Five Bluetooth headsets: Not just for phone calls

These small headsets offer style, features and their own apps. We look at five of the latest models.

A headset can do more than keep your hands on the wheel while you're on the phone. It can free you to take notes while talking with a client, sip coffee during a conference call or even doodle while waiting on hold. In other words, a headset today is essential equipment for anyone who spends a lot of time talking on a mobile phone.

Also, it's the law. Eight U.S. states have laws against driving with a phone in your hand, while 30 ban texting behind the wheel. In other words, if you pick up a phone while driving, you're not only doing something dangerous, but risking a hefty fine.

As a result, it's no surprise that headsets are the most popular Bluetooth accessory, according to ABI figures, with 80 million headsets sold worldwide in 2010, one quarter of which were sold in the U.S. Mike Morgan, senior analyst for mobile devices at market research firm ABI, forecasts that figure will rise to 100 million by 2015.

With so many headsets out there to choose from, where do you start? "The key is comfort," says Morgan. "It needs to stay in the ear for hours on end, and if it doesn't fit right, it ends up in your pocket and is worthless."

But without performance, comfort is meaningless. Morgan reports that after comfort, people generally look for an earpiece that sounds good regardless of whether they're tooling down the highway or sitting in a noisy departure lounge. It also needs to be easy to use, with the ability to use voice commands to dial calls. Finally, battery life is important, especially if you're looking at a full day of on-and-off use between battery charges.

In this roundup, I look at five of the newest Bluetooth headsets, including the i.Tech EasyChat 306, Jabra Stone2, Jawbone ERA, Motorola CommandOne and Plantronics Voyager Pro UC.

With price tags ranging from $50 to $200, these five headsets couldn't be more different from one another. Some are extremely small, while others are larger but have longer battery life -- for example, the EasyChat ran for a little over two hours, while the Voyager Pro UC lasted 7.5 hours.

A number of interesting new features have started appearing among today's Bluetooth headsets. For example, two of the headsets reviewed here -- the i.Tech EasyChat 306 and the Voyager Pro UC -- come with dedicated Bluetooth dongles to help you link the headset to your computer. (Keep in mind, however, that these dongles do not work with other devices.) All but the EasyChat headset came with the ability to download phone apps that work with the headset. And two -- the Jawbone ERA and the Voyager Pro UC -- have introduced technology that allows audio to switch back to your phone automatically when you remove the headset from your ear.

Speaking of audio: If you plan to use your phone for more than calls, you should look for a headset that includes A2DP technology, which allows other types of audio to be streamed through a Bluetooth connection. Of the headsets reviewed here, only the i.Tech EasyChat 306 doesn't offer A2DP.

Over the course of a month, I wore the headsets every day and made hundreds of calls with my phone, as well as with my iPad and my notebook, using Skype's voice-over-IP service. I drove with them, used them while working and made after-hours calls.

I came away with an appreciation for having a small and light headset that not only fits comfortably into the ear but fits my lifestyle as well.

5 Bluetooth headsets -- features

i.Tech EasyChat 306

Jabra Stone2

Jawbone ERA

Motorola Command One

Plantronics Voyager Pro UC

Dimensions (in.)

1.7 x 0.9 x 0.5

1.8 x 1.5 x 1.0

2.0 x 0.6 x 1.0

2.1 x 0.8 x 0.4

1.8 x 2.3 x 0.9

Weight (oz.)

0.32

0.25

0.35

0.38

0.83

Ear tips

1

4

8

5

5

Charging options

USB

AC dock/USB

AC/USB

AC/USB

AC/USB

Bluetooth dongle

Yes

No

No

No

Yes

A2DP

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Dedicated on/off

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Apps

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Case

No

No

Yes

No

Yes

Price

$45

$130

$130

$130

$200

i.Tech EasyChat 306

It may be enviably small, light and inexpensive, but the i.Tech EasyChat 306 is a very basic headset that lacks some of the mobile creature comforts that the others provide.

At 1.7 x 0.9 x 0.5 in. and 0.32 oz., it's about the same size as and a little lighter than the Motorola CommandOne; only the Jabra Stone2 is lighter. It looks positively tiny next to the Plantronics Voyager Pro UC but lacks the design flair of the Stone2 or Jawbone ERA.

The black-and-gray device has a removable ear loop and can work in either ear. However, it comes with only one ear tip rather than the assortment that the others provide. Despite this, the EasyChat sat firmly in my ear, and I was able to wear it comfortably for a few hours at a time.

