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Choosing the Right Hands-Free Headset

Learn the features to look for in your next Bluetooth headset

Comfort

This is a tough one, since it's very rare that you'll have the opportunity to try on a Bluetooth headset before buying. There's a two-step answer to this dilemma. Look for a headset that offers a variety of earbud attachments and ear loops (wires that hook over your ear, like an eyeglass frame), so you can customize the fit to your taste. And try to buy from a retailer who will accept returns of an opened product.

Style

In the past few years, design has become a key promise among headset manufacturers. You'll find small inconspicuous models, sleek modern-looking devices and earbuds that look for all the world like pieces of jewelry.

High-Tech Features

Recently we've seen more built-in intelligence in these tiny devices, including voice control, programmability and smartphone apps that link to the headset. You'll find these features in the BlueAnt, Jawbone and Sound ID products listed below.

Recommended Models

Here are several Bluetooth models to consider, in a variety of shapes and sizes. We've chosen these based on effective noise cancellation, first-rate sound quality and, in several cases, unusual features that add to calling convenience. It's worth noting that the prices listed are manufacturer's suggestions, and you'll often find considerable discounts.

Plantronics Voyager Pro+ ($99.99)

It may look a bit large and old-fashioned, but the Voyager Pro+ sits securely and comfortably behind the ear, and the large battery lasts for days without recharging. An adjustable boom mic sits closer to your mouth than most headsets, which combines with top-notch noise cancellation to deliver exceptional call clarity. You also get A2DP compatibility.

BlueAnt Q2 ($129.99)

The Q2 covers the basics very nicely, adds A2DP compatibility, then moves on to include voice-control technology that provides information and adjustments without fumbling for tiny buttons. Press one key and speak your commands to find out how much battery life is left, dial a number by voice, redial a call and more. The Q2 will also read caller ID information aloud, so you don't need to glance at the phone screen before answering or rejecting the call. No need to memorize the right commands: just say "What can I say?" and the headset lists your options.

Sound ID 510 ($129.99)

The elegant 510 model will work fine with any current-generation phone, and the unusual volume control — you just stroke the front surface forward or back, instead or hunting for buttons — is a fine design. However, iPhone, Android and BlackBerry owners have the most to gain here thanks to free downloadable software that lets you adjust sound reproduction to suit your preferences, see battery power at a glance, and enable Pass Thru mode. Ordinarily a Bluetooth headset blocks the sounds of the outside world. With Pass Thru, the Sound ID 510 mic picks up that sound and passes it through to your ear — very clever.

Aliph Jawbone Icon ($99.99)

If you're looking for a little pizzazz in your headset design, the Jawbone Icon will certainly appeal. It comes in a wide variety of styles, colors and textures, from a high-tech dimpled black to the aptly labeled pearlescent Bombshell model. But there are brains behind the beauty, including support for multipoint and A2DP connections, and unsurpassed noise cancellation performance. Where Aliph breaks new ground is programmability. By connecting the headset to your computer with a USB cable, you can change the voice used to provide audible feedback on phone status and functions. You can also set a one-button quick-dial number, dictate text messages and much more.

Plantronics BackBeat 903+ Stereo Headphones, ($99.99)

One of the most comfortable stereo Bluetooth models on the market, the Backbeat 903+ is a fine workout companion, with rugged construction and easy-to-find button controls. The flexible cord runs behind your neck: after a minute you'll forget it's there at all. And if your phone supports the feature, you can even change music track forward or back right from the headset controls.

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