When I talk on an in-car Bluetooth speakerphone, the people at the other end almost always complain that they can tell my disembodied voice is coming through a speakerphone. Whether the unit is perched on my dashboard or attached to my visor, folks pick up some interference and say that my voice sounds distant. And, of course, it is: Compared with a headset microphone, which sits close to the user’s mouth, a car unit’s mic is much farther away.
The $100 (as of 9/4/09) Contour Design SurfaceSound Compact attempts to tackle that issue with a unique design: Its microphone is a rotating arm, an adjustable stick at the end of the unit. To turn on the SurfaceSound, you lift the microphone arm–no pushing down on a power button required. You can move the arm farther out and thus closer to your mouth, which narrows the distance between your voice and the mic while you’re driving. Does the optimized mic position make a difference in overall audio experience, compared with other speakerphones we’ve tested? Yes–almost all of the time.
In my tests, the call quality of the SurfaceSound slightly surpassed that of other models on our Bluetooth speakerphone chart. Call recipients still said that my voice definitely sounded like it was coming from a speakerphone, but the interference was minimal and the sound was less hollow. At times my voice sounded robotic or a bit muffled, but the other parties could hear me, no problem. The SurfaceSound pushed noise, such as music or traffic, well into the background. But when I made a couple of calls with my kids in the back, the screeching from those wailing banshees got picked up. (I was not surprised.) Voices coming into my car through the large flat-panel speaker often sounded so-so, a little flat.
The unit comes with a pre-affixed clip that attached securely to my visor. Apart from the rotating mic arm, the SurfaceSound Compact has two other controls: the main call button and the volume controls. The buttons are on the side of the speakerphone–they are not visible from the front–but after a bit of fumbling around, I got the hang of their precise locations. The front of the unit does sport illuminated indicators for the call button and volume, and these visuals worked well when I was at a stop light and I could glance at them. With my eyes on the road, however, I had to feel around at the side of the unit.
The buttons are slightly narrower than my fingertips, too; I wouldn’t complain if the controls were wider. The buttons double up in functions, and that worked fine: For example, to redial the last number, you push the volume-up button for about 3 seconds.
The SurfaceSound’s flashing blue lights bugged me at night. While the unit is on but not in use, a blue light flashes intermittently. Plus, whenever you press the volume controls or the call button, they illuminate or they emit another lightning-fast flash. Too distracting for my taste.
The $100 price tag is the same as what you’ll find on many other car speakerphones on our chart; but in the case of the SurfaceSound, that price will buy mostly reliable audio quality, reasonably sized buttons, and the adjustable microphone. For lengthy calls at night, though, good luck tuning out the flashing lights.