Review: Macally BlueWave Bluetooth Stereo and Streaming Headset
Pros: The iPod’s least expensive Bluetooth wireless broadcasting system to date, with battery-powered transmitter and headphone receiver that sound good, work for nearly thirty feet without major issues, and connect to a stereo with included cabling for better wireless sound than competitors.
Cons: Isn’t as fully featured as competing options either for non-iPod Bluetooth functionality or control of the iPod from a distance, earcup-style headphones may or may not be right for you, depends entirely on AAA batteries rather than rechargeables and AC power.
As of the date of this review, there are now three competing Bluetooth wireless solutions for the iPod: Bluetake was first with i-Phono BT420EX (iLounge rating: B), followed by TEN Technology’s naviPlay (iLounge rating: A-), and today, Macally’s BlueWave ($169.99). All three products are designed to let you walk up to 30 feet away from your iPod, iPod mini, or iPod photo while still enjoying its music through headphones, though their performance and features differ from there, and BlueWave is the least expensive of the bunch.
Design and Comparisons
All three products include white glossy plastic transmitters that connect to your iPod and broadcast its music through the air. Macally’s transmitter plugs into the iPod’s headphone port, and unlike many top-mounting peripherals doesn’t use the iPod’s extended four-pin connector for power or other functionality; instead, the company uses a set of two (included) non-rechargeable AAA batteries to provide power, and a small plastic stub just to keep the transmitter from spinning around on the iPod’s top. As with TEN’s naviPlay, which connects only to the bottom Dock Connector ports of iPods, Macally’s plastic stub renders the transmitter incompatible with the iPod shuffle, first- and second-generation iPods, and other devices, but Macally says that you can break it off if you desire. We didn’t try it, and the stub doesn’t look easily detachable, but those with needle-nosed pliers and/or sanding tools might give it a shot.
A power switch on the BlueWave transmitter’s top flips the unit on, and a multi-colored LED on the left alternately glows purple or blue. The light flips from purple to solid blue when the transmitter’s looking for its paired set of headphones, and then flashes blue constantly to indicate that the headphones are currently connected. It’s a bit odd, though not unattractive to people (such as us) who like blue lights.
Like i-Phono but unlike naviPlay, BlueWave includes and largely depends upon its own pair of battery-powered stereo headphones, in this case a large silver and black set of earcups that generally looks and feels pretty good. They’re certainly considerably more comfortable and less unusual than the i-Phono earphones, with plastic parts that expand and retract to fit different-sized heads, and a simple folding mechanism for easier carrying. BlueWave’s headphones also require their own set of two (included) non-rechargeable AAA batteries, which Macally indicates will run for between two and eight hours - yes, you read that correctly - depending on volume and other factors. A small yellow light on the left earcup flashes to indicate a connection with the transmitter, while a power switch, volume control, and “line out” port appear below it.
Macally also includes a black stereo minijack-to-RCA jack cable in every BlueWave package, which nicely fits the (small) “line out” minijack molding on the headphones. With the cable, you can connect the headphones to any stereo with RCA-style left and right inputs, and thereby listen to your iPod wirelessly through good speakers from a distance. We put “line out” in quotes only because there’s no true line-level broadcasting being done with BlueWave: that port reproduces whatever audio comes out of the iPod’s headphone jack at whatever volume the iPod’s set at. The headphones’ own volume control only adjusts the sound through the earphone speakers, which incidentally continue to play even when the port is in use - hence some of the variability in BlueWave’s run time.
The one thing not included in the BlueWave box or design is an item found in each of the competing options: an AC adapter. You can recharge and run both i-Phono and naviPlay’s internal batteries from AC power or computer connections, but BlueWave’s designed as an AAA-powered solution only. Unless you buy and separately recharge a set or two of rechargeable AAAs, you might find that this omission limits BlueWave’s utility as a permanent part of a stereo system.
In our testing with an iPod, BlueWave proved that it could broadcast as well as naviPlay, falling only a few feet short of Bluetooth’s 30-foot maximum distance between transmitter and receiver for an almost entirely stable connection. (Both units occasionally lose signal for split seconds near the end of their range.) Unlike naviPlay, which abruptly drops signal at the edge of its 27-foot distance, BlueWave’s signal tends to scatter as it breaks up, and then drops completely dead when there’s no chance of a connection. Both units performed at 4-5 foot greater distances than i-Phono, and sounded at least as good. None of the devices did too well through walls - a single wall is enough to cut the broadcasting distance down to 10 or so feet.
Audio quality is trickier to measure. Bluetooth 1.2 is generally capable of handling “near CD-quality” broadcasting, which as we noted in our naviPlay review can result in a little distortion or noise - sound that’s better overall than FM radio (and FM transmitters), but not as good as a wired connection. Use a mediocre enough pair of headphones or speakers and you won’t notice it; use a great pair and you might. Having said that, though, we preferred BlueWave’s “line out” sound to what we heard from naviPlay - whether because of better filtering or something else, there was less apparent distortion in the Apple Lossless-encoded music we tested with both devices, and BlueWave thereby sounded closer to a wired connection.
But we also preferred TEN’s decision to use a receiver box (with an iPod joypad controller) in naviPlay instead of requiring you to use a specific pair of headphones. Bluetooth hardware is still too big to turn into in-canal earbuds, and so all the headphone solutions from companies such as Bluetake, Macally, and Hewlett-Packard are big, over-the-ear designs. naviPlay gives you the option of using whatever headphones you already own and like, plus the ability to control your iPod from a distance; BlueWave doesn’t.
Outside of its iPod-specific functionality, BlueWave’s utility as a standard Bluetooth device is limited. Macally designed it to support the AD2P audio profile so that it can be paired with a Bluetooth-enabled computer for stereo sound, and we quickly achieved pairing in our initial connection with an Apple PowerBook G4 running Tiger. Unfortunately, the default level of audio quality through iTunes was miserably flat, sounding overall like an AM radio quality-broadcast, and entirely unlike the unit’s iPod performance. Though listed as a resource for more information on computer pairing, Macally’s web site FAQ section provides no guidance as to how audio quality can be brought up to a superior level. We suspect that it can be with some fiddling around and the right software, but weren’t impressed by what we heard.
By comparison, both i-Phono and naviPlay offer or promise additional Bluetooth functionality; i-Phono can also be paired with cell phones and operate as a good (if clunky) headset (including a microphone), while naviPlay supports the Audio Video Remote Control Profile, and TEN promises to add support for microphone and cell phone headset usage, as well. BlueWave seems to have mostly been designed to add wireless functionalty to the iPod, and whether its cross-platform potential is tapped further is still an open question.
If you’re looking for a wireless headphone system for your iPod, BlueWave is a pretty good option - better in almost all regards than iPhono, as well as considerably less expensive. It’s also better sounding as an audio-out device than TEN’s naviPlay, and far superior to the sound of FM transmitters in all regards. These assets are counterbalanced by its dependence on AAA batteries and a single pair of large earcup-style headphones, short running times (depending on your use of the headphones), and its limited non-iPod functionality.
Prices aside, if we forced to pick between BlueWave and naviPlay for our own purposes - wireless headphone listening with an iPod - we’d pick naviPlay because of its portable controls and ability to work with any set of headphones we desire. But people looking for smoother iPod sound from a separate set of speakers should try BlueWave first, instead.