Picking the right Bluetooth headset might seem simple, but it actually comes with a challenge that's unique to all headphones, and, well, anything that needs to be placed in your ear: It's tough (and not completely sanitary) to try products out before plunking down the cash for them. But a major component of a headset's success depends on how it fits and feels—and that varies widely from person to person, or even from ear to ear. Other factors including sound quality, design, style, battery life, and extra features. We've come up with nine points you should consider when shopping for your next Bluetooth headset:
1. Call Quality
Call quality is an issue in both directions; one headset might sound full and crisp in the earpiece, but then transmit a thin, computery-sounding version of your voice to the other person. If call quality is the most important consideration for you, you'll want to check out the Motorola CommandOne and the Editors' Choice Aliph Jawbone Era, though several other headsets are almost as good now. Call quality varies widely among products, but we're pleased to report that even some smaller, fashion-conscious models like that Jawbone Era and the BlueAnt Q2 finally sound as good as their larger counterparts, despite having tiny microphones and speakers.
2. Noise Cancellation
Noise suppression performance is tough to measure from your end of the call, as it's what the other party hears that's important. Driving on a highway with the windows down, or standing on the floor of a noisy conference floor, can quickly separate the good performers from the bad. Headsets with two or three mics usually perform the best, as there's at least one mic dedicated to detecting ambient noise, which the headset can then cancel out using adaptive DSP algorithms. We test noise cancellation performance in every one of our Bluetooth headset reviews.
Aliph's original Jawbone introduced noise-cancellation technology to the masses. Aliph's fifth-generation Jawbone Era has the most advanced algorithms yet. Other headsets, like the Plantronics Voyager Pro+ and BlueAnt Q2, also do a fine job at blocking out noise and can be more comfortable to wear than the Jawbone. The better headsets preserve the quality of your voice while muting background noise. Less-capable models simply "gate" the noise (meaning silence everything below a certain threshold), but reintroduce it whenever you're speaking, which defeats the purpose.
3. Battery Life
A guiding principle: If you don't want to charge, go large. Some of the bulkier, less fashionable headsets like the older Motorola HX1 can last for eight hours on a single charge; the Voyager Pro+ (no svelte elf itself) lasts about six-and-a-half hours. But watch out! There are some real turkeys out there, such as Jabra's Stone line, which can't even eke out two hours of talk time, so keep an eye on our test results. The Sound ID 510 and Motorola CommandOne each last over five hours despite their slim bodies, beating some competing headsets by an hour or more.
This is a very personal choice. Some models, such as the Motorola CommandOne, feature a rubber earbud that sits partially inside your ear. While some may find this uncomfortable, I think it creates a secure fit without being too tight. Others sit on the edge of your ear, while the Samsung HM3600 and Plantronics Voyager Pro+ rely more heavily on their requisite ear hooks to balance their weight.
A certain portion of the population thinks that all Bluetooth headsets look silly—a view that's reinforced whenever they see people walking down the street wearing one, even when not in use. If you want the best-looking device you can find, the sleek, hatpin-like Plantronics Savor M1100 and the tiny but cute Motorola H17txt score points for their fetching designs. The slight but attractive Aliph Jawbone Era is another head turner, particularly due to its array of chic color and texture choices. Still, limiting headset use to your desk or the car will keep disapproving stares to a minimum.
There's not much variation in range of operation. Most headsets are limited to a theoretical range of 33 feet, which is a limitation of Bluetooth technology. Typically, you can go a good 10 to 15 feet before static starts to creep in, though a few headsets can make it to 20 feet and around a wall or two before this happens.
7. Mono vs. Stereo Sound
Most Bluetooth headsets provide mono sound and fit in a single ear. But if you want to listen to stereo music wirelessly—say, for your workout—a few dual-ear models, like the Novero Tour and the quirky LG HBS-700, are worth considering. (Avoid Motorola's S10, which has serious sound-quality problems.) Convertible models that offer mono and stereo modes, like the Samsung Modus HM6450, can give you the best of both worlds, if you don't mind detaching and reattaching one of the earbud wires on occasion.
Die-hard audiophiles should stick with wired earphones for the best sound quality (though the more expensive Nokia BH-905 also offers a good-sounding stereo wired mode). But when it comes to pure convenience, it's tough to beat a stereo Bluetooth set, especially since these models let you listen to your tunes and take calls from your Bluetooth-enabled phone.
8. Bonus Features
Depending on the device you choose, you can get one (or more) nifty extras. The Jawbone Era leads the pack with its genuine app platform, which turns the headset into a fully programmable gadget. The Jawbone Icon HD + the Nerd comes with a companion USB dongle for instantaneous, wire-free audio on any PC or Mac. The Motorola CommandOne works with a special Android app that reads your text messages to you through your headset. The Novero TheFirstOne comes with every charger, power connector, and ear tip you'll ever need. Many headsets, like the Plantronics Voyager Pro+, let you pair up to two devices simultaneously; that means you can switch between PC-based VoIP calls and cell phone calls all day without pairing and re-pairing each time. The BlueAnt Q2 lets you speak commands and gives you voice-based tutorials.
The sweet spot for a sweet Bluetooth headset is $99 list, and you can often find those models discounted to $70 or $80 if you shop around. But you can still find a decent headset for under $50. Typically you'll have to buy something a little bit clunkier, with noise cancellation that isn't up to par with the leaders. But you can't deny the value of the Plantronics Explorer 395 and Samsung Modus HM3600, both of which offer solid quality for prices well under $50.