Bluetooth headsets: the original wearable technology
Bluetooth headsets allow for almost hands-free operation of your cellphone. Bluetooth is a short-range wireless technology and while most Bluetooth headsets have a single earpiece, a few have two, allowing the wireless streaming of stereo music from your phone. Users can toggle between music playback and phone calls, and most of the headsets are smart enough to automatically mute the music when a call comes in. With many states now banning the use of hand-held cellphones while driving, these headsets are one way to comply. A high-quality Bluetooth headset model costs around $80.
What was once advanced technology in Bluetooth headsets has become mainstream. All of the headsets in this report have text-to-speech capabilities and are Advanced Audio Distribution Profile-enabled (A2DP) for streaming audio. Standard features include the ability to connect to two cellphones simultaneously and a visual battery meter display on smartphone screens, and many headsets now recognize voice commands. As part of the burgeoning wearables category of technology, Bluetooth headsets fall into two camps: professional models in which comfort trumps style and more casual models in which design is as important as functionality.
If you're looking for Bluetooth headphones for an MP3 player and don't need a microphone, Bluetooth headphones designed specifically for music players are covered in our report on wireless headphones.
We studied evaluations of Bluetooth headsets from both experts and users, and CNET has the most expansive collection of reviews. Editors test new headsets as they're released, although a discontinued model is occasionally spotted in their roundups. While PCMag.com's coverage isn't nearly as extensive, editors there do a great job of testing these units and comparing models. Reviews from PC World are thorough and allow for comparison between different headsets. User feedback at Amazon highlights the pros and cons of various models, as well as durability and comfort issues over time. As the Bluetooth headset field has been relatively quiet for awhile, we've left in older reviews as these, and the headset models they examine, are still relevant.
Best Bluetooth Headsets
Jawbone dominates the Bluetooth headset space
Aliph Jawbone headsets dominate the over-the-ear Bluetooth category with two models that have been around for several years and one brand-new model. All three are highly reviewed for their looks as well as their functionality.
Confusingly called the same name as a previous model, the Aliph Jawbone Era (2014) (Est. $100) has significant differences to its predecessor, the original Era (2011), which is our best reviewed cheap headset.
The new Jawbone Era is 42 percent smaller than the already tiny original Era, coming in at just 1.83 inches long and 0.5 inches wide -- basically the same size as a stick of gum. It weighs less than a quarter of an ounce, making it the smallest, lightest and most discreet Bluetooth headset on the market. And just in case people do catch a glimpse of you wearing it, you have a choice of four stylish colors -- black, red, bronze and silver -- in two different finishes. Reviewers state the new Era looks, more than ever, like a piece of avant-garde jewelry.
While other Bluetooth headsets, such as the Plantronics Voyager Legend, the Jabra Supreme and the Jawbone Icon and original Era use voice-recognition commands, the new Era takes this one step further by linking to the voice technology of the smartphone. Users have the power of Siri on the iPhone and Google Now on Android devices to vocally access all the commands available there.
Jawbone continues to develop its NoiseAssassin software by including version 4.0 in the Era (2014) model, with well-reviewed success. However, the call quality of the new Jawbone Era draws mixed reviews. Reviewers are in agreement that the quality isn't up to the excellent standards of professional headsets such as that of the Plantronics Voyager Legend; however, there's some disagreement as to whether there's any improvement over the original Era. Either way, the call quality is still very good and "solid" enough to fool people into thinking you're not using a headset. Another difference is that the accelerometer from the original Era, which allows for gesture controls, has been removed from this version.
Cheap Bluetooth Headsets
Not to be confused with the Jawbone Era (2014) (Est. $100), the original Aliph Jawbone Era (2011) (Est. $60) has innovative technology that makes it fun and functional. Its motion-sensing software and built-in accelerometer combine to recognize when the headset is intentionally shaken or tapped, and to associate commands -- such as answer or end the call -- with these actions. Users can add functionality by downloading apps into the headset's computer chip from the Aliph MyTalk website. Reviewers say the original Jawbone Era moves beyond stylish to avant-garde, calling it "the best-designed" headset and "like a piece of jewelry." Even though the Era is extremely small, users can select models with different surfaces, such as a quilted appearance or the look of cashmere wool, and in a variety of colors. The sound quality of the Era is very good, though not quite up to the standard of the more professional Plantronics Voyager models.
