COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Road testing mobile headsets

California may become the second state to require drivers using cell phones to use a hands-free headset. New York was the first. The California law, which passed the state Assembly, needs to be passed by the Senate and then signed into law by the governor. While it would not take effect until 2005 if approved, it seems to me that we all could benefit by using headsets today.

I recently attended a driving school, Aero Academy (aero.saabusa.com) at Road Atlanta, provided by Saab for new Aero owners. The course was a real eye opener. The professional instructors focused not on racing or speeding, but on driving intelligently and defensively and dealing with emergency situations. They taught everything from how to become aware of your surroundings, to being prepared for emergency maneuvers, to controlling the car in a sudden spin on wet pavement or making a fast lane change. I learned more in the two days than in decades of driving. What I realized was that when I am using a cell phone, I am less aware of my surroundings and am unprepared to react in an emergency situation, particularly with one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding the phone.

So after several weeks of driving without a phone, I finally gave in a little bit and decided to use a hands free headset when on the highway. While not eliminating all the risks, it does make concentrating easier and driving a little bit safer. (But don't tell my instructors!)

Jabra (www.jabra.com), (a San Diego company, division of GN Netcom of Denmark) and Plantronics (NYSE:PLT) (www.plantronics.com) of Santa Cruz, Calif., the two market-share leaders of mobile headsets, provided samples of their products for evaluation. I also received a sample of The Boom from UmeVoice of Novato, Calif., (www.theboom.com), a product that received quite a bit of attention at CES for its ability to reduce background noise.

My test consisted of using each device with a LG VX4400 phone and asking others to judge how I sounded, with and without background noise from the radio. The value of noise reduction is that not only does it allow you to screen out ambient noise, it also allows you to talk softer and be heard without broadcasting your conversation to others around you. I also judged how clear the others sounded to me.

All devices plug into the phone except for the FreeSpeak from Jabra, which uses Bluetooth to communicate between the phone and the earpiece. Plantronics and Jabra approach their product designs differently. While both offer a range of products, Jabra's products go into the ear canal using a soft gummy plastic attachment they call EarGels that fits over the ear speaker. You select from one of six, three sizes each for the left or right ears. This method couples the microphone to the ear and also holds it in place. This approach differentiates Jabra's models from those of other companies. The Plantronics products sit against the ear rather than in the ear and use a variety of methods to hold the earpiece in place.

I tested three products from Jabra and three from Plantronics.

From Jabra:

  • The Freespeak Bluetooth wireless headset designed for non-Bluetooth phones;

  • The Earset with the microphone and speaker together in the earpiece;

  • The EarBoom with the microphone at the end of a short 2-inch boom.

    From Plantronics:

  • The MX100 that clips to the ear lobe and has microphone and speaker in the earpiece;

  • The M130 that fits over the ear using an adjustable ear loop and has a 4-inch boom;

  • The M110 that has an adjustable headband, a 5-inch boom and a soft cushioned earpiece.

    I found that the Jabra's EarGels worked well; I was able to attach the headset quickly and could wear it comfortably for hours. The Jabra Earset and the Plantronics MX100, which both combine the speaker and microphone into the earpiece are the most compact and the biggest sellers. The sound on the Earset was somewhat hollow and a little less clear than the Plantronics MX100. Neither could be considered high fidelity. The Plantronics noise cancellation, the ability to screen out the background noise, was somewhat more effective.

    The best performing models were The Boom from UmeVoice, which hangs on your ear and the Plantronics M110, an over the head model. The M110 is substantially larger than all the others, but its sound was the clearest, noise blocking was good, and it is a bargain at $29.95. But, it might mess up your hair. (No problem for me -- I don't have any.) The Boom performed best at eliminating background noise and is relatively compact, but it's expensive at $149 and has a more complex design for holding it on the ear. Other than The Boom and the Plantronics M110, your caller will know you're using a headset.

    As a gadget fan I was really hoping to like the Jabra Freespeak Bluetooth cordless microphone. It comfortably fit behind the ear and used an ear gel to hold it in place. A second piece that plugged into the phone and clipped to your belt next to your phone allowed it to work with any non-Bluetooth phone. The sound is wirelessly transmitted between the phone and your ear. Unfortunately the performance was not as good as the wired headsets. There was occasional clipping of the voice, and not very effective noise reduction. Everyone I spoke with complained about the sound quality. While eliminating the wires it adds a battery and the need to carry a large recharger. I would also expect it to be unwieldy for people who typically don't wear phones on their belts.

    Here is my summary of findings:

    Best performing (almost like talking directly into the phone): Ume's The Boom and Plantronics M110.

    Acceptable performance (listeners knows it's a headphone): Jabra Earset, Plantronics MX100, Plantronics M130, Jabra EarBoom.

    Marginal (can you call back?): Jabra Freespeak Bluetooth

    Most comfortable: Jabra models with ear gels and the Plantronics M110.

    With the summer vacation-driving season upon us, it might just be time to purchase one of these if you need to use a phone while you drive. Better yet let someone else drive while you talk or turn it off and relax!


    Baker is San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000 for successfully bringing to market Think Outside's folding keyboard for the Palm and other PDAs. He also has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

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