Three Cool Bluetooth Headsets

These snazzy new headsets feature noise-canceling technology that lets you hold a quiet conversation without having to look for a phone booth.

April 7, 2007

7 Min Read
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More often than not, you're probably making your cell phone calls from an environment that's less than ideal, noise-wise. After a week of trying out three new noise-canceling or reducing and admittedly cool-looking Bluetooth headsets -- the Aliph Jawbone, Gennum nX6000, and Plantronics Discovery 655 -- I'm convinced that using any of these beats the heck out of trying to keep up a conversation holding my cell phone up to my ear.

These devices aren't inexpensive by any reckoning: All three are in the $120 to $150 range. If you're trying to save money, you can get a name-brand Bluetooth headset for a lot less -- for example, currently has nine in the sub-$25 range, including a Jabra and Plantronics, and 46 in the $25 to $50 range. But for the extra money, you get better Digital Signal Processing to filter out noise and improve the call's sound, less weight, and a smaller size. In addition, all three of the reviewed devices work with other Bluetooth-enabled devices such as PDAs and smartphones. (The Jawbone, according to Aliph, can even work as a mono headset for a Bluetooth-enabled MP3 player.)

To test how well they worked in noisy environments, I tried the three headsets on the sidewalks of medium-busy streets, in a wooded area with crunchy snow underfoot, in a couple of stores, in the car (as a passenger), in my home office, and in between the stacks of a library. I also made a few calls to my answering machine, to hear how much extraneous noise did -- or didn't -- come through.

All three connected to my cell phone quickly and easily. All can be used comfortably with either the left or right ears. The button controls are simple and intuitive, which is important, since you're reaching up to your ear, no peeking. And all three let you turn noise-reduction off for times when you want ambient noise to be picked up, or if you want to prolong the battery charge. (Bluetooth also causes your phone battery to drain a lot faster, even if you're not talking, so if you plan to use it consistently, consider getting a pocket recharger.)

I was blown away by how quietly I could talk and still be heard in a subconversational mutter or even just a whisper. On the other hand, not all my callers were as happy -- they reported that my voice was clipped, or didn't sound as good as through the cell phone proper.Don't mistake any of these for a Get Smart-class "Cone of Silence," though -- these headsets are reducing, not eliminating, extraneous sounds. And they all picked up sounds such as my shoes crunching through snow and ice on the ground -- they do better at eliminating noise from the side.

Aliph Jawbone
If this was an art design competition, the Jawbone would win hands down, with its rectangular shape and striking color mesh. It's the largest, heaviest (at 14 grams), and bulkiest of the three, although even the Jawbone was no problem to wear for hours. However, the Jawbone's two controls are hidden under its fancy-design mesh screen; working them takes a little getting to.

In order for the noise-cancellation feature to work -- so the DSP chip can sort your voice out from the noise -- a little nub on the Jawbone's underbelly has to touch your cheek. Despite nesting into my sideburns, this worked fine for me, but at least one friend reports having trouble with it due to the shape of his face and ears.

The Jawbone had a couple of advantages over its peers. First, it felt like the least likely to fall off or get lost, thanks to the double-loop earpiece. And it had the best noise-canceling abilities of the three devices reviewed here, even blocking out most of the sound of my cranked-up-louder-than-I'd-normally-listen-to office stereo. On the other end of the connection, the Jawbone did the best job of filtering out noises other than my voice, according to my test callers.The device is rated as having up to six hours talk time or 120 standby time per charge.

Aliph also gets points for using the one-cable charging scheme (as does Gennum) -- the cable's USB plug can plug into either the AC micro-brick or a USB port. However, the Jawbone-side connector is proprietary -- lose the cable, and you can't recharge -- and the AC adapter lacks the Gennum's neat fold-down prongs. This isn't a big deal, but every half-cubic inch of packing space counts.

Gennum nX6000
Gennum's new nX6000 is the smallest and least obtrusive of the three headsets, and at 10.9 grams, it won't put much strain on your pocket. However, none of that compromised performance. Even though the two microphones in its array are only about half an inch apart, Gennum's custom DSP chip is able to sort out which sounds are coming from the mouth area, and filter out most of the extraneous noise.

The control buttons are pleasantly large, especially given the headset's small size, making them easy to find and use. Gennum's also got the simplest, least-proprietary charging solution: a mini-USB port on the headset (which also can be used for firmware updates) which accommodates both a USB cable and a small AC adapter whose prongs fold down when not in use.I also like the Gennum's indicator LED flashing to indicate charging or "charged," compared with the Plantronics' strategy of "lights go off when charged."

My biggest concern with the Gennum is the earpiece, which doesn't feel like it will hold on when, say, I'm jouncing through the airport. For example, it slipped off while I was in my office (and turned up 10 minutes later, hanging just inside my shirt collar).

Sound on both sides of the connection was good most of the time, but a little tinny on a few occasions -- the Aliph Jawbone's was somewhat better. However, if I hadn't been also trying the Jawbone, I would have been happy enough with the Gennum.

The Gennum nX6000 is rated as having up to six hours talk time or 90 hours standby time per charge. The device I tested was an advance unit; Gennum expects to be shipping the nX6000 by the end of April.

Plantronics Discovery 655
The Discovery 655 is a highly usable headset and, at 9 grams, is the lightest of the three reviewed here. It's got nice, simple, big-as-possible controls, including the biggest and most convenient main (on/off, answer/end call) button of the three headsets.

When in the charging pocket -- a small shell, with a metal clip, good for hooking inside a shirt pocket-- the phone will light up when a call comes in, a nifty feature. However, the Plantronics ear tip and optional ear loop come off a little too easily, making it more possible to lose.

Sound quality on the Discovery was acceptable, but it fell behind both the Gennum nx6000 and the Aliph Jawbone. My callers sometimes reported that my voice sounded a bit muddy.

The Discovery does wins the prize for "most ways to recharge," although the growing variety of pocket chargers probably renders this less of an advantage. In addition to the proprietary USB/AC cable, the headset comes with an automobile-lighter connector; there also is an optional AA-battery charger that extends talk time to 10 hours (the Discovery is normally rated at up to 3.5 hours talk time), and a mini-USB adapter.The reason that Plantronics can offer all these alternatives is that, unlike the other headsets, you don't plug the charger cables directly into the headset -- you park the headset in a charging pocket, and then attach your choice of power sources. While this can be highly convenient for those who want to be able to charge their units in a variety of ways, in my opinion, Plantronics has added unnecessary complexity -- possibly by having to stay standard with its established charging interface.

Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology writer and the former executive editor of CMP's His Web site is

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