Gifts Gadgets & Gizmos
Part 1 of a 3 (or maybe more) Part Series
It's that time of year again when everyone is shopping for that just right gift or accessory for the tech enthusiast on their holiday shopping list. Now while it is beyond me why anyone would wait several months for a cool gadget that was on the shelf today, apparently, there are others among you who consider things like food and clothing a priority, or at least that's what I've been told.
In deference to those of you who insist on wearing shoes without holes, eating lunch on a regular basis and are in need of a special occasion to buy your technology, we give you, The Gift, Gadget and Gizmo Guide, Part 1, with suggestions for Bluetooth hands free devices.
A Word of Introduction About Bluetooth Headsets
Bluetooth headsets have been out for several years and have improved greatly in that time in design, utility and usable time (battery life between charges). Manufacturers spew out specs and features touting everything from longest talk time to coolest fashion. All well and good, but like any other tool, either for business or personal use, it all comes down to utility.
In the case of Bluetooth headsets, our rating criteria are based on the 4 C's: Clarity, Comfort, Controls and Continuous usability (Battery Life). Anything beyond that, such as fashion and design or additional convenience features are just a bonus. If it doesn't do the job, I don't care how nice it looks, what colors it comes in or how fast it charges.
Just remember, ultimately what you're going to do is...
Stick it in your ear
Noise reducing Bluetooth headsets abound. You can find them ranging in price from about $39 to almost $200. The quality and performance varies tremendously, especially in the area of noise reduction, and not necessarily in direct proportion to the price. This article will focus on those products specifically designed for noise reduction and business class usage. We couldn't possibly test all of the products available but we offer 6 selections (in no particular order) that we feel offer the user both good performance and distinctive features.
Jabra has been making wired and wireless headsets for years. They are one of the better known and respected manufacturers in this arena. They recently sent us their T5010 to test and, as would be expected, it did not disappoint.
The key design element of the T5010 is the sliding boom microphone. This feature allows you to answer and end calls and incorporates wind noise reduction technology to improve clarity.
Another nice feature for business or personal use is the dual alert system. It has both a visual light and vibrating alert for those circumstances that require silent usage (I'm still not sure how I'm supposed to see a light flashing on my ear, but that's another issue).
Other features include multi-device capability; so you can use it with 2 separate Bluetooth devices, and quick recharge capability from either an A/C charger or USB port.
We found the T5010's sliding boom very convenient to use. Sound and clarity were good and noise reduction was adequate to good. Calls can be answered and ended either by sliding the boom or with the push of a button. This can be especially handy on a cold day with gloves on.
Another nice feature is the separate on/off/pairing button. In the majority of cases we've found that a separate power button is much quicker and more reliable than headsets that require pushing a button differing lengths of time to achieve different results. If you are not in excessively noisy environments and like the ease of a simple sliding boom microphone, this is a good choice.
The Jabra T5010 has a talk time of up to 10 hours and standby time of up to 300 hours. At 20 grams with a flexible ear loop and external ear speaker, it is comfortable and easy to use. The T5010 retails for $79.99
Plantronics Voyager 520
Another veteran of the headset world, Plantronics also offers numerous solutions for the mobile warrior. We selected the Voyager 520 for review because of one of its key design elements, the one button control system. With one simple button you can answer, hang up or adjust the volume.
The sound quality is excellent and noise reduction is very good. This model uses a simple windscreen to help filter wind noise along with its noise-cancelling microphone, which is quite effective.
The Voyager 520 also uses a swivel ear loop so that changing from right ear to left ear doesn't require removing and replacing the loop. Also effortless and wonderful on cold days when you're wearing gloves. This is probably the quickest, easiest and simplest configuration we tested for moving the headset from one ear to the other. I really like simple.
The 520 is also multipoint capable (you can use it with more than one device at a time) and at 16 grams, it is one of the lighter and more comfortable headsets we tested.
The Plantronics Voyager 520 has a talk time of 8 hours and standby of 180 hours. It retails for $99.95
This is without question one of the best in noise reduction. The Jawbone, from Aliph , is designed to be not only an effective noise reduction tool, but also somewhat of a design statement.
The earpiece uses proprietary Noise Shield technology to eliminate background noise and adapt to your environment. This is coupled with directional microphones and a voice activity sensor that identifies when you are speaking and thereby further eliminates non-speech related noise. The result is a headset that can be used in almost any condition with superior results.
Aliph states that the Jawbone can be paired with multiple devices but with some limitations. Most notably that the device with the strongest Bluetooth signal will attach in a primary mode and switching to a second device at the same time may be problematic.
The distinctive design of the Jawbone speaks for itself (the pun was unavoidable). It is unmistakable in its modern industrial look and even comes in 3 colors; silver, black and red. It comes with separate ear loops for the right and left ear and 4 ear buds.
This is actually the only real drawback I found with the device. Removing a ‘right ear' ear loop and replacing it with a different ‘left ear' ear loop is somewhat tedious and not recommended while on the go.
If you have sensitive ears and need to switch often from one ear to the other this could be a deal breaker. Otherwise, it is one of the best noise cancelling headsets we tested.
