Review: BlueAnt S4 True Handsfree Voice Controlled Car Speakerphone
Car visor-ready Bluetooth speakerphone solutions offer iPhone users an affordable way to make hands-free calls in vehicles that don't have integrated wireless calling hardware -- in fact, some of the most recent visor accessories pack features that would have been impossible to include in cars only three years ago. Today, we're rounding up four different options from three manufacturers: BlueAnt's S4 ($100), SuperTooth's Buddy ($60) and SuperTooth HD ($129), and Plantronics' K100 ($80). Besides the variations in their prices, each of these units has at least one feature that makes it stand out on paper as a worthwhile option for iPhone users; only one fell below our general recommendation level.
From the standpoints of price and performance, BlueAnt’s S4 is in the upper middle of this pack—and one of the best Bluetooth visor-mounted speakerphones we’ve yet tested. BlueAnt has developed some nice monaural Bluetooth earpieces in the past, but S4 steps beyond them in terms of design and overall functionality: made from a mix of glossy black plastic, gunmetal metallic plastic, and a matte black metallic speaker grille, S4 has the cleanest industrial design of any Bluetooth speakerphone we’ve tested, with a footprint that’s only a little larger than the iPhone 4 itself. It attaches to your visor with a magnet and one of two included metal visor clips, and comes bundled with a car charger and short micro-USB charging cable. Using Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, BlueAnt promises up to 20 hours of continuous talk time or 700 hours of standby, which is about par for these products these days; a physical on-off switch is included, with a “battery saving mode” as a third position to improve run times.
Where S4 really impresses is in the technology department. On a minor but convenient note, it can pair with two phones at once and answer incoming calls from either of them—a feature you won’t find in most cars produced over the past several years. The bigger feature is that S4 is designed to work completely without touch controls: in its normal “on” mode, it sits in a fairly low power consumption state awaiting a trigger voice command (“BlueAnt, Speak to Me”) and then provides you with access to calling and call-receiving modes, reading your incoming callers’ names, asking you if you want to take a call, and letting you dial out as needed.
It speaks to you with a robust, clear masculine voice that’s amongst the better ones we’ve heard, too. You’ll want to say “Phone Commands” to trigger the iPhone 3GS/4’s Voice Control feature, or program in favorites; we found it easier to do the former. With the power-saving switch position selected, it only waits for two minutes after your last command, then requires a tap on the phone-shaped symbol on its capacitive touch panel to await your next command. The fact that it can otherwise be operated completely without touch inputs, and does a very good job of picking up requested commands, is seriously impressive; the only limit it has is the number of commands it can recognize. If it was able to use your iPhone’s contacts directory to recognize names without requiring the use of iPhone Voice Control, or merely had a setting to patch you through to Voice Control without requiring the initial trigger command to be spoken, it would be ideally convenient.
Sonically, S4 was the second best of the new units we tested. At maximum volume, the speaker was noticeably louder and clearer than the iPhone 4’s at the same distance—plenty loud to overcome road noises. Callers said that we sounded a little clearer to them than when calling through the iPhone itself, with or without road noise in the background; S4 did a better job than the iPhone 4 of filtering out engine growls and the like. It’s definitely amongst the top speakerphones we’ve ever tested in audio performance—a step up from prior years’ models. Moreover, it’s capable of doing A2DP streaming of music and audiobooks from a connected iPhone, merging the left and right channels into a single, very decent-sounding stream for the integrated speaker. While you’ll obviously use those 20 hours of battery life up while playing back music, the fact that you can do this wirelessly in any car you’re in is a nice feature.
Overall, BlueAnt’s S4 is a great new in-car speakerphone for the $100 asking price. Between the solid battery life, voice controls, A2DP streaming, and great audio quality, it’s amongst the top visor-mounted audio accessories we’ve tested yet with iPhones. Though SuperTooth HD excels in a few ways, it’s more expensive, and BlueAnt has picked the right price point for the features it offers. S4 is worthy of our high recommendation and A- rating.