The EasyChat comes with a comparatively large Bluetooth dongle for use with laptops, and an 8-in. MicroUSB cable for charging the unit's battery. It is the only headset I looked at that doesn't come with an AC adapter, which means that if you don't want to just charge it through a computer, you need to buy a generic USB power adapter.

It's the only headset to come with a CD -- because you need to load the company's VoIP PC Suite software on your computer to use EasyChat with Skype's VoIP phone service. The earpiece requires the use of the included Bluetooth dongle and works only on PCs. It took me about three minutes to install the program, along with another two minutes for the program to adjust my system's Skype settings. After that, Skype calls went through without a problem.

The EasyChat connected on the first try with my phone but refused to link with my iPad because the headset doesn't support Bluetooth's A2DP audio streaming. This also keeps it from receiving music from a phone or computer, something the others were able to do.

In addition to a volume control, the EasyChat has a Multi-Function button, which you press to turn the headset on or off and to start or take a call. The device supports voice calling (assuming that your phone supports that feature) but doesn't offer any additional apps for, say, having text read back to you.

At a Glance

i.Tech EasyChat 306

i.Tech Dynamic

Price: $45

Pros: Inexpensive, small and light, Skype app, comes with Bluetooth dongle, comfortable.

Cons: Can't connect to iPad, no add-on apps, lacks battery gauge, short battery life, no AC adapter, low audio quality.

In testing, the EasyChat provided only 2 hours and 8 minutes of battery life, the shortest of the five headsets. Unfortunately, unlike the Stone2 and CommandOne, it doesn't have a visible battery gauge. I was able to get up to a reasonable 30 feet from my signal source before I lost the connection.

I found its audio quality to be disappointing. The EasyChat 306 had a hollow, otherworldly quality, even when I was having a conversation in a quiet place. Callers reported that at their end, words sounded broken up and at times weren't understandable. In a noisy environment -- driving with the windows down -- voices were clipped short with broken words, making it hard to understand what was being said.

Bottom line

The EasyChat 306 has one big thing going for it: a price that is half as much as many of its competitors'. But in this case, you get what you pay for.

Jabra Stone2

If looks were everything in a headset, the Jabra Stone2 would be a surefire winner. It has a beautiful spiral design, making it look like a piece of jewelry or a fashion accessory. The shiny black-and-silver case is a real eye-catcher, and the company also sells a version with a leatherette exterior.

The Stone2 is not only striking but lightweight -- it weighs just .25 oz., the lightest of the headsets I looked at. At 1.8 x 1.5 x 1.0 in., it is much bigger than the Motorola CommandOne or the Jawbone ERA, but small compared to the Plantronics Voyager Pro UC.

It comes with a MicroUSB charging cable, an AC adapter with a one-foot cable, and a dock that it snaps into for charging. There's also a handy clothing clip that makes it hard to lose.

The device includes four silicone ear tips, but none fit my ears quite right. The closest one was still a little loose in my ear, and while it stayed put, it wobbled when I jerked my head. Southpaws, take notice: The Stone2's ear loop can't be removed, so the headset can't be worn in the left ear.

In a design move that harkens back to earlier headsets, the Stone2 doesn't have an on-off switch. To turn it on and off, you take it out of the dock or put it back in, which could frustrate people who don't want to carry the dock around with them.

There's only one button on the headset, which is for dialing, accepting or ending a call. In one of the slickest designs I've seen, there are no volume buttons, either. To make it louder or softer, just swipe your finger up or down the length of the device; a tone confirms the action.

The Stone2 also offers voice control. To dial a call, just say "Call so-and-so," and the phone connects the call. To take or duck a call, all you do is say "Answer" or "Ignore." To end a call, you either press the Stone2's button or say "Call ended." Over several calls, it worked quite well, but it took me some time to get used to saying the magic words -- for example, once I said "Take" instead of "Answer" and the headset did nothing.

Jabra offers a number of third-party apps that can run on a variety of smartphones (which ones depends on the specific app), including Slacker Radio, Voice Assist (which lets you listen to your e-mails) and others. My favorite was Slydial Voice Messaging, which lets you send a voice-mail message to anyone in your phone's address book -- perfect for the shy or very busy among us.

At a Glance

Jabra Stone2

GN Netcom

Price: $130

Pros: Graceful design, easy setup, includes dock, useful volume control, lightweight, battery gauge.

