• U.S.

Can You Hear Me?

3 minute read
Anita Hamilton

Grand central terminal or Times Square? Last week, as I was preparing to test the new batch of wireless headsets for cell phones, I wanted to take them somewhere busy and bustling. After all, the whole point is to free you up while you’re driving, shopping or–if you’re in Times Square–clutching your wallet to keep pickpockets at bay.

But there was a problem. Before I went anywhere, I had to figure out how to use the darn things. New wireless units have begun to pop up in the past few months because of a new short-range radio technology called Bluetooth that’s built into some of the newer-model phones. The headsets offer more freedom than their corded counterparts by letting you stray up to 30 feet from your phone without being encumbered by a cable that might yank on your ear or get caught on your coat buttons.

There’s a learning curve, however. Because the headsets are little radios with their own power supply, you have to remember to keep them charged up. Average talk time is about three hours before they peter out. With Bluetooth models you must also endure an awkward process called “pairing,” which involves entering a four-digit code and pressing buttons on both the headset and the phone in precisely the right sequence to persuade the two devices to talk to each other.

The setup took so long that I never made it to either Grand Central or Times Square. But I did manage to pick a favorite: the $150 HBH-30 from Sony Ericsson. The sound was loud and clear, and the headset fit comfortably around my ear. Unfortunately, you probably won’t be able to use this headset with your cell phone because it works only with phones like Sony Ericsson’s T68i and T300 and Nokia’s 6310i, which come equipped with Bluetooth. More Bluetooth phones and headsets are due out in early 2003, from Nokia, Motorola and others.

Meantime, any phone with a standard headset jack can use a cordless headset if you plug a small adapter into the jack. The audio signal is then transmitted wirelessly from the adapter to the headset. Although the adapters are clunky–about the size of a matchbox–I found the sound quality to be decent. I liked the $179 Jabra Freespeak BT200 best, although there was some slight static in the background, and I had to turn the volume up high to hear well. The $200 Plantronics M1500, on the other hand, had good volume but was user-unfriendly and staticky. A friend I called said it sounded as if I was playing with aluminum foil.

Only the $99 Air Bud sold by RadioShack was truly awful. It was also the only unit that uses 900-MHz wireless technology instead of Bluetooth. First, you need to charge it for three hours via the cigarette lighter in your car (and in many cars, with the motor running) or else buy a separate wall charger for $15. Worse, the headset was bulky and hurt my ear. But the clincher was the dismal sound. “It sounds like you’re on an international call,” my sister told me. Definitely not the effect I was going for.

Questions? Send e-mail to Anita at hamilton@time.com

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