Buying guide: Find the best Bluetooth headset or speakerphone

Buying guide: Find the best Bluetooth headset or speakerphone

Thanks to the ubiquity of Bluetooth, we're spoiled by an abundance of headsets and car speakerphones.

Whether or not it's legal in your state to hold a handset while driving, we can all agree that doing so isn't too smart. But the alternative--relying on your phone's chintzy speakerphone--isn't much better: Sound quality on your end is awful, and the same goes for the person on the other end. Similarly, unless you're sitting at your desk and focusing entirely on your phone, chances are you'd rather have both of your hands free during calls.

The solution is a headset or speakerphone. The former offers an earpiece and the latter a speaker, so you can better hear your calls, plus a microphone so other people can hear you better. Provided you find a Bluetooth headset that feels comfortable and secure in your ear--or looped around it--you'll appreciate a headset's versatility: It's typically lightweight, ultraportable, and convenient to use while bopping around the office, visiting clients, commuting, racing through airports, attending conferences, and so on. If it feels like you live in your car, a Bluetooth speakerphone specifically designed for in-car calls might be an even better choice, thanks to convenient mounting options and bigger buttons that are easier to access while driving.

The ubiquity of Bluetooth means that you're spoiled by options these days, with a large number of monaural (mono) headsets and car speakerphones on the market. To help you find the solution that's perfect for you, here's our buying guide: what to look for when shopping, information about the different types, and specific recommendations.

What to look for when shopping

Given how easy it is to connect a Bluetooth headset or speakerphone to your phone--iPhone, Android, Windows, whatever--and that most of these accessories work similarly, you might be tempted to just buy the model that looks the best, or that sells for the lowest price. But as with headphones, the relatively simple functionality of a Bluetooth headset or speakerphone belies the myriad differences in quality, functionality, and features you can get. With that in mind, here are some tips for shopping for a Bluetooth headset or car speakerphone.

What's your budget? When talking about shopping, a friend from Buenos Aires tells me that a popular colloquialism is the abbreviation B.B.B., which stands for Bueno, Bonito, y Barato (good, nice, and cheap for those of us who converse in English). I've been reviewing Bluetooth headsets and car speakerphones for several years now, and after testing over six dozen products, I can say with good confidence that B.B.B. is tough to find--in today's crop of Bluetooth products, if you want a great headset you have to pay for it, or settle for some compromises. Thus, most products that I recommend are either Good, Nice, and Pricey, or Decent, Nice, and Affordable. But, hey, two out of three ain't bad.

Determine your usage habits: First and foremost, figure out if a Bluetooth headset or speakerphone is really something you'll use. If talking on the phone is a multiple-times-per-day task, a headset is likely a good buy; if you only occasionally use the phone, it might be an unnecessary luxury. For car speakerphones, determine whether you spend enough hours in the car each day to warrant a purchase. You may be able to make do with a Bluetooth headset, unless your ears tend to get sore or you loathe contraptions in your ear.

Consider battery life: Vendor-touted talk times and standby times can vary widely. For headsets, look for a minimum of 4 to 5 hours of talk time; for car speakerphones, advertised talk times range from 10 hours to over 40 hours, thanks to much larger batteries. Standby times range from less than a week to over two weeks for headsets; for speakerphones, it's usually a couple of weeks to a few months. I don't have a way to scientifically test manufacturers' estimates, but in my real-world testing, the products I recommend here generally live up to those claims.

Kick the tires: Ask friends and colleagues if you can try their headsets and speakerphones. For headsets, for reasons of hygiene and courtesy, you should use new ear covers so that your friends won't be offended when you wedge their headsets into your ear canal with reckless abandon. For speakerphones, go for a jaunt just to see (and hear) the product in action.

Listen in: Similarly, if coworkers or friends own headsets or speakerphones that are on your short list, have them use those products to call you from different environments: a busy street, a hockey arena, a breezeway, on the freeway, and so on. That way, you can get a sense of how your voice will sound in various contexts.

Ask for advice: While you're taking your friends' headsets and speakerphones out for a spin, ask them how happy they are with those products. How good is incoming-call quality? Can you depend on the accessory for business calls? How frequently do people on the other end complain about voice distortion or annoying background noise? Do the advertised talk and standby times live up to the maker's claims? For headsets, after a day of use, do they feel any soreness?

Be realistic: You might be tempted by some of the more sophisticated features available, but think carefully about whether you'll actually use them. If you don't want to spend over $100 on a headset, do you really want text-to-speech and speech-to-text features and stylish design, when all you really need is to be able to talk to your clients indoors on a unit with stellar voice quality? Similarly, some speakerphones let you stream music from your phone and broadcast your calls through your car's stereo system. Such features might sound appealing, but will you truly use them?

