Gear on your ear: Six premium Bluetooth headsets reviewed
If you’re spending $100 or more on a Bluetooth headset, you’d think you could get it all: first-class audio quality, supreme comfort, intuitive design, and handy accessories. Sadly, that’s not the case. I tested six premium Bluetooth headsets that, given their prices, I expected to be the cream of the crop. I instead found a wide range of quality, comfort, and add-ons. With a couple exceptions, I was disappointed by the value offered by these allegedly top-shelf accessories.
I may not exactly be a fashion plate, but I still feel self-conscious and goofy with a headset poking out of my face—the daintier the headset, the better the wearing experience, in my book. Jawbone’s newly redesigned $100 Era ($130 with charging case) obliges, making me feel like less of a dork than normal.
The previous version of the Era felt somewhat burly and blocky, but the new model is positively petite. According to Jawbone, the company shaved 42 percent off the size of the Era compared to its predecessor, and I could sense the difference immediately. The new Era is so small, slender, and lightweight that it feels discreet. It also weighs roughly a quarter of an ounce, making it one of the lightest headsets I’ve ever tested. And it didn’t get in the way of my glasses or shoulder-length hair.
Donning the new Era is easy with one hand—during my testing, it popped into my ear easily and efficiently, requiring just a quick maneuver to lodge it in my ear while pointing the unit down towards my mouth. (The Era does not use an over-ear hook.)
Also new to the latest Era is a new style of earpiece cover that looks a bit like a tadpole with a curved tail. The new cover sports a spout-shaped bit that goes inside the ear canal and another longer hook that sits against the fold inside the upper part of the ear. The medical-grade-silicone cover is soft and comfortable, and it fits snugly—those two anchor points ensure that it doesn’t budge, even when running around or, say, leaning over to pick something up off the floor. I have small ears, and the smallest included cover is a smidge too large, but even so, during my testing the Era felt comfy for extended periods of time
The Era’s seal in the ear canal is also solid, but not so much so that I feel cocooned from the world around me. I also had a couple other people test the fit, and they found the new Era to feel pleasing and secure. Jawbone provides three earpiece covers for the right ear (small, medium, and large) and one for the left ear (medium), which up the odds of finding a good fit. However, unlike the previous Era, the new Era does not come with its own AC charger—just a USB cable. If you want to plug the Era into an wall outlet, you’ll need to bring your own USB wall charger.
The Era’s compact design is mostly sensible: The dedicated on/off switch is easy to nudge with a thumb, and its single, multi-purpose button is simple to locate on the top of the headset. The button delivers snappy tactile feedback when pressed: a single tap to answer and end calls, a double-tap to redial, or a press-and-hold to issue voice commands.
However, the Era does suffer from the lack of a dedicated volume control. To adjust volume, you press and hold the main button during a call (or podcast, if you’re using the Era to listen) to cycle volume level up and down. The headset gives you not-very-loud audible cues to indicate when you’re reaching the maximum and minimum volume levels. I’m not a fan of combining the call button with volume control: If I’m not concentrating on the volume-adjustment routine, I sometimes accidentally tap the call button instead of pressing and holding it, thus unceremoniously hanging up on calls.
As for call quality, the new Era generally delivered the goods, following in the performance footsteps of all Jawbone units I’ve tested. The other side of my conversations almost always sounded stellar to me—natural and up close. I did occasionally hear voice distortion, but it was minimal. Similarly, callers commented on how clear my voice sounded, noting that the audio quality of our conversations compared favorably to that of calls placed directly on my handset. (One caller said that audio quality was even better with the Era.)
In my informal range tests, performance was clear until just beyond 20 feet from my phone, when I picked up a little static; in a couple instances, those on the other end of the call said my voice started to break up around that distance, but I could still be understood. (The Era’s official Bluetooth range is 33 feet.)
