Review roundup: Hands-free headset/speaker solutions from Etymotic, Aliph, Nokia and Spracht

In just over a month, you will not be able to use your cellphone in your automobile in Washington State without some kind of hands-free solution. Hands-free laws are in place now or coming soon to many other states and areas of the world so now is a good time to take a look at some of the solutions available to you besides the standard wired hands-free kit included with your cellphone purchase. I had the opportunity to personally evaluate the Etymotic hf2 wired iPhone stereo headphones, Etymotic EtyBlu Bluetooth headset, Aliph Jawbone 2 Bluetooth headset, Nokia BH-903 Bluetooth stereo headphones, and Spracht Bluetooth speakephone. They all have their strengths and weaknesses and it really comes down to your own personal preference when selecting a hands-free kit that fits your specific needs. However, I did find a new personal favorite in the bunch that I plan to use myself now that I can no longer just hold my phone to my head and drive. Check out my product photo gallery and then read through the rest of my review to see which solution I chose.

In just over a month, you will not be able to use your cellphone in your automobile in Washington State without some kind of hands-free solution. Hands-free laws are in place now or coming soon to many other states and areas of the world so now is a good time to take a look at some of the solutions available to you besides the standard wired hands-free kit included with your cellphone purchase.

I had the opportunity to personally evaluate the Etymotic hf2 wired iPhone stereo headphones, Etymotic EtyBLU Bluetooth headset, Aliph's new Jawbone Bluetooth headset, Nokia BH-903 Bluetooth stereo headphones, and Spracht Aura Mobile BT Bluetooth speakephone. They all have their strengths and weaknesses and it really comes down to your own personal preference when selecting a hands-free kit that fits your specific needs. However, I did find a new personal favorite in the bunch that I plan to use myself now that I can no longer just hold my phone to my head and drive. Check out my product photo gallery and then read through the rest of my review to see which solution I chose.

 Image Gallery:People are starting to look for hands-free solutions as laws require them in many U.S. States and you can check out five possible solutions that may help with your purchase decisions. 
Image Gallery: Jawbone 1 and 2 comparison
Image Gallery: Etymotic hf2 retail box

My friend Buzz introduced me to the very nice folks at Etymotic Research at CES 2008 back in January and a couple of weeks ago I received samples of both the Etymotic hf2 and EtyBlu headsets to evaluate. The Etymotic hf2 is a wired stereo headset primarily designed to replace the iPhone headset included with your iPhone purchase. The EtyBlu is a wireless Bluetooth headset designed to work with all of your devices.

Etymotic hf2: I first took a look at the Etymotic hf2 headset because I was interested in finding something better than the headset that came with my iPhone since I don't really like the way the Apple earbuds rest unsecurely in your ears. I have also been using my slightly modified US$250 Ultimate Ears 5 headphones (I had to shave back the rubber a bit to fit into the iPhone) to listen to music and podcasts on my iPhone and was hoping these Etymotic headphones would serve two functions.

The headset consists of a 4 foot cable with a straight 3.5mm plug end that goes right into the current generation iPhone. The great thing about the cable is that it is covered with that same great soft-touch rubber present on new mobile phones and it seems to be virtually tangle resistant. The cable and earbuds have that modern non-slip rubber coating found on many mobile devices today. The right side cable that splits off and goes to your ear is a couple inches shorter than the left side. You will find the mic and call answer button controller (just over an inch long) in the right side cable. Farther down the cable below the split you will find a detachable clip that can be used to hold the headphone cable close to your body.

There is a single button on the controller below the mic opening and you can use this to play/pause your music or even track forward (requires a quick double button press). The button is also used to answer and end calls with a single press. If you are on a call and another comes in then pressing the button once puts your current call on hold and answers the new call. You can then quickly switch between the calls by pressing the controller button. The iPhone has no voice dialing functionality so there is no way to perform that function with the headset.

