COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Wireless phone accessories

I've been trying out a few of the latest wireless headphones for both wired and cellular phones.

First, for the standard wired phone in the home or office, the Plantronics (www.plantronics.com) CS50 wireless headset system ($299) lets you carry on a conversation far from the phone. The SC50 has two parts: the headset, which clips to the ear or can be worn as a headband, and a desktop cradle, which stores and charges the headset. It uses 900MHz technology, the same as first-generation cordless phones.

Top, the CS50 wireless headset system. Center, the Step 1150. Above, the Cardo Allways

You dial from the phone and then use the CS50 headset instead of the normal handset. In my testing, it worked up to 100 feet from the phone, going through several walls. I was unable to confirm the product's 300-foot specification. When I first set it up, I needed to fiddle with the different volume controls to eliminate feedback into the earpiece. After that, the sound was clear and crisp as with a normal phone.

The optional HL10 phone lifter accessory ($79) permits you to answer the phone remotely. When a call comes in, touch the button on the headset and the receiver lifts off hook to answer. Push the button again and it hangs it up. While answering the phone is convenient while wearing the headset, it's a bit of a pain when you cannot simply lift the handset. A few times the receiver fell off the phone lifter and could not be hung up remotely, and a few times the receiver lifted up and then immediately hung up, possibly due to the tiny button on the earpiece that's easy to activate twice.

Nevertheless, I found the device works well, and it's become one of my favorite office gadgets. While the price is quite steep -- more than the cost of a complete wireless phone system -- it can be found online for substantial discounts.

Bluetooth headsets

While wireless Bluetooth technology has been slow to take off in the United States, one of the most popular applications has been wireless headsets that eliminate the wire between the headset and the phone. I tried out three Bluetooth headsets for cellular phones, the Plantronics M3000 at $140, the Step 1150 (www.stepcommunications.com) at $130 with adapter and $80 without, and the Cardo Allways (www.cardowireless.com) at $150 with adapter and $90 without.

The Step and Cardo adapters allow them to work with non-Bluetooth phones.

The adapter plugs into the phone's headset connector and hangs from the phone or clips on a belt or in a pocketbook next to the phone, an inconvenience almost equal to the wired headset it eliminates.

For my tests I used a Bluetooth-equipped Sony Ericsson P900 and a Treo 600 to test the adapters, making numerous calls with a quiet background and a radio playing. The Cardo exhibited a hollow, raspy sound and made a loud buzzing noise when either phone was less than a foot from the headset.

The Step was slightly better, but sometimes clipped the ends of words and also had a thin sound. The Plantronics sounded best of all, but not quite as good as a wired headphone. None were particularly effective at reducing background noise. That's due, in part, to the microphones being too far away from the mouth.

These headsets require their own charger, several times bigger than the headsets themselves. Each of them will work for about three hours of talk time before requiring recharging, slightly less than the talk time of many phones.

The headphones are larger and heavier than conventional ones, and they may not be comfortable to some. While they all hook around the ear, the Plantronics was easiest to put on and remove, and was most comfortable. The Cardo also has a clip to attach it to eyeglasses, but it didn't work very well for me, pulling the wire-framed glasses to the side.

Before initial use, the headsets need to be paired with the Bluetooth phone to allow them to communicate with each other. It generally involves holding down one of the tiny buttons on the earpiece for an extended length of time and enabling the phone to discover the headphone, then entering a predefined password on the phone. Subsequent calls are automatically transferred to the headset. But plan on keeping the user manual handy. The tiny controls have multiple functions, most are unmarked, and some functions require pressing multiple buttons at the same time. The LEDs mean different things depending on the rate or color of the flashing.

Of the three, I recommend the Plantronics for having the best voice quality, the first prerequisite. It does a good job as long as you set your expectations accordingly.

For those with non-Bluetooth phones, my advice is to save your money. The adapters add too much complexity. (Industry sources told me that customer returns range from 30 percent to 50 percent for the versions with adapters because of general dissatisfaction with the performance and difficulty of use.) If you own a Bluetooth phone, check to see if the manufacturer offers a Bluetooth headset and try it out. They often use the same charger as the phone.

While the Bluetooth headsets solve one problem, they do it at the sacrifice of their primary purpose -- a clear conversation.


Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

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