Let's say you're in the market for Bluetooth stereo headphones. Good choice. You'll be releasing yourself from the tyranny of wires and ending the saga of headphones yanked from ears and BlackBerrys yanked from desks. But gaining the freedom to walk about and audio controls as close as your right ear comes at a price. Bluetooth headphones aren't cheap, and any savvy consumer will consider a whole host of questions before pulling the trigger. How well do they sound? Are they comfortable? Am I buying the right one? That's where this article comes in.
In this showdown, I put the BackBeat 903, MOTOROKR S305, the LG HBS-250, and the MOTOROKR S7-HD in a head to head to head to head (phone) competition. Product descriptions and statistics only tell part of the story. I wanted to know how well these devices performed in the real world, with an actual person using (and abusing) them. Which set of headphones sounded the best? Which were most comfortable? Best controls? Worst in show? All will be revealed...after the break.
Each of the four Bluetooth headphones was evaluated in a number of categories. In Form & Function, each device was rated on how well the AVRCP controls were implemented. The Audio/Video Remote Control Profile lets most Bluetooth users to control pause/play, next and previous track, and - in some cases - fast forward and rewind. AVRCP and its stereo-Bluetooth loving cousin, A2DP are available on most newer BlackBerrys running OS 4.2 and later.
In Signal, I tested how well each of our products performed under real life uses. What's the true range of the headphones? Bluetooth is rated to a maximum range of about 33 feet, but only two of the four actually made it that far (and one quite a bit further).
All of the Bluetooth headphones in the article also double as handsfree headsets. So you can listen to tunes and call mom on the same device. Making use of the call recording option in Google Voice, it quickly became apparent which device sounded the best. Results in the Phone section.
Finally, and most importantly, Music. The primary function of any pair of headphones, be they wired or wireless, is to make music sound great. Think thumping bass and high fidelity are something you can't get with BT Headphones? Read on.
BackBeat 903: The Defender
Play Time: 7 hours Standby Time: 168 hours
The Good: Sounds great and looks stylish - most of the headphone's hardware is hidden behind the ear. OpenMic system uses the 903's microphones to provide a little of the "outside world" when music is paused, allowing you to better hear what's happening around you.
The Bad: Some will find the in-ear headphones uncomfortable. Bass performance is best when the earbuds are set juuuust right. Unfortunately, that sweet spot takes a while to narrow down.
MOTOROKR S305: The Contender
Play Time: 6.5 hours Standby Time: 96 hours
The Good: Nice sounding-bass notes, clear high notes. At under $50, it's the least expensive of the group. Holds comfortably in place against your ears.
The Bad: A mostly inflexible band connects the two earphones. Motorola advises the user to place the band so that it holds away from the neck. Not so practical when lounging on the sofa or the bed. Lightweight, but feels cheap and flimsy; mainly because the control buttons rattle.
MOTOROKR S7-HD (The Diva)
Play Time: 8 hours Standby Time: 288 hours
The Good: Very good-looking headphones. Form, flair, and modesty (the indicator light is a small LED hidden under the decorative grill) were obviously high on the list of priorities when designing this beauty. Sound quality is there too; SRS WOW HD audio enhancement makes every song sound better. Padding feels comfortable against the ears.
The Bad: The headphones hang somewhat loosely from the ears. A tighter fit would have provided better sound and reduce the "bouncing" feeling you get while wearing them. The physical on-off switch - though a great idea - is difficult to use while wearing the headphones.
LG HBS-250 (The Dud)
Play Time: 8.5 hours Standby Time: 330 hours
BackBeat 903 (8/10): The BackBeat 903 has two buttons and a thumb wheel to control the headphone functions. The simplicity of the design makes for easy use of the headphones. To use the Play/Pause and call features, however, you really have to press in on the headphones. This can be a bit uncomfortable as I literally had to jam the headphones into my ear to actually press the buttons.
MOTOROKR S305 (7/10): The S305 integrates seven different buttons in to the right-side headphone. The buttons are easy to press and you don't have to jam them into your head to use. That being said, I thought the button layout was a bit clumsy. The power button was especially difficult to find while wearing the headphones; the trick is to use your thumb instead of a finger. This being a pair of headphones, you'd think the Play/Pause button and not the call button would be at the top; not so.
MOTOROKR S7-HD (10/10): I loved the controls on the S7-HD, big controls that my large hands can use. The Play/Pause button is on the right ear and the call options on the left. The S7 uses two control wheels for playback and volume on the right and left sides, respectively. Rotate the left wheel forward to increase volume, backwards to decrease. The right side has a similar story.
