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The REAL, MULTIPLATFORM Bluetooth stereo (A2DP) headphones roundup: FIVE headphones

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Menneisyys

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Anyone having been into the audiophile / Hi-Fi business knows loudspeakers and headphones should never be tested alone, without comparing their audio quality (and other parameters) to other, comparable headphones (speakers etc.). This is why strictly comparative tests are needed to fairly compare the sound quality of each set to one another. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the A2DP stereo Bluetooth headphones reviews doesn’t belong to this category and, therefore, shouldn’t really be taken seriously. By the way, A2DP stands for Advanced Audio Distribution Profile; note that I haven’t recommended the Wiki page because it’s full of mobility-related mistakes like stating A2DP was added to the BlackBerry OS with version 4.2 (not true: several 4.2-based models like the 8800 do NOT have A2DP; it’s only the Curve that is 4.2-based and has it – and, of course, the 4.3-based Pearl); it states A2DP only arrived to Symbian S60 with S60 FP1 (not true – some pre-FP1 models like the N73 with the latest upgrade also has it; and, of course, some earlier models like the Nokia 5300 dumbphone [based on S40 3rd ed FP2] too) it doesn’t explain the Windows Mobile situation (the major differences between the two stacks and, with Microsoft’s stack, the pre-WM6 and the WM6+ situation) etc.

Also, it’s pretty much important for a technical writer to know what he or she is writing about. Unfortunately, many of the currently available A2DP reviews have major factual errors (like not knowing how canalphones should be used or the major difference between them and traditional earbuds and, therefore, comparing apples to oranges or even mistaking A2DP dongles for remote controllers, showing the review was indeed rushed and the reviewer didn’t even bother testing all the facilities and/or reading the manual).

Almost none of the reviews contain real battery life / recharge tests. As, in most cases, the figures provided by headset manufacturers are, (in some cases, overly) optimistic (except for some rare cases), failing to measure this (and just reciting the official figures) don’t help much the prospective buyers in deciding which model to go for, should they want to base their selection on these parameters (too).

Finally, in addition to not comparing the audio quality of the headphones to each other and making sometimes major factual mistakes, the third biggest problem with the currently available headphones reviews are either not being multiplatform (some of the, particularly older, reviews are made using either dumb phones for plain headset and the enclosed A2DP dongle for music) or, if it at all uses Windows Mobile as a A2DP source, most of the cases it uses pre-Windows Mobile 6 Microsoft Bluetooth stack versions, which equals to very bad sound quality. Incidentally, none of the reviews I’ve read (and linked from the article) even mentioned the problems of the pre-Windows Mobile 6 Bluetooth stacks – not even ones that have been published long after my (among others, Pocket PC Thoughts-frontpaged) well-known article on the problems of the Microsoft A2DP implementation, showing the authors of these reviews haven’t really made their homework (checking out other, related articles for background information before publishing theirs). This is a major flaw with all these reviews, as far as usage under Windows Mobile is considered. (A2DP implementations on other platforms like Palm OS, BlackBerry and Symbian S60 don’t have such, version-dependent quality problems.) Some of the reviews, which, basically, "trash" the attainable A2DP sound quality, may have been got to their conclusion because of the bad A2DP quality in pre-Windows Mobile 6. This also shows the reviewers didn’t bother testing the headphones with alternate, non-Windows Mobile sources and/or reading others’ (most importantly, my) reports on the A2DP quality issues.

Therefore, you will really want to read this roundup so that you can easily pick a model and learn more about the current state of A2DP on all major mobile platforms.

First and foremost, (if you’re a Windows Mobile user and you use a non-Windows Mobile 6 device coming with the MS BT stack) in addition the above-linked article on the WM6 sound quality increase, you’ll definitely want to read my previous A2DP headphones roundup HERE. Please note that, in this roundup, I do not repeat the information already available in those articles. Let me know (in a public question) if you don’t understand something and need additional info and I’ll answer you. You will also want to thoroughly read the Headphones article in the Wiki; particularly the Types of Headphones section, which excellently explains the (major) difference between circumaural, supra-aural, earbud, and in-ear (canalphone) models. I will not repeat the information available there here either. Also note that I’ve devoted a separate article to the question of listening to music / non-phone audio on mono (non-A2DP) headsets and using the microphone of the A2DP headphones as, say, a wireless mike for your handset – again, when NOT in a phone call. You might want to check it out too for additional uses of Bluetooth for bidirectional audio transfer on Windows Mobile.

Note that, while the Wiki article, in the Types of Headphones section, explains the speaker part pretty well, there isn’t similar info on the main other distinction based on the head/neckband it uses (except for purely cable-based in-ear solutions like the Voyager 855): behind-the-neck (the vast majority of current headphones) like the HT820 and over-the-head ones like the Pulsar 590. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Personally, I prefer over-the-head headphones because they’re, in general, far easier to wear and put less pressure on the ears than many? most? behind-the-neck solutions. Also, they’re far easier to remove and put back in, which may be really advantageous when you often need to interrupt wearing it and expose your ear(s) to listen to, say, colleagues. (This is pretty common with me – I just put on the hedphones when I need to concentrate on work so that I don’t hear the phone and other distracting sound sources.) Many, however, prefer behind-the-neck ones; most importantly because, then, the headband can be much smaller as it doesn’t need to encompass the entire head, meaning, in general, a smaller size to carry. (Of course, careful over-the-head designs can still be folded into a smaller package; see the on-road size difference shots between the Moto HT820 and the Pulsar 590. While the former is a behind-the-neck model and the latter an over-the-head one, the Pulsar folds into a smaller size than the Motorola and it’s, therefore, easier to carry in even a large® shirt pocket.

