Review: BlueAnt Q3 Premium Smartphone Earpiece
Bluetooth earpieces appear to be waning in popularity. Although mainstream users shunned the generally black and/or silver accessories as geeky, business users and others requiring constant phone access continued to buy and wear them -- a large enough crowd for Apple and others to try their hands at streamlined designs. Then many new players quietly exited the market. The increasing prevalence of integrated Bluetooth car kits reduced demand for the earpieces, leaving "walking-while-calling" users as the remaining target market. New releases have slowed, and become pretty boring besides.
Sold in black or platinum versions, BlueAnt’s Q3 ($99) is an exception to that rule, featuring some best-in-class design elements and features—as well as a couple of potentially serious issues. There’s little question that BlueAnt’s industrial and interface design are particularly strong here: our jet black review unit featured a micro-dotted wind grille, metallic action, volume, and power controls, and a relatively compact size that places it in roughly the same category as current Jawbone models. While Q3 isn’t as dead-neutral visually as Apple’s long-since-discontinued iPhone Bluetooth Headset, it uses a mix of metallic and plastic finishes to ooze class. A tiny light glows red when charging, and goes white when fully recharged, flashing white when the power’s on—beautiful in its minimalism. Business users won’t have any reason to feel embarrassed wearing Q3.
The only constant physical user interface issues are BlueAnt’s placement of Q3’s power switch on the inside, requiring you to remove the earpiece for toggling, and the location of the relatively small volume rocker, which does work to move volume up and down with finger wiggles if you can reach it within a nook of your outer ear. As Bluetooth headsets have gotten smaller, developers have had to compromise on these sorts of controls, leaving them off or placing the buttons in less than ideal spaces. Q3 locations aren’t quite perfect, but it’s better to have slightly inconvenient controls than none at all.
BlueAnt has also created a reference-class mounting solution for Q3. The earpiece comes with a detachable ear hook, as well as five total silicone ear tips, three of which have built-in stabilizers that might make the hook optional for some users. We liked the hook enough to keep it on: a metal pin pokes through a flexible hole in Q3’s hard plastic body, enabling the hook to unusually pivot through roughly 30 degrees of Y-axis freedom beyond the conventional 300-plus degrees of swiveling Z-axis freedom. Although the pin remains firmly connected to the earpiece, the hook is able to move so considerably that it can adjust to hold firmly against a wide range of ears. Combined with the various sizes of ear tips, it’s as guaranteed to stay mounted on your ear as any earpiece we’ve tested. BlueAnt also makes charging a snap by including a micro-USB to USB cable and AC wall charger, rather than just the cable.
One of Q3’s nifty interface features is voice control, aided by nicely designed noise-canceling microphones that callers said worked a little bit better than the iPhone’s integrated mics to screen out ambient noise during calls—no easy feat. In addition to a number of integrated commands, including voice-triggered pairing, battery checks for both the phone and headset, and letting you answer or reject incoming calls by voice, Q3 speaks the names of incoming callers in your contacts database, and lets you access Siri functionality by saying the slightly awkward phrase “phone commands,” or more usefully by double-tapping the side button.* All of these features work well, though ideally Siri could be accessed by holding Q3’s button down for a second, mimicking Apple’s interface. (Note: The * has been updated from our original review; a reader noted the double-tap Siri shortcut.)
Q3’s Bluetooth 3.0 wireless connectivity is ultra-fast for re-pairing and reliable just within the expected 33-foot distance—assuming there are no physical obstructions. It also includes the ability to stream music, which it does with surprising quality: although the earpiece is lacking in bass, it does really well with treble and mids, providing strong intelligibility during phone calls and reducing bass-related distortion issues in music that we’ve commonly heard in rival earpieces. Frequent music streamers can expect a battery hit relative to the reasonable seven-hour talk time and 180-hour standby time Q3 otherwise promises; on the other hand, USB recharging is pretty quick, with 0-50% power in 30 minutes, 50-100% in two hours.
There’s only one stumbling block here, and it’s an unusual one: bugs. Immediately after Q3 shipped, users began to report problems with the unit’s performance with the iPhone 5, including loud noises and audio dropouts. Q3 apparently worked fine with other devices, suggesting that the problem was iPhone 5-specific. And a recent Apple iOS software update for the iPhone 5 appears to have fixed these problems, so it would be easy to ignore them in our rating. Unfortunately, we experienced another little oddity during testing—after a full recharge, we once couldn’t get the Q3 to turn on at all, a real surprise given that it has a dedicated on-off switch. Every subsequent time, however, it turned on and off without an issue. Due to these issues, it’s hard to know for sure that Q3’s going to continue to operate 100% perfectly, which may diminish some users’ interest in an otherwise excellent accessory.
In sum, BlueAnt has done a great job with Q3, except for the bugs, which now appear to be substantially if not completely addressed. On balance, we felt most comfortable issuing Q3 our strong general recommendation, which acknowledges the presence of a couple of noteworthy caveats alongside several major positives in design, audio performance, and comfort. If you’re willing to take the (decreasing) risk on its device compatibility, you’ll likely be almost entirely thrilled by Q3; we like it enough to use it with frequency.