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Going Hands-Free -- If You Must Talk at All

Cellphone headsets can look dorky and are risky to use behind the wheel. Still, they haven't been banned. A guide to the latest and best.

September 04, 2005|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

Using a cellphone headset while driving is just as dangerous, researchers tell us, as holding the phone.

But we still do it.

Using a cellphone headset while walking down the street is socially off-putting. Beyond that, you look as if you've stepped off the bridge of the original starship Enterprise -- or as if a giant bug is attacking the side of your head.

But we still do it.

"Of all the accessories for cellphones, the ones people most want are headsets and other hands-free devices," said research analyst Linda Barrabee, who surveyed mobile phone buying habits for Yankee Group this year.

In some parts of the country it's mandatory to go hands-free -- three states and several cities have banned the use of cellphones by drivers unless they use headsets or other such devices. California is considering a similar law.

No states have banned cellphone use while driving, and no legislature has proposed doing so since a widely publicized July report on headset use, said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The study found that motorists who used hands-free gear were just as distracted and likely to end up injured in a crash as those who held their phones during a call.

It would seem, then, that cellphone headsets and their ilk will be with us for some time to come, for use in a car, on the street, in a restaurant or on a hiking trail. (If you hike in the L.A. area, you've seen it.)

That said, if you simply must chat and drive, you can spend anywhere from $30 to $150 on hands-free devices that come in three basic categories: corded headsets, Bluetooth cordless sets and add-on car kits that eliminate the headset altogether.

I spent a week trying out eight current and upcoming models, mostly from two leading manufacturers -- Danish firm GN Store Nord, maker of the Jabra line, and Plantronics Inc. of Santa Cruz. The aim was to compare sound quality (incoming and outgoing), ease of use and dorkiness (none qualified as a fashion accessory).

I limited my testing in cars to very short conversations. And mostly in parking lots. The last thing I want to do is to personally prove the veracity of that safety study.

Corded Headsets

Old-fashioned wired headsets still rule with regard to sound quality, ease of use and price. And in the two years since I last surveyed headsets, corded models have become more comfortable to wear on the ear, even though the cord from the phone to the headset does get in the way.

But because I'm a stickler for sound fidelity -- I hate getting garbled or muffled cellphone calls, so I have no right to complain if my calls also sound lousy -- I'm staying with corded for the time being.

My current favorite is the Plantronics MX500 ($44.95). It's lightweight, it clips comfortably under the ear (once you get the hang of it), and it delivers a sound rivaling that of a land line.

"Your voice sounds more human with that one," my sister told me -- the closest she has come to a compliment in years.

Not quite as clear-sounding is the bargain-priced Jabra EarWave Boom ($29.99). But it was the most comfortable of all the models tested, and it comes in a variety of colors.

Cordless Headsets

If you have a cellphone equipped with Bluetooth technology -- a wireless regimen that can be used with devices up to about 30 feet away -- you can use a cordless headset.

Two years ago, the Bluetooth models I tested were all but unusable. They've come a long way, though the sound quality is not up to that of corded sets.

"Bluetooth is limited in the range of frequencies it can use," said Charles Golvin, a wireless communications analyst with Forrester Research. "So you get less sound fidelity and more chance for interference."

Still, I must say it was nice to be free of that pesky cord. But also keep in mind that Bluetooth headsets -- unlike corded -- are powered units that need to be recharged, usually every few days.

And because they are little transmitters, they are usually bulkier than the corded types.

Of Bluetooth models I tested, the Plantronics Voyager 510 ($99.95) produced the cleanest sound, according to most folks I called. As for how it looks on the wearer, it's relatively inoffensive, although it does add enough bulk under the ear to make it look as if you have a bad case of swollen glands. My mother would start making chicken soup.

The Jabra BT250v ($99) is sleeker -- and thus more comfortable. But outgoing sound was loud and bassy, sometimes to the point of distortion.

The only advantage of the Plantronics Explorer 320 ($69.95), which will be available this fall, is the price. "It makes you sound hoarse," Mom said.

The Plantronics Discovery 640 ($149.95), also due in the fall, will be coveted by those who need to be on the leading edge. It has loads of features, including the ability to use a battery if the charge runs out. It also is relatively tiny and makes use of lightweight materials.

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