For the roundup, I’ve purchased (fortunately, I’ve got some of them pretty cheap second-hand) / received five A2DP headphones. Probably most of you have already heard of the Motorola HT820, probably the most widely known headphones model. I, of course, include Plantronics too, who have pretty popular A2DP phones. From them, I included the Pulsar 590 (which is, despite its age, taking everything into account, is still pretty much the best supra-aural / over-the-head headphone) and their latest, pretty cool, hybrid model, the Voyager 855 (on which I’ve already quickly elaborated HERE). From UK-based Gear4, I’ve included their latest model, the BluPhones (also mentioned in the just-linked MWC Bluetooth article) and from Cellink, a well-known phone accessories company, the BTST-9000D.

Compared to my previous A2DP headphones roundup, I’ve added Windows Mobile 6 (which was still not available during the writing of the previous roundup), BlackBerry and Symbian S60 testing. I’ve also thoroughly elaborated on issues like comfort and pedestrian usage.

Finally, before starting to elaborate on the different headphones, I need to point out that, as with most of my articles, the vast majority of the information you’ll find the most important is presented in the comparison / feature / measurement chart belonging to the article. It’s available here and is a must. As has already been explained in many of my articles, it’s in a chart that one can compare different, alternative products the most easily and tersely.

Motorola HT820

(tested: a D-series model – that is, the fourth revision)

This is an old, widely known, comparatively cheap, supra-aural, behind-the-neck model with excellent sound quality, platform compatibility and battery life but really bad comfort, looks and weight and not very stellar maximal volume.

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(Shots from the front and the back so that you can see how much it protrudes, where the headband is when in use etc.)

Note that I do not elaborate more on this headphone models (neither do I elaborate on the others – again, I’ve listed the pros / cons of each and every reviewed model in the chart; make sure you VERY thoroughly read it). Most of the rest of the article is "only" presenting you real-world some shots of how it looks like, how much it has the "Princess Leia" effect and, of course, commenting on the other reviews, correcting their mistakes or arguing with their statements. Should you find the information in the chart insufficient or just would need some additional shots, feel free to check out these reviews, also paying attention to my corrections.

The a2dp.info review is pretty cool (albeit has no shots of its own). Its only factual mistake is stating that the LEDs can’t be disabled. (They can be – see the chart.)

The Legit Reviews folks stated the following: "With a behind-the-head design, this headset was feeling quite heavy after long-term use. My ears really started to cry after an especially long session of Battlefield 2 and needed a rest.", which I fully agree with. The Phone Arena review goes even further and states it only takes some 10-20 minutes for it to start to be really annoying. Interestingly, the pocketnow review stated it’s "Comfortable fit". Taking the date of the review (more than three years ago) into account, this can be understood as they may have nothing to compare it against (now, there’re a lot of, much more comfortable alternatives).

Should you want to use it with iPods and the like (that is, with mobile sources while on the move), you certainly will dislike the physical dimensions of the DC800 (130mm x 150mm x 70mm; 100g and not battery-operated; to see what this really means in reality, see the shots in the Unwired review.)

Another full reviews is that of Phone Arena. They have also measured excellent battery life (see page 3): "In our Battery Test, the Motorola headset worked for 990 minutes, which is 16 and a half hours - this is very good result and exceeds the battery time of most phones (in music mode) about twice." Note that they state "Poor sound quality when listening to music" (see Page 3; "We were disappointed by the sound of HT820 while listening to music – it is weak and is not clearly heard and even muffled in a noisy environment like in the street. The quality is poor: the bass is not stressed, it lacks any detail whatever and the lowest frequencies are not played but cause crackling in some cases. The middle frequencies are represented poorly; the vocals sound very unrealistically and without detail, and the high ones sound metallically, without fineness and speed. As a whole we don’t like how the earpieces work."). They must have tested an earlier firmware version (with [early] models A, B and C and the original – upgradeable! – firmware, it really skipped) – this is definitely not the case (at least now, with current firmware versions).

IGN’s review states "The audio quality was only average and didn't really exceed any expectations as it hits the higher sounds nicely, but has nearly non-existent bass." This is in no way true – the headphones do have plenty of bass.

Notebook Review ‘s review is HERE. Note that they state it’s "Lightweight/sleek", which I dare to disagree with.

