The Best Bluetooth Headset
The best Bluetooth headset should let you both send and receive calls, with crisp sound quality and enough battery life to get you through a full workday. Style is a personal preference: An in-ear piece lets you stay aware of your surroundings, while an on-ear headset helps block them out. But either design should be comfortable enough to wear for hours at a time.
A single earpiece, the Sennheiser is discreet, fits comfortably, and uses active noise cancellation (ANC) to block ambient noise and make it easier for whoever's on the other end of the line to hear your voice. It comes with a variety of gel ear tips so that you can find a shape that feels natural. ($200)
The Plantronics offers a comfortable headband with two ear cups for stereo sound. The headset uses active noise cancellation to reduce background noise, and since it covers both ears, it provides an additional layer of muffling ($300).
Jabra Talk 2
This $30 in-ear model lacks active noise cancellation, but it’s comfortable and provides decent sound quality. Calls just won’t be as clear in noisy environments.
The Best Bluetooth Headset
Bluetooth is a miracle for anyone who spends significant time on the phone. The best Bluetooth headset lets you make and receive calls while keeping your hands free to type or pour coffee. But picking the right model takes legwork: A quick Amazon perusal will turn up hundreds of headsets that make vague promises of superior sound quality and cutting-edge technology. There’s personal preference to factor in, too: Do you want a tiny in-ear model or a heavier — but more secure — headphone-like set? Is a low price important, or are you jonesing for a feature-rich headset with all the bells and whistles?
For an unobtrusive, single-ear headset, we like the Sennheiser Presence Business. It offers 10 hours of talk time on a single charge, and we found its active noise-cancellation technology effective at improving sound quality in noisy spaces. If you’re highly mobile and need to field calls in coffee shops, waiting rooms, or airport lobbies, we’d recommend this model. You can also upgrade to a model with Unified Communications (UC) compatibility, which makes it easy to transfer your call to another medium like Skype when you’re back at your desk.
The on-ear Plantronics Voyager Focus UC headset muffles your environment more, since it covers both your ears while also employing active noise cancellation. We’d recommend it for open office settings where you don’t need to be quite as alert to background noise and want to remove both your listener and yourself from constant, low-level chatter. We found them a bit more comfortable than the Sennheiser — if you’re on your phone all day, every day, on-ear models are probably your best option.
A budget model, the in-ear Jabra Talk 2 isn’t as high-tech as our other picks: No active noise cancellation here, which means call quality will drop in noisy environments. But the Talk 2 was the only sub-$100 headset that met our criteria for battery life and wireless range. If a bit of occasional static isn’t the end of the world, there’s no reason to spend more.
How We Found the Best Bluetooth Headsets
We began by gathering all the Bluetooth headset models that we could find, pulling from manufacturers’ pages plus Amazon listings. We only considered headsets designed to let you make and receive calls (if you’re more interested in listening to music, check out our favorite Bluetooth headphones instead). We also excluded Amazon listings from manufacturers without their own websites — this is often a signal of low-quality products from fly-by-night companies. We came up with a starting list of 42 Bluetooth headsets, ranging from $12 to over $400.
We cut any models with less than eight hours of talk time.
A standard business day is eight hours. Whether you regularly sit in on back-to-back meetings or work in a call center or help desk environment, a battery life any less than that can cause you to come up short before your day is over. So we cut all headsets that didn’t offer at least eight hours of talk time per charge. This eliminated 18 models.
BlueParrott Reveal Pro, Jabra Extreme2, Jabra Mini, Jabra Motion UC, Jabra Stealth UC, Jabra Steel, Jabra Talk, Motorola Boom, Plantronics Discovery 975, Plantronics Explorer 100 Series, Plantronics Explorer 500, Plantronics Marque 2 M165, Plantronics Voyager 3200 Series, Plantronics Voyager 5200 Series, Plantronics Voyager 5200 UC, Plantronics Voyager Edge, Plantronics Voyager Legend, Toorun M26 Bluetooth Headset
And those with a wireless range under 60 feet.
Bluetooth headsets work by connecting to a master device, like your cellphone or laptop, which transmits your call data. To avoid dropped conversations, the headset needs to maintain its signal to this master device.
