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IT & Systems Management

Review: 3 Bluetooth headphones for travel, work and play

Whether you're in seat 24B flying to Cincinnati, getting some work done in your local coffee shop or toiling away in a cubicle farm, headphones are essential equipment if you don't want to bother -- or be bothered by -- those around you.

I decided to try out (for details, see the "How I tested" section) three recent Bluetooth headphones that were light enough to carry along with you, good enough so that you could enjoy your music and carry on a business conversation, and something other than stratospherically priced. I settled on the following:

These are actually three different types of headphones. The Audio-Technica QuietPoint unit is billed as in-ear headphones -- what many people call earbuds, but with more electronics than most of the cheap earbuds on the market. The Focus UC is a set of on-ear headphones; they rest on your ears without surrounding them. The Bose SoundLink II is more traditional; as over-the-ear headphones, they completely cover the ears. All three include built-in microphones, so they can be used for phone calls as well.

In today's busy and noisy environment, it's often helpful -- in fact, liberating -- to be able to shut out the world and use your favorite music to help you concentrate. These headphones offer the freedom to listen to your favorite audio tracks without disturbing others, while being ready to take or make a call.

Audio-Technica ANTH-ANC40BT QuietPoint

The Audio-Technica in-ear QuietPoint headphones are seductively small, light and inexpensive.

At only 1.2 oz., the QuietPoint headphones, $185 (Amazon price), are featherweight compared to the 7-oz. SoundLink II or the 5.4-oz. Voyager Focus UC. They come with a drawstring bag, a USB charging cable (but no AC adapter) and a micro-USB-to-headphone jack cable so that you can use them with non-Bluetooth devices. They also include an old-style double-jack airline headphone adapter.

Audio-Technica

Audio-Technica ANTH-ANC40BT QuietPoint

On its website, Audio-Technica describes QuietPoint as headphones, but since the earpieces go into the ear, they're probably better classified as a set of upgraded earbuds. The device has a neckband that holds the electronics; at each end of the band is a 2.5-in.-long module and a thin 9.5-in. cable that connects each earbud.

The left module has the system's microphone and controls. There's a prominent power button for turning it on and pairing it to a phone, tablet or PC as well as an LED. There are also buttons for increasing and decreasing the volume, taking a call and turning the noise-cancellation circuit on and off. It uses a micro-USB port for charging the battery.

The QuietPoint headphones come fitted with medium-size silicone ear inserts along with a small bag containing sets of extra small, small and large inserts. Once I had the right size, I found that the earbuds stayed in, even if I shook my head. The unit felt light and the buds fit well, but I found it hard to get used to the neckband.

Getting the QuietPoint connected via Bluetooth took about two minutes. You have to hold the main button down for at least 10 seconds to put them into pairing mode; the LED blinks red and blue to show that the headphones are ready to pair. Pairing worked on the first try with all of my devices. On the downside, their range was limited to 25 feet, the shortest of the group.

Audio quality

With the ability to reproduce audio between 20 and 24,000 hertz, the QuietPoint headphones' sound quality was adequate, with surprisingly strong reproduction of spoken word programming and percussion in classical music. However, treble tones were over-accentuated so much that brass instruments were annoyingly hollow at times. And the headphones were lacking in the midrange tones, particularly when listening to rock, folk and jazz.

I tried the noise-cancellation feature, but couldn't discern any difference -- perhaps because earbuds don't do as good a job as on-ear or over-the-ear devices in isolating the user's hearing from the environment.

I was not impressed with the quality of the phone calls I made. Of the three it was the least loud, and voices on both ends of the conversation were distorted and weak. At times, phone calls sounded like they originated in a shower.

One place where the QuietPoint headphones excel is in battery life. In testing, they achieved 10 hours and 10 minutes of continuous playback with interruptions every hour to talk on the phone. That's 10 minutes longer than the SoundLink II and more than two hours longer than the Voyager Focus UC.

On the downside, there's only a single blinking-light warning when you're almost out of power -- too late to help if you're on the road.

Bottom line

The QuietPoint headphones are the least expensive, the lightest and the longest lasting of the three audio devices I tested. However, their audio quality was not rich enough for my taste.

Bose SoundLink II

Bose is known for its audio quality and the SoundLink II headphones didn't disappoint, even though they are (for Bose) relatively inexpensive.

Bose

Bose SoundLink II

Made of hard plastic, the SoundLink II, $280 (vendor price), feel sturdy and well-made; they are available in blue and black or white and brown color schemes. The package includes a travel case, charging cable and a headphone cable for use with devices that aren't equipped with Bluetooth.

Despite their 7 oz. weight, the headphones felt surprisingly light and airy on my head and stayed put when I bent over, shook my head or sneezed.

