August 27, 2008

U.S. Widens Headset Rule for Drivers

By Susan Stellin

With California and Washington joining Connecticut, New Jersey and New York banning drivers from holding cellphones for safety reasons, business travelers to the United States have one more gadget to pack when they visit certain states: a headset.

For those in the market for a hands-free device, the good news is that the technology has improved significantly, particularly in Bluetooth products that allow a cordless connection between an earpiece and a phone.

The bad news is that the cost of higher-end headsets has risen in tandem with those technical enhancements, with prices from $100 to $130 at the top end and $15 to $20 for low-end models.

Yet even the costliest headsets do not necessarily match the sound quality of talking directly into a cellphone, and all of the devices can be awkward to wrangle, particularly for those uncomfortable with the device as a fashion statement. Finding the headset in a purse or a pocket, settling the earbud into place and pushing the right button are just a few of the tasks that complicate answering a call.

"It's like anything else: Once you've gotten used to a headset, it becomes second nature," said Mike Faith, chief executive of a retailer, "But at first it feels funny."

Faith said only 8 percent of the headsets that the company now sells have cords, with preferences shifting to Bluetooth models. Bluetooth actually refers to the technology standard that allows various devices to communicate wirelessly, but Faith said, "The word has almost become synonymous with cellphone headset."

Headsets have also become smaller, lighter and more advanced in sound quality, with features including technology that adjusts the volume depending on the noise level.

"It recognizes that you're in a noisy environment, so it automatically raises the volume for you," said Dan Race, a spokesman for Plantronics, a headset maker that incorporates the technology into its higher-end products.

Plantronics has been selling Bluetooth headsets since 2000, when its original model weighed about 0.9 ounce, or 25 grams. The top of the company's line is the Discovery 925, which weighs about 0.25 ounce and retails for $120.

Matt Baker, vice president for marketing with GN Netcom, which makes Jabra headsets, said manufacturers had tried to tailor products to customers. Stereo headsets that work for phone calls and music appeal to younger customers, Baker said, whereas the Jabra BT4010 has a display showing the headset's battery level, a feature that business travelers who make long calls appreciate.

Style has also come into play lately, with companies trying to create headsets that look more like fashion accessories than marketers' tools.

For instance, the tag line for the Discovery 925 is "Look good, sound better," and promotional materials for the Jawbone headset made by Aliph proclaim that "It's Not a Headset - It's Earwear." Each device looks more like a money clip attached to an earbud than a headset.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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