," for instance) work considerably better when you're wearing a mono headset, since the attached microphone is positioned close to your mouth.

When you're considering battery life, expect to see a wide range. Depending on the manufacturer, advertised talk times for mono headsets start at about 4 hours and go up to 9 hours. Standby times start at about 100 hours and extend to about 250 hours. For speakerphones, talk times start at about 14 hours and extend to about 20 hours; standby times start at about 300 hours and go up to a whopping 800 hours. With solar-powered speakerphones, theoretically, you can hope for unlimited talk and standby times, as long as your device can soak up lots of sunlight daily.

In a perfect world for headset makers, people's ears would be identical. They aren't, of course, and that's why we prefer that headset bundles include multiple options to help you find a good fit. Some manufacturers are generous with their goodies, providing small, medium, and large earbuds, along with an additional earhook or two. Others give you an AC charger and a user guide, but nothing else in the box.

The Specs Explained

As of this writing, the most current Bluetooth specification is Bluetooth 4.0. This new version promises more-frugal power consumption. "Low energy is the hallmark feature of this specification," says Michael Foley, executive director of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG).

The previous version, Bluetooth 3.0 + HS, allowed the Bluetooth protocol to piggyback on 802.11 Wi-Fi when you needed to take care of more-demanding tasks such as sending video from your camera to your TV.

Version 4.0 became final in July 2010. Products supporting the new spec should reach the market this year.

Foley predicts that the first crop of products incorporating the new spec will be "proximity-type devices." Such a product might be, for instance, "a key fob that will alert you if you accidentally leave your phone behind." As for other product classes, Foley expects "personal monitoring devices, like heart rate monitors, or personal fitness devices, like pedometers." He says that Bluetooth 4.0 will enhance home entertainment markets, too, along with security, automation, healthcare, and sports and fitness.

Bluetooth Standards: Old and New

Right now, we're seeing plenty of new cell phones, headsets, and car speakerphones that support earlier Bluetooth specs--primarily Bluetooth version 2.1 + EDR (and to a lesser extent, version 2.0 + EDR). Earlier in 2010, Samsung rolled out its Wave S8500, one of the first phones to support Bluetooth 3.0, in Europe. (On the computer front, some PC makers, including Dell, offer laptops with Bluetooth 3.0 support.)

All of the more recent Bluetooth versions are backward-compatible. So if your phone supports version 2.0 but the headset you choose supports 2.1, for example, the two devices will still work together; you just can't benefit from 2.1's enhancements (such as faster pairing), as both devices must support the newer spec for the added features to have effect. Conversely, be aware that, depending on your phone's operating system, you may not be able to take advantage of all the features that a particular headset or speakerphone unit promises. For instance, if your phone does not support automatic phone book transfers, you'll have to transfer your contacts' information manually via Bluetooth. Additionally, if you own a phone with Android version 2.1 or earlier, you will probably have trouble using some car kits' voice commands. And if your iPhone doesn't run iOS 3.0 or newer, you can't enjoy stereo A2DP Bluetooth support.

Development and licensing of the Bluetooth specs are the responsibility of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), a trade association that consists of companies in various industries, including telecommunications, computing, automotive, and networking.

Bluetooth version 4.0: Products supporting this spec will enable very low battery use. The new specification will greatly affect low-tech gizmos, such as watches and pedometers, that run on button batteries and are designed to last for years. Computers, phones, cameras, and headsets, on the other hand, are on the high-power end of the Bluetooth spectrum.

Bluetooth version 3.0 + HS (High Speed, as in higher data rates): This spec will clamp onto a Wi-Fi signal when handling larger chunks of data, so you can download scads of photos or synchronize your music library, for instance. It also promises to give you longer battery life, better security, and beefed-up power control. This should result in fewer instances of dropped connections in Bluetooth headsets and in-car speakerphones, for example.

Bluetooth version 2.1 + EDR (Enhanced Data Rate): This version of Bluetooth offers beefed-up security, and it's designed to let you breeze through the pairing process without the need to enter a PIN. All you have to do is turn on the headset and then select 'Add Headset' from your phone's menu; your phone and headset will find each other and connect through an encrypted link.

Bluetooth version 2.0 + EDR (Enhanced Data Rate): Version 2.0 (released in 2004) requires you to go through a multistep procedure to pair a headset with a phone. With the headset turned on, your phone must search for and recognize the headset; and then to connect to it, you have to punch in a passkey (typically four zeros).