As with previous Jawbone headsets, the new Era generally made mincemeat of background noise such as street traffic (including while in the car with the windows rolled down) alongside my car stereo’s music (sometimes with a thumping bass). At one point, I happened to make a few calls in a parking lot that’s wedged between a major freeway and a recycling plant, with a municipal airport a few blocks away. In other words, the Era had to contend with low-flying planes, highway noise, and garbage trucks barreling along. Apart from the occasional slight “wavy” sound to my voice, callers couldn’t tell the difference between my yakkedy-yak outside versus inside the car.
Jawbone offers apps that let you use Google Now (on Android) and Siri (on iOS). Using the Era in my workspace, often with machinery whirring, I asked Google a bunch of things—about my next appointment, to find me a place to eat within two miles, to send emails to so-and-so, to dictate my sweet nothings, and on and on—and the integrated feature worked well.
Another neat app-enhanced feature is the headset finder. If you’ve forgotten where you put your headset, just launch the app on your smartphone. As the app hunts for the Era (which, of course, must be paired and connected), the headset itself emits a series of high-pitched beeps, gradually cycling louder and softer. At its loudest, the beep alert isn’t ear-splitting, by any means, but it’s loud enough to be audible down the hall—and, thus, to help you locate the headset.
I also like the app’s option to choose one of ten “voices” for the Era. I picked “Mobster”—a male voice that sounds like somebody straight out of The Sopranos. (“Welcome to the family,” I’d hear when switching on the Era.) It’s a bit gimmicky, but I was amused.
Finally, the $130 Era bundle comes with a battery case. (The Era by itself is available for $100.) This small rectangular box, shaped a bit like a miniature mailbox, holds enough juice to give the Era an extra 6 hours of talk time (on top of its own 4-hour battery), and it proved to be a handy accessory during my testing. You can also clip the charging case on to your keychain, for instance. The company says that the case can hold its charge for several months. However, when the Era sits clamped in the charger, the headset’s earpiece sticks out, so I was mindful of how—and where—I stored it.
Plantronics Voyager Legend
Plantronics’s $100 Voyager Legend feels bulky, but it’s hefty for a reason: The chunky, canoe-shaped earhook houses the headset’s battery, and the boom microphone extends nearly three inches towards your mouth. Plantronics includes five eartip covers. The smallest size delivered a reasonably secure fit for me. (The boom mic easily flips around to the other side, allowing you to use the Legend on either ear.) Despite the Voyager Legend’s visible bulk, and the initially obtrusive feel of the boom mic, I got used to the fit. In fact, the more I wore the unit, the more the fit grew on me.
The headset’s Call button is small and skinny, but it’s easy to find by feel, and it provides nice tactile feedback when you press it. Similarly, as long as I grip the headset with my fingers to keep it steady, the volume slider is simple to use—and I appreciate the “volume maximum” and “volume minimum” voice announcements.
Whenever you connect the Voyager Legend to your phone, you hear a helpful spoken message about remaining talk time; the Plantronics Android widget offers more-detailed reports on your phone’s screen. I also love how the Voyager Legend uses caller ID to speak the name of the caller, and prompts me to declare “Answer” or “Ignore.” One caveat: I usually keep my ringer at a high volume, but my response (“Answer”) was often drowned out by my phone’s jingle. As soon as I turned down the ringer on my phone (or set it to vibrate), the voice-prompt feature worked flawlessly.
I was also impressed with the headset’s sensor technology. If the headset is sitting on your desk when you get a call, the Voyager Legend recognizes that it’s not on your ear—when you pick up the phone to answer the call, it’s handled by the phone. But as soon as you put the headset on your ear, the Voyager Legend automatically connects and switches the call to the headset.
During phone conversations, callers commented on how loud and clear my voice sounded generally. A couple people did note a metallic character to my voice, and words wobbled every once in a while, but overall, call quality was dependable. Voices I listened to through the Voyager Legend sounded terrific: close and clear, with only sporadic patchiness. The headset tuned out background disturbances successfully, too, including car noise.
