Review: Apple iPhone Bluetooth Headset
Pros: A minimalist monaural Bluetooth earpiece that lets you hear and talk on cell phone voice calls or PC/Mac voice chats without any wires between your ear and the phone or computer. Designed specifically for the iPhone, benefitting from especially easy pairing with iPhone, and on-iPhone battery monitoring features. Includes travel charging cable and special charging/synchronization dock for itself and iPhone. Acceptable talk time on rechargeable battery.
Cons: Sound quality and battery life are nothing special for the relatively high price, and static-free range is only okay; small earbud without ear hook may not be stable or secure in your ear. Though it includes nice dock, lacks advanced ambient noise filtering or wall charger included in top competitors priced at similar or lower levels.
Monaural Bluetooth headsets are generally designed to serve a single purpose: rather than allowing you to listen to music, they use a single speaker, a microphone, and wireless technology to let you make cell phone calls without holding the phone up to your head. To date, most of the Bluetooth headsets we’ve tested have put function before form. They haven’t looked great, but they’ve touted a performance feature or two, such as small size, audio quality, battery life, or noise resistance, as the reason you should make a purchase.
Apple’s new iPhone Bluetooth Headset ($129) takes a nearly opposite approach: made largely from black anodized aluminum and designed to look less geeky than the vast majority of its predecessors, its appeal is almost entirely in its shape, size, and simplicity, rather than any major performance advantage it offers over competing options. Consequently, though it may appeal aesthetically to some users, it’s not as impressive as we would have expected for its relatively high price, and offset mostly by an interesting packed-in item in its box.
The iPhone Bluetooth Headset: A Complete Kit
It would have been easy for Apple to sell the iPhone Bluetooth Headset with only a plain charging cable for a lower price—like its myriad competitors—but the company instead chose to test a higher price point with a useful but arguably unnecessary pack-in. In addition to the Headset, Apple also includes the brand new iPhone Dual Dock, a separate iPhone Bluetooth Travel Cable for on-the-go charging, and a set of two foam earbud covers in a luxurious black box that is nearly identical to the iPhone’s. It’s surprising that the company makes a bigger deal out of packaging this Headset and its components than, say, a more expensive iPod nano, but the intended result is obvious: spend the cash and you’ll feel like you’re getting a true Apple unboxing experience.
Once the box is unpacked, Apple’s vision for the Bluetooth Headset and iPhone experience becomes apparent. You’re supposed to connect the iPhone Dual Dock to your computer, replacing the iPhone Dock and USB cable that came with the iPhone, or alternately moving either dock to another location where it can be connected permanently to the iPhone’s included USB Power Adapter. It’s worth only a brief note for non-iPhone users that the iPhone Bluetooth Headset, unlike many competitors, does not include its own wall adapter, so if you need wall power rather than a computer for charging, you’ll need to buy one yourself for $29.
The iPhone Dual Dock is similar to, but wider than the standard iPhone Dock, and has a charging and synchronization port for the iPhone on the front left, and a charging hole for the iPhone Bluetooth Headset on the right. A USB cable is hardwired into the Dual Dock’s back, and a line-out port for audio duplicates the one on the standard iPhone Dock. As with the original iPhone Dock, you can still use the iPhone’s bottom-mounted speaker and microphone features while it’s in the Dual Dock, thanks to specially designed vents on both Docks’ bottoms.
You can decide for yourself whether the Dual Dock or Apple’s iPhone Bluetooth Travel Cable is the unnecessary component in this package; other companies would just have included the Travel Cable, which has a USB plug at one end, and a special Dock Connector plug at the other.
Using the Cable, you can charge iPhone and the Bluetooth Headset at the same time, assuming the USB plug is connected to either your computer or the iPhone’s included USB Power Adapter.
Both the Dual Dock and the Bluetooth Travel Cable have two nifty features that no current competing product can offer: when the iPhone and the Bluetooth Headset are both connected with Dock or Cable to a computer or charger, the Bluetooth Headset powers on, iPhone quickly and automatically turns on its Bluetooth feature, and both devices are paired for immediate use. Other Bluetooth headsets require a one-time, only slightly challenging manual pairing process with a couple of button presses and the entry of a four-digit code; Apple’s shortcut for its own Headset is faster and easier for most users.
