Review: Audio-Technica ATH-BT03 Wireless Stereo Headset
Earlier today, we reviewed a collection of four wired earphones ranging from $50 to $70 in price -- relatively inexpensive by headphone standards, they represented B+ to B- level options with a variety of different designs and assets. We also wanted to briefly cover two additional models that are in roughly the same price range but different from the others: Arriva's Leo ($70) and Audio-Technica's ATH-BT03 ($80), both wireless headphones with integrated remote control and microphone features. Like the wired headsets, each of these models has some unique advantages and disadvantages relative to other wireless headphones we've tested.
Headphone makers have tried two approaches to creating wireless versions: some have tried to hide all of the battery and electronic components inside oversized earphones, a popular strategy that hasn’t worked particularly well for canalphones, while others have created a special compartment for the electronics so that the earpieces can be smaller and more comfortable. ATH-BT03 is an example of the latter, using the hybrid canalphone earbuds from Audio-Technica’s ATH-CK400i as the basis for a Bluetooth headset that’s available either in a black and red color combination or a pure white version. Each is bundled with a micro-USB cable for charging, but no carrying case or other frills.
Just as with ATH-CK400i, Audio-Technica drops 8.8mm drivers inside of housings that look like mushroom caps between a chrome-capped stem that connects to the cables, and a pipe that’s covered with your choice of four silicone rubber ear tips. The rubber tips pop into your ear canals while the rest of the earphone sits in the nook of your outer ear. While some hybrid earphones of this type can feel large and uncomfortable in your ear canals, these housings are small and light enough to be inoffensive in virtually any ear.
The difference with ATH-BT03 is that the cabling is uninterrupted on both sides, leading to a Y junction and then a large glossy plastic box with a shirt clip on the back. Shaped somewhat like a battery, this box contains a five-position remote control joystick with separate power and telephone call buttons, a microphone for telephone calling, a Bluetooth 2.1 receiver, and a battery with six hours of audio transmission or 200 hours of standby time. Tiny lights on the unit’s face flash red or blue to indicate power and pairing status; you can change volume, tracks, and play/pause status with the joystick, while answering or making calls with the separate call button. Voice Control and Siri did not appear to be triggered with the button; instead, holding down the button makes the iPhone call the previously dialed number. Apart from this limitation, wireless performance was otherwise nearly identical to making a wired connection with an iOS device.
Our feelings on the overall performance offered by ATH-BT03 are nuanced but generally positive. Sonically, this headset represents only a small step down from ATH-CK400i, and then only in the bass department—an area of ATH-CK400i’s performance that was notably already deficient. ATH-BT03 similarly focuses considerably on treble and midrange detail, with somewhat underwhelming low-end performance, relying upon a tap of the power button to activate a “3D Bass” feature that brings the bass nearly up to ATH-CK400i’s levels. Still, given how bad the audio sounds through many Bluetooth headsets at higher price points than this one, the fact that this $80 unit offers only a very modest reduction in sound quality relative to an otherwise comparable $60 wired version is somewhat noteworthy. Callers were further surprised that the microphone’s apparent static level sounded just a little lower on the ATH-BT03 than with the wired microphone in the ATH-CK400i, and roughly comparable in intelligibility. This will change, however, if you place the remote and mic unit dramatically lower on your body; there’s enough cable length here to get it to nearly belt level on a 6-foot-tall user.
The cabling is the primary reason that ATH-BT03’s usability paradigm is sort of iffy. You’re paying a $20 premium over the ATH-CK400i to get six hours of Bluetooth streaming time, for which you’re required to mount a relatively large battery pack somewhere on your shirt or belt, and not given much else in the way of advantages. ATH-BT03 doesn’t sound better, dramatically reduce your ability to have to carry anything around, and saddles you with a mounting requirement that may or may not work for you. It’s best suited to public transit commuters who want to hide their iPhones, iPods, or iPads, and are willing to wear the comparatively inconspicuous remote, mic, and Bluetooth box on a jacket instead; alternately, it may work for iPad users who want the convenience of hearing their music from an up to 30-foot Bluetooth distance without having to hand-hold their tablets. If you’re not in one of these camps, you’ll be better off with ATH-CK400i, which offers a better overall sonic and remote experience at a lower price.