Review: iSkin Cerulean F1+TX Wireless Headset and Transmitter
Of the hundreds of companies now making iPod cases, Canada's iSkin is one of the very few obsessed with making them substantially better than its competitors; sometimes it hits, sometimes it misses, but it never seems to stand still. That's why we were excited when the company announced several Cerulean-branded wireless products back in January of this year: iSkin was ready to apply its industrial design skills to the geeky world of Bluetooth accessories, transforming the often too-big, too techie add-ons into something cooler.
Today, we’re reviewing three different Cerulean wireless product packages. First, there’s Cerulean F1 ($130), a Bluetooth 2.0 stereo wireless headset and microphone accessory designed for use with cell phones, and somewhat compatible with the iPhone. Second is Cerulean TX + RX ($150), which bundles an iPod Bluetooth transmitter (TX) with a receiver (RX) that can be plugged into almost any iPod-specific speaker dock to play iPod audio wirelessly through the speakers. Third is the Cerulean F1 Wireless Headset and TX Transmitter package ($190). Unlike the standalone F1, the new bundle includes a TX iPod transmitter so that you can hear your iPod’s music through the F1 headset; like the F1 itself, the TX transmitter also works to some extent with the iPhone.
If all of this seems somewhat confusing at this stage, you’re not alone: these three packages may use interchangeable components, but they need to be understood as separate offerings. The standalone Cerulean F1 Wireless Headphones, reviewed fully in that separately linked review, are useful only to iPhone and other cell phone users; with the iPhone, they work almost exclusively for making and receiving phone calls, and despite their stereo Bluetooth 2.0 functionality, cannot be used to listen to your music—except with a poor-sounding monaural iPhone hack that no one would really use for music output. This is an Apple-imposed limitation, and unless the company updates the iPhone to permit true Bluetooth music streaming, the only advantage F1 offers iPhone users over a lower-priced monaural headset is the ability to hear your callers in both ears.
By contrast, the F1 + TX set expands the headset’s usefulness: with the included TX accessory, you can output music from virtually any Dock Connector-equipped iPod, iPhone, or USB port-equipped computer, using the AD2P protocol to send stereo audio to the F1. TX is a small black plastic transmitter that looks to have been designed to physically match the second-generation iPod nano, but again, it’s Dock Connecting iPod-agnostic, with a simple white light on its face and a mini power port hidden under a rubber cap on its left side. iSkin also includes a TX-to-USB adapter to let you attach TX to your computer if you prefer. Computers with integrated Bluetooth 2.0 won’t need TX or the adapter to work with the F1 headset, those without will suddenly be able to send Bluetooth audio to F1 and other stereo Bluetooth devices.
The F1 + TX bundle is a little different from the standalone F1 package. As with the $130 package, iSkin includes a USB cable for charging F1, as well as two sets of plastic ear mounts, one with chrome accents, one without. The $190 set also comes with foam and clear rubber earbud covers for use with F1, parts that weren’t included in our standalone F1 package. Regardless of the chrome, black, or clear pieces you attach to F1, the earpieces will look good on your ears, but they’re still significantly larger than and not as visually neutral as Apple’s same-priced iPhone Bluetooth Headset. That said, they’re smaller and lighter than other stereo Bluetooth headsets we’ve tested; other than the slight pressure they use to stay on your ears, you won’t find them fatiguing.
Viewed as an iPod accessory bundle, the F1 + TX package competes with the $100 Logitech FreePulse system, and Etymotic’s $300 ety8, falling right in the middle in terms of price and design. For $190, you get basically the same Bluetooth 2.0 audio functionality as is offered in both of these sets; Logitech instead uses cheaper-looking, big earphones and a headphone port-mounted transmitter, providing the same 6 hours of music playback time offered by F1; Etymotic uses superior in-canal earphones that unfortunately look ridiculous, but run for 7 hours.
When used with an iPod or iPhone connected to the TX dongle, or a computer connected with the TX-to-USB adapter, F1 sounds good, assuming that you find a way around its biggest limitations: volume matching and the shape of the earbuds. Despite the fact that it’s connected to the iPod’s Dock Connector port, you can adjust F1’s volume with the iPod’s or iPhone’s own controls, and then again separately with F1’s own built-in controls. As opposed to accessories with only one volume control, finding the right balance to optimize audio quality is a little challenging. And as we noted in the F1 review, the earbuds may or may not fit inside your ears; if they don’t, you’ll notice less apparent bass response and a shallower, tinnier sound. It’s obvious that F1 sounds pretty good by stereo Bluetooth headphone standards when properly inserted, but because of their shape, it’s an open question as to whether you’ll be able to achieve that. On an absolute basis, they don’t feel or sound better than Apple’s packed-in iPod Earphones—the only benefit you get here, and not a trivial one, is the ability to sever the wire between the iPod and the earphones.
As noted in the standalone F1 review, the headset did fine with our Bluetooth 2.0-ready Macbook Pro in audio output testing, but had issues when we tried to use it with iChat. In “headphones” mode, it properly separated left and right channel audio as we’d expected from its stereo audio functionality, though as with many devices, F1’s audio quality was equally reliant on proper computer and headset volume level settings, and limited by iSkin’s choice of earbud-style speakers. We couldn’t get the 15-millimeter drivers to fit completely in our ears, a common enough issue with over-the-ear earphones and wireless headsets; they were snug, but not completely inside of our ear canals. Additionally, in Mac OS 10.5.1’s Leopard iChat with F1 in “headset” mode, listeners could hear us, but we couldn’t hear them. iSkin says that this is a problem with Leopard’s implementation of Bluetooth, and will hopefully be fixed in a later point upgrade; however, we re-tested Voyager 520 and it worked properly. We also didn’t have great luck getting the F1 + TX set to switch fluidly between the iPhone’s built- in wireless phone audio to stereo music playback through the TX.
Based on the other Bluetooth accessories we’ve tested, iSkin’s F1, TX, and RX products suffer from only one major competitive disadvantage: their price to performance ratios. For iPhone users, the standalone version of F1 doesn’t deliver a considerably better experience for $130 than the B+-rated Voyager 520 at $100, nor does the $190 F1 + TX set radically outperform Logitech’s FreePulse; so too is the $150 TX + RX set a hint or two under Belkin’s $150 TuneStage 2 in wireless performance and pack-ins. While you can find each of iSkin’s products at a small discount online, you can typically find their competitors at even more aggressive prices, making the ultimate shopping decision more heavily weighted towards the alternatives. However, there is some value in their sleek black designs, which have been successfully engineered to be smaller and lighter than similarly priced offerings; you’ll need to decide whether their miniaturization and looks merit the compromises on pricing and/or features the Cerulean products entail.
Viewed as a competitor to Logitech’s $100 FreePulse and Etymotic’s $300 ety8, the F1 + TX bundle strikes us as almost, but not quite a par product to these good but not great alternatives. Whereas FreePulse uses similar technology and offers a very aggressive price point, and ety8 delivers dramatically better fit, noise isolation, and sound quality at a comparatively unappealing price point, F1 + TX doesn’t have price, comfort, or performance on its side; it’s in the middle, and though it benefits from its good included microphone if you’re both a cell phone and iPod user, we wouldn’t recommend it to the average iPod owner over these other options. At best, we’d describe it as a competent iPod wireless headset and transmitter option that’s a bit too expensive; a lower price and smaller earbuds would have made it a considerably better product. Like each of the other Cerulean products, the F1 + TX package provides a strong building block for next-generation iSkin Bluetooth accessories, which we hope will be more affordable, comfortable, and even better looking than these.