HBS-250 (4/10): The controls on this device were incredibly small. The two volume buttons are located at the top of the ear and are very difficult to find by touch alone. To turn the volume up, you almost have wedge your finger between your ear and the decorative front covering. It's the power button that is the worst of all. Holding the large button on the right side turns on the HBS-250, and it doesn't take much effort. So easy, the device can turn on while it's in your pocket, repeatedly dial (because the power and call buttons are one and the same) your boss, who will later say that you "sounded like Satan." But, maybe that's just me.
BackBeat 903 (6/10): Signal loss was measured at the point where the headphones began repeatedly skipping and cutting out. The BackBeat managed a not-so-impressive 23 foot average. Within that range, the 903 sounds great; providing you're not walking too fast. For whatever reason of Bluetooth physics, the unit was extremely sensitive to body parts - specifically my arm - between the transmitter and receiver. For brief periods, the unit would experience a loss of signal and then immediately return to the music. This occurred in about 10 of every 50 steps.
MOTOROKR S305 (7/10): As one of only two devices to meet the rated range of 33 feet, the S305 maxed out at a very impressive 37 feet. Conducting the walk test, the S305 experienced much less signal loss than the 903; about 4 times for every 50 steps.
MOTOROKR S7-HD (8/10): The S7 reached just beyond 27 feet before loosing signal; adequate, but not perfect. Again, Bluetooth physics raised its ugly head, as the S7 was also plagued with signal loss as I walked about, though not nearly as bad as the BackBeat 903. This time, it was about 6 times for every 50 steps. It is worth noting that both the S7-HD and BackBeat have their Bluetooth radios in the left ear, while the other two are in the right. For these tests, my BlackBerry was clipped to my left side.
HBS-250 (9/10): The -250 has a massive range. In the tests I conducted, the -250 made it all the way to 53 (fifty-three!) feet before losing signal. In the walking around test, the HBS-250 had the least signal loss of all - with almost none (once per 50 steps). With such care given to the signal quality, it is a shame LG couldn't engineer a better sound.
BackBeat 903 (6/10): When using the 903 as a phone device, the call quality is the audio version of a pixilated television image. Seriously, it sounded like an old 1990's streaming video.
MOTOROKR S305 (10/10): Wow. The phone audio quality on this thing is amazing. During the week, I had several people tell me that they didn't even know I was on a headset. After listening to Google Voice results, I agree.
MOTOROKR S7-HD (5/10): The S7-HD had a decent sound. However, it sounded as though the audio was over processed, possibly the result of using it in a somewhat noisy environment. But the real world is a noisy environment, and it shouldn't sound like you're making calls from underwater.
HBS-250 (8/10): Fairly good handsfree device. The audio quality was nothing too spectacular, but it wasn't overly processed like the 903 and S7-HD. Audio came through easy to understand and without being garbled.
BackBeat 903 (8/10): As the BackBeat uses an in-the-ear headphone, almost all outside sound is cut off; so notes and lyrics come through clearly. To me, it sounds like the music is playing directly inside my head. The bass notes come through well, but I have heard better. Still, the quality of music playing through the headphones is quite high.
MOTOROKR S305 (7/10): For a pair of $50 wireless headphones, these sound pretty good. Heck, they sound pretty good for any pair of headphones. The S305 delivers an impressive amount of that sweet bass sound; combine that with clear vocals and high notes, and you've got a recipe for some nice headphones. Music on the S305 doesn't have the same high-quality sound that the S7-HD has, but it's pleasant to listen to nonetheless.
MOTOROKR S7-HD (9/10): I was extremely impressed with music capabilities of the S7-HD. Bass punches through these speakers with an amount I would not have expected from Bluetooth headphones. The SRS WOW HD - I don't come up with the names, I just report them - greatly improves the quality of sound coming through the A2D Profile. It's difficult to describe, but the music sounds more vibrant - more real - when the SRS feature is turned on. The fourteen levels of volume control are a nice feature as well.
HBS-250 (3/10): Remember AM radio? Yeah, just about that bad. To me, it seems the HBS-250 was designed first as a Bluetooth device (great signal, remember?) and as a pair of headphones second. These sound terrible. The 5 music "enhancing" equalizer presets change the music from crappy to murky. There is no bass to speak of, and even high notes seem muffled. Even without the volume turned up to what is laughably called "maximum," I can hear the speakers crack. Without a doubt, the HBS-250 has the worst sound quality of all the headphones reviewed here.
Using a simple turn of the hand on the Bluetooth headphones' controls, I skip to the next track. It's one of my favorites (Land of 1000 Words); I smile. I smile because I'm listening with the MOTOROKR S7-HD. I can hear the snare, hi-hat, bass, and tambourine all playing with their distinctive percussive voices. I hear the sound of a pick strumming the strings on a guitar. I hear vocals, distinct and clear. I hear bass lines any headphone would be proud to claim. I hear all of this on the S7-HD, and I love every moment of it.