It’s somewhat surprising that lightweight Bluetooth earphones remain uncommon today, even after the release of more power-efficient Bluetooth chips and standards; as we noted late last year, JayBird’s BlueBuds X remains the best integrated solution around, though it’s prohibitively expensive for many users at $170. Consequently, companies have continued to release non-integrated but still portable alternatives such as BlueAnt’s Ribbon and Antec’s Gain Bluetooth Receiver ($40). Rather than building Bluetooth chips and rechargeable batteries directly into earphones, these accessories house those components within separate wearable enclosures, letting you connect traditional 3.5mm wired earphones for semi-wireless listening. Your iPhone, iPod, or iPad can be up to 30 feet away from the headphones — a boon for athletes and other active users. Unfortunately, while Gain has achieved an even smaller form factor and lower price than Ribbon, its quality and design are marginal enough that this accessory will only appeal to highly budget-conscious users.
Unlike Ribbon, which shipped with everything from a wall charger to a 3.5mm audio cable and earphones, Gain has been stripped down to the basics: you get a USB cable for charging, three sets of rubber eartips, a pair of inexpensive-feeling earphones, and the Bluetooth unit itself—a roughly 1.55” by 0.9” by 0.55” plastic box with a mirrored front surface. Five different colors are available for the plastic, which ranges from white or black to pink, purple, or blue, mixing glossy and matte textures. Thanks to a Bluetooth 3.0 chip, Grip’s battery life is rated at six hours per charge, and a front-mounted blue and red light flashes during use and refueling. The included earphones are decent, with the expected low-end slant to bass, but serious listeners will jettison them quickly in favor of something else.
It was obvious that BlueAnt really thought hard about the industrial design of Ribbon, picking a nicely stylized two-colored chassis, including clearly marked volume and play/pause buttons, and protecting its micro-USB charging port against moisture intrusion with a cap. Ribbon also gripped clothing with its uniquely bent shape. By contrast, Gain is very simply and less thoughtfully designed: it has a small spring-loaded rear clip, leaves its USB port exposed, and includes an awkward side switch that one might incorrectly assume was for power on/off. It’s actually a hold switch, doing nothing more than disabling Gain’s controls. The top mirrored control panel has a visible gap with the rest of the plastic housing, so there’s little question that you don’t want to bring Gain in contact with sweat or rain.
Gain’s buttons are each labelled, but Antec has managed to make them confusing to use by situating all five underneath the same mirrored face, and choosing somewhat unintuitive markings—for instance, there’s no label at all for power. If you want to turn Gain on or off, you need to hold down the phone button for three seconds. Should you hold down the same button for one or two seconds, Gain might redial the last person you called on your phone, while a quick tap will start or stop music. The button you’d likely guess is track back is actually track forward, and vice versa. Only the volume buttons do exactly what you’d expect; at peak and not particularly high volume, a distorted tone will signal that the amplifier can’t go any higher, while a quieter tone plays at the other end of the spectrum. Nothing about the user experience is particularly good; it’s all just okay.
Gain isn’t great in the audio department, either, though the degree to which a person finds it objectionable will depend on what’s expected from a $40 accessory like this. A low but noticeable static hiss pervades all audio from the time Gain is turned on through its playback of music to streaming of phone calls, but the supposedly “HD” audio is otherwise fine—obviously flatter than with a wireless connection, with reduced bass and treble, but not terrible. Bluetooth wireless streaming is reliable at unimpeded 33-foot distances, breaking up quickly after that or if there are physical obstructions. There’s also a tiny microphone hole on one of Gain’s edges, and assuming it’s clipped to your shirt and pointing towards your mouth, callers will be able to hear you speaking with somewhat below iPhone par fidelity. Once again, the performance isn’t fantastic, but it’s better than not having microphone functionality in whatever earphones you’re attaching.
Fairly rating Gain is a challenge solely in that it requires an assessment of reasonable expectations for a certainly small, definitely affordable Bluetooth streaming device with a rechargeable battery and a pair of cheap included earphones as benefits. At a low price point, it’s tempting to forgive the design omissions, poor control icons, and so-so sonic quality; some people will see the $40 asking price and just jump on Gain for everything it can do. We wouldn’t say “no”—it’s not a bad alternative. But we can’t in good conscience endorse Gain, either. The controls alone deliver such a mediocre user experience that we wouldn’t want to use this accessory for that reason alone, and the persistent static hiss detracts from the otherwise acceptable sonic performance. As a result, we felt that a C+ rating was appropriate. Overall, this is an okay Bluetooth streaming accessory, but with some tweaks, a sequel could be considerably better at the same price point. Consider this version solely if you want a tiny wireless streamer and are willing to live with less than thrilling performance.
Company and Price
Model: Gain Bluetooth Receiver
Compatible: All Bluetooth-Capable iPads, iPhones + iPods