Bluetooth headsets: the original wearable technology
Bluetooth headsets allow for
almost hands-free operation of your cellphone. With many
states now banning the use of hand-held cellphones while driving, these
headsets offer a way to chat and drive legally at the same time. They also come
in handy at work or anywhere else you want to have both hands free while
carrying on a conversation.
Bluetooth headset can cost $100 or more. However, there are also inexpensive
models available for less than that -- and sometimes much less -- that provide
decent voice quality but fewer features. Some of these are new, basic headsets,
while others are older models that are still on the market.
That said, these days, even
inexpensive Bluetooth headsets often include features that were found only on
the highest end models not very long ago. For example, all the headsets in this
report can be operated by voice commands as well as with physical controls.
Most of them also offer multipoint pairing, enabling them to connect to
two cellphones simultaneously.
However, you'll still need to pay extra for features like Advanced Audio Distribution
Profile-enabled (A2DP), which enables your headset to double as a speaker for
streaming audio. With this feature, you 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.
However, the audio quality of a Bluetooth headset, while still quite good for
causal listening, can't match that of a set of headphones designed specifically
for music. If you want top-notch audio quality and
don't need a microphone, consult our report on wireless headphones.
Plantronics dominates the Bluetooth headset space
Until recently, there were
two big players in the Bluetooth headset field: Aliph Jawbone and Plantronics.
Two years ago, the then newly redesigned (Est. $50) was our overall top pick
among Bluetooth headsets. Recently, however, availability has become limited.
The Era can still be bought through the manufacturer's Jawbone store, but only
in basic black, not the array of snazzy colors that were once a major selling
point of this model. Most other retail sites either don't carry the Era at all,
or offer models that are older still. You can still pick up a latest generation
Era from a third-party seller on Amazon.com, but it's not clear how much longer
that will remain the case.
With that as a
backdrop, Plantronics has become the one big name in Bluetooth headsets. But
that's not a negative; the company offers over a dozen models to choose from,
and its offerings earn consistently strong reviews from tech-related websites.
Plantronic headset overall, according to reviews, is the (Est. $130). It's the top pick
in a detailed comparison test at TheWirecutter.com, and it's among the
highest-rated models at both CNET and PCMag.com. All sources agree that this
headset delivers top-notch call quality, transmitting voices clearly and
blocking out background noise. The only time it falters is when making calls
from a moving car, where it has difficulty compensating for wind noise.
Most reviewers also
say this headset is very comfortable to wear. It's incredibly small and light
– just over 2.5 inches long, and a little under a third of an ounce.
However, because its earbud sits outside the entrance to the ear, it's a little
harder to position properly than models that tuck inside the ear, such as the
Experts and users
find the Voyager Edge very easy to use. Both its physical controls and its
voice commands are intuitive, and it pairs smoothly – even with two devices
at once. Sources disagree about its Bluetooth range. In tests at PCMag.com,
voice transmission became iffy at 15 feet and cut out entirely at 25 feet, but
TheWirecutter.com found it maintained a stable connection up to 50 feet away
for voice calls and an impressive 87 feet away for streaming music via A2DP.
The Edge's battery is good for about 6 hours of talk time or 7 days on standby
– which is good, but not the best we've seen. However, the headset comes
with a charging case that can give you up to 10 additional hours of talk time
before you need to find an outlet.
One small point of
concern is a fairly large disconnect between user reviews at certain sites --
around a half point difference between feedback at Amazon.com and BestBuy.com,
for example. Looking at Amazon.com, however, reveals that a decent number of
the lower ratings there are vendor related as some users report receiving grey
market versions (models designed to be sold outside of the U.S.) from certain
Marketplace sellers. At BestBuy.com, that issue does not crop up, and feedback
is strong -- 4.2 stars based on more than 1,150 reviews.
Cheap Bluetooth headsets that deliver
performance and value
While the best
Bluetooth headsets deliver convenience, comfort, features and performance, if you
can accept some mostly modest tradeoffs, you can save a bit of cash and find a
good performing alternative at a more modest price.
