Friday, March 11, 2011

Another Bluetooth Headphone Search

Since 2009, I had been reliant on the bluetooth headphone after purchasing the Sony DR-BT50 model from a local Apple Store. Listening to music via a wireless connection was useful on the go and also satisfied my desire for geeky gadgetry. Taking voice calls via a built-in microphone was another benefit of added convenience, but there was a slight problem with my Sony headphones. Mic placement on the side of one earpiece made for a horrible calling experience. People on the other end complained of hearing too much ambient noise when I was in public surroundings. Even in the silence of my own home, that same microphone seemed to never be able to improve in providing a clear listening experience. After a while of looking into other models, the secure fit and unique design which fostered noise isolation convinced me to keep the headphones and use them for music playback only. Spending over $250 at the time for this product when it could not fully satisfy my needs was indeed a mistake, but we live and learn. Over the months, I was relatively happy with the Sony DR-BT50 even though it mostly stayed packed in my laptop bag. Taking it out for occasional and eventually rare use turned into a novelty as I put my trust into wired models with integrated mics and remotes. Then came the recent Android smartphones on AT&T.

The HTC Inspire 4G and Motorola Atrix 4G both had a similar quality: no included headphones. While I could understand the manufacturer's decision, I had certainly been spoiled by Samsung with the Captivate and Focus being packaged with capable earbuds I used for music and voice calls. Faced with the prospect of using a pair of my own wired headphones coupled with a remote/mic, I gave a try to both the Inspire and Atrix. This wired model, the Sony DR-EX300, ended in the same result for both: audio playback on earbuds, but no functionality on the remote control or microphone. While I could tolerate this on the Inspire, the Atrix presented a different problem with its laptop dock.

It was clear to me that a bluetooth headphone set capable of suitable voice calls in addition to media playback was of paramount importance when the Atrix was placed in the laptop dock. Incoming calls automatically came in via speakerphone, and this was of course an inconvenience in public areas. Even when I was at home and did not mind using the speaker, I found that it, too, was not reliable for a clear calling experience. At that point, my only alternative was to decline incoming calls and return them once I removed the Atrix from the dock. In order to continue an acceptable and more efficient usage experience with this laptop dock, I would have to face another search for bluetooth headphones.

Out of curiosity, I looked into the Nokia BH-905i model which cost a pretty penny at around $300! Equipped with multiple microphones for active noise cancellation along with an option for a wired connection, I figured it was probably worth the retail cost. Luckily, I ran into a WomWorld contact on Twitter who informed me of a set that could be sent to me for review. Once the package arrived from DHL, I was immediately impressed by the well-built leather case that housed all the components. It was certainly sturdy and offered much protection to everything inside, but did not seem portable enough to comfortably store into a laptop bag. Upon unzipping the main case, there was a smaller secondary case that held the adapters, charger, and cords. This was then embraced by the padded headband of BH-905i unit. As to be expected from Nokia, first glance of this device quickly gave a posh, high-class impression of build quality. The outermost part of each earpiece was adorned in a combination of brushed metal and polished chrome, and headband adjustment was performed with smooth movement instead of clunky clicks. I noticed the 2.5mm charging port, wired connection port, and the switch for Active Noise Cancellation. One element that did not impress me was the build of the earpiece that would come in contact with my ears. Instead of employing a cup design found on models for noise isolation, there was a flat area of netting covering the earphone ports. This worried me in not being able to sufficiently shield my music from surrounding people even though ANC would shield them from me. Bluetooth pairing occurred without a problem after I charged the headphones, and I was soon playing music from my Atrix. Audio quality was very good, and I was thoroughly impressed with the ANC function being able to block out my Bose entertainment center as I sat in my living room with the TV at high volume! Music and volume controls worked as expected on the right earpiece, and pressing the central button activated what seemed to be multiple settings for preset EQ. Unfortunately, the magic of the honeymoon period began to wane as soon as a family member confirmed my worst fear: volume leakage from my own music. While this may not have been enough to sour my experience with the BH-905i, another con emerged in regards to the overall fit from the earpieces and headband. Despite the cushioning, there was no adequate traction to keep the Nokias secure onto my head. Simply bending forward to gather laundry from a basket caused a slight sliding movement that forced me to eventually slide the headband back in place. If left unattended, the earpieces would then slide out of place as well. Unless I was planning to be completely still in listening to my music, this did not bode well for this high-priced offering from Nokia. Voice calls sounded clear with vivid feedback for the most part along with music, and the unique earpiece cushions provided much comfort for prolonged listening. The BH-905i was a bust for me, and it was time to move back to the drawing board.