TreoCentral’s review is HERE. Note that it states "The bass is dynamic, the mid-range is a bit muddy and the highs can get a bit clipped. I suspect the wireless feature muddies up the mids and MP3 encoding tends to clip the highs. I’d suggest encoding music at 160mbps (rather than the standard 128) with variable bit rate." This is not really true – current A2DP implementations are all of very high quality (unless it’s the Microsoft BT stack on pre-WM6 operating systems) and, at 128 kbps, it’s not the highs that will be clipped but compression artifacts can be introduced. Also, because of their not testing the recharge time ("the Motorola HT820 gets the nod over the Nokia BH-601 for two reasons. First off, it’s supposed to charge in just two hours (the Nokia is stated to take three).") they just recited the official (too optimal) specification (2:00 instead of the 3:10 I’ve measured).

The Unwired’s review also complains of the not-that-large maximal volume and it’s being really thick.

PocketNow’s review tested a very old firmware version; newer versions do store more than one paired devices; that is, the first section of "BUGS AND WISHES" is no longer topical.

WMExpert’s review is a bit too positive (it, for example, lists comfort, the biggest problems with this model, as 4/5 – I’d rate it far less); however, it’s still worth a read.

In my previous articles, I’ve already linked to MobileBurn’s roundup. It, unfortunately, is more geared towards testing A2DP / voice compatibility with mostly dumbphones than comparing audio quality or comfort.

Some of the user comments HERE state the headband is just too short. I don’t think this is the case - it's in no way shorter than the other, behind-the-neck models.

Gear4 BluPhones

This is, physically, a well-made and excellent model. Electronically / acoustically, however, it leaves a lot to be desired. There may still be cases when you want to go for it – just carefully check out the cons and the pros listed in the chart.

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(package contents)
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(cinch charger)
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(buttons and the active LED)
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([active] LED and DC in; the polarity / voltage is also shown to make it easier to find a third-party charger)

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(also shows the LED blinking– as can be seen, it’s in no way annoying)
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(the second shot shows the set can easily slide out from the ear – it’s in no way as bad as with the Cellink phones, though)

Reviews:

Trusted Reviews’ one is probably the best review available, Interestingly, they didn’t consider the model comfortable, which I (and most of the other reviews) strongly disagree with: the Gear4 BluPhones are far easier to wear than, say, the Moto HT820.

CNET’s review is pretty superficial; so is
Absolute Gadget’s.

The IET's review is too a bit superficial. I definitely agree with their following statement: "I found the comfort of the Bluphones to be the quality that put them head and shoulders above other wireless headsets. At 26 grams, it is very light and comfortable to wear, even after hours of continuous use. I have often found ear buds difficult to use, as this reviewer’s ears tend not to hold them securely, but the attached headband, which wraps around the back of the head, holds the earpieces firmly in place."

The Amazon user reviews are worth checking out, albeit some of them have plain false info; for example, the statement "However for the purposes of listening to music, I have been very disappointed with performance. No base. Literally no base to the sound, the pitch is bland" isn’t true – I’ve seen headphones behaving much worse, bass-wise (for example, some real earbud models – for example, the Nokia HS-12W).

Cellink BTST-9000D

This is without doubt the less recommended model of the bunch. I just don’t see the point in using it, mostly because its AVRCP support is really-really bad (in general, non-existent) and, physically, is also sub-par. It has a pretty bad battery life. Avoid it!

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(certainly shows how asymmetrically they fit on the ear)
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(it’s worth noticing the big gap between the right headphones and the ear)

Reviews:

unbeatable: I strongly disagree with this. For example, it states "They [the headphones] are extremely light so as not to hinder you whilst you exercise." – well, if you also take the bad battery life into account (and the fact that the Plantronics 590 and, particularly, the HT820 delivers far better battery life, while they weigh in at about 30 grams more only), they in no way are light. The statement "It comes with a remote control too." shows the writer doesn’t really know much about A2DP headphones. (She’s speaking of the wired transmitter, not any kind of a remote controller.)

Computer Active’s review (also available at vunet) , giving it a 2/5, is far better and more unbiased one. It states "However, we do have some gripes. First, the triangular ear pads don’t sit entirely flush on your head, which means some sound is lost around the sides. The headset is also cumbersome and looks fairly silly. It didn’t fare well in the gym either, constantly slipping off while we were on the treadmill." – that is, exactly my thoughts and opinions.

Plantronics Voyager 855

This in-ear monitor (not to be mistaken for traditional earbuds!) is pretty much recommended if you do like these kinds of in-ear phones. If you haven’t ever used them, then, you may have a hard time getting used to them. Therefore, before purhasing this one, make sure you won’t hate the feeling and can live with the strong filtering out of the external noise.

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Reviews:

There’s a comparatively common complaint in the user comment section of the CNET review: "It doesn't stay in my ear well even with dif size earpieces, it goes into ear canal at an off angle so it cant get a good seal and the ear piece material doesn't stick to your ear good enough either. I constantly have to push it into my canal even when I have the ear loop on. It has the small less than 1cm round earbud style that you can push deep into your ear." They also have a very short video "review", which is more of an advertisement not lacking superlatives - "fantastic audio quality" and the like. While I do consider the 855’s audio quality good, it still can’t beat decent supra-aural headphones like the Pulsar 590 or the (of course, pretty uncomfortable) Moto HT820. That is, the video should have stated "decent audio quality for a canalphones model and/or much better quality than any earbuds" instead.

