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How to Choose a Bluetooth Headset

Part 2 of a series on Bluetooth

click for About Bluetooth

Sometimes comfortable and stylish works of art, but sometimes ugly and awkward, Bluetooth headsets have no wires to connect them to your phone.

The headset industry had to learn new techniques to design Bluetooth headsets. Some first generation headsets were disasters from both a design and functionality point of view. New headsets are generally much improved.

Bluetooth headsets vary enormously in price. Some can be found for $30 or less, while others cost $300 and more. Careful shopping, using the information in this article, can save you from an expensive mistake.

Design Challenges in Creating Bluetooth Headsets

Creating a good Bluetooth headset is surprisingly difficult.  Regular wired headsets are very easy to design - with styles ranging from an absolutely minimal earbud speaker and shirtclip/microphone, up to a major dual earcup, over the head, set of headphones and angle-boom microphone.  Light weight versions are so light that having them securely mounted to/on your ear is no problem, and heavy duty headsets include secure mounting as part of their structure.

A Bluetooth headset can never be as small or light as small wired headsets, because it needs to include a battery and extra electronics.  This extra size and weight impacts on how the headset can be mounted on/around your ear.

All Bluetooth headsets to date have concentrated on offering as small as possible single piece designs.  The idea of having a headband has never been implemented, and neither has the idea of having a separate microphone joined by wire to the headset (but note the recent introduction of new 'necklace' style designs).

It seems that Bluetooth headsets all want to highlight their wirelessness by being small single piece units.  Perhaps Bluetooth headset manufacturers are concerned that if you see something that looks like a regular headset, or with a wire connecting two parts together, you might instead choose to spend $5-25 on a regular headset, rather than $30-300 on a Bluetooth product.

Comfort Compromise

There seem to be two main styles of Bluetooth headsets.  Some are held in place by a loop around the ear - there are generally more comfortable, but may be less secure.  Others are held in place by being physically jammed into your ear.  These are generally less comfortable (!) but may sometimes be more secure.

Common Problems with Bluetooth Headsets

Ideally, a Bluetooth headset should be something you could wear all the time while expecting to receive or make calls, or something you can quickly and conveniently affix on/around your ear when phone calls come in.

Due to being battery powered by their own separate battery (typically offering 2-10 hours talk time or 25-250 hours standby), ideally a Bluetooth headset would be something you'd only turn on when you need to use it.  You wouldn't leave it on between calls.  For this reason, the headset should be easy to turn on and off, and should power up and connect to the cell phone as quickly as possible.

Volume controls and other features and functions should be easy to use and understand.

Few Bluetooth headsets adequately meet these design criteria.  Perhaps the biggest common problem is how to securely - but comfortably and conveniently - attach the headset to your ear.

Why Use a Bluetooth headset

Bluetooth headsets are considerably more expensive than regular corded headsets (or no headset at all!).  They are also somewhat more complicated to set up, and you then have the added complication of having to keep their battery charged.

Firstly, whether Bluetooth or not, you should try and always use some type of headset with your cell phone.  This will vastly reduce the amount of radiation that you're pumping out of the phone and into your brain - some scientists believe this radiation could be harmful, although studies to date have been inconclusive.

In some states and countries, you are not allowed to hold a cell phone while driving, and the use of some type of headset is mandatory.  Even if it is still legal to hold a cell phone and drive, it is safer to avoid this whenever possible.

A simple wired headset is a satisfactory solution for many people, but it literally ties you to your cell phone.  With a Bluetooth headset you can have your cell phone in your briefcase on your car's back seat, and still place and receive calls.

Note that this can be a deceptively dangerous freedom.  If you don't physically keep your phone on your person, then you run the danger of leaving the phone - for example, in your briefcase in the car, while going somewhere else (eg into a store to buy something) and finding yourself with a useless headset that is way out of range of the forgotten phone!