The hf2 headset comes with three pairs of ear plugs (two rubber, multi-level flange pairs and one foam pair) that can be attached to the end of the earphones. I have rather large ear canals so I used the gray rubber plugs (there are smaller blue ones). You will also find a small metal tool and some extra filters that you can use to replace the existing filters as they age and plug up with ear wax. A small carrying case with a zippered top is also included to hold your earphones when you are not using them.

The plugs were easy to insert and felt quite comfortable in my ears for long periods of time. Sound quality was very good and almost as good as my Ultimate Ears (which is great given the fact that the Ultimate Ears serve a single function and cost about US$100 more). I actually can only have the iPhone up to a max of 75% or else my ears get completely blown out in a quiet environment. On the train and walking around Seattle, I cranked up the volume to about 90% because of all the background and street noise.

Callers stated that I sounded good in most conditions, but they could tell I was on a headset. If you are listening to music, it fades out when a call comes in and then fades back in after the call is ended and this functionality works very well.

The box states that you can use the headphones with other devices, but I haven't had that great of luck with the mobile phones in my collection. The 3.5 mm plug works just fine with MP3 players, but it needs the 4 contact port on your device to work in phone mode. I first tried my Nokia N95-3 and error message popped up stating this accessory was not supported by the device. I then tried plugging the Etymotic hf2 into the Nokia stereo controller and they worked for audio. However, when I made a call neither the mic on the hf2 or on the Nokia controller (or the N95-3 itself) would work so the caller could not hear me. I then tried the headset on an HTC Advantage and it worked well with the phone and media player, but was a bit on the quiet side and could have been louder. When I plugged it into the Nokia N82 I just heard loud buzzing that almost blew me away and a pop-up appeared stating to use the phone microphone. These really are designed for the Apple iPhone and I recommend only iPhone owners look at this headset as a hands-free solution.

The Etymotic hf2 headset is a great accessory for Apple iPhone owners and if you own an iPhone then you may want to give these serious consideration. The headset actually keeps me using my iPhone more than I probably would without the headset. They are available for US$179 and come with a 2-year warranty so you can rest in the fact that your are purchasing a high quality product that is backed by a long warranty.

Etymotic etyBLU: I next tried the etyBLU Bluetooth headset and had some high expectations for this wireless headset after hearing a sample audio clip at CES in Vegas. The etyBLU has a unique design feature with a removable boom mic (the BLUmaxx) that extends the mic out away from your ear and closer to your mouth. I tested this headset with the Apple iPhone, HTC Advantage, T-Mobile Shadow, and Nokia N95-3. The headset worked with all of these devices and paired flawlessly with each. If your phone asks for a passkey it is simply 0000.

I expected a clear connection between all of my devices and was surprised by the regular static and breakup of sound when I put any of my phones on the opposite side of my body or walked more than 6 feet away or so. I thought it would have been much clearer and stronger and at first I thought it was the Bluetooth radio on the devices. However, I tried it with the iPhone, Advantage, Shadow, and N95-3 with the same results for each device. The caller could not hear the static, but I could on my end of the line.

There is a single multi-function button (MFB) that is located on the upper portion of the headset and stands out as the silver button on the glossy black face. The button is flush with the glossy black outer side of the headset, but it does press in when pushed. The button is used to turn on and off the headset, answer a call (quick single press), end a call (quick single press), reject a call (press and old for one second), redial (press and hold for one second), place a voice call (single press when in standby and your device supports it), transfer a call from the headset to your phone (two quick presses), activate call waiting (press and hold to put on hold and press and hold to switch between calls), and activate supported 3-way calling (double press to add a second call).

There is also a long volume rocker switch on the top of the headset (when placed in your right ear) with the decrease volume control located towards the front and increase volume towards the back. There is a very small LED that appears forward of the MFB under the black finish that flashes blue when active and yellow when powering off. In pairing mode the blue LED will flash rapidly.