Laptop Mag’s battery life / recharge benchmarks are a bit different from those of mine; they state "we got seven hours of music playback while taking intermittent calls. But we were peeved that we had to wait two hours to fully charge the headset before using it". The truth, as far as continuous music playback is concerned, battery life is considerably worse (around 5:30...6 hours) and the recharge time a bit longer (around 2:20).

PCMag’s review is plain bad as the reviewer doesn’t really seem to know the limitations (and qualities) of A2DP. She states "Stereo music played through the Voyager 855 sounded middling to poor. I heard some bass, though it distorted easily and was more boom than actual punch. The midrange and high end exhibited hazy stereo panning, tinny treble, and not enough "air" around the instruments. Oddly, lead vocals were hard to hear as well. Sometimes electric guitars on tracks by the band Muse would get louder and then recede a few moments later, presumably due to quirks in the Bluetooth connection. This is certainly no headset for audiophiles." and "Audio enthusiasts will probably prefer wired buds, due to the sonic limitations of the current A2DP Bluetooth protocol." Actually, it’s the mechanical parts that are the bottleneck, not A2DP. A2DP is capable of delivering much better audio quality than a small-sized, non-isolated earbud will ever deliver. Second, she complains about the lack of basses. I’m not at all sure she has pushed the phones into her ear sufficiently strongly enough. Without making them fit, you’ll indeed encounter poor basses. Again, these are in-ear monitors, NOT earbuds. The latter only need to be placed directly outside of the ear canal, while in-ear monitors need to be firmly push into the canal itself. On the other hand, if you do push them into your ear canal (which can clearly be noticed immediately because the isolation starts working and the external sounds will sound much quieter), the basses appear – at a much higher level than most? all? true (external) earbuds like the (factory) iPod, Zune, Nokia N95 or most HTC stereo headsets.

Indeed, speaking of external earbuds, the reviewer doesn’t seem to know the vast audio quality difference between canalphones (in-ear monitors) and traditional earbuds - assuming you’re used to the awkwardness of the former. Incidentally, the same review has been published at Smart Device Central, where, in the first comment, the Plantronics acoustic designer responsible for the 855 explains (some of) the inherent flaws of the article. Let me cite it in its entirety (it’s really worth reading):

"I am the Plantronics acoustic designer responsible for this product and have a few comments on how to get good audio quality from this and similar headsets.

With this fit style (frequently called a canal-phone); if the user thinks that the headset sounds "tinny" it is 95% certain that the seal between the eartip and the ear-canal has been compromised. If the bass appears to be present but not "vibrant" it is possible that one ear has good fit and the other does not.

In order to provide both background-noise isolation and good audio performance from a very small loudspeaker (required in such a small product) it is necessary to seal the output of the speaker to the ear-canal. I won't go into details as to why, but the requirement is actually pretty rigorous, a gap the diameter of a human hair will degrade the bass response at very low frequencies and it doesn't take too much larger a leak to produce the impression stated by the reviewer.

If a slight tug on the headset or earbud does not produce a slight feeling of "suction", there is too much leakage to get optimum performance. When perfectly coupled to the ear this product has an acoustic response that is flat to below 10 Hz. (two octaves below the lowest note on the bass guitar) but a significant leak can make it hard to hear the bass at all.

I do not consider the requirement for seal to be a virtue, but if adequate attention is paid to fit, the results are superior to other approaches. The alternative is a much larger headset to achieve similar performance (although not bass down to 10 Hz.) so it worth it to try different (supplied) eartips and manipulate the headset to get the right fit. The size and shape of individual ears varies greatly and it is difficult to engineer a single eartip that fits everyone. Normally a bit of care will produce a good fit and once you have heard the improvement it will be easier to achieve and maintain."


PC World: an average review with an average score. It seems to, to some degree, trash A2DP and recommend wired headsets over any A2DP phones. Again, I disagree: with quality A2DP implementations (again, all current smartphone stacks except for the Microsoft one in WM5), A2DP does deliver excellent quality.

ZDNet’s review doesn’t really elaborate on the A2DP mode; most of its remarks concern the standard (mono) headset mode.

MobileBurn’s recently-published review seems to be much fairer; its pros/cons lists are pretty much the same as mine.

Treonauts’ review is pretty short and certainly lacks sound quality evaluation. It, however, has some pics.

The Amazon user reviews (there are 25 of them) are also worth checking out.

WMExperts have also published a mini-review and video without much elaboration on the sound quality. They state it’s average; I am not sure whether they have indeed pushed the phones in the ear canal sufficiently well (as is, again, also emphasized by Plantronics’ acoustic designer).

PhoneArea’s article is more of an ad. Good Gear Guide’s article isn’t much better either.

symbian-guru’s short and mostly Symbian-related (reports on tests with the N95-3) article is HERE.

There’s some decent posts at pinstack.com.

Plantronics Pulsar 590

Not taking into the Voyager 855 into account (again, if and only if you can live with in-ear monitors and/or definitely need a set of A2DP headphones that look professionally without making few people aware of you’re listening to music, unlike with supra-aural headphones), this is probably the most recommended model.

