August 19, 2005

REVIEW: New Bluetooth Stereo Headphones

SAN FRANCISCO -- For my money, Bluetooth technology has long been little more than a spotty solution in search of problem. Getting rid of wires around the house is an admirable goal, but Bluetooth-enabled devices invariably cost a bit more, have limited range and require extra connectivity doodads that I've been unwilling pay for.

Until now.

In October, Plantronics Inc. (PLT) will start selling the Pulsar 590, a pair of rechargeable Bluetooth-enabled headphones. The company sent me a pair to try and suddenly I can't live without them.

They offer nice styling and killer sound quality extended over a range of about 50 feet from a small transmitter that can be connected to the miniplug audio output jack of any device.

The headphones cost $150 alone, $200 with the transmitter. Devices already compatible with new technology called Advanced Audio Distribution Profile, or A2DP, don't require the transmitter, but few such devices are on the market right now. More on that later.

After charging the headphones and the transmitter on a sleek silver base, I synchronized them by simultaneously holding down two buttons on the headphones. Blinking red and blue lights appear once the headphones were successfully paired with the transmitter.

I then plugged the transmitter into several devices for testing, starting with my DVD player. I cranked up one of my favorite monster flicks, "Deep Rising," and nestled onto the couch with the headphones on. The explosions, growls and gunshots sounded crystal clear, and I could crank up the volume without disturbing anyone.

Even better was my ability to do some loud Xbox gaming without worrying about my dog stepping on the cord and yanking it out of my ears.

The other day, I connected the transmitter to a small digital music player, pressed "play" and threw both into a backpack. I put on the headphones and went for a nice long walk, listening to tunes without worrying that my swinging arm or elbows would jerk some earbuds out of my ear.

And in an odd use of this device, I attached a small stereo signal splitter to my wife's music player and sent the sounds to both her headphones and my transmitter. As she sat in a park and listened to music on her earbuds, I played fetch with the dog nearby and listened to the same tunes via the Bluetooth headphones.

Geeky, sure, but it worked like a charm.

The battery life of the unit was outstanding, as was the sound quality. I fully charged the unit and started playing music at 9:45 a.m. one morning. I kept replaying and changing playlists, tweaking the volume up and down, and the headphones and transmitter were still going strong at 5:30 p.m.

The headphones have "track forward" and "track back" buttons that serve little purpose for now. But they will, Plantronics says, once more device manufacturers begin to incorporate the aforementioned A2DP technology.

When that happens, users should have better control over headphones like these because they won't have to fiddle with the player to switch songs. Some industry analysts expect widespread adoption of this technology over the next few years, but right now the pickings are slim to none, and none of my devices supports it.

Nonetheless, Plantronics has done an outstanding job with these headphones, effectively streamlining the experience of sound - sans wires.


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Ron Harris be reached at reharris(at)ap.org