Having respectively set the bars for Bluetooth active noise cancellation headsets and in-car speakerphone accessories, Aliph’s 2008 Jawbone and Contour Design/Bluetrek’s SurfaceSound Compact have enabled iPhone fans to enjoy wireless conversations with relatively little interference from background noise. This month, BlueAnt Wireless released challengers to both of these devices: the ear-mounted Z9i Bluetooth Headset ($100) and the car visor-mounted Supertooth 3 Bluetooth Handsfree ($130). While BlueAnt’s offerings are very good by last year’s standards, and each has a feature or two that we really liked, neither unseats its category’s reigning champion. This review covers the Supertooth 3.
Unlike the Z9i, which promised similar active noise-cancellation technology to the Aliph Jawbone at a lower price, Supertooth 3 offers similar functionality to SurfaceSound Compact at a $30 premium. Here, the idea is to provide an even more deluxe car visor-mounted Bluetooth speakerphone, which starts with a speaker, an echo-cancelling microphone, a battery, and a Bluetooth 2.0 chipset, then expands upon these SurfaceSound-like features with multilingual voice prompts, the ability to respond to certain voice commands, and a magnetic mounting system for added versatility and convenience. Each of these features is actually well-executed—the only issue is that SurfaceSound Compact sounds better in both incoming and outgoing directions than Supertooth 3, and sells for less.
As with Z9i, BlueAnt hasn’t skimped on what’s in Supertooth 3’s box. Of course, there’s the Supertooth 3 unit itself, a glossy black box measuring 4.8” by 2.4” by 0.8”—thicker than SurfaceSound Compact but not offensively large or bulky. Fifteen hours of talk time or 800 hours of standby time are promised on a single battery charge, which is equivalent to the SurfaceSound Compact’s run time; three hours of recharging time are required for a completely empty battery. You get twin metal car visor mounts, which can be mounted in two separate vehicles for instant attachment to Supertooth 3’s magnetic back surface, a really smart idea that also lets you bring the unit indoors for use when flat on a table.
There are also in-home and in-car battery chargers, versus Bluetrek’s inclusion of a “privacy” wired headset and a computer-ready USB cable in addition to its car charger. We slightly prefer BlueAnt’s wall charger as a pack-in; it makes recharging the unit even easier outside the car, which you might well want to do if you put the unit to work as a tabletop speakerphone. SurfaceSound Compact can also be used indoors, but assuming you don’t have anything on your desk that might be negatively affected by its powerful rear magnets, Supertooth 3’s design is more natural for this purpose.
From a functional standpoint, Supertooth 3 and SurfaceSound Compact work in the same basic way. You charge them once, put them in your car, and turn them on when you enter the car with your iPhone. Extremely simple Bluetooth 2.0 pairing with the iPhone establishes a connection between the devices—SurfaceSound Compact tended to re-establish the connection a little quicker in our testing—and then when calls come in, you can press a button on the visor-mounted device to accept them. You hear the call through the speaker, and your caller hears you through a noise- and echo-cancelling microphone. Bluetrek and Contour’s wand-like microphone and initial activation design is simpler, but BlueAnt’s straightforward green call start and red call end buttons are a little easier to reach than the side-mounted ones on SurfaceSound Compact. Both units have volume adjustment buttons, and both are easy to hear in a noisy car at well under their maximum volume levels.
Several major differences start with Supertooth 3’s voice functionality: it talks a lot. A computerized voice guides you in one of five languages through initial pairing, then—after a one-time Contacts synchronization process that actually works with the iPhone—actually says the name of whomever is calling you, using either an American or British accent.
If the number’s not in your Contacts database, you’ll hear just the number. We were surprised at how well this Text To Speech (TTS) feature worked, particularly given that we’ve never seen another device do this with the iPhone before, though you’ll need to decide whether you want to have your driving interrupted on occasion by a voice announcing callers. If not, the SurfaceSound Compact is a better option, given that this TTS functionality is Supertooth’s major differentiator.
Another differentiator is its ability to hear your voice under limited circumstances. When a call comes in, the caller’s name or number is followed by a beep, and if you’ve set Supertooth up to do so, saying the words “ok,” “accept call,” or “answer” will automatically initiate the call. The latter feature, Voice Answer, worked most of the time when we tried it, and you’re given a new beep after every ring on your phone to try and engage the mode. BlueAnt warns that it won’t work well in really noisy cars; you have the option of turning it off, or just hitting the green button to start calls. In any case, it’s a cool idea, and Supertooth 3 also supports voice dial activation, redialing, and more with compatible phones—unfortunately, the iPhone’s not yet capable of using some of these features.
The final functional difference between the BlueAnt and BlueTrek devices is their audio performance, attributable to differences in their microphones, and digital signal processing technologies. Callers told us that we sounded more intelligible with SurfaceSound Compact, due both to a crisper, less bassy rendition of voices and a lower level of apparent background noise. Part of this is no doubt due to SurfaceSound’s use of a wand-like microphone that gets closer to the user, rather than a surface-mounted mic that is closer to the car’s visor, but good audio signal processing is also at play.