Plantronics offers a number of smartphone apps, including Find My Headset (an app to locate your misplaced headset) and InstantMeeting, for iOS and Android. Find My Headset lets you track down your wandering Voyager Legend by prompting the headset to emit a series of beeps (as long as the headset is connected). You can adjust the volume of the tone—at the maximum volume, the beep was not especially loud, but I could still hear it in the next room. (The Jawbone Era, by comparison, produces a higher-pitched beep that’s easier to hear.) If the headset is switched off, out of range, or out of juice, the app’s BackTrack feature will display a list of previous locations, with time stamps, where the headset was connected—assuming, of course, your phone offers GPS features. BackTrack might come in handy if you tend to bop between multiple locations daily. InstantMeeting, which automatically connects you to conference calls in your calendar and notifies attendees, is also available for Windows Phone.
On top of these apps, if you’re interested in pushing the Voyager Legend to do more, the company offers the Vocalyst service, which offers integrated features for the Voyager Legend and other Plantronics headsets, including texting, email, dictation, and information-retrieval options. Vocalyst costs $2.49 per month or $25 per year. As of this writing, there is a time limit: A Plantronics spokesperson told me that you need to sign up for the service before November 8, 2014 to be able to use the purchased app for one full year.
Bose Bluetooth Headset Series 2
The most notable characteristic of Bose’s $150 Bluetooth Headset Series 2 is its size. It’s not quite as small as the Jawbone Era, but it weighs only 12 grams, and it’s smaller than my thumb (and I have small hands).
The Series 2’s diminutive size makes for a pleasing wearing experience—during a long phone interview, I almost forgot I was wearing the thing. The compact unit sits in the ear without any part of it feeling like it’s rubbing against the side of your face. The company provides three earpiece covers (small, medium, and large), each sporting a novel, half-moon-shape design. Even though the Series 2 lacks an earhook, the unique shape of the soft silicone “StayHear” tips firmly stations the headset in the ear. In my testing, I appreciated how I could pop the headset in my ear, quickly rotate the device to anchor it, and be ready to, um, rumble. The earpiece cover creates a solid seal that feels secure and comfortable. Even when walking around or tilting my head, the headset never fell out or became loose.
Oddly, the Series 2 uses an ear-specific design—you purchase a right-ear model or a left-ear model. So you need to pick your preference before buying, and you can’t switch from one ear to the other if, say, one ear gets fatigued after a couple hours of phone meetings.
During my testing, the Series 2’s call quality was mostly solid. My voice sounded clear and close to those on the other end of calls, and it was unaffected by static or “robotic” tinges. The headset also effectively eliminated my (sometimes loud) background music during calls. Likewise, the voices of callers came through to me sounding close and crisp.
Given its small size, the Bose’s buttons are few, but they’re laid out well. The dedicated, ridged on/off switch is a cinch to access by feel, and the main Call button and volume controls are firm and provide useful feedback when pressed.
I also like the dainty, zippered, neoprene carrying pouch, and the power adapter’s fold-flat prongs, which allow for easy schlepping inside my stuffed purse. That said, for $150, I’d prefer a hard case—preferably with a charging capability.
Speaking of value, the Series 2 lacks the extras that I would expect at this price. The headset delivers the basics: initiating calls using voice-dialing (“Call Bonnie mobile”), rejecting or answering incoming calls, and so on. You can also mute/unmute calls, switch between calls, handle call waiting, and listen to streamed audio, as long as your phone supports these options. But that’s it. The company does not offer a smartphone app or a way to connect you to your computer, for example. Nor does it offer any sort of voice announcements to make for a truly hands-free experience.
Similarly, the other headsets in this roundup promise longer battery life compared to the Series 2. Bose advertises 4.5 hours of talk time or 100 hours (roughly 4 days) of standby time, while headsets from other manufacturers usually offer at least 7 hours, and up to 14 hours, of talk time, with standby times of 10 to 14 days.
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