A Bluetooth headset can also be used to connect with other devices such as your computer.  For example, if you're using your computer for teleconferencing, you can use your headset for this purpose, too.  This can be very convenient, because it then enables you to use one headset simultaneously for cell phone calls and computer calls too - you don't have to be shuffling between one headset and the other, depending on the call that is coming in.

If you have several different Bluetooth equipped phones, your Bluetooth headset should work with them all equally conveniently, and/or if you replace your phone handset, your headset will work with your new phone just as it formerly did with your old phone.  This is much better than the profusion of different type of headset plugs on mobile phones at present, making it very unlikely that your headset designed for one phone will ever work with a different phone from a different manufacturer - and sometimes even it will be incompatible with different phones from the same manufacturer.

Compatibility Issues

This is much less an issue now than it was a year and more ago.  You should check that any headset you buy has these two compatibility features :

(a)  It complies with the Bluetooth 1.1 (or greater - 1.2 is now becoming widespread and 2.0 is on the way) specification

(b)  It offers both headset and hands-free profiles

As long as the headset observes these two requirements, and assuming your phone also has Bluetooth 1.1 or greater, and either of the two profile sets, then you should have no compatibility problems.

The good news is that with Bluetooth you don't have to worry about matching headsets to phones.  With regular wired headsets, you need to be certain that they have the correct type of plug for the phone you use, with many different types of plugs being used by the different phone manufacturers.

Realworld Use Implications

A key factor to decide is whether you want to wear your headset any time you think that you might be about to receive a call, or if you'll choose to only put your headset on when actually placing or receiving a call.

Very few of us will want to wear a headset all day, no matter how comfortable it is.  This means that you'll want a headset that you can keep conveniently close to you and quickly and easily put onto/into your ear when receiving a call.

This creates some key usability issues :  Will you keep your headset in a pocket or purse or perhaps on a cord around your neck?  Is the headset suitable for keeping casually in a pocket?  Does it have a loop to affix a neck strap?  Is it easy to place on your ear, and is it quick to turn on?

Almost no Bluetooth headset has a sensible carry solution as part of its design.  Fortunately, there is now (April 2009) an excellent and low cost after-market accessory that makes carrying a Bluetooth headset easy and convenient - the Nectar Blueclip range of rectractable and necklace style headset holders.

Range

In theory, all Bluetooth Class 2 devices are designed to have a range of 10 meters - about 33 ft.  However, this range can vary.

If there is a direct unobstructed view between your headset and your phone, then you'll probably get this range, and perhaps even more.

But if your phone is on the opposite side of your head to your headset, and if it is in another room with a wall between you and it, you'll find the range drops considerably.

You should 'calibrate' the range of your phone and headset so that you know how far away from the phone you can go and still have a reliable connection.  You'd do this calibration simply by testing the phone/headset combination in various common places - for example, leaving the phone on your desk at work and seeing how far away you can go while still keeping the connection open, and perhaps repeating this exercise at home, with the phone wherever you normally keep it and you walking around the rest of your house.

Factors to Consider in Comparing Headsets

Cost

  • An obvious issue.

    We've seen little to confirm that more expensive headsets are consistently better than cheaper ones!

Ergonomics

  • Is it easy to quickly and conveniently put the headset on your ear, and to take it off again
  • Is it easy to use the control buttons on the headset
  • Is it comfortable to wear for a long phone call
  • Can you use it with a pair of glasses
  • Can it be worn on either ear
  • How would you carry it when not wearing it
  • How heavy is it
  • Might it fall off

Ease of Use

  • Are commands/controls easy to remember (eg transferring calls between headset and phone, last number redial, voice tag dialing, etc)
  • Can you adjust the volume level
  • How quickly does the unit turn on
  • Does it have a well written easy to understand manual
  • Is there a support number you can call for extra help if needed
  • Does it have its pairing password printed on it, so if you have to re-pair the device, you don't have to hunt for its manual to find its password?

