Bluetooth Headsets: Style vs. Function

Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura, the original wireless headset goddess Let me lay before you a simple premise; people who habitually wear a wireless headset in public are often viewed as Geeky, Nerdy or very possibly even Dorky. The trouble isn’t the technology, but rather the question of its use, and abuse in various circumstances. Whether wearing such a headset is socially acceptable depends largely upon situational context. I’ve mentioned this once before.

To wear a wireless headset is most often a matter of convenience, only occasionally a matter of necessity. I accept that there are states where such tools are mandated for use while driving. I applaud such laws, and further think that a driver should not be allowed to operate a cell phone in any manner while a car is in motion.

Actually, I suspect that such headset laws are the result of intense lobbying by a secret cartel formed by the world’s leading headset manufacturers. It seems fairly obvious to me that Plantronics, Jabra, Motorola and maybe Jawbone form a kind of headset-axis-of-something-or-other.

Seriously, someone should look into this.

As ever, I digress.

I think that we can agree there is an inescapable dorkiness about wearing a cordless headset. This happens even as very large headsets for listening to music have recently become trendy in some circles.  It’s more than a little paradoxical.

Bluetooth headsets are in and of themselves a curious little technological niche. Rarely do we find an area of technology that gives up so much of its potential performance in the interest of appearance or fashion. At the same time, we see manufacturers making great claims about the technological sophistication contained in their products. I’m left wondering how the forces of fashion vs. function are balanced in these devices?

The defining thing about the performance of a headset, whether wired or wireless, is how well it conveys the voice of the user. The user, assumed being humanoid,  the voice most typically emanates from the front of the head. Oh, the throat and chest are involved a bit, but most of the energy is presented at the mouth.

Harkening back to time spent in recording studios, the very best way to capture the sound of the any acoustic instrument is to place microphone very near the instrument.  Indeed, when we see performers live on-stage they are usually immediately in front of the microphone.

countryman_e6_headset_mic_e6xo_large_combined Sometimes the microphone is head-worn, not unlike a headset for telephony applications. In recent years during trade shows I use a Countryman E6 head-worn microphone when making presentations.

This microphone (pictured right, no that’s not me) is a brilliant bit of engineering. It’s breathtakingly small, and places the microphone element at the very corner of the wearers mouth. Offered in flesh color paint the Countryman is inconspicuous, essentially invisible to the audience. It’s widely used by performers the world-over.

The placement of the microphone element near the mouth means that the voice is the strongest sound that the microphone receives. Background noises are sensed at a much lower level by the microphone, which means that they are much less prominent than my voice as heard through the amplified speakers.

The same holds true on-stage or in the studio. The best way to get a very clean recording is to close-mic the instrument, avoiding leakage between different instruments or the ambience of the room.

To be plain about it; the very best way to reduce background noise is to simply avoid it in the first place!

Returning to the theme of telephony, earlier this year Mashable ran an article offering a summary what they suggest are the five best Bluetooth cordless headsets. All are noteworthy models from well established manufacturers.

Without exception, the five models mentioned place the element that performs the voice pickup at the very side of the users head. This because the body of the headset will be mounted to the users ear, and there seems some unspoken imperative that the headset be as small and inconspicuous as possible.

Not one of their recommended models use any kind of mic boom or sound tube to more directly sense the sound of the user. Instead of using a preferred microphone placement they leverage various kinds of DSP trickery to enhance the sound picked up near the users ear.

Can you imagine a singer on stage holding a microphone pointed to her ear? Or a mixing engineer saying, “it’s ok cuz I have this WunderMic XR-1000 DSP unit that kinda suppresses the spill from the guitar amps & drums!” That sounds like a line from the movie, “Roadie.”

My favorite headsets have generally been designs that had some kind of sound tube or boom mounted microphone element. While not wireless, the Sony TL-DREX150 was very elegant in that the sound pickup was a slender, black plastic tube.

Part of Sony’s WISP.EAR series, this headset sounded very good to the party at the far-end, while being extremely light and comfortable to wear. Certain aspects of that headsets design were derived from Sony’s experience making a very successful range of in-ear style noise reduction headsets.

savi_office_wo100-220 The Plantronics Savi Go, a wireless Bluetooth headset, has a rigid boom that reaches nearly to the corner of the mouth. This also provides very direct pickup of the voice, resulting in high-quality audio.

