Pros: Bluetooth headphones that perform almost entirely as advertised for both iPod and cellular telephone use, providing quality stereo output without wires and adding minimal extra bulk to the iPod.
Cons: Headphones themselves are on the large side, somewhat awkward fitting and looking, okay audio performance, have high price tag.
Once ubiquitous in subways and other public places overseas, portable wireless headphone technology was prevented from spreading outside of homes in the United States by FCC regulations. It was a shame: wireless headphones freed users from cable interference, which was especially useful for athletes and commuters. Today, a number of companies are taking another stab at wireless audio. Armed with Bluetooth wireless technology, which is more secure and has less interference than older FM-based wireless hardware, smaller companies have emerged with a new breed of wireless headphones for portable devices.
Though not the first to announce a Bluetooth-enabled headphone solution for the iPod, Taipei, Taiwan-based Bluetake is the first to actually release such a device. Billed as a “Bluetooth Hi-Fi Sports Headphone,” the company’s i-Phono BT420EX kit works with iPods, computers, and even Bluetooth-ready cellular phones, featuring both true stereo headphones and a microphone for telecommunications purposes. However, with a $249.95 MSRP (available for $229.95 and up from retailers) and a bulky first-generation product design, the i-Phono will likely appeal more to harder core early adopters and serious Bluetooth fans than to average iPod users.
Integrated wireless headphones for portable audio devices date back to at least 1988, when Sony shipped the WM-505 Walkman with wireless earbuds and a built-in wireless transmitter into the Japanese market. Though FCC regulations limited the spread of such technology in the United States, wireless cassette tape players became common mass-transit accessories for Japanese students and businessmen by the early 1990s before disappearing later in the decade.
Pre-Bluetooth wireless headphone technology had two related limitations: first, privacy wasn’t guaranteed because the transmitted audio wasn’t encrypted, and second, interference could be a problem in common spaces – everyone’s wireless headphones were using similar frequencies. Consequently, a decade after wireless Walkmen faded away in Japan, wireless headphones have been relegated almost exclusively to use in homes, where interference and privacy concerns are perceived to be less important. While radio receivers have been popular in portable devices, integrated radio transmitters have therefore almost ceased to appear in such devices. Samsung’s YEPP YP-910GS was a notable exception, but even then, it wasn’t coupled for sale with a wireless headset, as its Japanese Walkman predecessors were.
Wireless developers today have a new tool: Bluetooth, a wireless data transmission standard developed to enable many different devices to communicate with each other. As a result, portable wireless radio transmission has advanced considerably since the decline of the wireless Walkman. Computers, PDAs and cellular phones have been using Bluetooth to send data to one another for several years, and though early devices had their kinks and limitations, some of the most recent Bluetooth-equipped devices are certifiably excellent performers. Cellular phones with Bluetooth interfaces have enabled users to make double-wireless calls, with their ears lacking physical connections to both phone lines and the phones themselves. Until now, other audio devices haven’t particularly benefitted from Bluetooth, primarily because true stereo reception was considered a technological challenge with an expensive price tag.
iLounge readers may recall that Ten Technologies announced a Bluetooth-based iPod stereo headphone solution called NaviPlay six months ago, but that device has neither shipped nor been publicly shown since the announcement. This week, experienced Bluetooth accessory developer Bluetake entered the iPod scene with the i-Phono Bluetooth Hi-Fi Sports Headphone kit, a set of headphones with a Bluetooth transmitting dongle that connects to any iPod’s headphone port for wireless stereo music transmission.
The fact that i-Phono was released at all is impressive: the Bluetooth standard wasn’t designed to accommodate quality stereo audio transmission, and multiple manufacturers have suggested that $250 would be the natural – if high – price today for an acceptable iPod-ready headset featuring true stereo output. Therefore, while the first-of-class $249.95 i-Phono is not an engineering miracle, it’s certainly an impressive feat for a first-time iPod accessory manufacturer, and the most technologically advanced headphone solution released for the iPod to date.
But i-Phono is not only an iPod accessory: because the headphones use Bluetooth, they can also be used with Bluetooth-equipped cellular phones, computers, and other devices. Additionally, because of i-Phono’s two-piece design, it can be used with any device that has a standard stereo headphone port, including non-Bluetooth computers and audio devices other than the iPod.
In fact, the i-Phono BT-420EX kit actually includes three major pieces and several smaller ones: most important are the white and silver plastic wireless stereo headset (BT-420) with a gray behind-the-head strap, the white plastic transmitter dongle (BT-430) that attaches to the iPod’s headphone port, and the black power adapter (with two output plugs) that simultaneously recharges both the headset and dongle. Each kit also includes four additional sets of different-colored (red, orange, green and blue) replacement headset plates, a USB charging cable, plus a white Velcro band and two pieces of black Velcro tape in case you want to strap the transmitting dongle to your iPod.
