The Buzz on Bluetooth: The Top Mono and Stereo Headsets, and Car Kits Too
By Aoife M. McEvoy
We’ve talked people’s ears off–colleagues, relatives, friends, and even strangers around town (to make reservations, for instance)–all for a good cause. We wanted to find the best Bluetooth headsets and car units in the land.
Equipped with Bluetooth-enabled cell phones, we tested three product types: monaural (or “mono”) headsets, which typically sport a single base unit that you place in one ear; stereo headsets, which come packaged as a pair of earbuds or headphones that you wear on both ears for music and calls; and speakerphones for your car, which are usually designed to attach to the sun visor or elsewhere inside (the dash or windshield, for example).
Good Calls, Bad Calls
Following hours and hours of blathering–and some complaints about our ears feeling sore or pinched after hours of wearing things–we can safely say that audio quality on Bluetooth has improved over the past couple of years. However, the improvements are hard to quantify, and we still found weaknesses. In our tests, callers on the other end of the line regularly griped about our voices sounding muffled, tinny, or just plain distorted. Other times, callers became frustrated with pronounced levels of static during conversations–static that promptly disappeared once we switched from the headset back to the handset.
Our tests weren’t like that all the time, though. Some folks had no idea that I was talking on a headset while donning the $200 Plantronics Voyager Pro UC, for instance. Yes, call quality was that clear. And we were seriously impressed with how most of the headsets we tested reduce or eliminate background noise. The $130 Jawbone Era (our Best Buy on the mono headset chart) and the $140 Jawbone Icon HD (plus its Nerd accessory) both excel at nixing noise.
The Icon HD’s Nerd USB adapter is one of the more useful evolutions we’ve seen among Bluetooth devices. The Nerd makes it easy to connect the headset to your computer, so you can make Voice-over-IP calls and stream audio on your PC or Mac, for example, while still handling your cell phone calls.
Features Galore, Products That Do More
Over time, Bluetooth headset and speakerphone makers have expanded their products to deliver more than just call management. Some examples: After powering up one of these Bluetooth doodads, you can expect voice announcements indicating the battery status and the remaining talk time. Many products offer automatic synchronization with your contacts list and subsequent address book updates. And some Plantronics products, including the $200 Voyager Pro UC, work with Vocalyst, a third-party service. You’re entitled to a free one-year trial of Vocalyst’s SMS, email, information-retrieval options, and more. You can listen to messages and reply by dictating, hear weather and sports, and even post updates to Facebook and Twitter, using your voice.
Most of the products we’ve tested for our charts let you stream audio; if your vehicle lacks GPS functionality, for instance, listening to directions through a headset or an in-car unit (as opposed to a cell phone’s chintzy speakerphone) can be mighty convenient.
Other products tie in nicely with their respective smartphone apps. For example, our top pick among stereo Bluetooth headsets, the $100 Samsung Modus 6450, lets you take advantage of the company’s Samsung FreeSync app for Android. You can use the app to hear new text messages and email read aloud to you (along with the senders’ names), access support for multiple languages, and keep tabs on the 6450‘s juice, thanks to the battery-status indicator on your phone’s screen. You can also tweak headset controls and stereo settings.
In the case of car speakerphones, dialing by voice has been enhanced considerably in that you can avoid touching multiple buttons to initiate phone calls. The $129 Jabra Freeway (our Best Buy) houses a dedicated voice-command button, which you tap once to enter its “listening” mode. From there, you can spout various phrases, such as “Redial” or “Phone commands, call Laura office,” and it will obey.
Plus, instead of making you tap buttons to pick up or reject incoming calls, the Freeway, like other headsets and car kits, prompts you to say “Answer” or “Ignore.” Of course, while you’re driving, the more hands-free features like this, the better.