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.
Motorola Sliver II
I'm a klutz at the best of times, so I had quite a bit of trouble with the ear-affixing routine of Motorola's $130 Sliver II. To switch the headset on and ready it for wearing, you rotate the earpiece outwards from its folded-into-the-earhook (turned-off) position--to the right or left, depending on which ear you want to use. Attaching the Sliver II is then a two-part procedure that, for me, required both hands: First you insert the earbud-like earpiece in your ear, and then you position the hook over the top of the ear to stabilize the headset's grip.
It sounds simple enough, but the problem is that while fumbling to anchor the thing, I'd often twist the earpiece too far and accidentally switch the headset off. I'd rotate the earpiece back to turn it on again, but when I again tried to position it, the same thing would happen. This rigmarole was especially frustrating with incoming calls, when scrambling to put on the Sliver II. I contacted Motorola about this issue, but a spokesperson told me that the company hasn't heard feedback regarding the headset turning off accidentally or not locking in place correctly. (The spokesperson wondered if the specific unit I tested was having difficulties. I didn't test another unit.)
All that said, once I got the hang of putting the headset on with some caution, I liked it. Every time the Sliver II connects to your phone, you hear voice alert indicating the remaining headset battery life ("more than two hours of talk time," for example). And once applied, the Sliver II feels snug, but also comfortable, light, and unobtrusive, as no part of it perches on your face. During my testing, I almost forgot I was wearing it.
Given the shape of my small ear, managing calls required me to hold the headset against my head with the palm of my hand to anchor it, and then tap the main Call button. This approach worked fine--the round Call button requires an appropriately firm push and delivers solid feedback when pressed. You also tap the Call button to activate voice-dialing ("Call Mariana mobile," for instance). The first time you tap the Call button, you're presented with your phone's voice-dialing options--and Motorola's: In my case, I could use Google Search or my Motorola Droid Razr Maxx's built-in Voice Commands or MotoSpeak, the company's free Android app. (I chose MotoSpeak as my default while testing the Sliver.) Despite a slight delay to fire up, MotoSpeak worked fine every time. The volume-level rocker button, on the other hand, is a little awkward to get used to--I regularly needed to steady the headset first and then tap the rocker.
Call quality is acceptable. My voice sounded great to some callers but not so great to others. And even though people could understand everything I was saying, my voice sounded distant compared to when I talked directly into the handset. Incoming call quality proved to be above average most of the time, with occasional instances of words breaking up. The Sliver did an admirable job of eliminating background noise, including street traffic and my tunes.
A feature unique to the Sliver II is Bluetooth Class 1 specification. Most current headsets fall under Class 2, which offers a range of about 33 feet (10 meters); Class 1 allows you to use the headset over 300 feet (roughly 100 meters) from your phone. In my unscientific tests, the Sliver held onto its connection with my phone right up to the edge of the 300-plus-foot limit as long as I maintained a clear line of sight between the devices. I could hear considerable crackling on my end, and the calls sounded shaky to me, once I wandered long past the approximate half-way point; but at the other end, my call companion said the static was not prominent.
I'm a big fan of the Sliver II's carry-and-charge case, which is bundled with the headset. Motorola says that the case's battery can add up to nine hours of talk time, extending the total estimated talk time to 14 hours. The clamshell case is made of rigid plastic, and it's a cinch to find in my packed purse; it's small enough to fit in the pocket of jeans or a shirt.
The slide-out microphone mechanism on Sennheiser's $180 Presence is terrific: To turn on the unit, you simply slide out the microphone; to switch the headset off, you flick the mic back up into place. It also has a practical visual benefit: I always knew whether the headset was turned on or off--I didn't have to squint at miniature power switches or tap buttons to get audio feedback.
The Presence can be worn with our without an ear loop, and it fits both right and left ears. The adjustable hook wraps nicely around your ear, though my preference was to eschew the hook, thanks to my long hair, droopy earrings, and eyeglasses. Sennheiser includes three earpiece-cover sizes, each with a spout-like protrusion for a secure fit. In my testing, the Presence stayed comfortably in my ear canal at all times. Unlike with the Bose Series 2, however, I had to make sure that I wedged the Presence firmly into place, or it had a tendency to slip out. (A tester with larger ears than mine reported that the Presence felt secure, so this may be related to ear size.) With the microphone opened out, the headset didn't feel conspicuous or bothersome on my cheek.
As much as I like the slide-out/in mechanism, I don't like how the buttons operate. The Presence's main call button and volume controls are easily accessible on the outside of the headset, but the buttons have very shallow travel when tapped, and they lack any satisfying audible or tactile feedback. As a result, I regularly pressed very firmly on the controls--and against my face--but I still often wondered whether I needed to repeat the tap. Frankly, I'd rather concentrate on my conversations and not the controls.