Headsets: What's your environment? If you talk on your cell phone in your car or on public transportation, or in other potentially noisy or blustery surroundings, look for a headset with solid noise-cancellation and wind-reduction features. (These features are standard on most car speakerphones for counteracting car and road noise.)

Headsets: What's your type? Earhook or in-ear? It's difficult to know what will feel comfortable until you try both types. Earhooks tend to be more stable, and possibly more comfortable over hours of use. However, if you wear glasses, have long hair, or wear dangly earrings--or perhaps all of the above--an earhook can be a pain, as one or all of these things can get in the way or get tangled up with the hook. A hookless model that goes straight into your ear is less likely to do so. There are also practical considerations. If you're the type of person who will pop a headset on and off a bazillion times a day, a hookless model is easier to put on and take off--no clip jockeying or multiple hands required. On the other hand, if you plan to leave a headset in your ear for extended periods of time, an earhook might be a better option, as it's likely to fit more securely.

Headsets: Check the mic: Some headsets, especially those with higher prices, put the microphone at the end of a miniature boom to get the mic closer to your mouth. You would think that a mic in closer proximity to the mouth would help with audio pickup, but based on my testing, that's not always the case. And some people may find a mic nestled against the cheek to be distracting. For the most part, you can ignore the mic position and focus on what really matters: sound quality.

Headsets: How's it look? A shiny, silver headset may look appealing inside slick packaging or displayed on a webpage, but how will you feel when you wear it? Visualize the contraption on your ear. Remember that whatever headset you choose, it's visible, and like eyeglasses, it will be a part of your face.

Headsets: Can you return it? The best way to test a product is to try it in your own real-world use. However, depending on where you buy, you may not be able to get a refund for a headset that doesn't work out--many stores, for obvious sanitary reasons, don't allow returns for things people put in their ears. Whether it's an online store or a brick-and-mortar outfit, determine the return restrictions before you buy.

Speakerphones: Does it have big buttons? Pay attention to the size of the controls. Large buttons that are easy to find by feel alone will make it much easier to keep your eyes on the road.

Speakerphones: Will the flashing lights distract you? A headset can blink all it wants and you'll never notice, since you won't be able to see it while the thing is on your ear. Car speakerphones, on the other hand, are always in your field of view. Many car kits sport blinking lights that can be extremely distracting, especially at night--enough to make you just switch off the device completely. If a constant blink will drive you demented, shop around for a unit that lacks lights or keeps any illumination to a minimum.

Speakerphones: How will you charge it? Some Bluetooth speakerphones are solar-powered, meaning that they can recharge simply by having their solar panels regularly exposed to sunlight--say, through the windshield while you're driving. This is great if you live in an area where the rays are guaranteed--and, just as important, if you drive or park in the sun long enough to get a good charge. (Those with short commutes and indoor parking should probably take a pass.) Otherwise, you'll need to charge using a standard power adapter or, more likely, an adapter that plugs into your car's accessory jack. The drawback here is having a cable strung across the dashboard.

Speakerphones: Is windshield mounting legal? A windshield-mounted speakerphone, such as a solar-powered unit, may not be legal where you live or work--some states have laws against driving with things attached to your windshield. (Check the website of your state's motor-vehicle department or highway patrol.) Some of these devices provide an alternate installation option, such as a way to attach to, or sit on, your dashboard. But dashboards vary in texture and shape, so you'll want to test the device to make sure that your dashboard can host the speakerphone securely.

Speakerphones: Is portability a priority? If you plan to move the speakerphone frequently, such as from car to desk, or from one vehicle to another on weekends, select a model that doesn't require more than a couple seconds of positioning. You may want to avoid, for example, the scenario where you must first attach a clip to the visor, align the unit's magnetic plates, and then lock the speakerphone into place. (Undo. Repeat.)

Speakerphones: Where do you park? If you park your car in a secure garage or parking lot, you probably don't have to worry about leaving your device attached to a visor or on your windshield, and you can opt for a unit that clamps tightly and securely onto your visor. Otherwise, you'll want something that's quick and easy to remove.

With all that in mind, read on for information on budget headsets, premium headsets, and car speakerphones, as well as my recommendations in each category.

Budget Bluetooth headsets (under $100)

Depending on where you buy, you can pick up a Bluetooth headset for $30 or less. Don't. Just don't go there unless you're on a tight budget and seek bare-bones calling features (that is, just the capability to make and receive calls adequately). With the exception of the Jabra Easycall recommended below, at the $30 price level you can expect below-average audio quality, as well as limited wearing options.

