Bluetooth headsets are hot sellers this month — sales are up 106 percent from a year-ago June at Buy.com — thanks to California’s hands-free driving law that goes into effect July 1. But with prices from $10 to $150, consumers may be as puzzled as I am as to what makes one Bluetooth headset better than another.
Bluetooth, the wireless technology that connects a cell phone with a headset, is an engineering standard. So, technically, if gadget manufacturers follow the rules, one Bluetooth device will work with another Bluetooth device.
But, apparently, things can still go wrong in translation. One guy I know spent $20 and regrets it. Another spent $80 and said it sounds great. Frills aside, what makes a Bluetooth headset sound good?
I posed the question to Craig Ochikubo, vice president and general manager of Bluetooth at Broadcom Corp. in Irvine. Broadcom is the Bluetooth chip of choice in many mobile phones.
He said Broadcom’s chip contributes two things: the radio and the audio processor. A stronger radio means less static and a clearer connection between the phone and headset. The audio processor (or digital signal processing technology) manages the quality of the voice coming in and out of the cell phone and earpiece’s microphone.
Other tweaks, like Broadcom’s “SmartAudio,” were added to its chip to listen to the speech and minimizes the background noise that may interfere with the call. If your headset has an inferior chip and software, the conversation won’t be as pristine as it could be. His words:
| Inferior performance in a headset can generally be attributed to the quality of the components in the headset (i.e. the chips and software). Lower cost, basic Bluetooth components usually do not have any special elements added to improve radio or audio performance above and beyond what basic Bluetooth is capable of. Components from top-tier suppliers will usually have more sophisticated technology designed to improve the experience. In general, if a headset is performing poorly, the consumer should eliminate possible ‘blockers’ between the headset and the phone, such as metal or even the body. Radio waves travel best through the air so a clear shot between the two should improve performance.
But unless you open up the headset, there’s no simple way to determine whose chip is inside.
Over at Aliph, which sells the highly rated Jawbone, design is just as important as the technology, said Michael Williams, the company’s director of product marketing. From a design perspective, the $130 Jawbone has a sensor that rests on the cheek and can feel when the user’s jaw moves — or speaks. Aliph combines that with military-grade noise-cancellation technology to determine what is the conversation and what isn’t.
“If you can talk while you’re in a tank on the battlefield, you can talk in an airport,” he said.
Aliph also bumped up the technology by adding two more microphones inside its sleek headset to better grab audio. Plus, there’s a stronger radio, thanks to chipmaker CSR, to make sure there’s less static.
So, price does matter? Read the rest of this entry »