Bluetooth headsets

They’re stylish and useful — but not entirely hassle-free.
 
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  • Updated:4 Jul 2007
 

01 .Introduction

Bluetooth-heatsets

Test results for 12 Bluetooth headphones under $100

We've scored them for:

  • Ease of use
  • Sound reception
  • Microphone reception performance

What are they?

Bluetooth headsets make it easier to walk and talk with your mobile phone. Just slip one on and leave the phone in your pocket or on the other side of the room while you take or make phone calls. Bluetooth doesn’t use cords, so you can chat, answer calls and even make calls without touching or being physically connected to your phone.

Please note: this information was current as of July 2007 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


Findings:

  • It may take a while to become used to wearing and using them.
  • Some trialists experienced discomfort and pain.
  • Keep the headset on the same side as the mobile for best results.

Models tested

  • BLUEANT T8 micro
  • JABRA BT125
  • MOTOROLA H350
  • MOTOROLA H500
  • NOKIA BH-200
  • NOKIA BH-202
  • NOKIA HS-26W
  • PLANTRONICS explorer 340
  • PLANTRONICS voyager 510
  • SONY ERICSSON HBH-610a
  • SONY ERICSSON HBH-PV700
  • SONY ERICSSON HBH-PV705
 
 

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What to buy

  • Plantronics Voyager 510 - $99
  • Plantronics Explorer 340 - $79
  • Sony Ericsson HBH-PV705 - $85
  • Sony Ericsson HBH-610a - $99 

The Voyager 510 scored highest for both ease of use and performance. It received the best score for overall comfort, and microphone sensitivity - producing natural voice tones. However, its battery life was highly variable.

The rest

We tested the features of the headsets using two recent-model mobile phones — a Nokia 6280 and a Sony Ericsson W810i.

  • All models paired with both phones readily. We were able to use the volume control on the earpiece to adjust the sound to a comfortable level. We didn’t have any problems answering calls, but rejecting calls, redialling and voice dialling caused problems for some headsets. The Nokia BH-202 and Plantronics Explorer 340 couldn’t reject calls when paired with either phone. The Sony Ericsson HBH-PV700 and Sony Ericsson HBH-PV705 don’t have a redial function.
  • If your phone and headset support voice dialling you can press a button on the headset, speak a pre-arranged name for your contact and the mobile will call the number. Both phones support voice-dial, but not all the headsets could initiate voice dialling on both phones. The Nokia BH-200 couldn’t initiate voice dialling when paired with either phone. You may also come across other functions such as microphone mute and call holding but we didn’t examine these features.
  • The Plantronics Voyager 510, Plantronics Explorer 340, Nokia BH-202 and both Motorola units showed inconsistencies, with battery life varying in some cases by up to five hours between subsequent tests. Despite additional testing, we aren’t sure of the cause of these differences and we didn’t include these results in the overall score.

Results table

 

  Results
Brand/model (in rank order) Price ($) Overall (%) Ease of use (%) Performance (%)
Plantronics Voyager 510
www.plantronics.com.au
99 90 86 96
Plantronics Explorer 340
www.plantronics.com.au
79 85 86 84
Sony Ericsson HBH-PV705
www.sonyericsson.com.au
85 84 77 94
Sony Ericsson HBH-610a
www.sonyericsson.com.au
99 83 79 89
Sony Ericsson HBH-PV700
www.sonyericsson.com.au
69 81 74 91
Motorola H350
www.motorola.com.au
99 80 84 74
Motorola H500
www.motorola.com.au
89 80 85 73
Nokia BH-202
www.nokia.com.au
94 78 76 80
Jabra BT125
www.jabra.com
49 77 74 82
Nokia BH-200
www.nokia.com.au
69 75 81 67
Nokia HS-26W
www.nokia.com.au
60 72 73 71
BlueAnt T8 micro
www.blueant.com.au
69 69 73 64
 

 

