Bluetooth stereo headphones take a number of different -- and sometimes quite interesting -- form factors and are meant primarily for use on the go. In-ear headsets (earbuds) need an external module for the electronics, which can be hung around the neck lanyard-style or clipped to your clothing. Though the electronics module and headphones ship together, these can typically accommodate any set of earbuds. Some are designed only for listening to audio, though others have a microphone built into the Bluetooth module for use with a cell phone. Jabra, Sony Ericsson and Motorola all offer this type of Bluetooth headphones, but the Plantronics BackBeat 903+ (*Est. $55), an upgraded version of the discontinued BackBeat 903, gets the most recommendations -- at least if you want to use them for music.
The Plantronics BackBeat 903+ connects its two ear buds via a sporty, behind-the-ear wireless headset. It's supposed to be one-size-fits-all, but there are reports of the unit slipping off people's ears. Plantronics intentionally designed the earbuds to allow a small amount of outside noise to seep in to make it safer to use the headphones while walking; as such, there are no noise cancellation features to speak of. The controls situated on the earpieces take full advantage of Bluetooth 2.1's AVRCP features, which allow you to navigate musical tracks with the touch of a button. Standard calling options, like Answer and Reject, are also available, as is a useful "OpenMic" mode that pumps in sounds from your surroundings when music is paused, so there's no need to remove the headphones while talking to someone face-to-face. The headphones were redesigned to meld the earbud with the outer part of the headset to prevent sweat from dripping into the seam lines.
Nick Broughall of Gizmodo Australia says audiophiles should probably shy away from Bluetooth headsets, but if you're fine with their limitations, the BackBeat 903+ is one of the best options around. "Audio quality is fantastic -- there's really good range in both the low and high ranges, with the mid range performing well too," he writes. Other reviewers aren't quite as enthusiastic, but most agree that the headset's music performance is top-notch for a Bluetooth set. Reviews are more mixed for use as a cell phone headset, however. The microphone is located in the left earbud, and critics say call quality suffers as a result. "Everyone we spoke to while connected with the 903 complained about the volume and clarity of our voice during calls," says Joseph Hanlon at CNET (Australia). "We could hear them fine, but, when it comes to phone calls, you do need both elements to work really well." Nicole Lee at the U.S. version of CNET reports similar problems. "Callers said we sounded much softer than usual, and static seemed more pronounced." Despite this, the BackBeat 903+ lands a spot on CNET's list of top portable wireless headphones.
The LG HBS-700 (*Est. $50) also lands a spot on CNET's list, and PCMag.com identifies it as one of the top 10 Bluetooth sets available, making it the only Bluetooth headphone singled out for praise from both sites. It features an unusual design; rather than wearing it around your head, you place the flexible band around your neck. The earbuds at the ends are attached to wires and fit firmly into your ears. Magnets attached to the earbuds and the band keep the ear pieces from unfurling when they are not in use. As unconventional as the design is, critics say it works great. "The LG HBS-700 is one of the most comfortable stereo Bluetooth headsets we've ever tried," writes Nicole Lee of CNET. The headphones vibrate to inform users of incoming calls.
The HBS-700 performs well for all uses, critics say. The neck band includes a full set of the usual call and AVRCP musical controls, and reviewers say musical performance is very good, if not great overall; both Lee and Jamie Lendino at PCMag.com say the bass lacks punch, and Lendino says "Ready to Start" by the Arcade Fire "sounded a little muddier than on comparable headsets."
Incoming call quality is also good, critics say, with clear voices and good sound volume, although it is occasionally plagued by the interference hisses and crackles common to all Bluetooth headphones. CNET's Lee "thought the voice quality was slightly harsh and digitized," a complaint that carried over to outgoing speech, "but in the end, they could still hear us loud and clear for the most part." User reviews mention no such problems, however. Another positive that's simultaneously a negative: a multipoint mode allows you to sync the headset with two devices at once, but you can't listen to music while using that feature. On the plus side, critics say the HBS-700 also offers a longer battery life than most Bluetooth headphones.
The Sennheiser MM 450 (*Est. $450) has on-ear headphones that reviewers report to be comfortable but hot, as well as options to use a 3.5 mm port for wired sound and a Talk Through feature that works like the BackBeat 903+'s OpenMic. Sennheiser's NoiseGard technology does a good job of canceling out background noise, critics say, although Pocket-Lint.com's Chris Hall notes that "When NoiseGard is working, it can cause a slight imbalance in your ears." Sound quality is stellar; Hall and PC World (Australia)'s Campbell Simpson didn't note any loss of quality between the Bluetooth and the wired connection, which is quite an achievement, and both say music sounds "great." Call quality is also very good. The one downside noted is the MM 450's tendency to devour battery life, especially when both Bluetooth and NoiseGard are active. In the end reviewers say the headphones are worth the steep $450 price tag, but that cost may scare away those who aren't audiophiles.
Jabra makes the Halo (*Est. $130), which may appeal to those who prefer a more conventional look. The Halo features a simple, over-the-ear design. Chris Hall at Pocket-Lint.com says that the Halo produces good, bassy sound, though he notes that the design of the Halo means its audio quality can't compare to can-style headphones and "sound leakage is a bit of a problem as you turn the volume up." He appreciates the light nature of the Halo, saying it allows users to wear the headset for hours while remaining comfortable, and says the phone handles calls better than many other Bluetooth sets thanks to Jabra's Noise Blackout technology, which makes your voice more intelligible during outgoing calls. "In practice it works pretty well, especially considering that you don't have a mic poking out across your face," Hall writes.
The Samsung Modus HM6450 (*Est. $450) earns PCMag.com's Editors' Choice award for best stereo Bluetooth headphones. The body clips to the front of your shirt, and slipping the earbuds into your ears shouldn't be a problem, thanks to their 18-inches wires. A wireless mono headpiece is also available. Lendino says that incoming call quality is excellent, but his voice on outgoing calls is merely "Okay." He calls music "totally fine for casual listening," with "decent midbass punch and a slight muffled sound to the treble" and underperforming high end sound. He enjoys the included FreeSync feature, which allows owners of Android smartphones to take advantage of a text-to-speech function to receive their texts and emails in audio form. Lendino cites FreeSync and the Modus HM6450's overall usefulness as a stereo headset as the reasons for giving the model an Editors' Choice nod.