If you've not tried one of the recent generations of Bluetooth headsets, you may be surprised at how much better they are compared to those of a year or two ago.
Older models suffered from their complexity of use and mediocre sound quality. They were hard to pair, had buttons that did multiple functions, and needed a guide to decipher the flashing light patterns. They were even hard to figure out how to turn on and off. Many of those issues have been addressed in these new models.
I've been trying out three of the latest, the T1 and Q2 from BlueAnt and the M100 from Plantronics. I used them with both an iPhone 4 and a Droid X.
These models have many similarities. They all use a micro USB connector for charging, meaning they can be charged with most cell phone chargers, and they all have a mechanical on-off switch. Battery life typically will get you through the day with moderate use.
They all work with two phones simultaneously, use some level of speech technology, and have A2DP Bluetooth capability, which means you can listen to music, streaming audio and turn-by-turn directions from your phone's GPS software through the headset. (One consequence of this feature is that you hear keyboard clicks and some other sounds only through the earphone, not through the phone's speaker.)
The T1 has a less sleek appearance compared to BlueAnt's other products, which have more polished IDs. But that may be its only negative. Switching on the large on-off switch the first time puts it into pairing mode and talks you through the pairing process.
Once paired it downloads your phone's contacts. When a contact calls, it will announce the name or the phone number if the name is not listed. It will ask, "answer or ignore?" and you can answer by voice without touching the phone
It also alerts you by voice when the phone is connected or unconnected. While this is helpful most of the time, you constantly hear the messages "phone connected" and "phone unconnected" as the phone or headphone goes into a standby mode or the signal strength fades.
Like the other models tested, it comes with a several sizes of eartips, some with loops to better stay put in your ear. The T1 is promoted as being rugged and even comes with two rubber covers to "protect" it, but they add bulk, make it heavier and less attractive, and seems gimmicky.
Audio was good on both sides of the conversation. Voices were loud and rich. Its performance was similar to other top models, even under extreme conditions such as walking outside on a windy day or talking in a noisy environment. But don't expect miracles from any headphone, no matter the claims. You trade audio clarity for digital noise or lower volume when the signal processing is triggered in those hostile environments.
Available for less than $60 at discount, it performs as well as headsets costing $100.
The Q2 is BlueAnt's top-of-the-line model that has all of the features on the T1 plus adds additional voice capabilities. It's more attractively designed, smaller, curvy and sleeker, and it has the excellent audio quality. The caller's voice is clear, loud and without any sign of a tinniness or distortion. The company says this is a result of a better speaker and built-in equalization.
It uses eartips similar to the T1 but the ear hook can't be rotated, resulting in the headphone pointing to my nose rather than my mouth. But that didn't seem to affect performance.
The Q2 lets you reach out to the Internet by speaking a command. It dials Microsoft's Bing-411 and you then request various services such as news, weather or sports. Asking for news gets you a short ABC news update.
The Q2 is BlueAnt's best headset ever and the most feature laden of anything on the market. Currently it's available for sale only on its website and at AT&T stores. $130. (blueantwireless.com).
The M100 is the smallest and lightest of the three. It's a plain-looking thin flat rectangle finished in glossy gray. On my ear it angled out from the face when I used the plastic loop, so I used it without the loop.
While it doesn't have the capability to respond to your voice, it does provide voice alerts for low battery, connection state and mute. It's the only one of the three units to display its battery condition on the top right corner of the iPhone display, similar to Jawbone's Icon model.
In my use it performed well, although the voice was thin and raspy compared to the BlueAnt models. It worked well in noisy and windy conditions, even with the car window open at highway speeds. Listeners could hear me, but they said the volume diminished. It doesn't have a two-button up/down volume control like the others. Instead you toggle through several volume levels by pushing a single button. It retails for $80, but Plantronic products often become available at steep discounts shortly after introduction.
All three of these products worked well. They solve all of the basic problems except one. These tiny devices tend to get easily lost or misplaced. In fact near the end of the test I lost the Q2, my favorite among the three!
Two other models that still remain among my favorites are the Jawbone Icon and the Plantronics Voyager Pro, the latter having the longest battery life with its behind the ear design.
Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," holds 30 patents and is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Phil can be heard on KOGO AM the first Sunday of each month. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Phil's blog is blog.philipgbaker.com.