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Go Hands-Free! Big Improvements in Bluetooth Headsets

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Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 9.23.39 AMThere’s a good chance that you have purchased a Bluetooth headset in the last five years. There’s also a good chance that you have returned it. Up to 40 percent of all Bluetooth headsets were returned by disappointed customers. The good news is that some manufacturers have started to listen, and there are new headsets on the market that claim to address the most common problems. Our own product tester, Phil Baker, reviews two new options to see if they live up to their claims.

Bluetooth cell phone headsets were once a fast-growing category with dozens of models, each claiming to magically eliminate background and wind noise, and promising to sound as good as a normal call. The truth was that even the best of them failed to work flawlessly. So I was somewhat skeptical when two companies introduced new models, each claiming once again to be superior to anything else previously available. Jawbone, whose products look great and work better than most, just introduced its new Era model, not to be confused with an older model also called Era. A few months ago, Sennheiser introduced its Presence Premium Bluetooth headphone targeted to the business executive. I’ve been trying each of them and comparing them with my go-to, the Plantronics Voyager Pro ($100).

The Voyager, now in its fourth or fifth generation, works well with its behind-the-ear battery and a folding boom microphone. But it’s still not perfect. It doesn’t work well in windy environments and uses an inconvenient proprietary charging cable. It has a long, six-hour battery life and fits over the top of the ear securely and comfortably. It also seems to survive being in my pocket with my keys and change, although it hasn’t survived the washing machine.

So how do these new products compare?

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The Era

The new Jawbone Era ($99-$129) reliably accesses Siri with a quick button push on the end of the headset. The single button is also used to answer, hang up and adjust volume. It also offers one of the smallest Bluetooth headsets ever, at less than 2 inches by 1 inch by a half-inch. To make up for the necessarily smaller battery, the Era can be purchased with a small open metal case that holds a second battery. When the Era is snapped into it, the charge is replenished. The case is small enough to fit on your key chain.

The Era uses a new ear-tip design with a flexible arm that keeps it from falling out of the ear. It comes with one medium-sized left ear tip and three sizes of right ear tips. Fortunately, as a left ear user, the medium worked fine. Jawbone says the Era is designed to listen to music and, while it’s far from hi-fi, it’s louder and bassier than most other Bluetooth headsets.

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Plantronics Voyager Pro

You can program into the headset several frequently used names and numbers to identify your favorite incoming callers, as well as changing the headphone’s voice. One reminds me of Samantha in the hit movie “Her,” but that’s probably just wishful thinking.

I’ve come to learn that it takes a while to judge how well a Bluetooth headset works. As I have used the Era over time, I have found that it usually worked fine, producing clear voices on each end of the conversation. But occasionally, others have complained that the sound degraded and my words became clipped. Quickly switching to the Plantronics headset seemed to correct the problem.

In my noise-reduction tests, I played a radio in the background at increasingly loud levels while counting slowly. A friend on the other end would listen to decide if the radio was obstructing my voice. In outdoor use with a slight breeze, none of the headsets worked well.

The Era also has a free app that runs on your iPhone to change settings, such as voice, adding personal names and numbers, and to help you locate it. Lose your headset? Push a button on the app and the headphone will emit a loud sound, assuming it’s within BT range of about 40 feet. Don’t try it while wearing the headset.

The Sennheiser Presence ($160) claims to be for professionals demanding excellent communication. It has “windsafe technology” to allow it to work in noisy environments. It’s a conservative-looking design with a push-pull action to turn it off and on. It fits in the ear with a conventional plug and ear hook.

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Sennheiser Presence

I found the earhook to hurt after a few of hours of use, and it was difficult to adjust. I eventually lost the ear hook (it fell off on its own) and the headset would occasionally fall out of my ear. Acoustically, the sound is excellent and is clear on both ends much of the time. But as with the Jawbone, there are times when those I spoke with complained of clipping.

All three products preformed well, but they are not perfect. Issues occurred 10 percent of the time or less. It’s hard to know what caused the occasional degradation on the Sennheiser and Jawbone, because it was so random and occurred while sitting in an office with a strong Verizon signal on an iPhone 5s.

If I were to rank the products, I’d rate the Jawbone Era and Plantronics Voyager as the best, followed by the Sennheiser.

For casual users, it’s hard to beat the Era for its tiny size, USB charging, and handy carrying case/battery. It’s also more discreet. For serious business users, the Voyager is a proven performer with a longer battery life and an available battery case that doubles its charge. The Sennheiser just does not fit well and is very expensive with no discernible advantage.

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By Phil Baker for PeterGreenberg.com. Baker is the author of “From Concept to Consumer,” published by Financial Times Press. 

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