To find a headset worth its salt, look to headsets that cost $40 to $50 (MSRP) or more. In this price range, you're more likely to end up with a model that delivers average or above-average call quality, a solid fit, different wearing options, charging accessories, noise cancellation that works, and complementary smartphone apps. Of course, you may not get all of these things for 50 bucks or less; there will be tradeoffs. The models I've recommended here represent the best of those tradeoffs.


* Jabra Easycall ($32)

* Jabra Style ($50)

* Plantronics M55 ($50)

* Samsung HM3300 ($50)

Higher-end Bluetooth headsets (over $100)

Once you cross the $100 threshold, you enter the realm of high-performing headsets. You increase your chances of owning a headset that (almost) has it all: above-average audio quality you can depend on, a comfy and stable fit, several earpiece covers, clever design, sophisticated call handling, superb wind and noise reduction, advanced smartphone-app features, multiple charging options, and motion sensor technology. You may also get other bonus items, such as charging cases, durable carry pouches, or Bluetooth dongles for using the headset with a computer.

I say "almost" because even at $100 or more, you'll still encounter tradeoffs. For example, a particular model may offer great background-noise cancellation and a luxuriously leather-like earhook, but callers may say that your voice sounds robotic, or the package may not include an A/C charger.

Depending on the manufacturer's focus, you can expect some headsets to be crammed with more capabilities than others. Users of some Jabra headsets, for instance, are eligible for a free 60-day trial of Voice Assist, a service integrated into the headset that lets you sync your contacts, as well as listen to or reply to your email and text messages using dictation. You can even post to Twitter and Facebook. Do you need these features? Maybe not, but the options are there.


* Motorola Sliver II ($100)

* Plantronics Voyager Pro HD ($100)

* Jawbone Era ($130)

*Jawbone Icon HD + Nerd ($140)

* Jabra Supreme UC ($150)

* Bose Bluetooth Headset Series 2 ($150)

Bluetooth car speakerphones

Sure, a headset is convenient for talking hands-free in the car. But if you spend a good chunk of the day driving and you'd like to use that time for calls, a dedicated in-car speakerphone doesn't require you to keep a headset in your ear. Many new car models arrive from the factory with Bluetooth-speakerphone capability, but if your ride lacks this feature, you can find a range of reliable car kits starting at about $60.

Installation is straightforward: You attach the Bluetooth speakerphone to your car's sun visor, dashboard, or windshield, and you manage calls using voice commands or the device's buttons (or both). Some manufacturers even offer solar-powered units. (Note: Before mounting the speakerphone, check your state's regulations, especially for windshield installations.)

Hardware makers have done an admirable job loading up speakerphones with various bells and whistles beyond basic call handling (that is, initiating, accepting, rejecting, and ending calls). As you shop, expect to see units with FM radio transmitters, automatic contact syncing, support for multiple languages, Caller ID announcements, power-saving features, dual speakers for music, and advanced noise cancellation. Some companies also offer smartphone apps or trial services. For example, with some models, you can listen to newly arrived text messages through the speaker, and even reply to them by dictating your responses, which are converted into text.

I'm a big fan of car speakerphones that let you utter specific commands instead of tapping buttons. When receiving a call, for example, some units will identify the caller and prompt you to say "Answer" or "Ignore," allowing you to keep your hands on the wheel.

As for audio quality, call me a grumpy old troll, but in my testing of car speakerphones, overall call quality is not up to the standards of a good headset. Voices coming into your car through the speaker sound fine most of the time. Sometimes they're a bit tinny, but they're generally acceptable. Outgoing call quality, on the other hand, is not impressive. People at the other end of test calls consistently complained about my voice sounding far away or splotchy, and my conversations have that unmistakable in-car ambience, which can be frustrating for those on the other end of the call. Your mileage may of course vary, depending on the tolerance level of the folks you call, and your own, but don't expect great audio quality with a speakerphone.

It's worth noting that while these types of speakerphones are specifically designed for in-car use, there's nothing stopping you from using an in-car unit as a speakerphone in, say, a conference room, since these products are all portable. That said, keep in mind that Plantronics, Jabra, Ion, Spracht, and other companies offer dedicated home/office Bluetooth speakerphones with features that may be a better match. Conversely, many Bluetooth speaker systems also include speakerphone functionality and can be used as a car speakerphone in a pinch.


* Plantronics K100 ($80)

* BlueAnt Commute ($99)

* Jabra Cruiser2 ($99)

* Jabra Freeway $99

* SuperTooth HD Voice ($130)

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