Hands-on: BlueAnt Q1 Bluetooth headset [review]

Bluetooth headsets are the epitome of walking a fine line.Everyone wants to make using a mobile phone easier and more productive, but the unspoken social connotation of the Bluetooth headset -- get one, and you'll become a loud, arrogant, aloof cell phone gadget geek whose appearance summons Star Trek, Inc.

Bluetooth headsets are the epitome of walking a fine line.

Everyone wants to make using a mobile phone easier and more productive, but the unspoken social connotation of the Bluetooth headset -- get one, and you'll become a loud, arrogant, aloof cell phone gadget geek whose appearance summons Star Trek, Inc. upper management -- is strong enough to shun people away from using them.

Like the popular Aliph Jawbone, the BlueAnt Q1 aims to dispel the connotation with a discreet profile and a subtle, classy  appearance. If the jewel-like Jawbone is made to accompany a gaudier, leopard print-and-gold Dolce & Gabbana existence, the BlueAnt Q1 is content with minimal geometric lines of Dior Homme.

In other words: If you feel that the quilted, multicolored Jawbone upstages your face, you would do well to consider the brushed gunmetal appearance of the Q1.

Not content to rely on looks alone, BlueAnt calls the Q1 "the world's most advanced voice-controlled Bluetooth headset," a hefty (if lengthy) superlative that aims to justify the accessory's equally hefty $129 retail price tag.

Voice-activated manipulation is the Q1's signature feature, and it's a pretty neat trick. The company gets it right from the start by avoiding any type of "training" session for the device. Merely turn the Q1 on by pressing the BlueAnt button (yes, it's a blue-lit ant; some love it, some are weirded out by it) for a few seconds, and the device guides you through a brief setup to pair it with your phone.

Call quality

From the very beginning, the Q1's voice clarity is apparent: calls, as well as the built-in menus, are clear, crisp, and surprisingly loud (it can be turned down via two narrow volume buttons on the top edge of the headset). That's a good thing for a guy like me who lives in New York, since the volume of street noise (horns honking, air brake compressors hissing, jackhammers hammering, and so forth) can be unbearable at times, rendering a sidewalk phone call useless.

The Q1 also has a noise reduction setting for noisy and windy environments. Minor wish: that the volume buttons were slightly more distinct. They differ in size to distinguish volume up from volume down, but I had a hard time remembering which was which (and when you adjust that setting, there is no voice feedback telling you which direction you're going.)

(That said, be aware of how loud you've turned your headset. You can hurt and damage your ears if you've got it too loud.)

Voice commands

The voice commands to manipulate the Q1 and your phone are fairly novel in practice. After pressing the BlueAnt button to wake the headset up, it prompts you to "Say a command." The Q1 has several commands built in, including "Redial," "Call back," "Call Speed Dial," "Check Battery" and "Phone Commands," which you can then use for voice phone dialing.

The Q1 understood me 98 percent of the time, which is impressive with consideration to how brief the initial setup is. Everyone I spoke with said my voice came through loud and clear. One drawback is that sometimes I had to elevate my voice considerably for the Q1 to register a command, which was a bit awkward considering that the device was hanging on my face.

(Guys out there: the headset worked fine with a few days' worth of facial hair.)

If your phone rings, you can simply say, "Answer," and the call is connected. "Cancel" performs as advertised. The Q1 can support the use of two phones at the same time and can pair with up to 8 devices.

Battery life was reasonable for my use, with about 4 hours of talk time and 100 hours of standby.

Fit issues

There was one issue with the Q1 that I simply couldn't overcome: fit. As anyone who has tried in-ear headphones can attest, it's a very personal issue: some products fit, some don't. For me, the Q1 just didn't work. It didn't fit in my ear and certainly didn't stay there, though BlueAnt unfortunately forgot to include the around-the-ear hook (which is designed to help it stay anchored) with my demo unit. As it turns out, BlueAnt did include the ear hook and a smaller earbud with the headset, but it's hidden in an unmarked black cardboard sleeve that, quite frankly, looks like packaging filler (instructions didn't point this out, either). Thankfully, the headset fits much better with these accessories, but it's a bit tricky to ensure that the headset rests properly against one's jawline and sits at the entrance to the ear canal at the same time. Still, it reduces my concern regarding fit considerably.

Minor quibble: the sleeve isn't intended to be reusable, so there's nowhere to store the large silicone earbud if you prefer the smaller size.

That's not to say the Q1's silicone earpiece is poorly designed -- there are two sizes in the box -- or uncomfortable (it's quite soft), but it does take some fiddling to get it right. That's important, because if the Q1's two microphones aren't aligned correctly, it has a bit of difficulty understanding voice commands.

The bottom line

So who's the Q1 for? For starters, anyone in a state that has passed hands-free mobile phone laws for drivers. The voice activation allows you manage phone calls in a vehicle without buying a separate hands-free speaker set for your car (and seamlessly take conversations with you once you've parked).

As I mentioned before, it's also for anyone who considered Aliph's Jawbone but thought it too garish.

In short, the BlueAnt Q1 allows you to have the nifty features, build and call quality of a high-end Bluetooth headset without visually embodying its $129 price tag. And with voice activation, it's like a joke you're always in on.

It's available at Sprint stores and online.