The unique boom design of the BLUmaxx attachment allows you to extend the mic away from your ear and closer to your mouth. It is a noise-canceling microphone and you need to pay attention to how it is designed to be positioned because one hole should be placed away from your mouth and one hole towards your mouth. You can connect and disconnect the BLUmaxx without interrupting a call too. A foam windscreen is also provided in the package. Callers mentioned that I did sound closer and clearer with the BLUmaxx installed on the device so for outgoing calls you may want to use this for higher quality performance.

Like the hf2, the etyBLU comes with five different earbud tips; standard 3 flange and long standard 3 flange, small 3 flange and long small 3 flange, and foam. There is also a small wire earloop provided that fits into the headset to hook onto your ear. The headset fits quite far into your ear and depending on your ear canal may sit at an angle that may at first seem strange. I could wear the headset for 30 minutes or so straight, but after that the complete blockage in my ear and the depth in my canal was a bit uncomfortable. I also did not like the feeling when I pressed the MFB because it then pushed the tips around inside my ear which resulted in me trying to hold the earpiece and press the button so it didn't push in too much.

The ear hook didn't seem to work near as well for me personally as the ones I have used on the Cardo and Jawbone 2 headsets and it made the device and boom stick out further away from my head and not fit as well as I wanted it to so I did not use the ear loop with the headset after testing it out. You also have to like having a headset that goes far into your ear canal to use this headset, unless you use the foam tips. The rubber tips also block out more sound and make for a better experience. Do make sure to pull up on your ear before pulling the headset out though because it does create quite a seal in your ear canal.

To charge the headset you need to use the included cable that connects in the same place as the BLUmaxx mic boom and then ends with a USB plug so you can charge via your computer. Battery life is reported as 7 hours of talk time and up to 100 hours of standby time. The headset supports Bluetooth 1.1 and later devices and works at a range of up to 30 feet. The headset is very light and weighs less than 0.5 ounce.

I have to admit I was a bit disappointed in this headset and won't personally be using it since I don't like how far the ear tip fits into my ear, the ear loop doesn't feel like it is providing a secure attachment, and the static/strength of the Bluetooth radio seems a bit weak. Callers mentioned that the quality was very good with the BLUmaxx so if outgoing call performance is your primary concern then you might want to consider this headset. The etyBLU is available now for US$129 from the Etymotic Research site.

New Aliph Jawbone: I tested out the first generation Aliph Jawbone and after a few uses sent it back to the person who loaned it to me because I could not master the trick to get it on my ear easily and thought the ear loop and attachment design had major flaws. I then tried it again after picking one up at CES and was able to get the attachment method figured out for the most part. It seems that everyone loved the headset and I just didn't understand how they could find it so compelling when I could barely get it attached in time to answer a call. Aliph has definitely listened to user feedback with the new Jawbone and I have to say that this is one impressive Bluetooth headset.

The packaging alone for this headset makes you feel as though you are buying a high quality product with cool small black boxes for the earbuds and earloops (2 earbuds and 3 earloops are included in addition to the earbud and earloop on the headset in the package) and a plastic display piece that highlights the Jawbone. You get small, medium, and large earbuds, medium and large earloops both in leather covered and standard wire models. The medium earbud and medium leather earloop come on the headset out of the box and are the ones that seemed to fit me best too.

The new Jawbone is 50% the size of the first Jawbone and the size is immediately noticeable. The design has also been updated with a cool diamond cut plastic outer face. There are actually two buttons on the device that you won't see just by looking at the device since the buttons are on the inside of the face and are activated by pressing in on different places in the solid small piece of plastic. The talk button is located just forward of the very small and cool indicator light on the outer side. The Noise Assassin button is located on the very back end of the outer face and you actually push the face forward to activate it.

The earbud and Voice Activity Sensor (VAS), the small clear plastic nub found on the original Jawbone too, are located on the inside of the headset. The earloop fits into a hold in the earbud and can easily be slid out to move the headset to your right or left ear. The VAS needs to be touching your face for the Noise Assassin technology to work properly. The Noise Assassin technology is designed to elminate background noise and improve voice clarity.

