Review: Wi-Gear iMuffs MB220 Bluetooth Headset for iPod and iPhone
Three years ago, a company called Wi-Gear released iMuffs, one of several wireless stereo Bluetooth headphones we tested for iPods, and since then, Wi-Gear has continued to tweak iMuffs across various versions. The latest is iMuffs MB220 ($150), which according to the company has been "optimized" for the iPhone, though it hasn't received Apple certification as such, and brings up the infamous nag screen whenever it's connected. It works without complaint with current model iPods.
Like its predecessors, MB220 is sold as a four-piece kit: you get a pair of on-ear headphones with a flexible hard plastic band that wraps around the back of your neck, connecting the foam-covered left and right earpieces together, as well as a transmitter dongle that attaches to the bottom of your iPod or iPhone, a USB cable for charging, and a wall power adapter. Cosmetically, these parts are similar to the ones packaged in with the company’s last model, MB210: they’re all black, the dongle looks like a bottom-mounted miniature version of the iPod mini, and there are remote controls built into the headset.
The right earpiece has track and play/pause buttons, power and volume controls, and a mini-USB port for charging. Like the MB210 but not the original version of iMuffs, MB220 has a microphone built in to let iPhone users take or make telephone calls with the headset on. While pairing between the MB220 headset and dongle is instantaneous, you’ll need to manually pair the MB220 with the iPhone or iPhone 3G, a generally painless process, after which the headset will seamlessly switch between phone calls and audio playback modes as necessary. It works perfectly regardless of whether you’re calling out or getting a call in, except that there’s a relatively loud ringing noise that starts in the earphones when you receive a call. Ideally, this ring would be a little nicer and quieter.
Our feelings about the MB220 are similar but not identical to the ones we expressed about the original iMuffs: these are good, not great sounding earphones that happen to be relatively uncomfortable and not especially attractive. The positives begin with wireless performance. Impressively, the MB220 does a good job of maintaining signal strength and clarity far beyond its predecessor, as well as many—not all—Bluetooth headsets we’ve tested, enabling users to achieve a distance of 60 or more physically obstructed feet from the iPhone for music purposes. That compares with roughly 30 unobstructed feet for typical headsets, which is pretty impressive, and the music signal abruptly stops, rather than degrading, as you step past the usable distance. iPhone telephone communications, however, become staticy and unreliable at a closer distance of around 30 or so feet.
Your perception of MB220’s audio quality for music playback will depend on your benchmark; users unfamiliar with wireless earsets will be impressed by how very close the earphones sound to a pair of wired on-ear headphones of the same size, as there’s no static to speak of and generally no interruption in the audio signal. Audio is not exactly ear-popping, but the average user will hear enough treble and bass to be either fine or pleased with the performance of their songs. From our vantage point of strong familiarity with wireless earphones, we would describe the sound fidelity as quite good, though limited by a nothing special pair of on-ear speakers that don’t make the most of the clean wireless connection Wi-Gear has created. Distortion is evident, and unlike most headsets, we’d blame it on the speakers rather than the wireless connection.
One aspect of audio performance where there’s little room for diverging views is in MB220’s integrated microphone: simply put, it’s not very good. Callers told us that we were extremely difficult to hear thanks to the tiny mic hole located at the bottom of the right earpiece, and said that they’d prefer not to be talking to us on this headset versus pretty much any other option. This is the strongest knock on MB220 as a product: if you’re buying it for an iPhone and expecting to use this as an outbound calling headset, you or your callers are going to be disappointed.
A final point on MB220 is one that we referenced in our review three years ago, and hasn’t changed: MB220 is not a comfortable pair of headphones. The hard plastic wire wrapper that connects the speakers like a headband goes over the tops of your ears in a way that doesn’t feel great either for short or long periods of time, and numerous companies have spent the last three years working to either shrink their headphones or use materials such as rubber and foam to make them more comfortable. Wi-Gear hasn’t done any of this, and the result is that these earphones now fall significantly behind the best competing options we’ve tested in comfort and fit, another reason that our rating has dropped from before. Though they’re not so heavy as to weigh your head down, they continue to feel like little hockey pucks that hang on your ears, not providing isolation or a great sense of stability.
Pricing is the only reason that MB220 might appeal to some users regardless of its issues: at $150, it’s less expensive than the version we originally reviewed, and in the same general ballpark as competing wireless Bluetooth headsets from companies such as iSkin. Logitech and others have come up with $100 Bluetooth headsets that lack for iPhone-ready microphone functionality, but do offer similar stereo audio performance to what you’d get from iMuffs. Going forward, our hope is that Wi-Gear takes the technology that it has come up with here and puts it into a more ear-pleasing package—from an on-paper performance standpoint, it does everything save microphone output better than we’d have expected; we just wish that we felt comfortable actually wearing these earphones.