Out of the box, the parts look like a good match with the iPod. Bluetake’s transmitter dongle is the best looking part of the kit, almost perfectly imitating the iPod’s look with a white plastic square casing and a multi-colored light to indicate connection status. A small power switch and power port seem just the right size for the dongle, too. The dongle plugs into an iPod or other audio outputting device through a standard stereo 3.5mm plug at the end of a short cable. After flipping the power on, you press a white button in the center of the dongle to establish a connection with the headphones.
The headphones look pretty good. Made from white and silver plastic, the external shells are close enough to an iPod’s aesthetic, hide two medium-sized black foam-covered earphones, and feature a fair collection of interesting features, besides. The right headphone includes volume plus and minus buttons, a connect/disconnect button to establish connections with the dongle or another Bluetooth device, and a light that glows red and blue to indicate connection status. There’s also a flip-down silver plastic microphone for telephone functionality, a necessary feature if you hope to connect the BT-420 headset to your Bluetooth phone. The left headphone has a small power switch, power port, and charging LED to indicate (surprise) recharging status. Both the dongle and the headphones include integrated rechargeable batteries, providing around six hours of continuous listening before expiring.
From a design standpoint, our only issues are with the headphones. The good part is that they’re designed to fold in four sections for easier carrying, and they not only do that, but they lock into their unfolded position with ease. We liked the ease of use of the buttons and the tiny profile of the left headphone’s power switch and port. The two sides are not especially heavy, either; their plastic casings at times actually feel a little empty and lightweight relative to their size.
Unfortunately, the headphones are physically bulkier than they should be, using large egg-shaped earpieces that jut unflatteringly and conspicuously off the sides of a head. (It turns out that white plastic isn’t always an attractive fashion accessory after all.) Additionally, the integrated microphone unfolds to an odd angle that may not be right for your face, and wasn’t for ours. And while the behind-the-head band wasn’t uncomfortable per se, it fit tight around the ears and didn’t feel quite right, unlike numerous other similar designs we’ve tried.
By comparison with the second best wireless option available – integrated FM/AM radio headphones – the i-Phono design isn’t as attractive, but it’s not awful, either. No antenna sticks out of the i-Phonos, your ears aren’t fully cupped, and you do have the option to change the side panels from white to other colors. We’d rate them a B-minus on appearance, adjusted to a B given the novelty of Bluetooth stereo headphone technology.
Functionality and Performance
True headphone connoisseurs aren’t as concerned about the look of their headphones as they are about the sound, and with that in mind we put the i-Phonos through a few tests to see how they performed against other audio products. We were only partially surprised by what we found, namely that they performed adequately as stereo headphones and pretty well with a Bluetooth-enabled cellular phone.
First, it should be noted that it was pretty easy to get the i-Phono headphones to “pair” with the dongle, and with our test phone. Pressing and holding the button on the dongle and doing the same on the phone was enough to establish an iPod connection, and following the simple phone directions worked to establish a connection with the phone. As with other Bluetooth devices, four-digit passwords can be established to secure the connection between phone and headset, adding at least a modicum of security to your calls.
Though we would not address this issue in reviewing a less expensive headset, we must note up front that on an absolute scale of headphone performance, true audiophiles will not be impressed with the BT-420s’ audio performance given their $249.95 MSRP. When the Bluetooth connection between headset and dongle has been established, a quiet but noticeable FM transmission-style static hiss is present in the audio, through drowned out quickly at medium volumes. Low and mid range audio is overemphasized at the expense of treble, and though the audio isn’t muddy, it lacks crispness and depth in the way that much cheaper earphones often do; bass heads thus will feel more at home with the i-Phonos than others. To avoid piling on, we won’t list the (much) cheaper headphones that outperform the i-Phonos, but we’ll note that we can think of a bunch.
Volume control was entirely acceptable for open-ear headphones. When the iPod is set on medium volume, the i-Phonos have ample ability to create overwhelmingly loud output, and as the iPod’s volume increases, the headphones continue to deliver acceptable sound. There are only a couple of handfuls of steps in the i-Phonos? volume buttons, however, so unless the iPod is turned up above its medium output level, Bluetake’s topmost volume setting might not be enough to drown out loud or windy surroundings.
Having said all of this, we think of the i-Phonos as acceptable sounding iPod headphones for average users – people who aren’t as concerned as audiophiles about the quality of their audio. But they’re not going to win any awards for sound quality. The reason for this is perhaps obvious: instead of spending $50 on audio drivers, most of Bluetake’s expense in these headphones involved the proprietary stereo Bluetooth hardware that had to be developed.
