Walt Mossberg

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Personal Technology

Cellphone Headsets With Less Bulk, Background Noise

(See Corrections & Amplifications item below.)

Wireless cellphone earpieces can make people look faintly ridiculous as they stroll down the street or around the office, seemingly talking to themselves with ugly appendages sprouting from their heads. The pulsing blue lights on these things can make people look like robots. And these battery-powered gadgets, which use a power-hungry wireless technology called Bluetooth, are just one more thing to charge.

But such headsets are becoming more necessary, at least in the car. A growing number of cities and states are requiring all calls made while driving be conducted in a “hands-free” manner. Two more big states, California and Washington, will begin enforcing such laws in July. Unless drivers in these places have cars with costly built-in Bluetooth speakers and microphones, many will turn to wireless earpieces to make calls legally.

Now, two of the most important wireless earpiece makers are bringing out new models that attempt to make their products more attractive and functional. One is a new version of the Jawbone, which has become a leader in the high-priced end of the market. The other is a new model from Plantronics (PLT), which vies with Motorola (MOT) as the top seller of wireless earpieces.

I’ve been testing both the new $130 Jawbone, and the $150 Plantronics Discovery 925, and both work well, despite some drawbacks. Each worked properly with both an inexpensive Motorola Razr phone from Verizon (VZ) and a sophisticated Apple (AAPL) iPhone from AT&T (T). But I preferred the Jawbone, because of its technology and design.

The new Jawbone, made by a closely held San Francisco company called Aliph, is 50% smaller than the original Jawbone, which I reviewed in 2006. It continues to boast the original Jawbone’s signature feature: a remarkable ability to suppress background noise and isolate the wearer’s voice.

Jawbone performs this feat by using a sensor that touches your skin lightly to identify your voice through the vibration of the bones in your face. Using this information, its microphone can more easily distinguish your voice from background noise, and accurately suppress the latter.

This feature, originally called “Noise Shield” and now theatrically renamed “Noise Assassin,” really works. When the company first showed off the original Jawbone, it made live calls standing in front of things like weed whackers and boom boxes, and then turned the bone-sensing feature on and off to show the dramatic difference.

Aliph's new Jawbone
Aliph’s new Jawbone

In my tests of the new, much smaller Jawbone, I stood a few feet from a roaring vacuum cleaner, while on a phone call. The person I was calling could barely hear me with Noise Assassin turned off, but could clearly make me out when I turned it on.

By contrast, the Plantronics Discovery failed my noise test. It was useless anywhere near the vacuum cleaner. This was obviously an extreme case, but it served as a stand-in for other loud noises likely to be encountered in real life, like large trucks, or construction gear on the streets.

The biggest flaw in the original Jawbone, in my 2006 tests, was its performance in wind, which was poor. The Jawbone did much better in my latest tests. During a Jawbone call from a car with all the windows down and the sunroof open, my voice was easy to make out, according to the person I was calling. The new Plantronics earpiece did just as well in this wind test.

Plantronics claims its headset also enhances the voice of the person you are calling, a claim Aliph doesn’t make for the Jawbone. But, while voices sounded fine on the Plantronics, I couldn’t detect any difference between the two on that score.

Both gadgets are meant to be more stylish, and both will be available in multiple colors. But, while the Jawbone is just a smaller iteration of its original slab-like form, Plantronics has done something more radical with the Discovery 925: It has tried to make it look like jewelry. The Discovery’s electronics are housed in the diamond-shaped portion of the device that goes on the ear, and the microphone sits at the end of a long, V-shaped boom that is open in the center. Plantronics says the design is suitable for both genders, but admits it is a bit more aimed at women and at fashion-conscious men.

I believe some men wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing this new Plantronics model. It’s also longer than the Jawbone. But I did find it more comfortable to wear, since it doesn’t protrude as much into the ear.

The Plantronics claims longer talk time — five hours vs. four hours for the Jawbone, but the Jawbone claims longer standby time — eight days, vs. seven days for the Plantronics. The Jawbone weighs more, at 10 grams, compared with 8 grams for the Plantronics, but neither felt heavy on my ear.

I did prefer the Plantronics’ controls over the Jawbone’s. The former uses obvious buttons, while the latter employs unmarked, hidden buttons whose location you have to learn by touch.

Both of these earpieces do the job, but if you have to choose one, I’d pick the Jawbone.

Corrections & Amplifications:

The Aliph Jawbone cellphone earpiece weighs 10 grams, and the Plantronics Discovery 925 earpiece weighs 8 grams. An earlier version of this column erroneously reported the products’ weights in ounces.