Review: BlueAnt Wireless Z9i Bluetooth Headset
Having respectively set the bars for Bluetooth active noise cancellation headsets and in-car speakerphone accessories, Aliph's 2008 Jawbone and Contour Design/Bluetrek's SurfaceSound Compact have enabled iPhone fans to enjoy wireless conversations with relatively little interference from background noise. This month, BlueAnt Wireless released challengers to both of these devices: the ear-mounted Z9i Bluetooth Headset ($100) and the car visor-mounted Supertooth 3 Bluetooth Handsfree ($130). While BlueAnt's offerings are very good by last year's standards, and each has a feature or two that we really liked, neither unseats its category's reigning champion. This review covers the Z9i.
On paper, the Z9i looks like an extremely worthy challenger to the Jawbone. It’s available in either glossy black or soft touch red colors, packs Bluetooth 2.0 technology, a 5.5-hour battery with 200 hours of talk time, and twin microphones that work together to provide echo cancellation, wind noise reduction, and noise suppression. In battery life, it’s ahead of the current Jawbone but behind last year’s model, and in DSP-aided microphone technology, it claims to have all the right stuff. Though it uses the same Bluetooth 2.0 standard, BlueAnt has enabled the Z9i to have two active phones connected at the same time, with a maximum of five paired devices, letting you answer whichever of two current phones is ringing then switch between them. We found the device’s handling of Bluetooth-related pairing, swapping, and syncing to be effortless, and generally superb. Both the current Jawbone and Z9i make it a lot easier than in earlier Bluetooth 1.2 devices to connect to the iPhone reliably, or switch to other devices; the Z9i is especially adept at flipping from one device to another.
BlueAnt includes a nice bundle of accessories in its package. You get two different earhooks, one of them transparent, and your choice of small or large rubber earbud covers, plus a wall charger that requires around two hours to fully recharge the Z9i. There’s also an included USB cable that can be used for computer charging, as well as firmware updating if the company comes up with performance improvements in the future. While Aliph’s package is pretty similar, BlueAnt adds a few little twists to its hardware—integrated volume buttons, a 1.61” by 0.68” by 0.44” shell that’s substantially shorter, around the same depth, and only a little wider, and a multifunction button that’s a little easier to use than Jawbone’s twin hidden controls. Z9i also has two different noise cancellation modes, “standard” and “max,” which are activated by a 1-second push of that button.
These benefits are offset by a far more conspicuous indicator light, which bears the image of a red or blue glowing ant, and a glossy design that otherwise may attract more attention than the matte-textured Jawbone. You’ll have to decide which design you prefer on aesthetics; we preferred the more subtle Aliph styling, but also found that the Z9i’s more adjustable earhook was a little more comfortable. A button combination lets you turn off the unit’s indicator light; we wish there was a way to swap out the ant icon, as well.
The major differences between the two units emerged during phone call testing. Callers unanimously preferred the noise cancellation found in Jawbone to both of the Z9i’s cancellation modes, which were described as comparatively ineffective at removing wind and ambient noises. We tested Z9i in a car, outdoors in the wind, and indoors with and without noise in the background, and though callers said that it sounded “good,” they heard substantial background noise during all of our stress tests regardless of whether Z9i was in standard or maximum noise cancellation mode. A light wind was audible in our calls, we were told, even if we turned on the maximum mode to screen it out. The only time when the maximum mode appeared to have an effect was during one of our in-car tests, when a caller said that the background noise from standard mode had effectively disappeared, but the Jawbone’s canceller worked more consistency to eliminate all types of noise. Aliph’s design also tended to produce higher-volume output that we found easier to hear over ambient noises.
A little additional context is important, however. We’ve tested plenty of Bluetooth headsets that callers have described as okay or bad at screening out anything from light ambient noise to wind to echoes, so although Z9i isn’t up to the gold Jawbone standard, it’s better than many headsets out there. We liked how callers sounded on our end, and they generally liked how we sounded—bassy—until they heard Aliph’s more defined, clear voice rendition and filtering.
Importantly, there were no complaints of echoes, and though one caller described the Z9i and Supertooth 3 as sounding extremely similar during in-car testing, another said that Z9i’s noise filtering had a small advantage. We also liked that the unit has voice samples that tell you when a mode like maximum noise cancellation has been activated, rather than just a series of chimes, and although the iPhone doesn’t support the feature, Z9i also permits voice dialing with a mobile phone that’s been pre-programmed to include voice commands.
Overall, if noise cancellation is your key criterion, there’s no question that Aliph’s latest Jawbone is a much better solution than the Z9i, at a somewhat higher MSRP that’s justified by its performance. Despite Z9i’s battery, pricing, and physical advantages, we’d pick the Jawbone for our needs any day. But if multi-device synchronization is important to you, noise cancellation isn’t as critical, and you want something that’s physically small without compromising as much on sound quality as similarly stubby earpieces, you’ll find Z9i to be a very good headset for the price. It’s worthy of our general recommendation.