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I, generally, agree with the a2dp.info review, particularly with the closing statement "As it seemed to me, among positive comments the 590 A ranks first. In spite of still facing some problems, users consider this headset to be nearly the best choice.". I, however, don’t think the statement "though they will be TOO tight for persons with bigger heads" is right – I have a pretty big head and have absolutely no problems with the 590, not even after 6-8 hours of wearing it. On the other hand, I have major problems with the Moto HT820 on my large head – even after some 30 minutes of listening. Also note that while I have a big head and have been using the 590A very frequently for a little less than two years (!), it hasn’t broken on me, unlike, for example, the TH-55, which broke after about two days (!) of use. That is, if you’re lucky enough, I don’t think it’ll break on you either. I think it was till mid-2006 that the fragile 590's were manufactured; the two 590's I've been using have been manufactured later and, again, haven't broken on me.

ShinyShiny TV’s review is pretty short and not very informative; so is MobileWhack’s and Laptop Mag’s.

MobileTechReview’s review is far longer. I agree with it, particularly with the conclusion ("We’ve reviewed several Bluetooth stereo headsets over the years and the Pulsar 590 is the best we’ve seen and heard so far."), except for statements like "The sound quality is very good when working with both the iPod and the Zune. The Pulsar 590 adds more bass compared to the iPod OEM wired headset, but is otherwise comparable to the wired headsets bundled with these devices." Actually, the Zune is a plain (albeit indeed very good quality – it’s even better, bass-wise, than the earbuds coming with the Nokia N95) earbud model and definitely has worse (less) bass than the 590.

The user reviews at pricegrabber may also be worth reading. I certainly don’t agree with the fourth reviewer’s statement, "Not the best audio quality", though. The reviewer with the post "Warning, not compatable" only refers to the (old and certainly non-A2DP-capable) LG8100, NOT real A2DP sources.

Gadget Review’s very short mini-review is certainly flawed. They state "Don’t expect long playback time, but should suffice for those who use at home." This is in no way true – as long as they can name a stereo Bluetooth headset that has at least twice the battery life (I don’t think they can – most of the small(er) headsets don’t even come close to HALF of the battery life of the 590).

Legit Reviews’ review is pretty long. It, however, having been published more than two years ago, doesn’t elaborate on the A2DP quality when using mobile sources. I certainly disagree with the statement "The volume on the headset was very good and the stereo sound was far superior to that of the Moto HT820" – it’s not really true. The two models have approximately the same sound quality and, with strong equalization in the highs on the 590, frequency response.

CNet’s mini-review is pretty nice. The only statement requiring some additional info is as follows: "We played audio through the Pulsar 590A continuously over a period of about 11 hours without having to recharge. This is not bad, but a word of warning: It's a pain to recharge a device such as headphones when you're not used to doing so." I don’t really get this. First, the 590 has great battery life. Second, you just put it on a charger before going to bed every (second / third, depending on the use) night and, when you wake up, it’s recharged – there isn’t anything different in this than in, say, recharging handsets.

jkOnTheRun’s review is very short (some sentences only); it’s mostly the comments that are worth checking out. So is the case with LiGo’s page.

PC Authority’s review is OK, except for their opinion on the sound quality: "Unfortunately, the sound quality isn’t on par with what we have heard from other offerings, but they’re still worth considering. … The sound quality is, unfortunately, very muddy. Undefined bass tends to drown out the rest of the signal, and a lot of the treble’s definition is lost in transmission. If your source has any EQ settings, you can tweak them to get better results, but using the Pulsar 590A as a pair of wired headphones, instead of as a wireless pair, will give you an increase in fidelity." I think they have messed up something – for example, used the MS BT stack as the source (the article is two years old; that is, before WM6 with it hugely enhanced audio quality, which is now on par with the other mobile alternatives: BlackBerry, Symbian S40/S60 and Widcomm for Windows Mobile).

Some other, comparative shots I’ve made

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Pulsar 590 vs. HT820 thickness difference (as can clearly be seen, the HT820 is definitely thicker)

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Pulsar 590 vs. Cellink thickness difference

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Pulsar 590 vs. Gear4 size difference

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(Folded) size (note that the Gear4 BluPhones have a very flexible headband and, therefore, can be made even smaller to fit even the smallest shirt pockets)

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Gear4 vs. Voyager (here, the left earbud)
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Gear4 vs. Voyager (the entire headphones)

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Voyager vs. 590 , both with extended microphone
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Without extending them
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From left to right: the charger of the 590, the Voyager and the Gear4. As can be seen, none of them are standard.

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mcwarre

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Wow! What an excellent review. Many thanks :o


Pity that you couldn't pay money for a better model rather than than ug-er-lee gimp you used :D Says Brad Pitt here :(

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Menneisyys

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UPDATE (06/23/2009): A full compliance & test report of stereo Bluetooth sound (A2DP) in iPhone OS 3

I’ve finished (thoroughly) testing my six A2DP headphones with the new Bluetooth stereo support of iPhone OS 3.0 (OS3 for short), along with their traditional mobile phone headset functionality.

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(the stereo headphones, all paired with my iPhone)

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(in-call view: as can be seen, you can dynamically switch from the Bluetooth headset to the iPhone. In this regard, the operating system is far more versatile than Windows Mobile, Blackberry or Symbian S60, which don’t allow for this.)

