Review: Plantronics Voyager 520 Bluetooth Headset
With dozens if not hundreds of different options now on the market, iPhone-compatible monaural Bluetooth headsets can be understood as compromises of five essential components: ear-sized speaker, microphone, battery, enclosure, and miniature computer chips. Historically, the smaller and lighter these parts have become, the less you could expect from them in performance, and the more you can expect to pay for the miniaturization.
Three new Bluetooth headsets we’ve been testing generally follow the historic rule, but also interestingly diverge enough from it to be worthy of any iPhone owner’s attention. Two are from Plantronics—the brand new Voyager 520 ($100) is an improved sequel to the company’s popular mid-range Voyager 510, while the Discovery 665 ($150) is a smaller and lighter alternative at the top of the Plantronics lineup. The other is Argard’s M10 ($149), which is size of a stack of watch batteries with a silicone-tipped earbud attached. It’s around a third the 665’s size, and similarly under half the size of Apple’s own iPhone Bluetooth Headset (iLounge rating: B); weighing 5 grams and measuring 23mm by 22mm by 31.5mm, M10’s the very smallest Bluetooth headset we’ve seen.
If you start from the historic premise—smaller sounds worse and is more expensive—you’ll be part of the way to understanding these three new headsets. Using Apple’s good but not spectacular iPhone Bluetooth Headset as a common reference point for sound, we found that callers preferred the way we sounded through the less expensive, larger Voyager 520, found the Discovery 665 essentially equivalent, and found Argard’s M10 a small step below Apple’s and the 665’s mark. In other words, if sound quality is most important to you, stop reading now and find a way to test the Voyager 520 for yourself: it’s not small or sexy, but as we’ll explain below, it’s a very strong performer overall.
Left to right: Argard M10, Voyager 520, Discovery 665, Apple Bluetooth Headset
Sound quality, however, isn’t the only factor in Bluetooth headsets; size and looks are becoming increasingly important. Though opinions will vary on this point, we’d call the black and silver metallic 520 and 665 both a step or two below Apple’s and Argard’s designs, and closer to each other than might have been expected given the disparity in their prices. Discovery 665’s major aesthetic selling point is the fact that it’s half the weight of the 520, and needn’t be worn with the detachable ear mount Plantronics includes in the package. You can instead mount one of three gummy silicone ear tips on 665’s body and stick it in your ear without further reinforcement. We actually liked the unit’s mount, which is thin, neutrally black, and flexible, and though it wasn’t necessary, preferred to keep it on for an added sense of stability.
By contrast, if you set the 520 on a flat surface beside the 665, you’ll notice instantly that 520’s a bit thicker and longer, has a much larger, non-detachable rubber and plastic ear mount, and has chrome-styled plastic accents rather than the matte silver surfaces of 665. Most beauty contests would score the 665 a notch above the 520, and from an obvious features standpoint, 665 might win, too: it has two volume buttons that are missing from 520, and promises AudioIQ “digitally enhanced sound” for added intelligibility during calls.
But in practice, we preferred the 520 to the 665. The slight size, weight, and cosmetic differences all but disappear when 520’s being worn, as its larger ear mount is very comfortable, hides behind your ear, and feels even lighter than 665 since it’s not putting pressure on your canal. Neither of the headsets is as visually neutral as the Apple or Argard designs, and the lack of volume buttons on the 520 won’t matter if you, like us, are accustomed to using the iPhone’s controls for this feature.
Sound quality and range were also in 520’s favor. Though it isn’t advertised as an AudioIQ headset, and both devices can maintain pairing with the iPhone from 30-foot distances, callers described 520’s sound as superior in intelligibility to Apple’s iPhone Bluetooth Headset, with added treble and thinner bass, and complained less about static interference as we moved further from the iPhone itself. At the edge of 655’s range, where it sounded markedly better than the Argard M10 but inferior to the 520, callers noticed “pumping and compression” sounds in its audio, as it struggled to normalize the sound of our voice. We’d give the 655 an small edge over Apple’s design in overall performance.
Given certain Plantronics claims about the 520’s wind screened, noise-cancelling microphone, which improves on its Voyager 510 predecessor (shown above), we’d hoped that it would stand up well against the Aliph Jawbone and offer a nearly or equally compelling option for high-noise environments. Unfortunately, it doesn’t: Jawbone is hugely better at filtering out ambient sounds, and is still the solution for choice for these situations, assuming you can live with the price and its less than completely comfortable design. Even as the best of the 3 headsets in this group, 520 remains highly susceptible to wind noise, and callers said they could barely or not make us out when we were walking against a light wind outdoors.
A brief note on the Bluetooth technology inside these headsets is also warranted. Both of the Plantronics earpieces include Bluetooth 2.0 technology that’s compatible with newer phones and computers, and each pairs especially quickly with iPhone once the headset’s turned on. By contrast, M10 uses older Bluetooth 1.2 technology, and doesn’t auto-pair as quickly, but it worked just fine with the Bluetooth 2.0-capable iPhone in most of our tests. When flipping back and forth between headsets, we once heard M10’s audio become screechy on both ends, but we attributed the issue to our unusual Bluetooth toggling rather than a problem with M10, and it went away when we hung up and then resumed our phone call.
There are more substantial differences between the various headsets’ bundles. The Plantronics 520 and Argard M10 each come with a wall charger and a desktop dock—nothing else—but the Plantronics dock is almost tacky in its cheapness, while the M10 dock is stylish and sophisticated. The 665 is the best-appointed of this bunch: it lacks a wall charger, but includes a USB charger, a car charger, and a shirt-clipped wearable charging sleeve that you must dock 665 in to refresh its battery. You’ll need to decide whether the absence of a wall adapter is important to you, but we find computer recharging to be sufficient, especially when a car charger is included in the package.
The one final offset to these devices is their differing battery lives. While 665 and M10 are designed for relatively light use—665 offers 3.5 hours of talk and 80 hours of standby time between charges, and M10 promises 3 hours of talk time or 100 hours of standby time—520 is a gabber’s headset, with 8 hours of talk time and 180 hours of standby time. Another way to look at this is that you’ll need to recharge an underused 665 after around 3 days, M10 after 4, and 520 after 7 and a half. Having accidentally left headsets turned on only to need them a couple of days later, we know the added battery life’s important: better to find half a charge remaining than a completely dead battery.
From where we stand, the Plantronics Voyager 520 is the best of this batch of Bluetooth headsets, and styling aside, the smartest buy we’ve yet tested with the iPhone: for the $100 price, you get great comfort, strong sound quality in all but the same challenging environments that impede 99% of its competitors, and styling that may not be neutral, but is basically inoffensive. Though $100’s a lot to pay for a headset, if Plantronics repeats past pricing policies, you’ll find 520 cheaper when it becomes widely available in stores—at its full MSRP, we consider it very good, and only modestly short of great. In our book, the $50 premium you’ll pay for the Discovery 665 isn’t worthwhile given its diminished battery and sound performance, and despite its smaller size. That said, it’s still a good headset, and worth considering as an equally appealing alternative to Apple’s iPhone Bluetooth Headset if the car charger, optional ear mount, and volume controls are better matched to your needs.