Wireless headset designs

by Volker Weber

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Apple is about to drop the 3.5mm headphone jack from the next iPhone, or so we hear. Whoever makes wireless headsets should be happy about that. As a customer however, you have to weigh your options. Traditional over-the-ear or on-ear headsets works just the same as with a cable and they offer all-day battery life.

With in-ear headsets however, there are many different designs, and all manufacturers offer a wide range of options. Since I will be talking about different products in the next weekswe should talk designs and concepts first.

Completely wireless: This is the new thing. Two earbuds, no cable. The challenge is the wireless link. Phones or watches use Bluetooth to talk to the headset, but how do the earbuds talk to each other? They cannot both talk to the phone at the same time. So one of them is the endpoint for Bluetooth and then it talks to the other one. If you want to use Bluetooth to talk to the other one, there is an obstacle. Between those earbuds is a brain, which contains a lot of water. And that blocks Bluetooth radio. This is where some designs fail. Indoors you can bounce Bluetooth waves off the walls, but once you get outside it gets difficult. The Jabra Elite Sport just announced at IFA uses near field magnetic resonance technology found in hearing aids to overcome this obstacle.

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Connected earbuds: This is so far my favorite technology. One earbud talks to the other over a wire that runs behind your neck. The Jaybird Freedom seems to be the most advanced of those designs. The earbuds are extremely small, most of the electronics are inside the control unit on the cable. A few days ago I also started using the Samsung Elite Active which follows the same design pattern.

Both of those designs share one problem. To make them comfortable, the battery has to be tiny. Since they are meant to be worn during exercise, they only run three to four hours. The Jabra ear buds are stored in charging case which can top them off twice, which gives you a maximum of 3 + 6 hours. The Freedom earbuds have a small charger that can be attached to the headset and gives you 4 + 4 hours.

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Neckband-style: This is a very popular design in the US, which looked very weird at first but is getting refined. It puts the battery on your neck and thus lasts all day long for listening to music and making phone calls. The Jabra Halo Smart for instance lasts 17 hours on one charge. The technology is rather simple and those headsets are not expensive. You just don't want to use them for workouts. They provide one benefit over the other designs: you can wear just one ear bud for phone calls and both for music.

All of these designs share one problem: if you want bass, you need a good seal. Those small earbuds can only provide a full sound, if the sound waves don't escape from your ear. But if nothing escapes, nothing comes in. Passive noise cancellation is great when you want to be alone, but it's not so great if you can't hear a car coming from behind while riding a bicycle. There are two designs that mitigate this issue.

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Sports headset: the Plantronics Backbeat Fit is a good example for a sports headset that does not seal your ear. It works like the Apple earbuds but they don't fall out since they are held by an elastic band behind your head and around your ears. While they work reasonably well, I find them too uncomfortable to wear for an extended time. They may look a bit like the neckband headsets but they provide the exact opposite experience.

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Bone-conducting headset: Very similar in design to the sports headset, this particular design leaves your ears completely open. Yes, you read that right. There is nothing in your ear and you can hear everything like you were not wearing a headset at all. Instead those headset transmit the sound directly through your skull to the cochlea where you pick it up. I will be telling you about the Aftershokz Trek Titanium in a few days.

Comments

I own "The Dash" from Bragi and and the "Earin" from ... well... Earin.


The Dash uses near field magnetic resonance technology to communicate between the earplugs and it just works great. Battery life is acceptable, I haven´t been using the fitness stuff yet but I really love the Audio transparency feature and the spoken confimations. However, I´m still struggelignto find the right "ear sleeve" size which fits my ears well, makes them fit snug, but comfortable.
http://www.bragi.com/

The Earins are a lot smaller, sound is also great (it takes I while to find the right way to insert them into the ear canal), battery life is not as good as The Dash. The Earins are just plain headphones, no mic, no fitness nonsense. Biggest drawback of them is they tend to be unstable with the Bluetooth connection to the phone as well as the connection between the speaker (where, afaik, BT is used, too)
https://www.earin.com/

Bastian Anthon, 2016-09-04

Do you have any experience with the Bose QC35 headphones? They're wireless & I've read several reviews saying they finally made Bose noise cancelling headphones that sound great, which has always been the big dink on Bose. Interested in your thoughts.

Amy Blumenfield, 2016-09-04

Bose headsets are to travelers what Beats are to kids. A brand that is easily recognized.

The QC35 are OK. They are just terribly overpriced. Their ANC is second to none, their sound is not. But sound isn't everything. I often use headsets with less than stellar sound because they have other attributes that I currently like. Until I returned them Marshall Major II was a favorite headset of mine, because it was very compact.

If I spent many days in airplanes, I'd probably have a QC35. Since I don't, I prefer the Plantronics BackBeat Pro for sound, or the Voyager Focus for both sound and phone calls.

Volker Weber, 2016-09-04

I never see you review Bose headset or sound system ? maybe your not a fan of Bose ?

palmi Lord, 2016-09-05

You also never saw me review Beats headsets. ;-)

Volker Weber, 2016-09-05

Am I correct in assuming that if you are wearing glasses then the last two type would be somewhat problematic to wear ?

Tinus Riyanto, 2016-09-06

Hello Volker,

I've ordered the Teufel Move BT earbuds. They use bluetooth with a cable between the two earbuds. The battery should last for 20 hours (Teufel says so on their internet site).
The link: http://www.teufel.de/kopfhoerer/move-bt-p16096.html

Kind Regards,
Kai

Kai Kramhoeft, 2016-09-06

One missing option (which I like very much since I regularly destroy earbuds during exercise) are those bluetooth receivers you can put regular earbuds in, like the Sony SBH20.

Carsten Habicht, 2016-09-06

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