Once I got past my frustration with the buttons, I appreciated the instant battery-life status report: One tap and the Presence alerts you to how much juice remains (for example, "between 8 and 10 hours talk time). When adjusting volume, I was also glad to hear the voice prompts "volume max" and "volume min." In addition, the headset admirably accounted for background noise during my use, including breezy conditions in the car when I had the windows rolled down.
On the audio-quality front, other people's voices sounded solid during my testing. At the receiving end, reactions were mixed. Callers at times said that my voice sounded clear and natural-sounding, and our chitchat was devoid of any static or choppiness; other times they detected a tinny character to my voice.
Call me a grump, but for a staggering $180, the least I'd expect is an AC charger, but Sennheiser doesn't include one--you must provide your own USB wall charger (or computer USB port). Sure, the Jawbone Era also lacks a charger, but the Era costs $50 to $80 less. The Presence does include a car charger and a Micro-USB cable, but it's also lacking a storage pouch or any smartphone apps. And while you get all the usual call-management features, you won't find sophisticated voice-command options. This is pricey package considering the performance and accessories.
Jabra's $130 motion-sensing Motion proved to be the toughest in this group to tackle when it came to a proper fit. Sporting an over-the-ear hook that's shaped like a little banana, along with an in-ear earpiece, the Motion's design ended up being one that never achieved a secure fit in my small ears.
I like the Motion's flip-up microphone boom: To turn on the Motion, you just flip out the boom, which locks into position. The boom is long and feels conspicuous, though. The earpiece itself has a small protrusion, shaped like a beak, that helps anchor the Motion in the ear, but even after lots of futzing, the headset felt flappy on my face. (Three other testers tried the Motion on for size, and each had the same complaint. One of those testers has much larger ears than mine, and even though the Motion fit him better, it never felt completely stable.)
On the plus side, the headset's round call button is a breeze to find by feel, and the button provides solid feedback (and the headset emits an audible cue) when tapped. The ridged volume-level pad, which you glide your finger over to adjust the volume, took some getting used to, but it worked fine.
The headset's namesake motion-sensing feature usually worked well. If a call came in when the headset was, say, sitting on my desk, the Motion would usually sense the movement of me picking it up to put it on my ear--the call would be answered as the headset was on its way to my head, so I didn't have to scramble to fix the Motion in place and then manually answer the call.
Callers' voices came through loud and clear to me through the Motion, and the headset adequately zapped ambient traffic noise along with my car stereo's music in the background. On the other hand, call quality was hit or miss for those on the other end of calls--conversations consistently sounded muffled, and my voice seemed far away. One caller said I sounded like I was talking through a dish towel. This feedback surprised me given how close the Motion's microphone is to my mouth, thanks to the boom arm.
For iOS and Android phones, the Motion's maker offers the free Jabra Connect app, which includes a profile hub that lets you specify your call environments: in an office setting versus outdoors versus in your car, for example. The app also monitors battery life and helps you find your (misplaced) headset. The Jabra headset finder relies on sound and geo-tags: With GPS enabled on your smartphone, Jabra Connect lets you save any locations where the Motion is connected; the app provides the times associated with these locations to help track down the lost headset. Click the app's "Beacon" button, and it prompts the headset to emit a sound that I can only describe as a cross between a squeak and a bicycle pump. This sound is easy to hear down the corridor and, like the Era's tones, the Motion's get louder and louder. The app also gives you a link to navigation directions and offers an option to take a photo of your location at any given time.
You can also try Jabra's Voice Assist service free for 60 days. The service can read emails or text messages to you, and lets you dictate your responses to them when, for instance, you're driving. Voice Assist also lets you dictate posts for Facebook and Twitter. This might be your cup of tea, making the most of your drive time, but it's not mine.
If you're a casual headset user--say, you just want something to keep handy for the occasional call during your commute--the models here are likely overkill. You can get a quality headset for under $60, though it will likely omit some of the convenience features, accessories, and feature-enhancing smartphone apps these models offer.
If, on the other hand, a headset is part of your face for much of the day, you want something compact, comfortable, stylish, and reliable. You can't go wrong with the Jawbone Era ($100 alone, or $130 with the charger case, which I recommend). The Era offers great call quality, impressive background-noise cancelation, and a secure fit. Its integration with Siri and Google Now voice commands will also prove useful if you're a fan of those services, and the nifty charging case more than doubles use time.
However, the Era is missing a dedicated volume control, and I missed having caller-ID voice prompts for true hands-free answering. If you don't mind a long microphone boom, close behind the Era is Plantronics's $100 Voyager Legend, which offers solid call quality, good hands-free call management, and some nice extras including motion-sensor technology and enhanced voice prompts.
The other models I tested were disappointing in their own ways, thanks to high prices coupled with lackluster performance or a lack of compelling features. Sometimes you get what you pay for, but in these cases, the adage doesn't, ahem, ring true.