Once relatively few in number and largely similar to one another, Bluetooth headsets and car visor speakerphones have become increasingly numerous and interesting over the past few years, thanks to developers that have been pushing for smaller and lighter components. Bluetrek first hit our radar screen three years ago with the release of SurfaceSound Compact, a breakthrough ultra-slim car speakerphone that remained at the top of our charts for quite a while. Now the company has returned with two new innovative products: the monaural Bluetooth headset Carbon ($70) and the decidedly novel “cute speakerphone” Speaky ($70). They’re completely different from one another in approach, but they’re both very aggressively priced and impressively well-developed; we review both here today.
This review covers Carbon, which Bluetrek is calling the “world’s first carbon fiber Bluetooth headset,” and touting for its unusually light weight. The numbers don’t sound incredible on their own—0.29 ounces and 2.9” x 0.74” by 0.78” size—but they actually are: Carbon looks like a thin plastic tube with an oversized Home Button jutting out of one side, opposite from a silicone rubber-tipped earpiece. The headset is only thick at the place where both the button and the earpiece stick out; the tube is nearly as thin as the thinnest prior-generation iPod nanos, and thanks to the carbon fiber used inside, completely stiff.
Bluetrek deserves a ton of praise for doing so much right with this design. The primary reason for the tube is to hold Carbon’s noise-canceling microphone system as close as possible to your mouth; the company could have made it smaller, but opted for sound-maximizing distance. And in addition to using handsome black chrome accents on Carbon’s edges, it packed the earpiece with electronics that would have been unfathomable in this form factor years ago. Inside is a two-colored charging/power light, a micro USB connector, a Bluetooth 3.0 chip, and a 4.5-hour rechargeable battery. This is fueled by a tiny USB cable, which is included along with optional shirt and ear clips, alternative silicone rubber eartips for added stability in differently sized ear canals, and a handsome hard carrying case to hold Carbon and all of its accessories. Everything looks great and feels right—just a couple of the reasons for our high recommendation.
Audio and functional performance were both well above average for units we’ve tested. Callers reported that we were easy to understand during calls, even where there were various types of ambient noise—car engine, air conditioning, and road noise amongst them—and we had no problem hearing them clearly, either, thanks to strong and adjustable volume levels. The only issue that was noted by contrast with hand-holding a dual microphone-equipped iPhone 4 handset was a slight added compression of the audio, but callers described it as modest and unoffensive. Using voice control, turning the unit on and off with its side switch, and pairing were all extremely easy and intuitive. Carbon actually pairs unusually quickly with current-generation iPhones, and when Bluetooth 3.0 iPhones arrive, it should be even faster with them.
Another thing that stood out about Carbon was the fit and comfort. We’ve tried seemingly smaller Jawbone and other headsets before, but none have felt as utterly safe to leave in an ear canal without added hook support as this one. Carbon weighs so little that if one of the silicone earpieces works to hold it in your canal, as the default one did for us, you’ll barely notice that you’re wearing it, and the tube will point in the correct direction of your mouth. This design really makes proper use of carbon fiber’s weight and strength.
Carbon’s only issues are small ones. First, the unit uses voice prompts to chatter a little more than we’d prefer, always vocally identifying which of two simultaneously paired phones is making an outgoing or receiving an incoming call, and saying things such as “call terminated, phone one.” It’s hard to complain too much about this, as many headsets can neither pair with two phones at once, nor speak to you. Second, while the outgoing sound quality was routinely described as “very good” by multiple callers, the audio on the latest Jawbone Era is at least a little bit sharper, and may provide additional advantages in exceptionally noisy environments. Carbon also doesn’t include support for streaming audio; it’s solely for making calls.
Given that Carbon carries less than 60% of the price and weight of Era, however, it’s an easier Bluetooth headset to recommend. Bluetrek has come up with an excellent bundle here, combining a very good-looking monaural earpiece with relatively advanced wireless technology, strong audio quality, and great comfort. It’s one of the very best iPhone-ready headsets we’ve ever tested, and for $70, a lot closer to an impulse buy than the $130 Era. It’s worthy of our A- rating and high recommendation.
Company and Price
Compatible: All iPhones