  Specifications
Brand/model (in rank order) Battery life (h) Volume increments Dimensions (HxWxD, mm) Attachment type Mic Weight (g) Warranty (months) Bluetooth version
Plantronics Voyager 510
www.plantronics.com.au
6 7 76 x 41 x 12 Earbud & earloop Flexible boom 18 12 1.2
Plantronics Explorer 340
www.plantronics.com.au
10 7 66 x 21 x 25 Earloop Earpiece 16 12 2
Sony Ericsson HBH-PV705
www.sonyericsson.com.au
12 8 60 x 12 x 21 Earloop Earpiece 15 12 1.2
Sony Ericsson HBH-610a
www.sonyericsson.com.au
6.5 8 76 x 17 x 23 Earloop Partial boom 20 12 2
Sony Ericsson HBH-PV700
www.sonyericsson.com.au
5 8 77 x 21 x 23 Earloop Earpiece 20 12 1.2
Motorola H350
www.motorola.com.au
10 7 58 x 28 x 13 Earloop Earpiece 19 12 2
Motorola H500
www.motorola.com.au
8 7 58 x 22 x 18 Earloop Earpiece 18 12 1.2
Nokia BH-202
www.nokia.com.au
10 8 62 x 23 x 20 Earhook Earpiece 17 6 2
Jabra BT125
www.jabra.com
8 7 50 x 23 x 19 Earloop Earpiece 13 12 2
Nokia BH-200
www.nokia.com.au
5.5 9 52 x 22 x 19 Earhook Earpiece 15 6 2
Nokia HS-26W
www.nokia.com.au
5 9 69 x 22 x 18 Earhook Earpiece 23 6 2
BlueAnt T8 micro
www.blueant.com.au
9 14 51 x 27 x 27 Earbud & earloop Earpiece 17 24 2
 

Table notes

Price: paid in February 2007.

Ease of use: (60%)

  • How easy it is to attach the headset to the ear
  • The comfort of the headset during an hour of continuous use
  • The perceived audio quality and the ease of changing the volume.

Performance: (40%)

  • Technical scores for earpiece frequency response and microphone sensitivity.

Specifications:

  • Battery life
  • Talk time in hours as claimed by the manufacturer
  • Volume increments that can be selected on the headset
  • Dimensions of the earpiece, not including boom
  • Attachment type - how the headset fits to the ear
  • Mic - whether the microphone boom is located within the earpiece or as a separate element
  • Weight in grams
  • Warranty in months
  • Bluetooth version supported

Product profiles - the best

Plantronics Voyager 510

Price: $99

Good points

  • Best microphone sensitivity.
  • Easy to attach.
  • Received the most positive trialist comments.

Bad points

  • Must press two buttons to connect to mobile Couldn’t initiate voice dialling with the Nokia 6280.

Plantronics Explorer 340

Price: $79

Good points

  • Excellent rating for earpiece frequency response and sound quality.
  • Easy to attach.

Bad points

  • Wouldn’t reject call on either phone.
  • Some trialists reported pain or discomfort after one hour of continuous use.
  • Loud click when microphone starts broadcasting.

Sony Ericsson HBH-PV705

Price: $85

Good points

  • More than 10 hours talk time in tests.
  • Excellent rating for earpiece frequency response and sound quality.
  • Excellent microphone sensitivity.

Bad points

  • No redial function.
  • Couldn’t initiate voice dialling with the Nokia 6280.
  • Some trialists reported pain or discomfort after one hour of continuous use.

Sony Ericsson HBH-610a

Price: $99

Good points

  • Excellent microphone sensitivity.

Bad points

  • Couldn’t initiate voice dialling with the Nokia 6280.
  • Some trialists reported pain or discomfort after one hour of continuous use.
  • Quietest at maximum volume but loud enough for most people.

Product profiles - the rest

SONY ERICSSON HBH-PV700

Price: $69

Good points

  • Excellent microphone sensitivity.
  • Natural voice quality.
  • Loudest earpiece on minimum volume.

Bad points

  • Couldn't perform redial when paired with Nokia 6280 or Sony Ericsson 810i.
  • Several trialists found it distracting or intrusive to wear.
  • Beeps when microphone is switched on.
  • Uses Bluetooth 1.2, rather than the faster, lower-powered Bluetooth 2.0.

MOTOROLA H350

Price: $99

Good points

  • Excellent earpiece rating for frequency response and sound quality.

Bad points

  • Most trialists found it distracting or intrusive to wear
  • Phone couldn't initiate voice dialling with the Sony Ericcson 810i.
  • Had a constant low buzz while using microphone.
  • Shortest talk time during battery life testing.

MOTOROLA H500

Price: $89

Good points

  • Excellent earpiece rating for frequency response and sound quality.

Bad points

  • Could not perform redial on the Nokia 6280.
  • Could not reject call on the Sony Ericsson 810i.
  • Phone couldn't initiate voice dialling with the Sony Ericcson 810i.
  • Several trialists found it distracting or intrusive to wear.
  • Had a constant low buzz while using microphone.
  • Uses Bluetooth 1.2, rather than the faster, lower-powered Bluetooth 2.0.

