Review: Arriva Leo Bluetooth Stereo Headphones
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.
Though we weren’t enthusiastic about the original Arriva Headphone System when we first saw it in late 2006, it was obvious that the Colorado-based company was trying to do something different—it had developed headphones for “active” users, employing a somewhat weird-looking set of stiff but wavy wires to keep fairly conventional canalphones from getting tugged out of your ears during sporting or athletic use. As we noted back then, the wires tended to actually pop out of our ears rather than staying in them, and the sound quality wasn’t particularly impressive, either.
Leo is a somewhat rethought and pricier version, once again suffering from similar comfort, fit, and audio quality issues, but with the decided advantage of cable reduction. This time, you get a unit that looks somewhat like a wavy “u” shape, with stiff-wired earbuds that sit within your outer ears, plus a glossy plastic box that rests behind your head. Inside that box is a Bluetooth 2.1 receiver with small power and large triangular volume buttons, as well as a 5-hour battery and a rubber-sealed micro USB port for recharging. This replaces the circular Y-junction box and black cable that ran down from your neck’s back in the original design. Arriva also includes a USB charging cable, a wall adapter, a circular carrying case, and four sets of ear tips for the earbuds—three made from clear frosted rubber, and the fourth from foam.
On a positive note, it’s once again apparent that Arriva has tried to address the issue of earbud stability here, as the wavy wires loop around the tops of your ears and endeavor along with the eartips to stay in place. The rubber-coated wires are soft enough that they are unlikely to hurt your ears or head with tension. But as is obvious from the weird shapes of the eartips, the wires don’t do a great job of keeping the earbuds in place, and even with the tips on, they continued to pop out of one of our ears. In order to achieve stability, you need to get the rear box to sit at just the right place on the back of your head, and even then, we couldn’t keep the right earphone from eventually popping out. It wasn’t a great design in 2006, and it really hasn’t gotten much better in 2011.
Functionally, Leo is a so-so performer. Putting aside the fact that it’s one of the very, very rare Bluetooth headsets these days to still require a PIN code (0000) when initially paired with iOS devices, it has other idiosyncrasies, such as a full-volume blast in your ears the first time it’s used, and requiring an unusually long time to turn on and off with extended holds of the power button. When the earbuds are properly in place, the sound quality is only decent, with a very midrange-focused sound signature that doesn’t have much treble or bass, plus microphone performance that callers described as somewhat staticy and distant by comparison with most Apple microphones—as well as the one in the Audio-Technica ATH-BT03. The things we did like in Leo included the volume controls, which though mounted behind the head were pretty easy to use due to their large size, and the fact that the power button could be used to play and pause music, though not to skip tracks. Even these features could stand to be improved in feel and implementation, though.
While Arriva’s Leo gets points for trying to create a simple wireless audio solution for active users, the company’s continued use of wavy wires and new adoption of old-fashioned earbuds both detract from what’s otherwise a good implementation of the wireless headset idea. Leo has the right general positioning of components, but between the stability issues we had with the wires and the only decent sound quality and mic, it’s obvious that additional polish would really have helped here. The only saving grace here is the $70 asking price, which is relatively affordable by Bluetooth headset standards, and may induce people to give this a try. If your expectations are modest, you may be satisfied or pleased with what Leo offers.