The problem with any earphones or headphones, either the free ones that come with your cellphone/music player or the replacement ones you (should) buy, is the cable. It will get tangled whether you're wearing the buds or not – but especially when you're not, it gets snared on clothes or whatever when you are wearing it, and as they dangle about your person, it gets in the way of removing outer garments or getting into your pocket or backpack, and isn't exactly fashion forward.
Bluetooth stereo headsets seem to solve this tangled cord problem – it's their whole raison d'être.
For the last month or so I've been playing with what I consider to be the best three in-ear Bluetooth headphones:
JayBird BlueBuds X ($170)
Plantronics BackBeat GO ($80)
Why these three? They are a fairly new kind of Bluetooth headset, small in-ear buds on a short two-foot cord, almost as light as wired ear buds. When you're not using them, you can drape them comfortably around your neck.
Bluetooth headphone pro/cons
But while these and other Bluetooth stereo earphones solve the tangled cord problem, they introduce three other problems:
- Power: Unlike wired headsets, Bluetooth headphones require power. These buds will provide 4-8 hours of music listening or chatting, and last 5-10 days on standby. Such short battery life means you'll have to remember to plug them in to recharge along with your smartphone every night. If you're not anal retentive or OCD about recharging, you may find yourself without headphones. You never have to worry about wired headphones running out of power.
- Pairing: You just can't "plug-in" a pair of Bluetooth earphones into a smartphone or music player. Bluetooth earpieces and headphones have to wirelessly "paired" to your smartphone or music player so they can talk to each other. But just because they're paired doesn't mean they're connected. Once paired with a device they stayed paired, but each time you want to use your Bluetooth earphones you have to make sure they're connected. In all three cases, simply pushing a button on the earphones connects them – you'll hear a "ping!" or a vocal confirmation that the phones are connected. But, these are still extra steps you don't have to worry about with wired buds.
- Connectivity: For me, without a physical connection, I lose the absolute certainty that the connection will be stay consistent. Every once in a while, the connection burps and I think to myself "I wouldn't have to worry about this with wired headsets." In some cases, if the connection isn't as solid as it ought to be, you have to un-pair them and pair them again.
Which are the best Bluetooth earphones?
It's funny, but this is one case where you get what you pay for.
The JayBird BlueBud Xs are the class of the three. Music sounds slightly brighter and crisper on the JayBird than the Plantronics and far sharper than the comparatively muddy Outdoor Technologys. JayBird also provide plenty of volume although not a lot of bass, but that's to be expected.
For conversation, voices are louder and more natural on the JayBirds than on the Plantronics BackBeat GOs (although the JayBirds tended to distort if the volume was too high). Voices on the Plantronics tended toward the warbly, but were, in turn, superior to the tinny and scratchy conversation on the Outdoor Technology.
Fit-wise, both the JayBirds and Plantronics come with "wings" you attach to the buds that secure their fit within your ear lobes, especially helpful if you wear them while running. I found all three to be pretty comfortable and secure, with or without the wings.
All three include integrated microphones so you can conduct hands-free Bluetooth phone calls; only the JayBirds and Plantronics include in-line volume/iPhone music controls (I didn't test them with an Android phone, but few wired earphones with in-line controls can manipulate the music player in an Android phone). The volume control on the Outdoor Technologys are on the right earpiece.
Each managed to interact with iPhone's Siri without incident, but how well Siri understood depended much on ambient noise levels. None of the three worked with Siri as I sauntered down crowded Manhattan streets.
JayBird also wins on battery life – a whopping (comparatively speaking) 8 hours of music/talk time and 250 hours (more than 10 days) of standby. Plantronics offers just 4 hours of music listening time, 4.5 hours of talk time and 10 days of standby, the Outdoor Technology 5 hours of music, 6 hours of talk and 120 hours of standby. I found nothing while using them that disputes these ratings.
A Bluetooth headset icon on the on-screen status row of the iPhone visually indicates remaining power for both the JayBirds and the Plantronics.
Both the JayBirds and the Plantronics advertise themselves to be moisture resistant, plus the JayBirds carry a lifetime guarantee. And the packaging on the JayBirds is particularly fancy and include a hardshell carrying case.
You charge both the JayBird and the Plantronics via a smartphone-standard microUSB jack; the Outdoor Technologies charges via a miniUSB jack, but not any miniUSB jack I've ever run across. (and I've misplaced the charging jack, damn it.)
Finally, if you're fashion conscious, the JayBirds and Plantronics are each available in black or white (even though the JayBirds are called "Blue" Buds), the Outdoor Technologys in black, white and blue.
Your choice seems to boil down to the JayBird BlueBud X and the Plantronics BackBeat GOs. The JayBird reproduce music slightly better, voices much better and last twice as long for music listening. But are the JayBird worth more than twice the price of the Plantronics?
That's more of an affordability than a technical question. If $180 seems a bit pricy, you won't be unhappy with the Plantronics BackBeat GOs. But even with the tangles, I still prefer no-power-needed corded ear buds.