A little bit of letdown: A2DP (stereo Bluetooth) previous / next don’t work in OS 3.0

First and foremost, OS3’s AVRCP (Bluetooth remote control allowing for pausing / advancing / rewinding) doesn’t support stepping to the next song or going back to the start of the current / previous one. All it (partially) supports is pausing and resuming. Of course, even this is definitely more than nothing; let me point out that Nokia’s S60 operating system doesn’t support pausing/resuming in a lot of contemporary, popular stereo headphones like those of Plantronics (except for their latest models). In addition, you’ll use pause / resume most of the time and not previous / next. (Just make sure you create playlists that don’t contain songs you don’t want to listen to; then, you won’t need “skip to the next song” to quickly step over unwanted songs.) Additional, similar user reports are HERE and HERE. Even some A2DP headphones manufacturers state (see for example THIS; click the iPhone icon and look for the “iPhone OS 3.0:” section) the same (in this case, without mentioning this is a generic problem with OS3 also applying to all the available A2DP headphones).

I encountered no problems with the following headphones in playing back/pausing music and answering/closing calls from the headphone:
Motorola HT820 (model D),
Gear4 BluPhones,
Plantronics Pulsar 590
.

With the Cellink BTST-9000-D and the Plantronics Voyager 855, pause/resume doesn’t work at all. With the former (Celling), it only started to work after conducting a call; with the Plantronics 855, not even after that. Incidentally, it is always hard to initially make the Cellink work with the iPhone: when you connect the headphones to the iPhone, it takes some minutes (and several volume up/down presses until the actual A2DP sound transfer starts).

The Altec (Plantronics) 903 / 906, which I currently consider the best A2DP headphones I know and have tested (this doesn’t mean there may not be better models out there!), seems to be pretty strange. At first, it worked OK. At my second attempt, it connected to my Nokia N95 first. After this, it wouldn’t work with the iPhone any more: while pause / resume worked, there was no sound transfer and the in-call headset functionality didn’t work either. I’ll definitely return to the problem after asking the Altec folks about the latest firmware for the headphones. (I, since I’ve received the headphones in February, at MWC, have an early firmware on the headphones. This early firmware has caused me major problems in the past – after I’ve paired with the desktop Windows 7 on my IBM Thinkpad t42p and also enabled A2DP between the two devices, it required a full reset to make it work again.)

I’ll still return to the question of A2DP outdoor stability and usability as some people reported they have problems with it. In my tests, I haven’t encountered similar problems with headphones (e.g., the Plantronics 590) not suffering from drop-outs in environments where fading etc. seriously degrades the wireless sound quality during transmission causing consequent drop-outs, stuttering and pauses with headphones with less sensitive, lower-quality radios (e.g., the Gear4 BluPhones).

For the time being, however, you can safely shop for at least the above-mentioned and problem-less models. And, as mentioned, I’ll post an update on the best buy (in my opinion), the Altec (Plantronics) 903 / 906.

Recommended, related articles

Altec (Plantronics) 903 / 906 review

A REAL, MULTIPLATFORM Bluetooth stereo (A2DP) headphones roundup: FIVE headphones

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#4
Menneisyys

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UPDATE (06/24/2009 23.47 CET):
1.) Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation surrounding the A2DP support of OS3. For example, PCMag has published the following:

“One new feature, stereo Bluetooth, bombs. Music on our Altec Lansing BackBeat headphones was so full of hisses and distortion it was laughable—almost as if Apple was saying, "This is why we hate stereo Bluetooth." The headphones weren't the problem, as the same music files sounded much better on a BlackBerry Storm.”

As you may have guessed, this is far from the entire truth. Anyone knowing a little bit of stereo Bluetooth in general knows one shouldn’t judge a given handset based on a test with only one pair of BT stereo headphones. An example: most? all? Nokia S60 phones don’t support the pause / resume functionality of older Plantronics A2DP models. Based on only one test (with, say, the Plantronics 590), a reviewer could only say “Hey, the N95 is really bad because it doesn’t support pausing / resuming!” Which isn’t true because there are headsets (for example, the Altec Lansing BackBeat 903/906) where the pause/resume is supported.

Not to mention I couldn’t discern any “hisses” or “distortion” with the sound produced by the BackBeat. There was some distortion of the highs compared to the sound of some other headphones (for example, the Pulsar 590), but this could easily be explained by the 590’s strong cutting (not really playing back) the highs. One thing is certain: the BackBeat + iPhone 3G combo sounds way better than pre-WM6 Windows Mobile phones / PDA’s equipped with the Microsoft Bluetooth stack. There is no comparison. There definitely isn’t “laughable” “hiss” and “distortion” compared to other mobile platforms (or, using the built-in A2DP support of Windows 7) either. I’m not sure whether the author of the PCMag article, Sascha Segan, has a single pair of A2DP headphones or has ever tested the A2DP support on other, alternative platforms with more than one pair of headphones. I seriously doubt it. All in all, just ignore what he says on the matter.

Also note that the JKOnTheRun folks also mention this article. A commenter there states he has absolutely no problems with the 3G and the Backbeat 903 either.

Let’s turn back to the BackBeat. Today, I’ve made a lot of long-time tests with it and, during them, I’ve found out something of real interest.