The trouble is that the Savi Go is a little on the dorky side of headset fashion. It seems that, being targeted at enterprise UC users, the set of compromises embodied in it’s design favored performance over aesthetics. It’s great for use in the office, but is seldom seen in the wild.

We can bring this matter a little closer to home for SOHO users by considering the headsets commonly used in business call centers. Essentially all call center headsets, which are typically wired, have a mic boom or tube that provides close to the mouth, direct audio pickup. Smart call center operators know that it’s imperative that their staff communicate clearly, regardless of the background noise present in the working environment.

Even given that fact, there have been times when I’ve been called by someone obviously working in a call center where there was a lot of background noise. In such cases I could hear the sound of neighboring operators making their pitch.

That background noise seriously reduced the likelihood that I was even going to let the operator tell me what he/she was offering. Their chances of success would have been much improved if I had heard their voice in isolation, and not given the impression that I was being targeted by some large, nasty, call center operation.

plantronics-M1100-Savor-200 A recent review of the Plantronics M1100 Savior headset noted that it has three (!) separate microphones that are used to implement complex DSP-based background noise reduction. I wonder how such technology compares to the simpler approach of using a more optimal microphone placement?

My own experience in the recording realm tells me that no amount of electronic magic, once called “fixing it in the mix,” can fully overcome the simple reality of poor mic placement. Capturing the source directly is key to getting superior audio.

Further, DSP chips require power. Sophisticated noise reduction requires significant compute power, which means a using bigger battery and/or reduced battery life.

Elsewhere in the scope of human activity headsets provide proper mic placement, preferring audio performance over the aesthetics of appearance. Consider the headset worn by a pilot, or their counterparts in the air traffic control tower. Clearly those are specialized cases…or are they?

How important is it that the other person hears you clearly when you make a call using your cell phone? How important is it that they feel that you’re giving them your full attention? Will they be distracted by the ambient noise of your surroundings? Will that impact your ability to state your case, make the sale, or convince your spouse that you really are on your way home?

As you can tell, I’ve been thinking a lot about headsets lately. I have a couple new models that I’ve been trying in recent weeks. The big question that they have presented is this;  Is it worth looking a little dorky if it means communicating better?

Is the question even relevant, given that most headset manufacturers seem to have offer aesthetically pleasing, if performance inhibited designs? Or perhaps, just maybe, that DSP trickery really is the equivalent of good microphone placement. I’m not yet convinced about that.

  • Great post but you need to acknowledge that there is a trade-off between portability and functionality. As a result, the office type headsets are generally higher quality than “cell phone” headsets because they can have longer booms and bigger batteries. A long boom just won’t last in a pocket or purse.

    Looks are important, but it comes in lower than some of the more critical requirements. Comfort being very high (and very hard to determine before purchase), sound quality (HD and noise cancellation) and durability are among the most important features for office workers in a recent study. Cell phone users also put heavy emphasis on comfort, but also rank features like A2DP as important.

    A feature I have not seen, and would like to see – esp on office headsets – is a spare battery. Cordless phones sometimes have a charger in the base and the batteries can be easily swapped. Cordless headsets are useless when the battery is dead and battery swaps are not simple nor is there an easy way to charge a spare battery.

    • Dave,

      You make some good points about convenience. I have a couple of wired headsets with booms that come with suitable carrying cases, and so have survived. One is the Plantronics .Audio 480.

      One of the new pair that I’ve been using recently, and will soon review, has a full length boom.

      The issues of comfort and batteries are very real. A user replaceable battery would be great, even if they don’t offer it as a swappable spare. With more costly models like the Savi Go the manufacturer will sometimes replace the headset for a fee when the built-in battery reaches unacceptably short runtime. I suspect it rarely happens as the user just discards the headset in favor of something new.

  • thinkdata

    have you checked out The Boom? http://www.theboom.com/ they use acoustic noise cancelling (instead of electronic). very impressive stuff. My old V4 got stuffed into my backpack running for planes one too many times, and I have been saving my pennies for another one (probably the Pro1). All of the models use the same mic – it is all about the form factor from there. #theboom