Saturday, May 30, 2009

Battle of the Bluetooth headsets

New cell phone headsets promise to reduce background noise and improve clarity -- but not always both.

Forget the smartphone wars. The Bluetooth market is heating up with a showdown between cell phone headsets that reduce background noise and those that pledge to make inbound calls sound clearer than ever.

Aliph, maker of the popular Jawbone, and Plantronics unveiled new high-end headsets in April. Aliph's latest entry, Jawbone Prime, incorporates new sensor technology to filter noise from honking cars, barking dogs and howling winds. Plantronics' new Voyager Pro also packs noise-canceling and wind noise reduction features, but it is particularly focused on improving what the company calls inbound audio, i.e., the person on the other end of the line.

Thanks in part to the increasing ubiquity of cell phones, the Bluetooth accessories market is holding up despite the economic slowdown. ABI Research analyst Jonathan Collins estimates that 1.5 billion Bluetooth radios will ship this year. Most of those units (more than 60 percent) are built into cell phones themselves. Headsets make up the next largest group, at just under 20 percent.

Plantronics says it will draw consumers' attention to the differences between the two headsets in a marketing campaign. It has already recorded audio files that represent conversations made on the Voyager Pro and competing Jawbone products. Aliph, in turn, says the Prime trumped devices from Plantronics, Motorola and BlueAnt in recent tests.

Plantronics is the country's No. 2 wireless cellular headset maker after Motorola, according to the NPD Group, whose data don't include sales from carrier stores. Aliph ranks No. 4, after Jabra.

Better headsets are on the way. A faster type of Bluetooth, commonly referred to as Bluetooth 3.0, is expected to crop up in gadgets by the end of the year or early 2010. Though primarily geared toward data applications, 3.0 should improve headset use by improving power management and reducing dropped connections, says Collins. Like Wi-Fi and mobile broadband, Bluetooth is also making its way into other devices and applications, including notebooks and cars.

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