NOKIA BH-202

Price: $94

Good points

  • Excellent earpiece rating for frequency response.

Bad points

  • Would not reject call when paired with the Nokia 6280.
  • Several trialists found it distracting or intrusive to wear.
  • Second lowest talk time during battery life testing.

JABRA BT125

Price: $49

Good points

  • Excellent earpiece rating for frequency response and sound quality.

Bad points

  • Volume toggle is small.
  • Several trialists found it distracting or intrusive to wear.
  • Instructions only provided on CD.

NOKIA BH-200

Price: $69

Good points

  • Second loudest earpiece.

Bad points

  • Phone couldn't initiate voice dialling with the Nokia 6280 or Sony Ericcson 810i.
  • Several trialists reported pain or discomfort resulting from an hour of continuous use.
  • Model was a bit less comfortable for those wearing glasses.

NOKIA HS-26W

Price: $60

Good points

  • Loudest earpiece at minimum and mid-volume.

Bad points

  • Seven trialists reported pain or discomfort resulting from an hour of continuous use.
  • Least comfortable model.
  • Hardest model to attach.

BLUEANT T8

Price: $69

Good points

  • Battery provided more than 10 hours talk time, during testing.

Bad points

  • Trialists found it harder to attach while wearing glasses.
  • Equal least comfortable to use while wearing glasses.
  • Phone couldn't initiate voice dialling with the Sony Ericcson 810i.

How we tested

We put each headset through an ease of use test, a user trial and a technical test.

  • Ease of use was assessed for various common tasks, such as taking and making calls, rejecting calls and redialling numbers.
  • In the user trial, 10 people rated each headset for overall comfort after an hour of continuous use.
  • The technical tests were carried out by the National Acoustic Laboratories (NAL). Each headset was tested to determine how well it transmitted and conducted audio signals in the frequencies that human hearing encompasses. NAL also tested the operating battery life for each model (see Battery life).

Sound quality

Range

We paired a computer with a USB adapter to each headset, then played an audio CD to test how far we could walk before the signal reception dropped out. Any crackling, skipping or silences represent a loss of signal, which we noted. Most models had some crackling at 10 metres, but were still usable at that distance.

We also checked the range of transmission by recording from the headset microphone to the computer. All of the recordings contained crackles at 10 metres, showing a loss of signal strength.

Throughout testing, we kept the headset within the line of sight of our computer. In normal usage, objects or people in the way will potentially reduce signal strength further, lowering the distance you can move away from your phone before you will lose the signal.

Sound reception

After testing the headsets at three volume settings — low, mid and high — we had a good idea of the kind of sound they will produce during normal telephone conversations.

The highest scoring headsets were the Sony Ericsson HBH-PV705, Plantronics Voyager 340 and Jabra BT125, all of which scored more than 95%.

Microphone

It’s not enough to be able to hear the person on the other end of your phone call; you also want them to hear you clearly.

  • The Plantronics Voyager 510 had the most sensitive microphone — its boom is quite long and is therefore close to the mouth, which may assist in picking up more sound. It was significantly louder than the other units. The three Sony models also performed to a high standard.

  • Several units produced a click when they started broadcasting from the microphone. This was most noticeable for the Plantronics Explorer 340. The Sony Ericsson HBH-PV700 produced a beep.

  • The two Motorola headsets produced a noticeable buzz during testing, but this may be because they were paired with a computer. We can’t be sure the noise would be audible over the phone system.

Comfort and ease of use

Bluetooth headsets should fit snugly against your ear, but ears come in a variety of shapes and sizes, which can make wearing a Bluetooth headset an unpleasant experience for some. The most frequently mentioned aspect of discomfort in the trial was headsets that didn’t sit comfortably. None of the headsets suited everybody. Even if a headset is easy to fit and feels initially comfortable, it can take a while to get used to wearing it.

Three trialists found that removing the headsets after wearing them for an hour was painful. And, on hot days, a headset can get sweaty and slippery. Other factors that trialists commented on were:

  • Fiddly fingers: Two headsets lacked instructions on how to fit the headset over your ear or in your ear, so that trialists sometimes found it hard to work out how to attach the headset. The Jabra BT125 headset came with instructions on CD, which is fine as long as you have a computer handy.
  • Heavy weight: Additional weight can make the headset uncomfortable to use and cause pressure on sensitive parts of your ear. Choose a lighter model, all other factors being equal.
  • Attachment wobblies: Trialists found that a secure fit meant less distraction and annoyance. Poorly-fitting headsets may wobble, fall off or jab into your cheek. Trialists didn’t consider the Motorola H350, Nokia BH-202 and Sony Ericsson HBH-PV700 to have a secure fit. The BlueAnt T8 micro, Jabra BT125 and Motorola H350 fell off during testing for at least one trialist.
  • Glasses: If you have glasses, attaching and wearing Bluetooth headsets compounds the problem of correct fit. Some of the headsets — particularly the Nokia BH-200 and BlueAnt T8 micro — were less easy to attach and less comfortable for those who wear specs on a regular basis.

