IMuffs MB220

The magical promise of Bluetooth headphones is the capability to listen to your music without wires as seamlessly as if you'd plugged in any other pair of conventional headphones. Unfortunately, I have yet to see that promise fulfilled, and Wi-Gear's iMuffs MB220 is no exception -- it's not going to make you believe in Bluetooth-audio magic.

The MB220 consists of two parts that should be familiar to anyone who's used wireless headphones before: a small transceiver (measuring 1.25 inches wide by 1.5 inches tall and 0.25 inches thick) that plugs into the bottom of dock-connector iPods and iPhones (anything from the third-generation iPod forward); and the headphones themselves, which in this case use a behind-the-head "streetstyle" design. The MB220's box also includes a USB charging cable, an AC power adapter, and an extra pair of foam covers for the headphones.

On the outer side of the right-hand earpiece you'll find Play/Pause, Previous, and Next buttons; around the rim of the same earpiece are a rocker switch for controlling the volume, an On/Off switch, and a mini-USB port for recharging the headphones' built-in battery.

First, what works: among the several Bluetooth headphones I've tested, the MB220 has the most intuitive interface. The playback-control buttons are big and easy to press, and they have distinct shapes so you can easily tell them apart by feel; the volume rocker switch is similarly easy to find and use. I appreciate it when hardware manufacturers use different control styles -- knobs, switches, etc. -- for different functions, instead of assigning everything to a set of homogeneous buttons. And all the controls work fine; with the playback controls there's a slight lag between pressing a button and the unit responding, but you quickly get used to this delay.

Getting started with the iMuffs is pretty easy, too: just connect the transmitter to your iPod or iPhone and turn on the headphones; the two components connect automatically. After this initial pairing, I ended up leaving the transmitter plugged into my player and just turned the headphones on and off; they nearly always connected within a few seconds of turning on the iPod, and on the rare occasion they didn't, unplugging and replugging the transmitter or quickly turning the headphones on and off fixed the problem.

The battery life of the MB220 is also good, partly because the headphones go into a low-power sleep mode after a period of inactivity. Though the initial charging took awhile, once charged I subjected the unit to several days of normal usage before running out of juice. (The transceiver pulls power from the iPod, but I didn't notice a tremendous drain on the music player when using the iMuffs.)

Wireless headphones are also undeniably cool. It's a liberating experience to be able to walk down the street without a tangle of cables, or to switch songs without having to fish through your pocket for your iPod. (The latter is especially true in the cold winter months, when dealing with a touch-sensitive interface means taking your hands out of their gloves.)

If you're running Leopard on your Bluetooth-enabled Mac, you can also pair the iMuffs with your computer and use them to listen to music. This process works fine, though it works a lot better if you disconnect the transmitter from your iPod first so the headphones don't get confused about which device they're trying to pair with. One difference between iPod/iPhone and computer use is that when you're listening to music via the iPod or iPhone, the music player's own volume level is irrelevant -- you can raise or lower it all day long, but only the headphones' volume control will actually change the sound level. That's not the case when pairing with a computer; both the computer's volume control and that of the headphones are active. Also, I discovered that while the MB220's Next and Previous buttons let me switch tracks when listening to iTunes, the Play/Pause control did not have an effect on playback.

Like many other Bluetooth headphones, the MB220 also supports the Bluetooth hands-free profile, allowing you to use the headphones as a headset for your mobile phone or your computer. Pairing is a simple matter, though, again, I recommend disconnecting the transmitter dongle from your iPod or iPhone first. Once you've paired the headphones with your phone, though, you can have them associated with both the phone and the transmitter. I paired the headphones with my iPhone 3G as a headset, then plugged the transmitter into the phone, as well (producing the now-familiar Airplane Mode dialog, to which you can safely say "No") and was able to receive calls while listening to music with no problems. The sound quality on the headset is fine for listening, but the built-in microphone was disappointing: people I talked to described the sound as muffled or garbled.

You can also control some phone functions using the playback controls on the headphones; the Play/Pause button performs most phone-related duties. For example, you can answer a call by tapping the Play/Pause button or reject an incoming call by holding the same button for two seconds. You can also end an in-progress call by holding the button for two seconds. Redialing a previous number can be accomplished by holding the next and previous buttons simultaneously for two seconds, and if your phone supports voice-dialing, you can trigger it by pushing the volume rocker for two seconds. Those functions worked fine in my testing, though it is a little annoying to have to use the same button to accept or reject a call, since you can accidentally do one when you meant to do the other. (The iMuffs are by no means alone in this regard, though; most Bluetooth headsets use the same button for answering and rejecting a call.)

If everything sounds pretty magical so far, there is a significant downside to this story: the iMuffs' sound quality isn't very good. Wi-Gear brags about the unit providing "Crystal Clear Wireless Music," but the audio quality is about as crystal clear as, oh, The Dark Crystal. To be fair, the iMuffs aren't any worse than the other Bluetooth headphones I've tested, but like those, they fall short of even average wired headphones. The music is thin and tinny, and I regularly heard static and distortion, especially on louder sections of music. Switching back and forth between these and my everyday pair of wired headphones was like night and day.

The construction of the MB220 also leaves something to be desired. The plastic casings of the earpieces and the plastic band joining them feel kind of chintzy, especially given the $150 price tag; and the headphones, though lightweight, look a bit bulky. Finally, I didn't find the headphones to be as comfortable as my current pair of wired headphones (also a behind-the-head model) -- they weren't terribly uncomfortable, but I sometimes had a tough time getting a good fit on my ears.

Macworld's buying advice

Those who care about audio aren't going to be happy with the iMuffs MB220's sound quality, although those who value the wireless functionality may be willing to overlook it for the sake of convenience. On the other hand, the user interface is a plus, and the MB220's headphones don't look as outlandish as some of the other Bluetooth headphones I've tested. Still, given that $150 will get you a pretty nice pair of wired headphones, it's hard to justify the price unless you really are prepared to listen to sub-par audio.

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