Cons: Difficult fit, low volume, short battery life, right ear only, no on/off switch.

The Stone2's Achilles' heel is its battery. At 2 hours and 25 minutes, it lasted 17 minutes longer than the i.Tech EasyChat 306, but only one-third as long as the Voyager Pro UC. It's unlikely that it can go for a full day of intermittent use. It does have one of the best battery gauges of the group, however -- three LEDs that darken one by one as the battery drains.

The headset's 33-foot range should be adequate for walking around a hotel room or coffee shop while remaining connected. However, the audio was adequate at best. On top of annoying background static when I was driving with the windows down, my words broke up on the other end of the call, making each of us repeat ourselves. And the headset's volume level never got loud enough to compete against wind noise or in a noisy environment like a supermarket.

Bottom line

The Stone2 has a beautiful design and provides access to excellent add-on software, but it lacks the volume and battery life needed to excel as a wireless headset.

Jawbone ERA

Futuristic design that breaks away from the ubiquitous shiny plastic earpiece makes the Jawbone ERA stand out from the crowd. It may not be the smallest or lightest unit or have the longest battery life of this group, but the ERA is the most comfortable and has enough features to be a jack-of-all-trades.

The Jawbone ERA's textured surface stands in stark contrast to the shiny black plastic of other headsets. At 2.0 x 0.6 x 1.0 in. and weighing 0.35 oz., it is midway between the chunky Plantronics Voyager Pro UC and the petite Jabra Stone2. Jawbone sells four styles: Silver Lining (the white model I reviewed), Midnight (black and red), Shadowbox (black and black) and Smokescreen (copper).

The headset includes a bag and eight silicone ear tips, the widest assortment of the five headsets I looked at. The AC adapter comes with a MicroUSB charging cable that's only 3 in. long, making it hard to use in tight places.

Of the five headsets, it was the most comfortable for me to wear and use; at times I barely noticed it was on my ear. It was stable and secure, the ear loop can be removed, and the device can be used in either ear.

Along with an on/off button, the headset has a versatile Talk button. To make a call, you press Talk or tap the headset's exterior twice; a built-in accelerometer relays the taps. Then tell the headset who you want to call. There's no way to accept or duck a call by talking only to the headset, as is possible with the Stone2; you need to tap it twice or press the Talk button.

Instead of a volume button, the ERA uses a sophisticated algorithm for keeping the volume at a constant level despite what's going on around you. You can also manually increase or decrease the volume by pressing the Talk button, which took a couple of seconds to kick in but worked well.

The ERA headset doesn't have a traditional battery gauge, either. Every time the device is turned on, a voice tells you the charge level; in addition, you can press the Talk button to hear a battery update. (Jawbone lets you pick from eight different voices that are available for download.) When the battery is nearly spent, a ring around the microphone blinks red as a warning, although it is hard to see while wearing the device.

Those who use the ERA with an iPhone or BlackBerry get a bonus: an app that shows a battery gauge for the headset next to the one for the phone.

Jawbone's MyTalk site offers a variety of downloadable phone apps. There are several for reading and replying to e-mails, text messages, etc., and for making calls using voice commands. Another, Directory Assistance 411, can help you find the number of, say, a restaurant you're looking for -- just say "Directory assistance" and the phone links with your carrier's operators. You can install only one app at a time on your ERA; if you want to try a different app, it will replace the first one.

At a Glance

Jawbone ERA

Jawbone

Price: $130

Pros: Lightweight, a variety of ear tips, good battery life, easy setup, excellent audio, automatic volume control.

Cons: Short power cable.

The headset is smart enough to terminate its Bluetooth connection to save power when it's not in your ear. The ERA had a battery life of 4 hours, 57 minutes, twice as long as the i.Tech EasyChat 306's and the Stone2's, but it wasn't as long-lived as the Voyager Pro UC. Either way, it should be enough for a workday of on-and-off use.

The ERA headset's NoiseAssassin 3.0 technology effectively blocked out wind and crowd noise but occasionally broke up some words on both ends of the conversation. Overall, it had outstanding audio with a natural tone that was absent in the others, although at times it sounded slightly hollow to the other person on the call. Everything was easily understandable, regardless of whether I was sitting in my office or driving with the windows rolled down.

The device lost contact with my phone at 45 feet, the longest range of the five headsets reviewed here, allowing the most freedom of movement.