There are no volume controls on the headset and Aliph states that volume is automatically adjusted to fit your surroundings.

The ear loop has undergone MAJOR improvements and has a more traditional over the ear loop that comes in two different sizes in your retail box. Two loops are covered in smooth leather and feel wonderful on my ear while giving a classy look to the headset. There is a rubber covered speaker that rests just inside your ear, but does not go far into the ear canal. I have to say I was able to comfortably wear the Jawbone 2 for hours and never felt any discomfort in my ear or head. You can also wear the headset without the ear loop and as long as you are not moving your head around too much it stays in place quite well.

After you charge the headset and turn it on for the first time, the Jawbone automatically goes into pairing mode to make for a great out-of-box experience. The indicator light flashes red and white during pairing. You can then activate pairing mode yourself after the first usage. The cool thing about the LED is that you can actually turn it off completely by pressing on the Talk button quickly 5 times in a row.

You use the Talk button to answer or end a call and to turn on and off the headset. The Talk button can also be used to answer an incoming call while you are on another call. The Noise Assassin (back button) is used to reject a call, initiate voice dialing (if your phone supports it), redial the last number, turn the noise shield/Noise Assassin functionality off, and to change the volume. There are no dedicate volume buttons and the headset is supposed to manage volume dynamically, but you can also use the Noise Assassin button to cycle through multiple volume levels. When I manually changed the volume level, the headset really cranked up high and 90% of the time I let the headset manage the volume and it did very well.

The new Jawbone also has a new charging connector that looks similar to the old connector, but smaller. The charging connector also has magnets around the connector port so when you get the headset close it is properly brought into contact so you can charge the headset. The cable is a USB cable that plugs into an a/c adapter so you can charge via a wall outlet or your computer.

In my experiences, the battery life is matching very closely to the stated life of 4 hours talk time. I haven't had the chance to fully test the 192 hours (8 days) of standby time since I haven't had the device too long and keep on using the headset instead of letting it sit in standby mode. I was able to stay on a call when I was two rooms and over 30 feet away from my iPhone, but it did get a bit statically and lose some quality after 1 wall and about 20 feet. However, this is outstanding performance compared to some other headsets I have tried recently.

The new Jawbone is a major design change over the original Jawbone and if you are looking for a high end headset then I highly recommend you check this one out. You can pick one up at your local AT&T store in black, gold, and silver for US$129.99 each. While it is more than twice as expensive as the cheaper Bluetooth headset, I honestly think the quality and functionality is worth the price. While the performance has been outstanding, it is also quite fashionable and I think this will be one HOT seller this summer.

Nokia BH-903: As part of the Nokia Nseries Blogger Relations program we are usually sent Nseries mobile phones to evaluate. When the N82 was sent along a couple of weeks ago, a Nokia BH-903 stereo Bluetooth headset was also included and I was excited to try it out as I was starting to work out again and was looking for a Bluetooth stereo headset solution.

The Nokia BH-903 is a bit different than any other Bluetooth headset I have tried out because it actually has quite a bit of cable incorporated into the design. You see, the BH-903 is a Bluetooth stereo headset with A2DP, AVRCP, HSP, HFP, and PBAP(Phonebook Access Profile) support that has cables that lead down from both earbuds to a central controller. On the right cable leading down from the earbud, you will also find a very small/micro controller that has a button on one whole face and a smaller button on the side. The larger button is the answer/end key and the small button is the mute key with the microphone opening on the back. Also attached to the cables before you get to the controller are the ends to a single neoprene covered black cable that goes on the back side of your neck to serve as the lanyard/necklace for the controller.

