Review: Logitech FreePulse Wireless Headphones
Pros: The first pair of iPod-ready headphones with Bluetooth 2.0+EDR wireless technology inside, effortlessly pairing an iPod-agnostic transmitter with a warm-balanced, good-sounding pair of over-the-ear headphones. Comfort, sound quality, and distance performance have all improved from last year’s model; very infrequent interruption of audio signal allows use from greater than 33-foot promised distances. Aggressive price for wireless headphones.
Cons: Non-adjustable headset is “one-size-fits-some,” will not feel comfortable on smaller heads and will lead to fatigue after extended use on larger ones. Battery life has fallen to 6 promised hours of playback. No iPod controls on the headset; fairly large transmitter connects to iPod headphone ports and requires initial on-iPod volume calibration.
Logitech has come a long way in the past year: its mm50 is a class-leading travel speaker with numerous other up- and down-market options on shelves or en route, and the company seems dedicated to winning over headphone buyers in the same way. To that end, Logitech has just released the black, gray, and silver FreePulse Wireless Headphones ($100), a substantial upgrade from last year’s white and silver Logitech Wireless Headphones. Once again, the company has packaged a pair of stereo headphones together with an iPod audio transmitter and a wall charger that can recharge both of their internal batteries at once, but this time, FreePulse simultaneously leaps ahead of its predecessor in technology, comfort, and pricing. Still, whether it’s right for your needs will depend largely a couple of other factors, including your head size and the iPod control features you expect.
If the idea of wireless headphones doesn’t make sense at first, take a look at our Introduction to Bluetooth Wireless Accessories, which notes that wireless headphones are designed for people who don’t want cords to interfere with their enjoyment of music, including athletes, people who use public transportation, and other indoor and outdoor “active” users. Most of the time, wireless headphone buyers are looking for a way to stow the iPod in a safe place without compromising their access to music, but in the past, they’ve been forced to give up sound quality, comfort, and some convenience in the process.
Thankfully, wireless audio technology has improved. Last year’s wireless headphones used Bluetooth 1.2 radios, which promised to let you hear near-CD quality sound up to 33 feet away from your iPod. Practically, though, few Bluetooth 1.2 accessories achieved the 33-foot distance - Logitech’s prior Headphones were the rare exception that came close - and they didn’t match much less expensive corded alternatives in sound quality. By contrast, FreePulse is the first iPod wireless system to use a Bluetooth 2.0+EDR radio, which sends audio data faster while consuming less power. Consequently, Bluetooth 2.0+EDR accessories can sound better without requiring big batteries, though no promises have been made about better distance performance.
FreePulse makes unexpectedly good use of the new Bluetooth technology. For reasons unknown, its distance performance has improved from last year’s model - we were able to walk significantly more than 33 feet away from the iPod and still hear its music playing, which was impressive in two ways. Many wireless headsets suffer from frequent interruptions while you’re walking, and though they do happen from time to time with Freepulse, they’re comparatively infrequent and gracefully handled with very brief silences. Additionally, the sheer distance we achieved was surprising. We could routinely place the iPod and FreePulse transmitter in one room and walk to the far end of another with the headset - distances around 50 feet away - and still hear our music playing clearly.
Sound quality has also taken a step up from last year’s model. Back then, we preferred the sound of a $30 pair of physically similar but wired Sennheiser PMX60s to the original $150 Wireless Headphones. Though FreePulse, unlike TEN Technology’s original naviPlay Bluetooth system for iPods, limits you to the sound signature of Logitech’s included earpieces, there isn’t a $120 gulf in sound quality any more, and in fact, many listeners will prefer the newer $100 headset to the $30 pair this time. The reason’s not clarity - FreePulse still appears to be a little below CD-quality - but rather the enhanced midrange and bass bias of Logitech’s design, which sounds better on the low-end than the otherwise very good PMX60s. Fans of bass will like FreePulse’s sound, and probably won’t notice its other slight audio deficiency - a very faint high-pitched noise when they’re in use. The sound is easy to ignore whenever music is playing, but is more noticeable in silences and audiobook recordings.