Theoretically, if your headset is paired with your cellphone, this is never a problem: You can go anywhere as long as you keep your phone in your pocket. But if you work from home, or in a non-traditional office setting, there are plenty of scenarios in which you might want to move away from your master device. Maybe you just want the freedom to wander to the kitchen more easily, or to go outside while your phone or laptop stays safe in the office. One of our testers uses his headset while working on cars in his garage — he told us he likes the ability to leave his master device on a workbench where it can stay clean.
In short, we wanted our top picks to give people the freedom to maintain their preferred work habits without worrying about signal breakup. A 60-foot range is about the length of an average ranch-style house, giving you plenty of space for pacing and coffee breaks. We cut anything with a lower range, eliminating eight products.
BlueAnt Q3i, Gaoye R9 V4.1 HD Voice Control Bluetooth Wireless Headphones, Havit HV-H961BT, Mpow Pro Trucker Bluetooth Headset, Plantronics Explorer 80 Series, Plantronics M70, Stardrift Wireless Truck Driver Bluetooth Headset with Boom Microphone, Torondo V4.1
We looked into noise-reduction technology — and found that you get what you pay for.
If you frequently use your Bluetooth headset in a restaurant or cafe, moving car, or other noisy venue, the person at the other end of the line will find it hard to hear you without active noise-cancellation technology.
Headsets with ANC are equipped with extra microphones (in addition to the one that picks up your voice) that listen for ambient external noise, like the hum of voices in a coffee shop or the sound of heavy traffic. The headset processes this noise and creates a sort of mirror image of the sound waves — similar to a photo negative — that feeds into your speaker at almost the same instant as the original noise. This mirror image cancels out the ambient sounds, and the headset transmits only your voice, with possibly a faint hint of background noise.
ANC has limits: It works best with lower-frequency, steady noises like an air conditioner running in the background or a lawn mower outside your window. It’s not as good with uneven, staccato noises like a dog barking. It also raises the price of your headset — our $30 budget pick from Jabra is so cheap in part because it doesn’t offer active noise cancellation.
Although ANC makes it much easier for your call recipients to hear you, it doesn’t shield you from the noise. If you want to deaden the hubbub for your own sake, passive noise cancellation is a better bet. This term refers to the noise-deadening materials used in most over-the-ears headsets, and it's low-tech enough to be a lot cheaper than ANC.
We got up to speed on Unified Communications technology, but didn’t make it a requirement.
Another functionality found in some, but not all, of the best Bluetooth headsets is Unified Communications (UC) technology. This blanket term refers to the ability to use your headset for multiple communication channels — without additional third-party software (or swearwords) as you try to get your accounts to play nicely with each other. If you want your headset to switch frequently and easily between Skype, Lync, Jabber, VoIP, videoconferencing, and other communications services and abilities, you should look for UC technology.
That said, headsets with UC are usually more expensive, and not everyone needs or wants this functionality. Half of the models we tested included UC capabilities, and we paid attention to that in our ratings. But we didn’t limit our choices to just those headsets because, frankly, not everyone needs UC.
Finally, we took each of our finalists out for a spin.
At this point, we were left with only four brands — Plantronics, Jabra, Sennheiser, and BlueParrott — and 16 models. We ordered BlueParrot’s sole finalist, the VXi S450-XT, and from the other brands chose two to three models apiece, aiming for the widest range of price points and styles, from the $30 Jabra Talk 2 to the $400 Jabra Pro 9470.
- Plantronics Voyager 3200 UC
- Sennheiser PRESENCE™ Business
- Sennheiser PRESENCE™ UC
- Jabra Talk 2
- Jabra Evolve 75
- Jabra Pro 9470
- Plantronics Voyager Focus UC
- Sennheiser PRESENCE™ Business
Setup for most of the eight was straightforward. We paired our headsets to an Android phone; turning on each headset triggered it to look for Bluetooth-friendly devices in the area, and most used voice commands to let us know if the pairing was successful. We had trouble with BlueParrott, which required a good dozen attempts before we succeeded, but in most cases the initial configuration was quick.