The "EDR" portion of the spec means faster transmission speeds and lower power consumption. For exhaustive details about the Bluetooth versions, check out the Bluetooth SIG's Specification Documents.

Working Ranges

Your paired Bluetooth phone and headset/speakerphone don't need to be in direct line of sight to function properly and maintain their connection. Depending on your product's range, however, you can't roam too far. You can determine what a product's operating range is by looking at its classification. (This is applicable primarily to headset users; for speakerphones, range won't be as much of an issue since you'll have to keep your phone in your car.)

Bluetooth Class 2: On this kind of headset or speakerphone, you're limited to a working range of up to roughly 33 feet (10 meters). Most headsets and speakerphones today belong in this group.

Bluetooth Class 1: Headsets that meet this spec offer a range of up to 328 feet (100 meters). Models supporting this range are far less common. Only one headset we've seen, the Callpod Dragon V2, is categorized as Class 1.

Profiles for Mono Headsets

A Bluetooth profile is a spec that defines the standard capabilities of a Bluetooth-enabled device. For any Bluetooth headset you consider, look for the following two common profiles in the product's specifications list.

Headset Profile (HSP): You can talk on the phone through the headset, and you can do basic things such as accept incoming calls, hang up, and adjust the volume.

Hands-Free Profile (HFP): This profile enables you to talk on the phone and operate it. For example, you can redial the last number, handle call waiting, and dial by voice.

Profiles for Stereo Headphones

Most Stereo Bluetooth headphones also support the Hands-Free and Headset profiles, so you can make and receive phone calls with your Stereo Bluetooth headphones.

Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP): This Bluetooth profile enables your music source and the Bluetooth headset to stream music in stereo wirelessly.

Remote Control Profile (AVRCP): This profile enables your Bluetooth headset to control your music source wirelessly.

Profiles for Car Speakerphones

Car kits support the Headset and Hands-Free profiles. If your unit handles music, it will also support A2DP.

Object Push Profile (OPP): This profile enables sending data (or "objects"), such as virtual business cards or contact information. Car kits that support this profile can synchronize contact lists from the paired phone.

Phone Book Access Profile (PBAP): This allows the exchange of Phone Book Objects between devices. With a cell phone and a car kit talking nicely to each other, the speakerphone can display/announce the name of the person calling you.

Beyond Call Management

Bluetooth product makers continue to add features on top of the call-management capabilities you'd expect. These features have expanded recently to include handy voice prompts, text-to-speech tools, and information services.

Every time you switch on the Plantronics BackBeat 903+, for example, this stereo unit alerts you to the the time you have left for playing music and calls ("listen time remaining, 6 hours"). And products such as the BlueAnt S4 speakerphone and Q2 headset can announce your callers by name--provided that your phone supports automatic phone book transfer--and read your e-mail and text messages back to you.

Taking things to a whole new level, the Plantronics Savor M1100 is designed to work with the company's Vocalyst service. Free for 12 months with the purchase of the Savor M1100 (otherwise $3 per month or $25 per year), Vocalyst lets you listen to text messages, e-mail, and tweets. It also allows you to record messages and tweets as audio files. BlueAnt, Moshi, Plantronics, and other companies also integrate their products with the Bing 411 information service.

Bluetooth-Headset Buying Tips

The last thing you want is to buy a Bluetooth headset and discover that it's a bad match. Then it ends up buried in your bag or in your glove box, unused. To avoid that scenario, keep these tips in mind as you shop around.

Factor in your environment: If you talk on your cell phone a lot in your car or on public transportation, or in other potentially noisy surroundings, look for a headset with a good reputation for noise cancellation. (This aspect does not apply to stereo headphones, as you should not wear a set of headphones, which cover both ears, while driving.)

Try different designs: Earhook or earbud? It's hard to know what will feel comfortable until you try both types. If you wear glasses, remember that using an earhook or stereo headphones can be a real pain--your glasses and headset/headphones compete for space in the same spot! Ask friends and colleagues if you can try wearing the models they own. (For hygienic reasons, and as a courtesy, you should use new ear covers, so that your friends won't be offended when you wedge their headsets into your ear canal with reckless abandon.)