There are only two areas in which FreePulse steps down in performance from the original Logitech Wireless Headphones. This year’s model promises only 6 hours of audio run time between recharges to last year’s 8, both numbers acceptable, but neither spectacular by wireless standards. Additionally, FreePulse no longer makes an attempt to control your iPod in any way at all: the included transmitter connects only to your iPod’s headphone port, and rather than including a six-button earpiece interface for track, volume, power, and play/pause features, FreePulse’s headset has only volume and power controls. Pairing the wireless devices is extremely simple, but doing anything to your iPod while at a distance is impossible. Depending on whether you like to change songs or pause your music frequently, FreePulse may or may not be suited to your personal needs.
From a comfort standpoint, FreePulse delivers partially on the promise of its higher-tech chipset. Though both of Logitech’s designs use foam-covered speakers that fit on the outsides of your ears rather than inside the canals like Apple’s iPod pack-ins, this year’s model feels lighter and less bulky than last year’s. The old five-button-and-switch control system has been simplified to a two-position volume rocker and power button combination, found on the right earpiece, and there’s less hard plastic around the speakers, replaced by soft rubber rings that loop over the tops of your ears to hold the earpieces in place. Similarly, last year’s uncomfortable hard plastic neck and ear loop has been replaced by a softer, rubber-coated neckband that most users will find entirely unobtrusive, though it’s reinforced internally with carbon spring-steel and still serves to link the earpieces together in the same way as before.
There’s only one significant problem here. As with last year’s model, Logitech provides no way for users to resize the headband or earpieces to fit different head or ear sizes. While our male testers found that the headset fit snugly, a female tester with a smaller head found the earpieces droopy and the overall experience uncomfortable, despite her preference for over-the-ear headphones. All testers found the earphones fatiguing over the course of an hour of use, with the female tester finding them uncomfortable most quickly, and commenting that they didn’t sound right because they weren’t properly centered on her ears.
Fitting your iPod is another story. Logitech’s latest transmitter comes with six different mounting plates that work with all iPods, mounting stably wherever the headphone port is located. You may need to improvise a little for the second-generation iPod nano and both iPod shuffles - no plate is specifically designed for them - while an audio extension cable is included to let the transmitter serve as a dongle for any non-iPod device. We’d have preferred the transmitter be smaller, as on some other Bluetooth accessories we’ve tested, but some people will find that to be offset by the facts that it doesn’t drain the iPod’s battery and works with any device you may have.
Pricing and Conclusions
The biggest offset to any complaints people may have about FreePulse is Logitech’s smart, aggressive price point. At $100, this is the least expensive major-brand pair of Bluetooth headphones we’ve seen, and the fact that FreePulse uses the latest Bluetooth 2.0+EDR standard makes the price even more impressive. There may be few Bluetooth 2.0-compatible devices available today, but Apple’s Bluetooth-enabled computers all include 2.0+EDR chips these days, and are just waiting for the company - or someone else - to release supporting software. Other Bluetooth 2.0-ready hardware is just around the corner, which will make the FreePulse headphones an able companion for non-iPod applications.
Judged purely for what it actually is and does today, FreePulse falls only a little shy of our high recommendation level. With superior sound quality, distance performance, and comfort to last year’s model, all in a less expensive package, this new design gave us many reasons to feel that it was A-worthy. But its continued inability to fit the heads of some users and related fatigue factor were offsets, as was its lack of iPod control and diminished battery life. If you’re Logitech’s ideal user - a person who wants long-distance, good-sounding wireless music at a reasonable price, and doesn’t mind giving up iPod control - and have the right-sized head to fit the headset comfortably, you will be very impressed by what FreePulse delivers for the dollar. But if you’re not sure whether it’s right for your head size or iPod usage needs, buy from a store with a good return policy and give it a few days; we wouldn’t be surprised if you’re happy enough to keep it.