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Sound matters, but so do looks

Hands-free headsets for your cellphone vary in quality and comfort, and they shouldn't make you look like a high-tech geek.

October 02, 2003|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

When it comes to headsets for cellphones, there are three basic looks: air traffic controller on lunch break, Secret Service wannabe and Lt. Uhura.

Though they can vary greatly in design and quality, all three are a step up from one of the most inconvenient poses that high tech has given us: walking down the street or driving with a cellphone plastered to the ear.

A good headset can at least free up your hands and provide better sound fidelity on both ends of the conversation.

And although most of these headsets look pretty nerdy, one has broken through in terms of style: Jabra FreeSpeak is a state-of-the-art cordless model (think Uhura) that looks almost good enough to qualify as a high-tech fashion accessory.

In all, we tested more than a dozen of the headsets by making calls from them in several situations, including automobiles and public buses.

Before going into detail on styles and models, there's a major caveat having to do with driving. A headset allows you to keep both hands on the wheel and avoid the all-too-well-known shoulder scrunch that comes from trying to keep the phone to the ear while making a sharp turn.

Anyone who regularly drives Los Angeles streets and freeways has seen numerous examples of drivers so occupied by keeping their phones in place that their cars become unguided missiles or, maybe worse, suddenly stationary obstacles.

But there is evidence that headsets won't be much help in that regard. A peer-reviewed 2001 study from the University of Utah made use of computerized driving simulators to show that cellphone use while driving is alarmingly disturbing, with or without a hands-free headset.


By far the coolest thing going in cellphone headsets is Bluetooth, a wireless technology that has been around for years and finally found a use that might actually become popular.

These cordless headsets fit around the ear, usually with some kind of looping mechanism, and communicate with a cellphone that can be several feet away.

This allows you to carry your cellphone out of sight in a shirt pocket, resulting in a situation in which it's sometimes difficult for passersby to see any visible evidence that you're talking on the phone.

The best of these headsets tested was the aforementioned FreeSpeak ( First, you don't need a Bluetooth-equipped phone to use it -- the headset comes with an adaptor that plugs into a non-Bluetooth cellphone (cleverly, the adaptor also serves as the charging unit for the headset).

Unlike the other cordless models tested, the FreeSpeak was comfortable enough to wear for fairly long stretches. And although the sound fidelity was inferior to that of the best corded headsets -- several call recipients complained of the sound being overmodulated, or as one put it, "It hurts my ear a little bit" -- the headset is more than passable for relatively short calls.

"It sounds better than a lot of cellphone calls I get," said another participant in the tests. "Some of the corded ones sound like you are calling from home, but this is not bad."

Finally, the gray and silver Free- Speak, with its blue gel earpiece, simply looks cool, which is refreshing compared with other Bluetooth headsets that at their worst resemble large insects attached to the ear.

The FreeSpeak with Bluetooth adaptor costs about $130. Without the adaptor, the price is about $80.

The best sound fidelity on a Bluetooth headset was produced by the recently introduced Sony Ericsson HBH-35 ( "Now that one does sound like it's from home," said the call recipient. On the caller end, the earpiece likewise produced a clear sound that could be easily raised or lowered with the use of discreet buttons built into the unit.

The main problem with this headset is that it's simply too uncomfortable to wear for more than several minutes at a time, especially for users who also wear eyeglasses.

The HBH-35, which does not come with an adaptor for non-Bluetooth phones, is available for about $130.

The Plantronics M3000 Bluetooth headset ( is quite lightweight and provides good sound. The unit is fairly comfortable to wear, although it jiggles around a bit while walking and has the most insect-like appearance of the lot.

The M3000 is priced at about $70 and does not come with an adaptor for non-Bluetooth phones.

These Bluetooth headsets are probably the way of the future and are likely to get more comfortable and better-sounding as time goes on. But like any cutting-edge technology, they are not entirely plug-and-play for the consumer.

Plan on taking some time to set them up and get used to them. Definitely don't use them while driving without making sure you're comfortable with their operation.

And note this drawback with the Bluetooth headsets: They operate on batteries and need regular recharging.


Jabra again takes the honors with its new ProBoom model that comes with a built-in volume control. It provided the best sound quality of all headsets tested.

It comes with two ear-holding systems -- a gel earplug for fitting it directly into the ear, and a loop that allows it to rest on the ear. The gel insert provided the best sound.

The main drawback of this headset is that it's relatively heavy, which takes some getting used to. The ProBoom costs about $30.

A more lightweight choice is the Plantronics MX150, which cleverly clips to the bottom of the ear to hold the headset in place.

The sound quality is not the best, and the unit tends to come loose after a short while, but the MX150 certainly does the job for quick calls. It costs about $30.

A budget choice is the Belkin Earbud Hands-Free ( It fits into the ear without a gel insert and has a tiny microphone that provides adequate voice quality if the background noise is not overwhelming. The price is about $15.

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