The Aliph Jawbone Icon (Est. $40) is the predecessor of the Jawbone Era, using the same highly customizable software and unique military-grade NoiseAssassin system. The Icon blocks out noise by touching your cheek and following the vibration of your jaw to transmit your voice. Callers' voices sound clear and natural. However, the lack of a dedicated volume button on the Aliph Jawbone Icon draws critique from users and experts, who claim that the auto-adjust volume doesn't always do the job. Icon users can adjust its volume from their smartphones, but many would prefer a dedicated button on the headset.
Finally, the BlueAnt Q2 (Est. $40) also gets solid marks for sound quality, although reviewers say it's not quite up to par with the Jawbone models. In tests at PCMag.com, the Q2's Wind Armor technology performs very well in strong wind conditions. Its multifunction button and volume buttons receive mixed reviews in both professional and owner reports. Some appreciate the separate volume up/down controls, but others find the buttons too small to use comfortably. Q2, like the Jawbone headsets, is sleek and cool-looking, sporting a matte black finish with a mesh overlay. However, users say the mesh attracts dust, lint and small bits of debris.
Through a downloadable Android application, the BlueAnt Q2 has an extensive menu of voice recognition commands, including text-to-speech for all smartphones. This is not as extensive, however, as the MyTalk app of the Jawbone models.
Boom-style Bluetooth headsets
The boom-style Bluetooth headsets in this category are not necessarily unsightly, they're just larger and more conspicuous than their over-the-ear counterparts -- people will know you're wearing them (think: call center headsets). However, if you're looking for all-day comfort, say, at work, and excellent sound quality, these models will suit you.
The Plantronics Voyager Legend (Est. $70) continues the high-quality legacy of its Voyager Pro predecessors, aimed at business professionals and others who wear headsets for extended periods of time. Its design, however, has moved away from the "retro-marketeer" look of the Voyager Pro series and is now quite sleek and streamlined, with a black, silicone body and a silver metal microphone on the boom that rests on your cheek. The Legend's sound quality is excellent, beating out that of the Jawbone Era and Icon, with crisp, natural-sounding voices. In tests, however, the wind resistance of the Jawbone models wins out over that of the Legend. The Voyager Legend's battery life is respectable at 7 hours, compared to just 4 hours for the new Jawbone Era (2014). The control buttons are well-placed on the headset, with a separate volume button for easy access. Like the Jawbone Era and Icon, the Legend responds to voice commands.
A worthy runner up in this boom-style Bluetooth headset category is the Jabra Supreme (Est. $80). This is a slightly older model with impressive sound quality and noise cancellation abilities. The Jabra Supreme is bulkier than the Plantronics Voyager Legend, and some reviewers find it to be slightly uncomfortable and unsecure to wear, though it never actually fell off their ears. At the heart of the Supreme are strong voice recognition capabilities, allowing you to control start-up pairing, various voice-dialing options and more. The Jabra Supreme UC model is the same as the Supreme but comes with a micro USB Bluetooth adapter for use with a PC for Skype calls.
Bluetooth stereo headsets
If you're looking for a Bluetooth stereo headset for music listening, consider the Plantronics BackBeat Go (Est. $45). This sleek, unobtrusive model is actually just a pair of connected earbuds. The Backbeat Go offers great call quality, is simple to use and pairs seamlessly with a phone. When it comes to music quality, however, most Bluetooth stereo headsets come up short and the BackBeat Go is no exception; however, PCMag.com calls the BackBeat Go "… the best stereo Bluetooth headset we've ever used for phone calls." If you're looking simply to listen to music wirelessly and don't need a headset for phone calls, check out our wireless headphones report.