The Jawbone weighs (with ear loop) a reasonable 19 grams and retails for $119.
This is a novel new entry from a company called SoundID . The principals at SoundID have backgrounds in the areas of hearing aids and acoustics and they put the knowledge to good use.
At 11 grams the SM100 is the lightest (by 1 gram) of all the headsets we tested. It uses a clever, patent pending Ear Tip with 3 different size internal loops to fit most ears.
It can also accept custom molded earpieces for additional comfort and fit. With a quick, simple twist, the Ear Tip rotates so that the headset can be used in either ear. The mounting feels secure in your ear and works well for normal activities. The headset is quite small and unobtrusive and can be worn comfortably for extended periods of time.
The SM100 has three (3) operational sound modes; Phone, Environmental and One2One (intercom). A bit of explanation is required here. The phone mode has its own adjustments, which we'll address in a moment, but what make this headset truly unique are its other 2 capabilities.
The Environmental mode kicks in when the phone is not in use. This uses the incorporated microphone technology to allow the outside sounds to be passed through to your ear, effectively eliminating the ‘plugged' feeling you get with an earpiece blocking one ear and half your sound. It takes a little getting used to and can be adjusted, but you soon ignore the technology and just enjoy the ability to clearly hear what's going on around you.
The One2One mode is essentially an intercom. You can switch to this mode to communicate with another SM100 that is within about 30' of yours. A nice touch in the yard, on the golf course or even around the house. Kudos for creativity and application of the technology. Sort of ‘thinking outside the ear'.
The Phone mode does a nice job of delivering good quality sound and eliminating background noise. Using a system combining dual microphones and sophisticated noise compensating algorithms the SM100 is a top contender in noise cancelling headsets.
The Sound ID SM100 has a talk time of about 8 hours and standby time of 72 hours (24 hours if used in environmental mode). The SM100 is one of the more expensive headsets at $129 but offers features not found in any other Bluetooth headset we're aware of on the market today.
Sony Ericsson HBH-610
The Sony Ericsson HBH-610 is one of the longer headsets that we tested at just less than 3" long. This is the functional equivalent of an extended boom. It is also one of the heaviest at 20 grams, but because the weight is distributed over the longer frame, it is quite well balanced and comfortable.
The headset incorporates both DSP (digital sound processing) technology and an interesting ‘fast automatic volume adjustment'.
Essentially, when the earpiece picks up a significant increase in the ambient noise, it automatically adjusts the volume to compensate. This happens in less than a second and can be quite helpful when moving from car to sidewalk to train or restaurant. I don't know about you, but I spend enough time reaching up to earpieces to raise or lower the volume as the environment changes to get a case of
tennis earpiece elbow.
The HBH-610 also incorporates a swivel earloop to make it easy to switch from one ear to the other. Again, this is a big plus for people who need to wear a headset for many hours at a time or have senstive ears.
The headset worked well in all our test environments and offers a reasonable 6 hours of talk time and 300 hours of standby. The Sony Ericsson HBH-610 retails for $99.
Motorola MotoPure H12
A late entry to our little group is the just released Motorola MotoPure H12 . This is a well thought out, ultra light (12 grams) headset that has excellent noise cancellation capabilities as well as simple to use controls.
The headset is small (about 1 5/8" long) yet has control buttons for power, answer/disconnect and volume that are well placed and large enough for people with fingers bigger than a 3 year olds to operate easily.
In particular, I like the fact that there is a separate on/off switch. It seems much more convenient than pressing an answer/disconnect button and waiting for the right color light to start blinking. On, off, simple. I like simple (I think I mentioned that before).
Speaking of simple, Motorola even put some extra effort into its charging system. The small base unit incorporates a small magnet to secure the headset and facilitate charging. This may not seem like much, but it's one of those little time savers that you want to bless the designers for when you're in a hurry to grab it and leave or just want to drop it quickly on the charger and get back to work. No fussing with connectors or cables. Simple. Nice.
The H12 uses a dual microphone system and Motorola's CrystalTalk technology to suppress noise by separating the user's voice from the surrounding clamor. There is a lot of technology behind this seemingly simple earpiece and it all combines to do an excellent job. It has quickly become a favorite here.
The small size and contoured earpieces allow just enough ambient sound to filter in to eliminate that ‘plugged' feeling while keeping conversation volumes clear.
Even those of us with sensitive ears, who often have to switch ears or stop using earpieces when they become too uncomfortable, will find the H12 well balanced and light enough to allow prolonged usage.
The MotoPure H12 delivers 5.5hours of talk time and about 200 hours of standby and retails for $119.
Summary - Can you hear me now??
All the earpieces we tested performed well in comparison to non- noise reduction pieces. All passed our 4 C's criteria (Clarity, Comfort, Controls and Continuous usability). The other differences were what made these items distinguish themselves. Unfortunately, you can't try on Bluetooth headsets the way you try on shoes.
The best advice is to consider your requirements as far as usage and operating conditions, look at the specifications and make a point of at least trying the device for fit and comfort at your local dealer. If the last is not a possibility, just use common sense. You know your ears better than anyone else. For a quick summary we've attached a grid with the important bullets.