The central controller is about 2.5 inches long x 1.25 inches wide x 3/8 inches thick. The entire headset, controller, and cables weight in at only 1.13 ounces so you can barely tell it is on your neck. The headset is charged with the now-standard Nokia adapter so that is very nice since no separate cable or adapter is required if you are connecting it with a Nokia device. There is nothing along the back and on the top you will find the power button. Everything takes place on the face of the controller with a silver action button/menu key towards the bottom third of the device, a unique directional pad and action button/selection key in the center with a small OLED display (approximately 3/8 high x 1 inch wide) located on the upper part (actually lower when the device is hanging off your neck) of the face. The OLED display is very clear and crisp and I think this is a perfect application for OLED displays. There is also a answer/end button below the menu key with a backlight that appears when a call is made or incoming.

The direction pad presses in and lets you control the center, left, right and then the four corners. The four corners actually light up with a white backlight when you press the directional pad and allow you to control your music with stop, play/pause, forward, and backward buttons. The areas to the left and right of the center directional pad each have a small nub on them and allow you to move left and right in the menu system. The center button serves as a selection button and the small silver button is the Home/menu button that always takes you back to where you can choose the media player, FM radio, phone calls, or settings functions.

The volume is controlled by rotating your finger around the face of the controller where the four corners buttons are placed. Rotating clockwise increases the volume and going counter-clockwise decreases the volume.

The media player controls let you control compatible media players (the Nokia media player and Windows Media Player worked fine on my devices). As I mentioned above you can control your media player using the four corner buttons.

The FM radio is a radio receiver found in the controller and has no relation to the device you may be connected to. You can select and designate favorite radio stations and listen to the radio on the go. It worked fine, but the signal didn't seem to be that strong and some stations came in a bit weak.

The phone call functionality allows you to place calls from your headset controller, as mentioned above in relation to the phonebook access profile.

The settings option lets you control display brightness, connection manager (you can see what devices you have in your Bluetooth profile for calls and music), auto keylock on or off, language, and reset to factory settings.

There are status icons for the Bluetooth radio, headset mode, media player status (playing, stopped, paused), and battery status. Caller ID and song ID also appear on the OLED display so you can decide whether to take or reject a call without even looking at your phone.

When I paired the BH-903 to my HTC Advantage X7510 a pop-up appeared telling me that the 903 wanted to access my contacts and did I want to allow this to happen. I then found out that the BH-903 talks to supported devices and I can actually view my call log right on the display of the BH-903 controller and access dialed, received, and missed calls without even touching my phone. I can then simply call the number by pressing in on the center action button. No contacts appeared when paired with an Apple iPhone.

The earbuds are round, but in the box Nokia included rather strange shaped (triangular) rubber covers. The package does include two pairs of foam covers for the earbuds, but in reality I found the rubber ones stayed in better and were actually quite comfortable. I did find that the neoprene neck rope slid down the headphone cable as I walked that then created a small pull on the earbud cable and was a bit of an issue. I found that if I pulled the earbud cable up a bit and pulled the controller up it bound less while moving. I will need to put the controller into a chest pocket though when running so it doesn't bounce around, but I think I have a nice Scott eVest shirt for that.

I connected the BH-903 to a Nokia N81 8GB so I could listen to Maroon V and other tunes to see how well the music sounded and have to admit I was surprised that I experienced clear music the entire time with no loss in the connection or static. Let me repeat this, I never experienced any skipping with this headset! If you have tried other Bluetooth stereo headsets you know that the functionality has been flawed in most due to poor audio performance and continuity. In the past, Bluetooth headsets I have tried and that others have reviewed have skipped parts of the song and if you can't stream seemlessly then A2DP and Bluetooth stereo is worthless. I was even able to walk out of the room, about 20 feet away, and experience flawless music performance. Callers stated that I sounded fine, although they did say they could tell I was on a headset. Incoming calls sounded very good too.

Nokia reports that the unit has 12 hours of talk time and 220 hours of standby time. That is more than most headsets and was great to see reported. I have been listening to quite a bit of music and making a few calls and the battery is still barely down at all.

The Nokia BH-903 Bluetooth headset has a suggested retail price of US$249.99, but can be found online for around US$180 and up. I love the connectivity options and functionality of the headset and the controller is quite good too. I think if you were going to use this on a bike or elliptical machine then it would work well, but if you are in an activity with lots of movement it may not be the best solution with the controller bouncing around.