An older Plantronics model, the (Est. $70) fares nearly as well in professional
tests as the Voyager Edge, and is even more popular with users. It has most of
the same features as the Edge, including voice commands, A2DP, and multipoint
pairing. But at 0.6 ounces, the Legend is significantly larger than the Edge
and not nearly as sleek-looking. While the Edge holds itself in place with a
tiny loop that tucks under the cartilage of the ear, the Legend has an
old-school connector that hooks over and around the entire ear, so it's much
more noticeable when worn. However, the bigger ear loop also provides easy-to-reach
controls, and most users find it comfortable to wear, even with glasses.
In terms of
performance, the Legend is also largely a match for the Edge, It has problems
with wind noise, but aside from that, sound transmission is excellent. In terms
of battery life, the Legend actually lasts a bit longer than the Edge, giving
up to 7 hours of talk time or 11 days of standby between charges.
On the downside,
unlike the Edge, the Legend doesn't have a charging case, so when the battery
finally runs down, you need to plug in and doing that can be a hassle. The
Legend uses a proprietary, non-USB charging cable that lots of users have had
problems with. Some say the magnet that's supposed to hold the cable in place
is easily dislodged, so the phone isn't always charging when you think it is.
Worse, the cable is only 1 foot long, so if you don't have a power strip on
your desk, you have to put the headset on the floor in order to hook it up to
an outlet. But if you can live with these annoyances, you can get similar
performance and comfort as with the Edge, but at a lower price.
of the biggest weaknesses of both the Voyager Legend and the Voyager Edge is
that they don't transmit sound well in a moving car, or anywhere else there's a
lot of wind noise. If that's a concern, the Plantronics Explorer 500 (Est. $60) does a much better job. In TheWirecutter.com's
tests, it outperforms all other headsets in this setting, including some that
cost two to three times as much. It's tops in a test of Bluetooth range, too,
keeping a stable signal for 54 feet on a voice call and 95 feet for music
streaming. And its battery holds out for over 7 hours on a charge, besting the
Edge by about an hour.
In other respects,
however, the Explorer 500 isn't quite as impressive as the Edge and the Legend.
Its voice quality is good overall, but not outstanding. Some background noise
gets through in tests at a noisy cafe, and some users complain that the volume
for incoming calls is too low to hear clearly. It offers only the most basic
voice commands, and it doesn't come with a charging case. On the plus side, it
charges with a micro-USB cable, so you don't have to carry a proprietary cable
The Explorer 500 is
even smaller than the Edge, and it has the same kind of earbud and loop
fitting. For most users, it fits well, but we saw some complaints that it gets
uncomfortable or even painful with prolonged use. Availability is a little
limited, but you can buy it directly from the maker and from mobile carriers
such as T Mobile and Verizon. An apparently identical version, the Plantronics Explorer 505 (Est. $60)
is also available at BestBuy.com.
you're on a very tight budget, the (Est. $35)
is worth a look. This remarkably cheap little headset gives you a lot of
features for the price, including A2DP, voice commands, and multipoint pairing.
And its battery life is absolutely unsurpassed: in tests at PCMag.com, it
provided 8.5 hours of consecutive talk time when paired with an iPhone. In
standby mode, it can go up to 16 days between charges, thanks to a special Deep
Sleep mode that conserves battery power.
performance isn't as impressive as its competitors, however. Voices come across
clearly in quiet settings, but CNET says a fair amount of background noise
leaks through when it's used on a busy street. Users at Amazon.com like the
M55's sound quality, compact size, and amazing battery life. However, many of
them are disgruntled about the fact that it comes with only one earbud, so if
you happen to have larger or smaller ears, you have to special order other
sizes. We also saw some complaints that its Bluetooth range is pretty limited.
But if you just need a cheap, reliable headset for indoor use, the M55's $30
price tag is hard to beat.
Expert & User Review Sources
As you might expect, the best reviews of Bluetooth headsets come from
tech-related websites. TheWirecutter.com is the only site to perform
head-to-head tests, but both CNET and PCMag.com have fairly
extensive collections of reviews. Editors test new headsets as they're released
and evaluate their features, comfort, and performance, often comparing the new
headsets to earlier models. User feedback at Amazon.com and BestBuy.com provides insight into how the headsets stand up to real-world use, as well as
durability and comfort issues over time.