Our testing team — a Bluetooth newbie at the calling end (Tester One), and a tech-savvy receiver at the other (Tester Two) — then assessed wireless range. Tester One made a call with each headset, leaving her cellphone in her office and walking away to monitor how far she could go before the signal began to break up. The Sennheiser Presence made it a full 60 feet, as did the Plantronics Voyager Focus. But there was no clear correlation between price and performance: The $30 Jabra Talk 2 lasted about 40 paces, while the $280 Jabra Evolve 75 had the most difficulty, beginning to break up at about 30 paces.
Tester One ran a vacuum for several minutes during each call to see how the ANC responded. Tester Two reported hearing a slight hesitation before the ANC kicked in on most models: a brief moment where the vacuum could be heard clearly, before the noise reduction recognized it as superfluous noise and it receded into the background. The testers then read a short script with a range of consonant and vowel sounds to each other over the phone, keeping notes of the voice quality and the comfort of each headset:
- Were words clearly distinguishable by both testers? Was there any static, crackling, or fading? Did voices sound tinny or have a noticeable echo?
- How easy was it to use the headset’s controls to answer a call, end a call, and modulate volume?
- How comfortable was each headset after being worn for two hours? Did it hurt or leave pressure points? Was it hot? Did it feel secure, especially when climbing stairs or moving around?
With a spreadsheet jam-packed with testing notes, we set about selecting our top picks.
Our Picks for the Best Bluetooth Headset
Best In-Ear Headset
We tested four in-ear headsets: two from the Sennheiser Presence line, plus the Jabra Talk 2 and Plantronic’s Voyager 3200 UC. Although we have to give the Voyager props in the “most sexy-looking device” category, the Sennheiser Presence Business beat it out in performance.
During voice tests, the Sennheiser Presence Business performed well, with both tester’s voices remaining clear and easily understood. We noticed a slight clipping of words, like the mic was switching off between sentences, but this didn’t impede the conversation, and we preferred it to the sound quality of the Jabra Talk 2 and Plantronics Voyager 3200 UC, which both manufactured a slight echo — as if the speaker had a bucket over her head.
The manufacturer claims the headset will transmit a clear signal up to 80 feet, and although we only made it to about 60 before the signal broke up, you can certainly move around and go get coffee while sustaining a phone conversation. The ANC of the Sennheiser Business also performed admirably: Background noise was there for a second, and then it wasn’t, as two additional mics (for a total of three) screened it out.
Using the headset is simple, although it’s worth noting that none of the models we tested included a full user’s manual in the box — you’ll need to go online to get detailed instructions. The earpiece turns on and off via an end-cap that slides out, and most other tasks, including answering and ending a call, are handled by a multi-function button on the front panel. We preferred this layout over the design of the Plantronics Voyager, which has a tiny, sticky on-off switch that we had trouble operating. Our only quibble is Sennheiser’s button placement. The button is on the front of the device rather than the side, and when you press it, it’s easy to push the earbud farther into your ear unless it’s well-seated. That said, the Sennheiser does come with multiple gel ear inserts so that you can find a snug fit and reduce slipping.
The Sennheiser is lightweight (13 grams; about the same weight as a couple of quarters), offers 10 hours of talk time on a single charge, and can be paired with up to two devices at the same time. The Sennheiser Presence Business does not offer UC technology, but the other member of the Presence line that we tested — the Sennheiser Presence Business UC — does, for an extra $50. We found the two models otherwise identical.
Best On-Ear Headset
The Voyager Focus was by far the most comfortable of the dual-ear options we tested, even after several hours on a hot day. Nicely padded ear pieces fit snugly on our ears, and the headset felt lighter than BlueParrot’s offering, which totally covered our ears and left them feeling warm and sweaty after a couple of hours. At 155 grams (about the same weight as an orange), the Focus is also considerably lighter than BlueParrot’s 208 grams.
The Voyager Focus is feature-rich: A mute alert gives you a signal if you try to talk while your mic is muted, and if you want to listen to music between calls, the headset also pauses automatically when the phone rings. The company claims that you’ll have 98 feet of wireless range, and the headset performed flawlessly up to the 60-foot edge of our testers' yard. We had no trouble being heard and understood, and the ANC, driven by three mics, made the sound of the vacuum running 2 feet away completely disappear, outperforming even the Sennheiser Presence. The Voyager's sound quality also beat out the Jabra Evolve 75, which started breaking up at 30 paces — and introduced slight but definite static on both ends of the call.