When playing back anything streamed (and you stream via Wi-Fi and not 3G – that is, the cellular connection) in both the built-in YouTube client and third-party apps like netTV Lite, all my other headphones (except for the Voyager 855, which I didn’t test in this respect) introduce severe skippings and pauses. (Here, under “pauses”, I mean completely missing audio sometimes for seconds, while the video is played back without problems.) Also, for some reason, loading (pre-catching) YouTube files seems to be much-much slower than without any A2DP headphones or with the BackBeat – all this using the same access point and under exactly the same circumstances. With the BackBeat, I have never run into any serious skippings or long(er) pauses. (I’ve only encountered two short [about 0.2 sec] pauses during the 3-4 hours I’ve spent on playing back YouTube clips.)

As soon as the YouTube files are fully re-cached, skips stop with the other headphones. This may mean it’s the Bluetooth aerial unit that is trying to take over the Wi-Fi aerial unit – as was the case with several, older Windows Mobile phones before Bluetooth 1.2. These old WinMo PDA’s, generally, either completely disabled using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi at the same time or have resulted in major performance problems (heavily decreased Wi-Fi and Bluetooth speed) when enabling them both. I think the stuttering problem while, concurrently, downloading / streaming via Wi-Fi with the iPhone may be related to this.

Frankly, I don’t know why the BackBeat behaves much-much better than my other headphones.

2.) I’ve benchmarked (with the “Benchmark” app in the AppStore) the CPU usage of A2DP. It’s acceptable: while playing back AAC songs in iPod via the speaker, the speed of the iPhone 3G decreases to 84% and doing the same via Bluetooth A2DP results in around 70%. That is, there is some CPU usage – but, fortunately, nowhere as large as with, say, Samsung CPU’s on Windows Mobile, where A2DP could easily result in taking no less than 50% of the CPU cycles on the 400 MHz models.

3.) Two minor corrections of my original article:
- with Symbian S60, you can dynamically change the sound output hardware; it’s only Windows Mobile that you can’t do this
- the pause/resume function does work with the Voyager 855. That is, in my tests, only Cellink’s (otherwise, pretty bad) headphones didn’t work together with the iPhone 3G.

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#5
Menneisyys

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BTW, speaking of the skips in Bluetooth while streaming via Wi-Fi (e.g., playing back YouTube), there is absolutely no skips or pauses with, for example, the HP iPAQ 210 Windows Mobile Classic Pocket PC having version 2-compliant Bluetooth. That is, these skippings are definitely not the problem of the headphones.

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#6
Menneisyys

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UPDATE (06/25/2009 13:47CET): I’ve continued playing with the A2DP in OS3, all this on a non-jailbroken iPhone 3G.

1.) I’ve thoroughly tested the Plantronics Voyager 855 to check whether it has annoying pauses / stuttering while playing back Wi-Fi content. While there are very short (0.1…0.3s), occassional pauses, only 1-2 happens at most every 2-3 minutes; that is, they’re completely acceptable.

2.) The audio quality of the Altec Lansing BackBeat 903 / 906 is in no way worse than that of the other A2DP headphones. I’ve done some serious tests with THIS (stereo; if you play it back it on Symbian / Windows Mobile under CorePlayer, make sure you choose H264 – High quality for it to be played back in stereo).

Pay special attention to the highs. On headphones with bandwidth-limited highs (e.g., the Pulsar 590), use the equalizer (I’ve used this in CorePlayer) to boost them so that the headphones become fully comparable to the headphones having good highs without any boosting (e.g., the Voyager 855 or the Altec Lansing BackBeat 903/906). Yes, they are indeed more distorted on all headphones (particularly the in no way recommended Cellink one) and on all A2DP-capable phones (I’ve tested this, in addition to the iPhone 3G, on the Windows Mobile 6-based HP iPAQ 210 PDA) – unfortunately, you have to live with this. Being without wires that have certain disadvantages you just can’t fight – in addition to the somewhat less battery life (which I’ll try to test on the 3G some day), the somewhat distorted highs. They, however, aren’t THAT bad – I certainly prefer the somewhat worse sound quality to wires.

To check for the well-known aliasing distortion common to the Microsoft Bluetooth stack prior to Windows Mobile 6, use THIS clip, and, in addition to the highs during playback, pay special attention to the doublebass in the first 5-10 seconds of the song. It’s mostly there that aliasing could easily be heard. (If you can’t imagine what it sounds like, I recommend giving a try to a pre-WM6 Windows Mobile PDA or phone with the MS BT stack supporting A2DP.) No such effect on the iPhone – and, of course, not with the Altec Lansing BackBeat 903 / 906.

3.) I’ve re-run the Wi-Fi streaming + BT A2DP playback tests on my HP iPAQ 210 with all my A2DP headphones, just to be on the safe side. No pauses in the sound at all, unlike with the iPhone 3G (with the latter, except for the Voyager 855 and the Altec Lansing BackBeat 903/906, of course).