Battery life

Bluetooth headsets run off small, rechargeable batteries. Good battery life is vital — who wants to run out of power mid-conversation?

Battery life was highly variable for some of the models we tested. We repeated tests and discarded any results that differed by more than 10%.

The Plantronics Voyager 510, Plantronics Explorer 340, Nokia BH-202 and both Motorola units showed major inconsistencies - in some cases battery life varied by up to five hours between subsequent tests. Despite carrying out additional tests, we aren’t sure of the cause of these differences and so we didn’t include these results in the overall score.

  • Bluetooth is a type of wireless technology that can connect up to eight devices in a small network. Some Bluetooth gadgets can communicate when they’re 100 metres apart, but mobile phone headsets generally only have a range of up to 10 metres.
  • Bluetooth devices communicate using rapid changes to the radio frequencies that the network uses, making it difficult to keep tabs on any traffic passing through the network. Additionally, you must enter a special code to connect Bluetooth gadgets — a process known as pairing (see dictionary below). Only paired devices can talk to each other.
  • Most new mobile phones and laptops now have Bluetooth capability and you may also find it on personal digital assistants (PDAs), digital music players and other gadgets, making it easy to transfer files, calls and other data.
  • Bluetooth is a digital technology, so part of the headset’s job is to convert your voice into a digital signal that it then sends to your mobile phone.

What you need

  • To make or receive phone calls you’ll need either a Bluetooth compatible mobile phone or an adapter that lets you use a Bluetooth headset with your current phone. If you plan on using a Bluetooth headset with a computer, say for internet phone calls (VoIP), you’ll need a Bluetooth enabled computer or a Bluetooth USB adapter.
  • Before you can make a call, you must pair the phone with the Bluetooth headset: turn both devices on and enable the Bluetooth capability in your phone (you’ll usually find this under ‘settings’). The phone will have a search function to locate nearby Bluetooth gadgets — when you locate the headset, you can choose to connect it. Generally you’ll need to enter a code but some gadgets have an inbuilt code that you’ll have to enter on the phone.
  • Once paired, the devices will recognise each other whenever they’re in range. When you receive a call, the phone rings and so does the earpiece. The headset has an answer button that you can press to take the call — you won’t need to touch the phone. Then, just speak as you normally would. The microphone should pick up your voice.

Dictionary

  • Boom: a microphone attachment that extends towards your mouth.
  • Pairing: the process of connecting Bluetooth devices.
  • Profile: a specification that defines ways in which Bluetooth devices communicate with each other. Profiles define what features the headset and phone can use.
  • VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol): A method of carrying voice calls over the internet.

Things to look out for

Headsets may come with one or more attachment types:

  • an earloop
  • an earhook
  • a headband
  • an earbud

Earloops go right around the ear, while earhooks act like a clip — some go behind the ear like a glasses frame and others, like the Nokia HS-26W, are more like a hinged clip that fits over the edge of the ear. You may find one style more comfortable than another. All the models we tested had an adjustable attachment that could fit either ear.

The headset earpiece may be designed to go over the ear, covering it, or may sit behind the ear like a traditional-style hearing-aid. Some headsets, such as the BlueAnt T8 micro, have an ear-bud, which fits into the exterior of the ear canal.

It’s a good idea to keep your headset on standby to conserve the battery and only switch it on when a call comes in — so you’ll need to find and use the power-on button easily while wearing the device.

A microphone boom (see Dictionary above) may pick up sound better than a microphone built into the earpiece. Check that the boom is adjustable so you can swing it out of the way when it’s not in use.

Bluetooth profiles

Headsets use profiles (See Dictionary above), which determine their features and capabilities. A headset with the basic 'headset' profile can answer and end calls, but more advanced features such as voice recognition and dialling require a headset with the 'hands-free' profile.

The Bluetooth version of the headset determines the power use and battery life. Bluetooth 2.0 uses less power and has faster transfer rates than Bluetooth 1.2.