Spracht Aura Mobile BT Bluetooth Conferencing speakerphone: I was contacted by Spracht to gauge my interest in testing out their Aura Mobile BT Bluetooth Conferencing speakerphone and even though it has been on the market for almost a year I decided to go ahead and evaluate it since I know many people are looking for good hands-free solutions. The Aura Mobile BT is a Bluetooth hands-free speakerphone, but you can also connect a cordless phone or a PC for VoIP calls. It is designed for in-car and office/home use so you can easily carry it from the car to your home/office and stay connected to your caller or use it for all your conference calling needs.

The box contains everything you need, including the Aura Mobile BT, A/C power adapter, car charger, phone cable (for cordless phones with headset jacks), VoIP cable, external microphone, User Guide, warranty/registration sheet, and a Quickstart brochure. The packaging is quite compact considering everything that is included. The Aura Mobile BT measures 5.5 inches x 3.125 inches x 1 inch thick and weighs 9 ounces. There are a couple of 1.5 inch speakers under the speaker cover on the front of the device that provide decent sound.

As you hold the device in your hand, you can see Bluetooth, Status, and Charge indicator lights along the top of the face that glow in blue, amber, and green, depending on the status. Below this and taking up the majority of the device are the two speakers with a solid grill over the top. On the left side just below half way down is the Bluetooth mode button (pairing, accept call, hang up call) that also serves to initiate voice dialing with compatible mobile phones (for example, it worked very well with the Nokia N82) and below this is the microphone mute button. On the right side just below half way down is the volume up button with the volume down button below this. On the bottom center of the face is the power on/off button.

I understood this device was designed for in car use, but at first I didn't see any method of attaching the Aura Mobile BT to my car dash or overhead. I then read in the manual and found that the visor clip is integrated into the bottom of the device. You simply insert your finger into the opening (found along the bottom back of the device) and pull the entire bottom down and away from the unit. This bottom piece then fits around your visor and secures the speakerphone in place. There is an external microphone that attaches to the 2.5mm input (located along the top outer edge) that also has a small clip so you can attach it to your visor. The power and line in jacks are also present along the top outer edge adjacent to the 2.5mm microphone port.

While you can connect the Aura Mobile BT to your Windows/Mac computer via the included cable or via Bluetooth to use the device as an external speaker and microphone for VoIP calls, I only tried this once with the cable and it worked well. My main intent for the device was as an in-car speakerphone. I attached it to my visor and connected it with a Nokia N82, N95-3, and HTC Advantage. It worked quite well and the volume was adequate, but I did have to turn off my stereo to hear the caller loud and clear. I also discovered that the Spracht Aura Mobile BT works very well as a podcast speaker when connected to a Nokia Nseries device because these S60 devices work well with audio out via Bluetooth. These mobile phones do have speakerphones, but the Aura Mobile BT provides a bit more volume and is versatile enough to be used with many different devices.

You can purchase the Aura Mobile BT for US$129.95 via the Spracht online store or starting at US$82 via other online retailers.

I don't make a ton of phone calls in the car and am pleased enough with a Bluetooth headset for my calling needs. However, if you make a lot of calls in your vehicle, then you may really appreciate something like this device that lets you talk hands-free in speakerphone mode while on the road.

So what solution(s) did I decided to implement?: After checking out these 5 hands-free solutions, my decision of which to use as my primary solution came down to one overall solution with two others being used depending on which device I had in hand. The new Aliph Jawbone impressed me more than I thought it would and is my preferred universal solution. I can hardly tell it is even on my ear and the sound quality has been great.

If I have a Nokia S60 device with me and want to listen to music, then the Nokia BH-903 rocks the house and is my preferred solution. I also like using this headset on the elliptical machine in combo with a Nseries device.

If the iPhone is in my hand and I want to listen to music or podcasts, then the Etymotic hf2 is my preferred solution.