The Bluetooth standard has gone through a number of evolutions: Bluetooth 1.0 and 1.1 are the most established and commonly supported, while Bluetooth 1.2 devices just began to proliferate earlier this year. The advantage of coupling a Bluetooth 1.2 accessory with a Bluetooth 1.2 device is adaptive frequency hopping (AFH), which reduces static interference in the Bluetooth connection by avoiding signals from other devices (such as wireless routers and home wireless phones) that are currently in use. An accessory that doesn’t support Bluetooth 1.2 will otherwise work just fine, but will experience more static in a high-interference area.
We tested the i-Phonos with a Motorola V600 (Bluetooth 1.2) telephone, and directly against a Bluetooth 1.2-ready Motorola HS820 headset (MSRP $79.99) featuring a microphone and single earpiece. Our first impressions were quite favorable: hearing the telephone conversation through both earpieces (though not a stereo signal) made what we heard of the conversation sound more engrossing and rich, and we didn’t hear much static or interference in the audio at all – when we were close to the phone. When we moved 12 to 15 feet away from the phone, static became pronounced, and at 20 to 25 feet away, it became the dominant sound in our ears. (For Bluetooth fans, these static/reception results were similar to our earlier experiences with Jabra’s BT250.) The static was a telltale sign that the Bluetake headset wasn’t 1.2-compliant, a factor that won’t matter to people unless they’re in locations with lots of radio interference.
On the other end of the line, our listeners initially reported that they generally liked the quality of the audio they were hearing: at the 20 to 25 foot distance, they were getting a clear signal from the microphone, even when we were having problems hearing them. They even reported that it sounded like the midrange of our voices had been boosted, and said that it was unusually easy (for a cellular phone call) to understand what was being said. Unfortunately, they reported that the sound of our voices weren’t loud enough, no matter how we tried to move the microphone around,
Then we switched to the HS820, a cheaper dedicated headset that has received positive reviews for its static-free connections and stable connections, even at a 30-foot distance from the phone. Listeners remarked that while they could more easily understand words with the i-Phono headset, the HS820 “sounds better” overall, though the difference was “very slight.” The Motorola headset picked up our words at a greater distance from our mouths and didn’t require an extendable microphone to do it. We felt that the two-headphone audio of the i-Phono headset was preferable overall to the HS820’s single headphone simply because it was more immersive; it was not clearer. The HS820 was impressively clear for both sides to hear even at the 30-foot distance from the phone.
Later, we tried without success to get an advertised feature of the i-Phonos to work: seamless shifting between music listening and phone calling was supposed to be possible. We couldn’t get the V600 to hold the i-Phonos’ signal when they were being used to listen to music, and therefore couldn’t hear the phone ringing in the headphones when music was playing. Though we could sometimes make a connection to the phone when we heard it ringing, it worked only intermittently. But when it worked, it worked properly.
Overall, we had mixed feelings about Bluetake’s first-generation set of Bluetooth headphones for the iPod. While they perform mostly as promised, they’re expensive and a bit awkward looking; you almost want to switch from the white plastic shells to the darker blue ones just to prevent them from standing out as much, which is largely contrary to the iPod’s appeal. And it goes without saying that because of the bulk and their first-generation status, they’re certainly not as good as wireless headphones are going to get in the near future.
But the latter point is an unfair standard to use when judging a product: Bluetake’s i-Phonos are the iPod’s first Bluetooth headphones, and there’s no other all-in-one solution for wireless iPod listening on the market, regardless of price, and the Bluetooth cellular phone functionality is just gravy on top of that. True, a crafty individual could combine an iPod, an FM transmitter, and a pair of FM stereo radio headphones for a lower price, but they’d lack the three benefits of Bluetooth – encryption, no chance of interference with other people’s FM audio streams, and the ability to use the same headphones with other Bluetooth-equipped devices.
High price alone means that the i-Phonos are clearly not for everyone, and merely acceptable audio quality will rule them out for audiophiles, but Bluetooth early adopters and those in desperate need of wireless iPod solutions may find Bluetake’s new offering worthwhile. We also think that well-off athletes may appreciate the i-Phonos, as their lack of wires and behind the neck design make for better running and workout accessories than wired headphones.
Jeremy Horwitz is Senior Editor of iLounge and practices intellectual property law in his spare time. His recent book, Law School Insider, has been called the “best book about law school – ever,” and he continues to contribute to Ziff-Davis electronic entertainment magazines.
Company and Price
Model: Bluetake i-Phono BT420EX
Compatible: iPod 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G, iPod mini, iPod photo, iPod shuffle