The inside of each ear cup is marked "R" or "L" for easy identification; a replacement set of the protective pads costs $25. The back of the right cup has the SoundLink II's power switch and microphone, while along the edge of the cup there are buttons for raising and lowering the volume, as well as a control key that lets you switch between music and phone modes. I found all the controls to be easy to figure out and use.

On the bottom of the right cup is the headphone's micro-USB port for charging. The left cup has a standard headphone jack for using the SoundLink II as wired headphones with the included cable.

Unlike the other devices reviewed here, the Soundlink II headphones offer two ways to connect through Bluetooth. First, you can put them into pairing mode by holding down the power switch after you've turned the unit on; this took about 90 seconds.

If your tablet or phone has Near Field Communications (NFC) built in, you can also tap the phone or tablet on the back of the right cup and the connection is made. It worked like a charm with my Galaxy S6 and took all of 20 seconds.

Once paired, the SoundLink II headphones were able to stay connected for 40 feet before their audio started to break up, slightly shorter than the Voyager Focus UC's range. They automatically reconnected when I got back in range.

The unit has a computer-generated voice that tells you the battery strength, when you're ready to pair and when you're paired.

Bose has a free Connect app for iOS and Android devices that lets you monitor what devices are paired to the SoundLink II headphones. The app shows the battery level, gives step-by-step pairing instructions and shows what device the headphones are currently paired to.

Audio quality

Bose does not publish its frequency response range, but the SoundLink II's audio balance was the best of the three devices reviewed here, offering full midrange tones without losing audio details. String sections were sharp and vivid, while percussion segments were strong without booming, and guitar work was rich and lively. More to the point, the SoundLink II delivered the best audio experience of the three, regardless of whether I was listening to classical, folk or jazz.

SoundLink II's microphone is in the right cup and produced much more volume during phone calls than either the QuietPoint or Voyager Focus UC; Bose's headphones also had excellent and balanced audio that sounded even better than my phone.

Oddly for a company that is known for its active noise-reduction technology, the SoundLink II headphones aren't equipped with active noise-reduction. However, I found that the ear pads effectively muffled most outside noise, effectively isolating me from the environment. In fact, putting them on with nothing playing quieted everything significantly.

The battery lasted for 10 hours of continuous music with hourly stops to make calls. That's 10 minutes shorter than the QuietPoint, but several hours longer than the Voyager Focus UC.

The device has a rudimentary battery gauge: The battery logo glows green when the unit is fully charged and then changes to amber at 50%; it blinks red when you have about 15 minutes left.

Bottom line

From audio quality to phone calls, the SoundLink II headphones put it all together with style and grace.

Plantronics Voyager Focus UC

With their desktop charging stand and included USB Bluetooth dongle, the Plantronics Voyager Focus UC headphones are a good choice for business users, either in or away from the office.

Plantronics

Plantronics Voyager Focus UC

At 5.4-oz., the Voyager Focus UC headphones, $300 (vendor price), weigh less than the SoundLink II. The flexible headband can be twisted, but pops right back into shape. The on-the-ear headphones, which are covered with leatherette pads, were comfortable enough but felt loose on my head; if I bent over or sneezed, I felt as if they would fall off (and they actually did a couple of times).

The desktop stand makes charging much easier. Just slip the ear cup with the microphone into the stand and the device begins to charge, although the stand's blue light doesn't change. The headphones are road-ready as well, with a micro-USB port for charging.

The Voyager Focus UC headphones also come with a travel case and a USB Bluetooth adapter for use with an older PC. Because they come with the Bluetooth dongle, Plantronics apparently felt that a USB-to-audio-in cable (or port) was not necessary.

The basic black color scheme is interrupted by a flat orange cable that is visible on either side of the padded part of the headband. You can replace the leatherette ear cushions for $10. They're not marked for right and left because the Voyager Focus UC's microphone is on a boom that can rotate between right and left orientation. In other words, it's ambidextrous.

On the same side with the boom is the power switch: press it to power up the headphones and push it further in to start the pairing sequence. There's also a call button for going between music listening and phone use. In the middle of the outer ear cup, there is a series of LEDs that show the charge level and signals the headphones' readiness to pair.

The other ear cup has a volume dial and controls for play/pause and moving tracks forward and back. There's also a switch at the bottom for turning on the Voyager Focus UC's noise-reduction circuit.

A computer-generated voice tells you when the headphones are ready to pair as well as the charge level. It took about two minutes to pair the unit with each of my devices.

The Voyager Focus UC was the long distance champ of the three reviewed here -- I was able to stay connected 45 feet from the source. This can help while in the office where you can walk around and still listen to your tunes and stay on a call.

The headphones are able to reproduce audio between 20 and 20,000 hertz. However, to my ears, the sound wasn't quite as good as the SoundLink II, with an overall flat response that rang hollow at times. In some classical pieces, the percussion got lost and rarely did the midrange tones shine through.