Bottom line: it seems the iPhone 3G, unlike most other contemporary, A2DP-enabled mobile phones, has major Bluetooth A2DP and Wi-Fi streaming compatibility problems. If you do plan to watch / listen to YouTube / radio or TV stations, double check the A2DP headphones you want to buy for your iPhone 3G by playing back some YouTube clips and watching some TV stations (for example, in the free netTV Lite) to see whether there are sometimes some second-long drops and pauses in the sound. If there are, never ever get the particular model. These, after my tests, include the Motorola HT820 (at least model D), the Gear4 BluPhones, the With the Cellink BTST-9000-D and the Plantronics Pulsar 590 (as opposed to what THIS JKOnTheRun article states – they’ve only tested playing back local and not streamed contents; this is why they haven’t noticed the Wi-Fi streaming problem). Currently, I can only say the Plantronics Voyager 855 and the Altec Lansing BackBeat 903/906 are the only models I’m absolutely sure will flawlessly work with the iPhone 3G. I think this all is related to some newer technology used by these two new models (BT 2.0 EDR maybe?), which the older / other headphones aren't capable of.

Again, this only applies to playing back streamed contents (YouTube, online radio, TV etc.) over Wi-Fi (but NOT the cellular!) and not local files in iPod or listening to in-game music. Listening to local content and streaming over cellular (GPRS / EDGE / UMTS / HSDPA) is 100% OK on headphones pretty much useless when streaming over Wi-Fi.

(BTW, as far as the Altec Lansing BackBeat headphones are concerned, after repairing it with the iPhone, the initial problem I’ve explained in my first article was gone.)

And now, for something entirely different: the play/pause headphones button starts / stops the playback of the last song in the iPod app, unless you use an app (e.g., the built-in YouTube client) which overrides this functionality. That is, if you use YouTube, the button will start/stop the YouTube playback and not that of the iPod. In a game or a Tv streaming client like netTV Lite, it’s the iPod playback that will be (re)started. Unfortunately, with netTV Lite, the sound of the currently streaming channel won’t return after you stop iPod playback – you’ll need to exit the channel and restart it.

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#7
Menneisyys

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UPDATE (06/26/2009): In the meantime, another, major problem has been found out: the encoding lag.

This means if you play back any kind of video (either streamed – including YouTube – or local) using A2DP (stereo Bluetooth), the sound will be only heard about half a second (!) later than the video. Yes, the lag introduced by the A2DP encoding is THAT bad.

Give for example THIS clip a try. Pay special attention to John Krasinski’s short sentences (“right” etc.)

Unfortunately, this makes watching videos via A2DP almost completely useless. Needless to say, I’ve never encountered anything like this on competing, alternative mobile platforms (at least not on Windows Mobile). There, the engineers paid attention to synchronizing the video with the A2DP audio – unlike at Apple. Bad, very bad, Apple! Programmatically, delaying video playback couldn’t have been THAT hard...

If Apple doesn’t fix this, I’m afraid we’ll have to wait for video players with settable audio/video synchronization / lag settings to be released. For example, the very famous CorePlayer, which is slated for July-August this year (hope it’ll really be released – after all, it’s been promised for the iPhone well over a year…) – for a Cydia release (if Apple won’t let it into the AppStore). Too bad the YouTube support of the current, 1.3.2 version on other platforms is definitely inferior to the iPhone YouTube client, particularly in OS3 where you can read the comments / enter comments, can have access to your YouTube account and can see the other videos uploaded by the same user – all this isn’t possible in the (again, current) CorePlayer.

In the meantime, all you can do is going straight for a pair of headphones that comes with a 3.5 mm stereo Bluetooth dongle. The one coming with the BackBeat 906 (which, otherwise, also receives my highest recommendation because it doesn’t have any kind of Wi-Fi interoperability problem, unlike several other models) introduced much less lag than the native A2DP encoder of iPhone. The lag is certainly visible – but in no way as bad as with the built-in A2DP. Fortunately, the dongle has been made with the original iPhone in mind; this also means you won’t have problems connecting it to the 3G either if you have a case on it. (For example, I use the SwitchEasy Capsule Rebel case for my 3G, which, basically, only lets you insert the original 2G/3G headphones. The dongle coming with the BackBeat 906 inserts into the jack without problems.)

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#8
Menneisyys

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UPDATE: Anyone on AT&T with iPhone 3G, stereo BT headphones and another A2DP phone (or a 3GS)?

See http://iphone.modaco...phone-or-a-3gs/

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#9
Menneisyys

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iPhone OS 3.1.2 Bluetooth audio update, concerning both the 3G and the 3G S, posted to http://iphone.modaco...s-test-results/

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#10
TheLandYacht

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I have a question/request for you regarding your reviews of the Plantronics 855, and (I believe your) review of the 903.

Based on a review (I believe yours) of the 903, I ended up purchasing this unit. What I found was, that while the sound was great as long as the earpieces are perfectly positioned, that is rarely the case. Probably because of the shape of my ears. The "spout" design of the rubber tips on the 903 always end up pointed in the wrong direction to properly direct the sound INTO my ears. So, my request.

If you still have the 855 and the 903 from your reviews, can you check & see if the earpieces from the 855 fit on the 903? I'd like to be able to find a pair plug those suckers in & be done with it rather than fighting the "spout" design supplied with the 903.

Thanks in advance for your time.

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