A dial on one earpiece lets you control volume — plus play, pause, and track forward and backward if you’re listening to music. A boom mic on the other earpiece can pivot in multiple directions. In fact, the earpieces themselves also swivel. This means there isn’t a “wrong” way to wear the Voyager Focus: It can be configured so that the controls and boom mic are on whichever side you want.
The Jabra Pro 9470 was a better competitor, matching the Plantronics in sound quality and comfort, but at more than $400, this model didn’t ultimately win us over. It had some nice extras, like a touchscreen control panel on its charging base, but its additional functions didn’t feel useful enough to justify the price.
The Voyager Focus offers 10 hours of talk time per charge, and the headset has UC connectivity: It comes with a Bluetooth USB adapter (a “dongle,” for those of you up to date on headset lingo), which allows you to connect to your PC or Mac so you can use its softphone capabilities, although you have to install Plantronics Hub software to enable that function. It also arrives with a soft carrying case and the ubiquitous micro-USB cable.
Best Budget Pick
The Jabra Talk 2 may not have all of the features of our other picks, but it covers the basics: decent sound quality at both ends of the call, a comfortable design, and enough range to move away from your cellphone as needed.
One of the things you do lose with this product is the multi-mic ANC technology. So we were rather surprised when the Jabra Talk 2 didn’t do too badly in our vacuum test: Yes, you could hear the vacuum as a low sound in the background, but the mic still picked up the tester’s voice and transmitted it clearly.
One charge gives you 9 hours of talk time, and the Jabra has all the phone-related functions that other earsets offer: answering/ending calls, last number redial, volume control, mute, and voice dialing (depending on your phone and network). The one-year warranty is fairly standard, if not exactly generous, and the model did well in our tests, receiving and sending a clear signal to about 40 paces, and relaying voices adequately, though with a bit of a head-in-bucket echo.
The Talk 2 does offer one extra that our other picks skip: The headset has the ability connect with your favorite AI, whether Siri or Cortana. If you want to check the weather or get directions on the go, the Jabra Talk 2 has you covered.
For less than $30, you get, in addition to the in-ear headset itself, one detachable ear hook, two ear gels, and a micro-USB cable. It’s light (8.5 grams) and fits firmly in the ear, even without the included ear hook. While we might not wear it for a strenuous workout at the gym, we wouldn’t hesitate to take it to the grocery store or for a walk in the neighborhood — it isn’t likely to fall out with normal use.
In short, this headset may be inexpensive, but it’s not cheap. For those on a limited budget — or the occasional user who doesn’t want to spend a lot of money on their headset — the Jabra Talk 2 has a lot to offer, even without all the bells and whistles.
Did You Know?
Bluetooth technology is named after a Viking.
“Bluetooth” is an Anglicized version of the name of a 10th century Scandinavian king, Harald Bluetooth, who was known for his leadership and his ability to unite tribes. The creators of Bluetooth hoped their technology would have a similarly unifying effect on electronic devices by allowing them to connect and communicate with one another.
It’s technically legal to use Bluetooth while driving, but it’s not a great idea.
Currently, no state has outlawed the use of hands-free headsets in the car, but The National Safety Council points out that even though your hands are free, your brain is still distracted: The brain activity from the portion of your noggin that processes moving images decreases by about 33 percent when you’re holding a phone conversation. We’d encourage you to hold your calls until you’re able to pull off the road.
Don’t turn up the volume more than necessary.
James Feuerstein, a professor of audiology at Nazareth College in Rochester, New York, and past president of the New York State Speech-Language-Hearing Association, says that the risk of ear damage is a trade-off between time spent on the phone and the intensity of the sound during that time.
“In many instances, earbuds and headphones are capable of producing sounds well in excess of 85 dB,” he told us. “That means it’s possible for someone to sustain noise damage if they listen long enough daily.” His advice? If someone 3 feet away from you needs to raise their voice for you to hear them, you’ve got the sound turned up too high. The same holds true if you hear ringing in your ears — take it as a signal to turn the volume back down.