Features

  • What is the headset's claimed battery life for talk time and standby time
  • How do you know when the battery is nearly dead
  • Does it have a lithium type battery (best) or some other type
  • Is the battery replaceable
  • How is the battery charged and how long does it take to charge
  • How do you know when the battery is fully charged
  • Is the charging transformer multi-voltage for international travel and what is its weight/size
  • Can the headset also be charged via a USB cable or car adapter or some other way not requiring yet another transformer to add to your collection
  • How many devices can the unit be paired with
  • Does it have both headset and hands-free protocols
  • Is it compatible with Bluetooth 1.1 or later standards
  • What is its warranty period
  • Does it have a free return period as well
  • Does it have any noise cancelling or digital signal processing in its microphone and sound circuits
  • What is the sound quality it offers for sending and receiving audio
  • What range does it typically have

Capabilities - can it support these commands hands-free

  • Voice tags
  • Last number redial
  • Transfer call to phone or from phone
  • 3 way calling
  • Link to how many phones
  • Call answer/end
  • Call reject
  • Mute

Other

  • Does it look attractive
  • Is it too big or too small

Which cell phones include Bluetooth

At the time of writing (March 04) Bluetooth is finally starting to become popular and more commonly included in new phone models.  A year ago, very few phones included Bluetooth, and hopefully in another year, all but the very cheapest basic phones will have Bluetooth.

Here's a partial list of phones with Bluetooth included.  This list will grow as new models come out, so if you are considering a new model phone that isn't on this list, don't assume it does not have Bluetooth.  Maybe it does - and if you confirm it does include Bluetooth, please let us know so we can add the phone to this list.

Ericsson T36
Ericsson T39
Ericsson T68
Ericsson R520

HP iPAQ Pocket PC h5550
HP iPAQ Pocket PC hp6315

Motorola A630
Motorola A760
Motorola V3 Razr
Motorola V303
Motorola V500
Motorola V505
Motorola V525
Motorola V551
Motorola V600
Motorola A835 (3G phone)

Nokia 3600
Nokia 3620
Nokia 3650
Nokia 3660
Nokia 6230
Nokia 6310 6310i
Nokia 6650 (3G phone)
Nokia 6650 (J-Phone) Japan
Nokia 6600
Nokia 6620
Nokia 6810
Nokia 6820
Nokia 7600
Nokia 8910 8910i
Nokia N-Gage

Panasonic EB-X70

Philips Fisio 820
Philips Fisio 825
Philips Fisio 826

Samsung - currently no Samsung phones support Bluetooth

Siemens S55
Siemens S56
Siemens SX1

Sony Ericsson K700i
Sony Ericsson P800
Sony Ericsson P900
Sony Ericsson S700
Sony Ericsson S710a
Sony Ericsson T68i
Sony Ericsson T610 T616
Sony Ericsson T630 T637
Sony Ericsson Z600

SPV2 E200 (Qtek 7070)
SPV M1000 (smartphone)

For more information about specific phones, contact the manufacturer's website.

Using Bluetooth headsets with non-Bluetooth phones

It is possible to get a Bluetooth adapter that plugs into your regular non-Bluetooth phone.  The adapter links with your headset as if it were a Bluetooth phone, and then links with your phone as if it were a regular headset.

Some Bluetooth headsets include these adapters.  A better and simpler choice, if at all possible, is to simply replace your present phone with a new Bluetooth equipped phone.

Summary

Bluetooth headsets can offer a great deal of convenience and flexibility, albeit with at a sometimes hefty cost.

A good Bluetooth headset is easy to understand, setup, and use.  It makes your life simpler and easier.  A bad Bluetooth headset is the opposite and is something to be avoided.

Use the information above, and that contained in our Bluetooth headset reviews, to better understand how to evaluate and choose a Bluetooth headset.

Read more in the Bluetooth articles series

In About Bluetooth we discuss what Bluetooth is and how it is different to other wireless technologies.

Also (see list at the top right of this article) reviews of selected Bluetooth headsets.  Which should you choose?  The answer might surprise you!

 

Part 2 of a series on Bluetooth

click for About Bluetooth

Originally published 2 April 2004, last update 15 May 2010
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer
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