Bottom line

Small, light and reasonably priced, the ERA combines good looks with first-rate audio, long battery life and unmatched design in an earphone that's comfortable to wear all day.

Motorola CommandOne

It's hard to believe that something as small as Motorola's CommandOne can do so many things. It's comfortable to wear and had excellent audio, but the headset's biggest shortcoming is that many of its coolest features won't work on every phone.

At one-fifth the size of the Plantronics Voyager Pro UC, the CommandOne has a sleek gray case that is about the same size as the EasyChat 306. It weighs 0.38 oz., much less than the Voyager Pro UC and slightly more than the Jawbone ERA.

The headset comes with an AC adapter with a generous 3-foot MicroUSB cable and five silicone ear tips. The ear loop is removable, and the CommandOne works just as well in the right or left ear. There are three buttons, to turn it on and off, increase or decrease the volume, and start or take a call.

The CommandOne tells you the battery level and has a battery gauge that displays three different LED colors to show charge level.

It may not have the variety of apps provided by Jabra, Jawbone or Plantronics, but Motorola's free MotoSpeak application can read e-mails and text messages as well as let you respond to them. However, it works only on Android and RIM phones, and certain Motorola devices.

I found the CommandOne to be the most comfortable headset of the group -- I was able to wear it for hours on end, and at times I forgot it was there.

In daily use, its voice command system was quite effective, with the phone announcing who was calling. To duck or take a call, say "Ignore" or "Answer." Unfortunately, to start a call, you need to tap the Call button; in contrast, the Jabra Stone2 can start calls with a voice command.

At a Glance

Motorola CommandOne

Motorola Mobility Inc.

Price: $130

Pros: Tiny, battery gauge, excellent audio, text-to-speech app.

Cons: App works only with Android, RIM phones, and certain Motorola devices.

The CommandOne's diminutive size is not at the expense of battery life. It was able to run for 4 hours and 2 minutes on a charge, more than enough for a full day of on-and-off phone use. It stayed connected to my phone for 25 feet, the shortest distance of the five.

The CommandOne offered outstanding audio quality on both ends of a call. On a par with the Voyager Pro UC, it was able to convey clear, rich and precise speech without any echoes, regardless of whether I was in a quiet office or driving with the windows rolled down.

Bottom line

In the final analysis, the CommandOne is everything a headset should be: small, with excellent audio and long battery life. Too bad its MotoSpeak app doesn't work with all phones.

Plantronics Voyager Pro UC

The Plantronics Voyager Pro UC is meant for serious mobile phone users who demand good audio and long battery life.

At 0.83 oz., the Voyager Pro UC is more than three times as hefty as the Jabra Stone2 and twice as heavy as the i.Tech EasyChat 306. Its long boom microphone made me feel a little self-conscious while wearing it in public.

The Voyager Pro UC can be used on the right or left ear -- while the ear loop isn't removable, it can rotate to work on either side. The headset includes an AC adapter with a sensible 3-foot MicroUSB cable, a padded case and a tiny Bluetooth dongle for connecting with a PC.

The Voyager Pro UC came with three silicone and two foam ear tips. Regardless of which one I chose, I had trouble getting a good fit, and the headset always felt a bit loose -- all I had to do was jerk my head from side to side to make it fling off.

Unlike the other headsets, which fit into the ear and have thin (usually detachable) wire loops that secure the headset to your ear, the Voyager itself actually loops around the ear. For me, it was too heavy for long-term comfort. I found that I couldn't wear it for more than an hour at a time.

The company's Control Panel software, which you download from the Plantronics support site, connects the headset to your computer and manages the add-on apps. Unfortunately, it's for Windows PCs only. With the application, and using the included Bluetooth dongle, I was able to link my computer to the headset on the first try; however, I was unable to make the connection without the dongle.

On the outside of the black-and-silver device are switches to turn it on and off, adjust the volume and take calls. Inside is capacitive proximity sensor technology that can detect whether the device is in your ear, which lets you route the call to the headset when it's being used and to the phone when not. This also works when you're streaming music from your phone -- it pauses the audio when you take the headset off and resumes it when you put the headset back on.

To start a call or answer the phone, you tap on the side of the device. After holding the Call button on the boom microphone for two seconds, you then say who you want to call. The phone does the rest.

