Review: Griffin SmartTalk Bluetooth Sound-Isolating Hands-Free Headset with Voice Prompts
When one company finds the right formula for a successful accessory, others soon follow the trail that's been blazed. Griffin has been on both ends of that equation, and its new SmartTalk Bluetooth Headset ($100) -- not to be confused with the prior SmartTalk Headphone Adapter -- is the company's answer to Aliph's 2008 version of Jawbone, a stylish wireless earpiece that let users make and receive telephone calls even under exceptionally poor ambient noise conditions. Aliph figured out how to make its microphone system pick up only your voice even if you were standing next to a fan, a pair of speakers playing music, or someone else having a conversation. The Jawbone technology was impressive, and Aliph charged a premium for it.
SmartTalk is essentially Jawbone with small cosmetic and functional changes. They’re almost exactly the same length, height, and depth, with SmartTalk ever-so-slightly deeper thanks to an in-canal earpiece that is tipped with a replaceable silicone cap. Griffin’s black soft touch rubber version is a smoother take on Aliph’s diamond plastic, with SmartTalk’s buttons and lights more visually apparent than Jawbone’s. Aliph went with white and red lights in a thin slit; Griffin uses more traditional blue and red ones that peek out from underneath a large power button. The difference in conspicuousness works a little to SmartTalk’s advantage because Jawbone’s buttons are sometimes difficult to find; Griffin also includes small, side-mounted volume buttons that aren’t found on the Aliph unit.
The two companies’ bundles are also similar, though not identical. Each comes with a wall charger and a USB cable, but Griffin’s parts are a little nicer: both come with cables so that you don’t need to carry the USB cable over to the charger from your Mac or PC. (A more expensive SmartTalk version ($120) will be bundled in the near future with a car charger.) They also both have detachable ear stems and replacement rubber caps for their ear pieces; we prefer the Griffin design a little on comfort. Notably, Aliph’s battery is rated for 4 hours of talk time or 192 hours of standby, while Griffin’s is 4 hours of talk and 110 hours of standby. Neither is impressive by the standards of competing headsets out there, but Griffin blames the power demands of its noise-canceling solution for the drain; Jawbone lets you deactivate its noise-canceler to squeeze a little extra life out of the headset, at obvious sonic costs.
On a positive note, SmartTalk’s noise-canceling abilities are a serious rival to the Jawbone’s. Our callers told us that they could barely hear ambient noises surrounding us as we made telephone calls from taxicabs, hotel lobbies, and rooms with music playing; SmartTalk’s dual microphones managed to isolate our voice, render it intelligible, and effectively blur the background noise into a Charlie Brown teacher-like drone. Everyone said that they could hear us clearly over the noise, though in comparative testing against the Jawbone, they noted that they slightly preferred the latter unit’s sound—by a little.
Occasional static and an unusual initial noise metering process appeared to be to blame. SmartTalk appears to use the first few seconds of each connection to size up your voice’s presence relative to the microphones and whatever sounds you might be surrounded by, and doesn’t do it as quickly as it should; callers repeatedly told us that they missed the first couple of seconds of our conversations as we “faded in.” Thereafter, they said that we sounded as good on SmartTalk as with the Jawbone under identical conditions, apart from an intermittent small, inoffensive static crackle. The SmartTalk rendition of our voice was described as ever so slightly more natural, and the Jawbone equally more intelligible.
We noticed a similar crackle on our end at one point, as well. As it turns out, SmartTalk promises both noise cancellation and a voice prompting feature that is supposed to replace the beeps of most Bluetooth headphones with voices. While the idea’s a good one, the voices can annoyingly overlap incoming phone calls and, on one occasion, screwed up the earpiece as it attempted to let us hear the prompt and our caller at the same time; both were audible, but with static that continued until we disconnected and reconnected SmartTalk. It bears emphasis that this happened during an unusual testing scenario, when we were switching back and forth between headsets, but voices (“hello,” “goodbye,” and so on) do get played whenever you activate certain features, sometimes clipped or with no real benefit to the user. Though SmartTalk’s noise-cancellation feature was superior, we preferred the voice system in iVoice’s Diamond-X headset, which handles similar messages more gracefully, and also uses voice to let you know who’s calling; SmartTalk instead just plays a digital ringtone in your ear when a call comes in. It is, however, nice to hear SmartTalk’s obvious voice prompt for initial pairing rather than having to depend on special flashing lights to know you’re ready to go.
Overall, SmartTalk is a very good headset to the extent that it offers Jawbone-like functionality plus a few little bonuses—integrated volume controls, an extra charging cable, and semi-useful voice prompting—at a possibly lower price, given variations between Jawbone’s $130 MSRP/$75 street prices and Griffin’s $100 MSRP. It remains to be seen what SmartTalk’s street price will be, but if you can find it less expensively than the Jawbone, consider it a comparable option; only the pre-call fade-in and the occasional issues with slight static and voice prompting detract from its potential for greatness.