Determine your usage habits: If you're the type of person who will pop a headset on and off a bazillion times a day, consider a hookless headset that goes straight into your ear--no over-the-ear jockeying or two hands required. On the flip side, if you plan to leave a headset in your ear for extended periods of time, think about whether an earhook headset would be more your style. The design might make the fit more secure.

Figure out your style and preferences: A shiny silver Bluetooth headset may look appealing in its fancy packaging on the store shelf, but how will you feel when you wear it? Visualize the contraption on your ear. Remember that whatever headset you choose, it's visible, and like eyeglasses, it will be part of your face. If you're considering going the stereo-headphone route, keep in mind that these products are not usually discreet.

Ask around for feedback: While you're taking your friends' headsets out for a spin, ask them how happy they are with the performance. How good is the call quality? Can you depend on it for business calls? How frequently do people on the other end complain about voice distortion or annoying background noise? Do the advertised talk and standby times live up to the maker's claims? After a day in the office with the headset stuck to your ear, do you feel any soreness? If you are an audiophile, the stereo experience may not be up to your standards. Ask like-minded music fiends for their recommendations (and glean what you can from user reviews).

Confirm compatibility: Make sure that the headset you plan to buy will support the cell phone you own; some Bluetooth headsets do not support all Bluetooth phones. Many headset manufacturers provide a compatibility list on their Web sites, where you can search for your phone's make and model.

Be prepared for a no-return policy: Depending on where you buy, you may not be able to get a refund for a headset you don't want. Whether it's an online store or a brick-and-mortar outfit, the seller you buy from might not accept returns of opened headsets for sanitary reasons. Find out what the restrictions are before you commit.

Bluetooth-Speakerphone Buying Tips

First of all, you need to accept--these days, anyway--that your conversations over a car kit will sound exactly how they typically would on any speakerphone. Factor in varying levels of interference and noise inside and/or outside the car, and decide whether you can live with that.

To buy or not to buy: Determine whether your hours in the car on a daily basis would warrant a speakerphone purchase. Perhaps you can make do with a Bluetooth headset--unless your ears tend to get sore.

Follow the letter of the law: If you are interested in a windshield-mounted speakerphone, such as a solar-powered unit, find out whether it’s legal in your state to drive with something attached to your windshield. (Check the Web site of your state’s motor vehicles department or highway patrol.) Windshield-mounted devices should have an alternative installation option--they should be able to attach to your dashboard or sit on it. But remember that dashboards vary in texture and shape from vehicle to vehicle, so your dashboard may not be flat enough to accommodate a windshield-oriented device.

Figure out if portability is a priority: You might want to be able to move the speakerphone several times a day, such as from car to desk or from one vehicle to another on weekends. If so, select a model that doesn’t require more than a couple of seconds of positioning. You may want to avoid, for example, an installation scenario where you must first attach a clip to the visor, then align the unit’s magnetic plates, and then lock the speakerphone into place. (Undo. Repeat. And so on.)

Consider your parking locations: If you park your car in a garage or in a secure parking lot, you probably don’t have to worry about leaving your device attached to a visor or on your windshield. In that case, you can opt for a unit that can clamp tightly onto your visor--since removing a speakerphone from a tight position multiple times a day can be a pain.

Be aware of flashing lights: The great thing about headsets is that they can blink all they want, and the wearer won’t notice the lights while the doodads are on the ears. Many car kits, though, sport blinking lights. At night especially, that blinking can make them extremely distracting--enough to make you want to switch them off. If a constant blink will drive you demented, shop around for a unit that lacks lights or keeps any illumination to a minimum. The Jabra SP700, for example, offers a night-driving mode, in which you can switch off the lights entirely.

Use natural resources, if you can: Some Bluetooth speakerphones are solar-powered, meaning that they can recharge simply by having their solar panels exposed to sunlight regularly--no AC adapter or USB charger required. (Note: You do need to charge the unit when you use it for the first time.) This is great if you live in an area where the rays are guaranteed. If you don’t, then such a device loses its appeal.

Buy no more than you need: Some speakerphones let you stream music from your phone and broadcast your calls through your car’s stereo system. Such features might sound appealing, but do you really want to pay for them? (The listening experience isn’t anything to get excited about, after all.)

Take a test drive: If a friend or colleague already has an in-car Bluetooth speakerphone, go out for a jaunt just to see (and hear) the product in action. If possible, head out at night so that you can witness the flashing lights (if any).

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