The Voyager Pro UC can tap into Plantronics' Vocalyst service, which lets you dictate an e-mail or have a computer-generated voice read you e-mails, news and tweets. The basic service costs $25 a year; Vocalyst Pro service costs $60 a year and adds features such as the ability to update a Web site, log expenses and create to-do lists.

I used the Vocalyst Weather app while I was on the road. I just said the word "weather," and after a slight delay, the service read me the temperature and a quickie forecast for my area; you can choose between Fahrenheit or Celsius temperatures.

At a Glance

Plantronics Voyager Pro UC

Plantronics Inc.

Price: $200

Pros: Excellent audio, long battery life, padded case, Bluetooth dongle, pauses audio when removed from ear.

Cons: Heavier than most, expensive, visible boom microphone.

Being the biggest of the headsets in this roundup, the Voyager Pro UC has the advantage of holding the largest battery; it was able to run for 7 hours and 37 minutes. That's easily a full day of continuous use (and likely longer than your phone will run on a charge). If you press the power button briefly, the number of flashes of the LED just above the button tells you how much battery power is left.

With a range of 42 feet, the Voyager was just short of having the longest effective range; only the Jawbone ERA bested it. This means that you can walk around, say, a conference room and remain connected while still staying on the call.

Its audio quality was better than most, with full, rich sound with no annoying echo and more than enough volume to hear a conversation. When I was driving, some background wind noise was audible to my caller, and the conversation was a little clipped, with words cut off here and there, but on the whole, the quality was top-notch and the conversation was understandable on both ends of the call.

Bottom line

Priced at $200, the Plantronics Voyager Pro UC is the most expensive headset reviewed here -- but it could be worth it if you need excellent audio and a full day of talk time.

Conclusions

Selecting a Bluetooth headset is a very personal decision that involves many variables. For me, comfort, audio quality and battery life are at the top of my list.

Motorola's CommandOne came close on all counts except for battery life, and the Plantronics Voyager Pro UC was just too bulky and heavy for me. The Jabra Stone2 didn't get loud enough, and i.Tech's EasyChat 306 was too basic for my needs.

With that in mind, I consider the Jawbone ERA to be the best compromise among these competing interests. It can run for a full workday and had very good sound, and I was able to wear it for hours on end, often forgetting I had it on.

How we tested

To gauge how these five Bluetooth headsets perform, I gave them each a good workout with two phones (a Sony Ericsson W518a and a BlackBerry 8800 smartphone), an iPad and a notebook computer over a one-month period. During business hours, I used each extensively for making and taking phone calls.

If the headset came with a Bluetooth dongle, I used it with the dongle but also tried to use the laptop's built-in Bluetooth.

I started by measuring and weighing each headset and rating it for comfort, based on whether it fit correctly in my ear and was stable on my head. For those that came with multiple ear inserts, I tried them all out and picked the one that felt best. I then checked to see if the headset could be used on the left as well as the right ear.

Audio quality is a key concern, and with the headset connected to the phone, I made several calls and rated their quality in a quiet office and in a car with the windows open moving at 50 miles per hour. I made dozens of calls with each headset, to land-line and mobile phones and via Skype. With an assistant on the other end of a call, we both rated the audio quality of the call. I also left several messages on a digital answering machine to hear and rate the audio quality.

Next, I used the headset's buttons to take, reject or dial new calls, followed by trying out the voice control features of those headsets that included it.

After setting up a call, I walked away, noted where the connection was lost and walked back slowly to see if it automatically reconnected. If the headset had Bluetooth's A2DP audio-streaming technology, I played music on the phone to see if it could be streamed to the headset.

Then I completely charged the battery overnight and checked the battery level for those with a battery gauge. For those that required a dock for charging, I tried it out. Finally, I set up a call between a land-line phone and my cell phone, put the phone's handset next to a radio and let it play until the headset's battery was dead. I repeated this three times for each headset and averaged the results.

5 Bluetooth headsets -- performance

i.Tech EasyChat 306

Jabra Stone2

Jawbone ERA

Motorola Command One

Plantronics Voyager Pro UC

Battery life (hrs:min)

2:08

2:25

4:57

4:02

7:37

Connection range (ft.)

30

33

45

25

42

Brian Nadel is a freelance writer based near New York and is the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

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Brian Nadel

Computerworld (US)
Topics: Motorola, plantronics, bluetooth, Networking, GN Netcom, wireless, i.Tech Dynamic, jawbone
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