On the other hand, they are good for phone conversations. With three microphones in the Voyager Focus UC's boom, they delivered good, accurate sound to the other end of the conversation, although it wasn't quite as loud as the SoundLink II, and several times the voice faded out. The boom's base has a handy mute button.

The Voyager Focus UC headphones can do more than transmit your voice -- they have what Plantronics calls OpenMic mode, where they pick up and send the area's ambient sounds to the speakers in case you need to hear what a co-worker is saying.

Also useful is Mute Alert, which senses that you're talking when you've muted the microphone and reminds you that the microphone is off. You set it up via the Plantronics Hub application for Windows or OS X.

The system's noise-reduction system is easy to turn on and off, but when I tried it, it had little effect on outside environmental noises. It did make the audio louder, though.

The Voyager Focus UC ran for 7 hours and 40 minutes on a charge, several hours less than either the QuietPoint or the SoundLink II.

Bottom line

The Voyager Focus UC headphones are (by a less-than-significant $20) the most expensive headphones of the three reviewed. However, their many useful features, long range and excellent microphone makes them a good companion for work.

Conclusions

Bluetooth headphones need to do double duty, delivering high-quality audio for listening to audio while being ready for the weekly conference call. All three headphones can fulfill this at home, at work and on the road, but in testing, I found that each had its compromises.

The Audio-Technica QuietPoint headphones are small, light and less expensive than the others. They can run for a full workday (or intercontinental flight) on a charge, but their range is relatively limited, so you'll need to keep your audio source close at hand. Their audio was flat and the microphone sounded the worst of the three.

By contrast, the Voyager Focus UC headphones have a lot of useful features and a boom with three microphone elements that can be adjusted for the best position. They sounded better for calls and come with a handy desktop charging stand. On the downside, the Voyager only lasted 7 hours and 40 minutes on a charge and the audio lacked the richness of the SoundLink II.

Despite being bulky and relatively heavy, Bose's SoundLink II headphones are standouts. They lasted for 10 hours on a charge and delivered the most vibrant and rich sound of the three units tested. In fact, the more I listened, the more I liked them.

3 Bluetooth headphones: Features

Audio-Technica ANTH-ANC40BT QuietPoint Bose SoundLink II Plantronics Voyager Focus UC
Type In-ear Over-ear On-ear
Mic location Neck band Right ear cup Adjustable boom
Weight 1.2 oz. 7.0 oz. 5.4 oz.
Controls Power, volume, play/pause/calls, noise cancellation Power, volume, play/pause/calls Power, volume, play/pause/calls, track forward/back, noise reduction, mute/OpenMic
Noise reduction Yes No Yes
NFC No Yes No
Cable connection to device Yes Yes No (includes Bluetooth dongle)
Battery life (hr:min)* 10:10 10:00 7:40
Price $185 retail $280 direct $300 direct
*Playing audio continuously plus one 10-min. call

How I tested

For more than a month, I lived, worked and traveled with these headphones, listening to music or the news, making calls and even watching the occasional movie. I tried them out with three difference devices: a Samsung Galaxy S6 smartphone, an Apple iPad Pro and a Microsoft Surface Pro 3.

I tried out the features and controls of each pair. I wore each for at least an hour and made notes as to their comfort, how loud they got and how easy the controls were to use.

I connected each to the Galaxy S6, made several business phone calls and left several messages on my office's voice mail system. Afterwards, I listened to the recordings for volume, background noise, static and the vocal tonal quality.

In addition to general listening, I cued up three specific segments for comparison. I started with the Surface Pro 3 playing the Grateful Dead's "Uncle John's Band" from a CD, due to its rich midrange tones and sharp percussion, especially the guiro playing in the background that some sound systems either muffle or miss. Along the way I listened for the headphones' dynamic range and spatial imaging.

Next, I connected to the iPad Pro and fired up the rendition of the Mars movement of Holst's "The Planets" symphony (the James Levine version with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra). Here, I listened for slow increase in volume at the start, followed by the surging orchestral strings and brass. About two-thirds of the way through, I paid particular attention to the imaging of the kettledrums.

Still using the iPad Pro, I watched the opening 15 minutes of Finding Fela, a film about the Afropop musician Fela Kuti that contains interviews and samples of his music. I watched for sound synchronization with the speakers as well as the tonal qualities of the saxophone playing and the sharp edge of the percussion.

To test the active noise control function, I used a recording of people talking in an office played through a pair of speakers nearby. I then turned the noise reduction circuit on and off to see if it had any effect.

Finally, I timed how long it took to drain the battery of each by playing music continually and making a 10-minute call every hour. I repeated this three times and averaged the results.

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