Happy new ear! My picks among Bluetooth headsets

Headsets and hands-free Bluetooth devices from BlueAnt and Plantronics keep your phone and music player in your pocket

In my September roundup review of mobile devices, I neglected a vital category of technology: Bluetooth headsets. It's a given that no one wants to hold a bricklike cell phone or PDA to their ear, and with so many blister-packed headsets hanging from pegs in stores now, I thought I'd throw in a few of my recommendations. I'm happy to see that we're snipping the wires on music players, too, especially when one headset pulls music and phone duty.

The name recognition of BlueAnt may be low enough that buyers will mistake its ant-weight Bluetooth headsets and its Bluetooth speakerphone to be off-brand. BlueAnt is a technological heavyweight. My first experience with BlueAnt was with the Supertooth Light, a visor-clip, hands-free kit for Bluetooth-enabled phones. It's just ideal for those of us who couldn't afford a phone integrated into the steering wheels of our cars and who don't want aftermarket hands-free kits that wedge into the center console or cigarette lighter plug. Supertooth Light is sturdy and rechargeable. The controls are positioned so that you don't have to take your eyes off the road. The speaker is huge and loud enough for a ragtop, and the people I call tell me that the microphone is clear and has virtually none of the booming echo ("Are you on a speakerphone?") often associated with such devices.

BlueAnt's Z9 headset is made for users, like me, who want to forget they're wearing a headset, and who don't need the loud blue LED to let the world know they're not talking to themselves. The Z9 is the ultimate in incognito calling. It has no voice tube, and it doesn't seal itself to your ear canal, yet sound is clear in both directions.

Bluetooth Stereo, or A2DP, is just being picked up by media-equipped PDAs and other mobile devices. A2DP does nothing for an ordinary Bluetooth headset, but with the right A2DP headset, the quality is astonishing. The Plantronics Pulsar 590A and 590E are my top picks. They put a Bluetooth spin on top-shelf on-the-ear headphones, and they retain the flexibility to plug into wired sources through their 3.5mm headphone jacks. The 590A includes a rechargeable puck that converts any 3.5mm headphone jack to a Bluetooth source. I live on the 590A, with the Bluetooth puck, in Final Cut Studio so that I don't have to rip the phones off my head when the phone rings. It helps, too, when you're listening to audio that's loud enough to keep you from hearing your phone, that the 590s beep through your music when a call comes in. The 590E comes without the puck, saving you US$110, but it shares the 590A's on-board 3.5mm stereo jack so that you can use both of the 590s as standard headphones. You can drop the music from either a wired or wireless source to take or place a call with the tap of a button, and you'll return to the music when the call ends. The Plantronics Pulsars have remote control buttons outside one of the ear cups for Bluetooth stereo devices that hew to the AVRCP standard.

What surprised me about the 590s is how sturdy they are. They are featherweight and exceptionally comfortable, but they also take a beating. I toss them into my carry-on bag. While I've killed numerous wired headphones, I've never put a dent in the 590A.

Plantronics' Voyager 855 is brand new. It has the form factor of an ordinary Bluetooth headset, but it is actually a pair of noise isolating (in-ear) A2DP earbuds, with the second earbud easily unplugged from the main unit. When you disable the flashing blue light and detach the second earbud, you can have monaural, but high-fidelity, music listening on the sneak while people think you're just waiting for that next important call. I always have trouble getting in-ear headphones to fit; I guess my ears are of a proprietary design. The Voyager 855 comes with three sizes of earbuds and a clip-on stabilizer that slides over the top of your ear to hold the main unit in place. The 855 has AVRCP transport controls, too, so you can keep your music player in your pocket.

I've grown accustomed to the Pulsar 590s, but I wouldn't use headphones outside the office, especially not in the car where headphones are presumed to interfere with driving (but fumbling with a cell phone or music player is OK; go figure). It's nice, though, that the Plantronics 590s have a wired stereo input for use on the plane.

If only these Bluetooth headsets could also act as hi-fi microphones for podcasting and the like. But that's a wish for another year. Everywhere else these devices eliminate the wires, and they do it with style and quality sound. That's more than good enough for now.

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