Reviews: Bluetooth headsets

I am on the road a lot, and I used to listen to talk radio, such as NPR, but when I got my first iPod I started listening to podcasts, since I did not have to depend upon whatever happened to be on at a particular time, and I could pause playback.  I also had a mono Bluetooth headset for talking on my "feature" phone, which I also used when I upgraded to an iPhone, a Motorola H680.  Although this worked fine for talking on the phone, I still had to switch to the earphones on a cord to listen to podcasts, with one in my ear and the other dangling so I don't get a ticket.  (For music, I just listen to the radio through car speakers.)  The problem with this is getting tangled in the cord and seatbelt, especially while the phone is plugged into the charger, as well as smashing it in the door, etc.  I have ruined several iPod headphones that way.

After a few months, I found the Bluetooth Mono for iPhone jailbreak tweak, which solved the problem beautifully.  However, it required that I had to keep jailbreaking my iPhone every time Apple updated the firmware, which means waiting weeks or months for a new jailbreak before updating, or going without, which I was forced to do for a couple of months when I got a new iPhone.  The current jailbreak method is still "tethered", meaning that it will break if I reboot, although that has not been a problem.  Jailbreaking also offers a lot of other great stuff, but everything else I really wanted is now available without jailbreaking.  Except playing music and podcasts through a mono Bluetooth headset.

But there are alternatives.  iPhones now support the A2DP stereo Bluetooth profile, and there are mono headsets which will support A2DP.  After hearing several recommendations, I got the Aliph Jawbone ICON.  It sells for $99.95 at the Apple Store, but Best Buy had it on sale for $20 off.  The same day I got the Jawbone, my wife bought a Plantronics BackBeat 903+ Bluetooth stereo headset from the Apple Store for $99.95.  She already had a Motorola MOTOROKR S9-HD.

So now I have four Bluetooth headsets available to me, and I can make some comparisons.

My new Jawbone is beautiful.  I got "The Bombshell", which has an irregular gold outer surface.  It fits comfortably in my ear with the largest "ergo" earbud, and doesn't require an ear loop to stay in, although it does come with one.  I had to connect it to my PC via USB and update it in order to activate A2DP stereo, but then it worked fine.  You can also change the voice or language it uses to talk to you, which I couldn't care less about.  The USB connector also means that I don't have to buy another car charger, which is a bonus.  It is rated for only 4.5 hours of talk time, which is a lot less than the 8 hours my old Motorola lasts.  At least there is a visible power indicator on the iPhone status bar, and pushing the single button gives me an audible estimate of the talk time remaining, while the Motorola simply starts beeping shortly before it dies.  I have not yet had a chance to see how the Jawbone works out during extended use.  [Update 55572.531: Now I have, and it lasts just as long, if not longer, and recharges quickly.]

The main drawback is that, like the Motorola, it lacks stereo controls, especially pause and play.  I can pause playback on both headsets by simply switching them off, which at least is safer than fiddling with the touchscreen while driving, but I have to stop the car to safely unlock the iPhone screen, open the iPod app (if necessary) and tap the triangle to resume playing.  This is slightly more awkward with the Jawbone, since the on/off switch is on the side that touches my face. [Update 55572.531: I meant to rant about the bug that prevents voice commands from working with podcasts, but I just figured out that if I load just one song, that fixes the problem, so I can say "pause" and "play" to control playback, although there is a significant delay, and sometimes it will dial a random number from my contacts instead of what I tell it.  I also found that using the dash mount I got today makes it easier to use the touchscreen.]

Both headsets have a lower volume than the wired headphones, which makes it difficult to hear podcasts in a noisy environment, such as a moving car in traffic with passengers.  The sound on the Jawbone seems to be richer than on the Motorola, although it's hard to tell for sure.  The ICON also seemed to have better noise reduction, which is supposed to work by having a sensor in contact with your cheek.

But then my wife had to go and buy the Plantronics BackBeat 903+!  This stereo headset goes in both ears and includes separate buttons for phone, volume up and down, and pause/play.  It also has impressive volume, and is rated for 7 hours of listen time.  She was unsatisfied with the Motorola MOTOROKR because all the electronics are in a band that goes behind the neck, making it uncomfortable to lie down with it; plus, she keeps losing ear-buds, and complains that it's not loud enough.  The Backbeat has the electronics behind each hear, with a thin, flexible cord connecting them, which is quite comfortable to lie on.  And it means that you can pop it out of one ear, and have it dangle from the other, making it safe and legal to drive with!  It turns out that her stereo headset may actually be a better solution than any mono one.

I will continue using the Jawbone ICON for now, but I may end up borrowing my wife's BackBeat, at least when she's not using it.

MJD 55568.517

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