Upon going online to read a number of user reviews from the Apple Store, I narrowed down my choice to the Sennheiser MM400 and Plantronics BackBeat 903+. After reading more reviews and watching videos and spending almost 45 minutes of private debate at the Apple Store, Plantronics lost to Sennheiser due to its behind-the-ear hook design. I recalled a pair of V-Modas that came with plastic hooks to keep the cords secure behind the ears, and it was the most uncomfortable and irritating experience yet! Another factor to consider was the Plantronics earbud design not offering as much noise isolation as the Sennheiser cup design. Having to potentially deal with outside noise did not sound promising, especially in addition to an irritating behind-the-ear hook and a wire behind my neck. Despite the higher price of the Sennheiser model being at $270 versus $100 for Plantronics, I walked out of the Apple Store with it in a bag with a printed receipt. With its ear-cup design and cushioned headband being similar to the Sony DR-BT50, I was confident I had made the right decision.

Once I opened the packaging, everything seemed on par with the Nokia BH-905i model from the plethora of power adapters, optional wire connection, and the included casing. First thing that came to mind as I held the headphones in my hand was the lesser build quality in comparison to Nokia. Sennheiser did not appear to have put in the same amount of care in designing its MM400 model, for it at times felt like a loose handful of flimsy plastic with random cushioning. While that certainly was what it was intended to be with included components, the impression of cheap craftsmanship that I sensed sadly kept it from being more than that. Despite the slight opposition I had to the build, I favored the simple arrangement of the power/call, volume, and music track commands on the outside of the right earpiece. As another positive, the flimsy sense of the MM400's lightweight body did seem to be more geared to portability for easy carrying within the slim zip case. Upon first charge of the battery, I found it interesting that one could remove it completely from the left earpiece. This surely gave Sennheiser the upper-hand in granting consumers a user-replaceable battery. Like with most headsets, bluetooth linking was simple and I was listening to music from my Atrix phone with no problem. At first listen, audio quality sounded like it was on the same level as the Sony DR-BT50 if not as good as the Nokia BH-905i. Voice calls sounded acceptable, especially more so than what was offered by Sony's side-mounted microphone. Even though there was no active noise cancellation, I thought I could live without that feature and rely on the earpiece design for noise isolation.

Overall, I figured I was on the right track with the Sennheiser...I was wrong. One evening at Panera Bread proved to be the moment of revelation for me. After about an hour of music, my ears exhibited slight soreness, and the headband cushions did nothing to lessen the discomfort on my head. After multiple attempts to shift the earpieces and the headband, I ended up tolerating the fit for the remainder of my time at the restaurant. In addition to this, the noise isolation was not sufficient in comparison to the Sony model which surrounded my entire ear. It was at this time that I began to miss the active noise cancellation option on the Nokia alternative.

Despite my previous complaints on the BH-905i, I gave it another try once I had received the Nokia E7 review unit from WomWorld Nokia...and I was blown away! Voice calls made with the E7 were very clear, and one caller did even realize I was on a headset! This same caller even mentioned that the Nokia was certainly much better than Sennheiser in overall call quality due to less interference. I also noticed that there was not really a hint of a faint background hiss in the midst of my calls. Whether this was a product of the BH-905i playing nice with a new phone of the same brand, I liked the result nonetheless! Additional benefits from the Nokia included increased comfort for prolonged wear from adequate cushioning. In nearly two hours of music playback, no soreness was felt at all either on my head or my ears. When public surroundings became a bit too intrusive, switching on the active noise cancellation saved the day! Upon reading specs on the Nokia USA site, I was comforted to find the even if the battery went out I could still control music and calls via a wired connection without ANC! In the instance of one day, the Sennheiser unit was returned to the Apple Store and I would eventually use those funds to buy my own Nokia BH-905i headset upon returning the review unit to WomWorld Nokia!!

Trentonn Smith, Blogger/Netcast host
Sent from my MacBook Aluminum

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