Additionally, when both devices are connected for charging, the iPhone’s main screen shows the current charging status of its own battery, and the Bluetooth Headset’s, at the same time. Rare is the Bluetooth Headset that even indicates its battery status in any way other than “full” or “about to die.”
The Headset Itself: Small, Simple, and Limited
Thanks to fierce but frequently less than brilliant competitors, Apple’s Bluetooth Headset design can’t accurately claim to be the smallest, lightest, or even the simplest such device on the market: there are now Bluetooth headsets that are barely larger than a short stack of watch batteries, and basically useless because their microphones are too far from your mouth to let callers actually hear what you’re saying. True to its minimalist but practical leanings, Apple created a stick-shaped headset body that’s just shy of two inches long—two or so times as long as the smallest devices out there—in order to provide a fair amount of microphone proximity to your mouth, yet it’s also under a half-inch wide, and its black enclosure has been stripped of any trace of external detail.
Only the attached earbud exceeds the half-inch width, and then, it’s still a hint smaller than the current iPod Earphones’ buds, rendered larger only when you put one of the foam covers on. Apple was obviously volume-obsessed when designing the Bluetooth Headset, but as with its earlier earpieces, smaller isn’t always better: without the foam cover, and in part because there’s no ear hook, iLounge editors found the Headset less stable than we’d prefer. With the foam cover on, stability improved, but we didn’t find the Headset as stable as the best competing options we’ve tested—this was clearly an intentional compromise on Apple’s part, placing the unit’s looks and size first, with stability second.
Other than the earbud and an Apple logo on its innermost, unexposed side, the Bluetooth Headset’s other elements are all but hidden. At the bottom, invisible, is a microphone, near four silver charging pins surrounded by gray metal; like a MagSafe connector for Apple laptops, this surface attaches magnetically to the included Dock and Cable. The top contains a single black button you can only tell from the rest by its glossy texture. In the center, below the button, is a multi-colored indicator light that changes from amber to green to indicate power, pairing and charging status.
Button and Pairing
As we noted in our review of Aliph’s Jawbone Bluetooth Headset (iLounge rating: B), Aliph reduced the number of buttons on its headset down to two from the typical three or four; perhaps not surprisingly, Apple has gone further, and its single button only handles power (hold the button for three seconds), answering, ending, switching or declining calls, the former two with a quick press, and the latter two with a quick- or one-second press, depending on the situation. Volume controls are handled solely through iPhone’s side buttons, which makes the Bluetooth Headset less of a wise option for users of other, less convenient cell phones.
That said, it can be paired with other cell phones, as well as Macs and PCs, through pairing processes that are basically the same as with any other Bluetooth headset out there. While we had no problem initially pairing the Bluetooth Headset with a MacBook Pro and using it in iChat, we initially found that re-establishing a connection with the iPhone afterwards didn’t seem straightforward; we found ourselves unpairing and repairing the Bluetooth Headset with the iPhone to make the connection. As it turned out, however, turning off the computer’s Bluetooth, then holding down the Headset’s button, re-established the connection with iPhone; turning off iPhone’s Bluetooth enabled us to re-establish the connection with our computer.
Comparative Call Performance
While we wouldn’t go so far as to say that we’d pay a huge premium for a monaural Bluetooth headset with superb audio quality, great looks, and solid battery life, we’d be okay with a $100 price tag for a truly excellent headset, and even $129 if it included all the items found in Apple’s package. Unfortunately, though it looks nice, the iPhone Bluetooth Headset isn’t a spectacular performer on audio or battery life.
Statistically, the iPhone Bluetooth Headset is average to above average in battery and range performance. It is a Class 2 Bluetooth device with a potential range of up to 10 meters (30-33 feet) from its partner; we found that static interference started at 15-foot distances with iPhone, and 10-foot distances with our MacBook Pro. For that reason, while it’s fine for use when iPhone’s nearby or in your pocket, you mightn’t hear what’s being said, and your callers might not fully hear you, from across a large toom.
