Review: iSkin Cerulean F1 Wireless Stereo Bluetooth Earphones
Of the hundreds of companies now making iPod cases, Canada's iSkin is one of the very few obsessed with making them substantially better than its competitors; sometimes it hits, sometimes it misses, but it never seems to stand still. That's why we were excited when the company announced several Cerulean-branded wireless products back in January of this year: iSkin was ready to apply its industrial design skills to the geeky world of Bluetooth accessories, transforming the often too-big, too techie add-ons into something cooler.
Today, we’re reviewing three different Cerulean wireless product packages. First, there’s Cerulean F1 ($130), a Bluetooth 2.0 stereo wireless headset and microphone accessory designed for use with cell phones, and somewhat compatible with the iPhone. Second is Cerulean TX + RX ($150), which bundles an iPod Bluetooth transmitter (TX) with a receiver (RX) that can be plugged into almost any iPod-specific speaker dock to play iPod audio wirelessly through the speakers. Third is the Cerulean F1 Wireless Headset and TX Transmitter package ($190). Unlike the standalone F1, the new bundle includes a TX iPod transmitter so that you can hear your iPod’s music through the F1 headset; like the F1 itself, the TX transmitter also works to some extent with the iPhone.
If all of this seems somewhat confusing at this stage, you’re not alone: these three packages may use interchangeable components, but they need to be understood as separate offerings. This review focuses solely on the standalone Cerulean F1 Wireless Headphones, which are useful only to iPhone and other cell phone users, and not entirely for the purposes one would expect. The iPhone has built-in Bluetooth 2.0 hardware that is technically capable of being used both to stream monaural phone call audio and stereo music, but Apple has limited its Bluetooth support almost exclusively to making and receiving phone calls; a mediocre hack lets you output monaural, low-quality music via Bluetooth while the iPhone pumps out the same audio at the same volume through its built-in speaker. This is an Apple-imposed limitation, and unless the company updates the iPhone to permit true Bluetooth music streaming, the only advantage F1 really offers iPhone users over a lower-priced monaural headset is the ability to hear your callers in both ears.
As a standalone Bluetooth headset for the iPhone, F1 is a good but not great first offering for iSkin. Callers rated the $130 headset, which now can be had for $100, as sonically on par with Plantronics’ Voyager 520, a $100 headset which can sells for around $50. They noted that both devices did a good job of providing low-distortion transmission of our voice with the iPhone, though each had slightly different background static, neither better than the other’s. Again, F1’s advantage is that it puts the monaural telephone audio into both of your ears, and boasts up to 10 hours of talk time to Voyager 520’s eight. Both headsets work from roughly 30 feet away from the phone.
And both are equally easy to pair and re-pair with the iPhone; after effortless initial pairing, briefly pressing F1’s flashing white and blue right side button lets the iPhone know that F1 is ready to make or receive calls. F1 also features small volume controls on its lower right side, an on-off switch on its right rear, and track controls on its upper right side. Like the multipurpose side button, which works only to stop or start calls when used alone with the iPhone, the track buttons are useful for music playback only if you attach a TX unit—not included in the $130 set—to iPhone’s bottom; in this configuration, TX oddly mutes music rather than pausing it.
iSkin includes a USB cable for charging F1, as well as two sets of plastic ear mounts, one with chrome accents, one without. (F1 in our F1 + TX set came with foam and clear rubber earbud covers; the standalone F1 didn’t include these extra parts, and shipped only with black rubber earbud covers.) In any case, iSkin’s parts look good on your ears, but they’re still significantly larger than and not as visually neutral as Apple’s same-priced iPhone Bluetooth Headset. That said, they’re smaller and lighter than other stereo Bluetooth headsets we’ve tested; other than the slight pressure they use to stay on your ears, you won’t find them fatiguing.
F1 did fine with our Bluetooth 2.0-ready Macbook Pro in audio output testing, but had issues when we tried to use it with iChat in Mac OS X Leopard. In “headphones” mode, it properly separated left and right channel audio as we’d expected from its stereo audio functionality, though as with many devices, F1’s audio quality was equally reliant on properly and independently setting both the computer’s and headset’s volume levels, and limited by iSkin’s choice of earbud-style speakers. We couldn’t get the 15-millimeter drivers to fit completely in our ears, a common enough issue with over-the-ear earphones and wireless headsets; they were snug, but not completely inside of our ear canals. Additionally, in Mac OS 10.5.1’s Leopard iChat with F1 in “headset” mode, listeners could hear us, but we couldn’t hear them. iSkin says that this is a problem with Leopard’s implementation of Bluetooth, and will hopefully be fixed in a later point upgrade; however, we re-tested Voyager 520 and it worked properly.
Based on the other Bluetooth accessories we’ve tested, iSkin’s F1, TX, and RX products suffer from only one major competitive disadvantage: their price to performance ratios. For iPhone users, the standalone version of F1 doesn’t deliver a considerably better experience for $130 than the B+-rated Voyager 520 at $100, nor does the $190 F1 + TX set radically outperform Logitech’s FreePulse; so too is the $150 TX + RX set a hint or two under Belkin’s $150 TuneStage 2 in wireless performance and pack-ins. While you can find each of iSkin’s products at a small discount online, you can typically find their competitors at even more aggressive prices, making the ultimate shopping decision more heavily weighted towards the alternatives. However, there is some value in their sleek black designs, which have been successfully engineered to be smaller and lighter than similarly priced offerings; you’ll need to decide whether their miniaturization and looks merit the compromises on pricing and/or features the Cerulean products entail.
From our perspective, truly excellent wireless headphones are differentiated from the pack by superior pricing, comfort, and/or performance, and though F1 is a good headset, what it offers to iPhone users doesn’t stand out in any of these categories: the benefits of its Bluetooth 2.0 stereo capabilities are lost on the monaural-only iPhone, and limited somewhat by the fit of its earbuds, so unless you’re using it with a device other than the iPhone, you’ll pay a higher price for little benefit. That said, F1, like each of the other Cerulean products, provides a strong building block for next-generation iSkin Bluetooth accessories, which we hope will be more affordable, comfortable, and even better looking than these.