Review: Contour Design/Bluetrek SurfaceSound Compact
Pros: An exceptionally convenient, sun visor-mounted wireless speaker and microphone set for the iPhone, capable of quickly pairing with the phone when you enter your car, and disconnecting when you leave. Enables clear-sounding handsfree call making and receiving while you drive, such that both the car’s driver and passenger can be heard by callers, and vice-versa; noise and echo cancellation leads to excellent-sounding audio. Includes 15 hour/21 day rechargeable battery, plus car charger and USB cable. Reasonably priced given its great looks and convenience, can be used indoors as well.
Cons: In-car recharging may be impractical for some users. Can’t easily pair with multiple iPhones. Some audio distortion at top volume level. Visor clip works, but unit may not sit completely flush with thicker visors.
iPhone users have discovered that there’s more to taking and making phone calls in a car than just pressing or swiping the touch screen; if you’re driving, you may find yourself giving up one hand to hold the iPhone up to your ear, or fidgeting with the speakerphone or wired headset while you’re in motion. This is never fun, often at least a little unsafe, and always more of a hassle than passive-listening iPod users are accustomed to dealing with in their vehicles.
The simplest solution, a wireless Bluetooth headset, isn’t necessarily the easiest one for average people to use. You need to wear it on your ear, hope that it doesn’t pick up too much road noise, and charge it after every four to eight hours you’ve talked with it. Thankfully, there’s now another option. Contour Design and Bluetrek’s new SurfaceSound Compact ($100) mounts a speaker, a microphone, and rechargeable battery pack on one of your car’s sun visors, enabling you to clearly hear your callers from above; better yet, callers can clearly hear you, too. Though SurfaceSound Compact isn’t the first or even the fifth car visor-mounted Bluetooth accessory out there, it does such a great job of simplifying and stylizing the whole handsfree car experience that we couldn’t help but love it. It was an exciting, deserving recipient of one of our 2008 Best of Show awards.
Instantly impressive is the manner in which Bluetrek has physically streamlined its parts. Yes, there’s a speaker inside, but rather than making it a deep, small driver, the company has used a flat, large one from NXT, which is well-suited to cell phone-quality audio, and enables Compact to mount unintrusively on your visor. Despite the fact that there are a microphone, rechargeable battery, and Bluetooth chip inside the glossy black shell, you barely know that they’re there, or even that you’re looking a piece of electronic hardware—there’s no power button, and the enclosure looks like it could as easily be a flip-down mirror as a car audio kit.
Brilliantly, you fold down the wand-like microphone to turn the unit on. If you’ve already paired SurfaceSound Compact with your iPhone, and your iPhone’s in Bluetooth mode, you’ll then hear some beeps, followed by a voice in the speaker telling you that the phone is wirelessly connected. That’s it. Let’s recap: if you enter your car with the iPhone’s Bluetooth feature turned on, and flip down SurfaceSound Compact’s microphone, your iPhone’s ready to use in the car without any additional work; you can just as easily flip the mic closed when you’re getting out of your car to automatically place the iPhone in standard handset mode. That’s simplicity, re-defined. For those accustomed to turning the iPhone’s Bluetooth feature on and off all the time along with their headsets, it suffices to say that this is a better reason to leave the feature turned on than anything we’ve yet tested.
The unit also benefits from better battery life than typical Bluetooth earpieces. SurfaceSound Compact can run for 15 hours of talk time or 21 days on standby, which is roughly twice the duration of good Bluetooth headsets and four times that of tiny ones. Bluetrek also makes the most of the unit’s audio transmission capabilities. Callers told us that we sounded “excellent” when we called them, and we generally had no problem hearing or understanding them as well. Echo and noise cancellation are built into this unit, and used to great advantage; even the passenger can be heard when the mic is mounted on the driver’s side of the car. There’s enough volume in the speaker to let anyone in the car hear your callers, too, and though seemingly defeating the unit’s purpose, an included wired earpiece can be attached to Compact for listening privacy if necessary.
There were only a couple of small hiccups in our testing. First, SurfaceSound Compact pairs completely with a single phone at a time, which means that families with two iPhones will have one person who needs to manually unpair and re-pair in order to use the speaker. Second, after one such re-pairing took place, the speaker locked itself for a single call into a high (but not deafening) volume, high-distortion mode that didn’t sound great, and we needed to re-start the call to restore the volume controls. This pushed the edge of the NXT flat panel’s audio capabilities, and though it showed that there’s still room for future products of this sort to improve upon both sound quality and equalization, our caller said we still sounded great while it was happening. Thankfully, the volume controls on the iPhone and those on the unit itself otherwise did a pretty good job of regulating call volume on our end.
Another small issue is the unit’s visor clip design, which is extremely sturdy and doesn’t flop around at all, but could benefit from molding and rubberizing changes to sit completely flush on different shapes of car visors. Ours fit without a major issue, but something this nice-looking would really benefit from a totally flat mount.
Similarly, recharging SurfaceSound Compact isn’t a problem, but it could be a little better. Bluetrek includes a USB cable and car charger with the unit that can be used together or separately to keep the battery running; however, the cable’s not long or thin enough to sneak behind your visor and around your windshield for simultaneous charging and driving. Since you won’t want to plug it in the other way, namely with the cable sticking down near your head while you’re driving, your only choice is to tote SurfaceSound indoors or—if you have a car that keeps charging devices when it’s turned off—leave it plugged in when you’re not driving. Thankfully, the 15-hour talk time means that you won’t need to recharge every day, or even every few days, so the inconvenience factor is relatively minor; some users may even enjoy having it indoors as a wireless speakerphone.
It’s important at this point to put the aforementioned issues in perspective: despite its minor limitations, SurfaceSound Compact is an extremely impressive new accessory for iPhone owners, and as its $100 MSRP and sub-$70 street price are competitive with other Bluetooth wireless options we’ve tested, we don’t hesitate to highly recommend it to our readers. Unlike far too many of the Bluetooth wireless products we’ve tested, it makes the most of everything from its speaker and microphone to its Bluetooth functionality and battery, and offers major convenience and aesthetic advantages over other wireless options; its only disadvantage relative to a Bluetooth headset is that the wireless experience ends when you leave your car. Future iterations and competitors will certainly remedy that omission, but until they come along, this will be our most-used Bluetooth car accessory for the iPhone.