Similarly, while it delivers on its promised 5.5 hours of talk time and 72 hours of standby time on a full battery charge, which takes 1.5 hours, these numbers are short of recent comparable devices such as Aliph’s Jawbone, which can get 6 hours of talk time with its noise filtering on and more when it’s off, or 120 hours of standby time. Certain Jabra and other headsets offer as many as 10 hours of talk time on a single charge, so if battery life is a key factor for your personal needs, you might want to look elsewhere. As with the iPhone itself, you’ll want to keep the Bluetooth Headset near one of its chargers.
In order to see how the iPhone Bluetooth Headset sounded by comparison with several peers, we tested it alongside the Aliph Jawbone, the Plantronics Voyager 510, and the Bluetake BT400GL. These earpieces provide useful reference points in that the Voyager 510 commonly sells for less than half Apple’s price, the Jawbone sells for a similar price but includes a phenomenal noise reduction feature, and the BT400GL is both considerably smaller and less expensive.
On a positive note, callers always described the iPhone Bluetooth Headset’s sound quality as “fine” or “good.” It was apparent that Apple matched its microphones and audio sampling technology to make sound from the wireless headset as similar as possible to the sound from the wired one, and the speakerphone; callers could tell the difference, but didn’t describe that difference as large. They generally praised the Bluetooth Headset’s full-frequency sound, but also noted that it easily picked up wind noises, and didn’t do much to separate our voice from ambient sounds. Running a blender next to ourselves and the headset was enough to hugely impair the discussion.
As suggested in prior reviews, Aliph’s Jawbone delivered a better experience for our callers—with or without the blender. Though they noted that our voices didn’t sound as rich as with the iPhone Bluetooth Headset, Aliph’s filtering technologies rendered our voices more easily understandable under normal conditions, and comparatively crystalline when the blender was turned on or other noises were introduced. By contrast, callers said that we didn’t sound as good with the Voyager as with the iPhone Bluetooth Headset, by a slight margin, and they strongly preferred Apple’s design to the Bluetake one, which made our voices very difficult to hear.
From our perspective, callers sounded very similar from headset to headset; the major differences were in comfort and isolation. When Apple’s, Aliph’s, Plantronics’ and Bluetake’s earbuds were properly in place, all of the options delivered relatively clear and listenable renditions of our callers’ voices. Aliph’s audio skewed a little more towards the treble to make voices more easily discernible than the iPhone Bluetooth Headset, Voyager was a little less detailed, and Bluetake provided better isolation, but none of the units provided huge volume differences or other significant advantages over the other in this regard. If the Jawbone headset was more stable on and in our ears, it would have been an easy pick over the iPhone Bluetooth Headset on performance for the price, but it wasn’t, rendering the two options equally appealing, but “differently abled.”
When Apple’s at its best, its devices and accessories offer more than just good looks at premium prices: their user experiences are so markedly better than competitors that we wouldn’t dream of using alternatives, even if they’re less expensive. Though it’s a nice-looking and somewhat more iPhone-convenient option than other Bluetooth headsets that are out there, the iPhone Bluetooth Headset doesn’t live up to the company’s highest standards: in range, battery life, and sound quality, it’s a good but not great performer. Additionally, while we don’t deduct in any way for this omission, it should come as no surprise that we—and many other iPhone users—would have liked to see it do more than just serve as an accessory for phone calls; a Bluetooth Headset with the iPhone name would ideally be as music-ready as the “revolutionary” device itself, not just a smaller, cleaner alternative to existing phone-only accessories.
Given its $129 asking price, rating the iPhone Bluetooth Headset is somewhat of a challenge. While we believe that it’s more than a little too expensive for what it is and how it performs, Apple’s decision to pack in the extra Dual Dock is a substantial offset, giving users the luxury of a single charging station for the accessory and the iPhone, plus—at least, given the first-generation iPhone bundle—the ability to move the original Dock someplace else as a second charger. The travel cable or something like it was a virtually mandatory pack-in, but without the Dual Dock, the iPhone Bluetooth Headset would have missed our general recommendation at this price point. It is, in essence, a $60 or $70 headset with nicer packaging and pack-ins than its competitors, and good enough performance with or without the iPhone to satisfy style-focused iPhone users.