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Choosing the Right Hands-Free Headset

Learn the features to look for in your next Bluetooth headset

Summary:

  • Noise cancellation is almost a necessity
  • Voice control means no fumbling with keypads
  • Headsets below MSRP can often be found online

 

Keeping two hands on the wheel while driving is the most obvious reason to use a wireless Bluetooth headset with your cell phone, but there are others. You don't get grime, perspiration or makeup on that pretty LCD display. It's often easier to hear when there's a headset in your ear, particularly in noisy situations. And who doesn't want to rock that classic Star Trek Lieutenant Uhura look once in a while?

man wearing phone headset

— Ocean/Corbis

Here's our guide to the basic features and cutting-edge developments, with several field-tested recommendations.

Noise Cancellation

Higher-end headsets use multiple microphones to listen to both the speaker and the background noise separately, then digitally subtract the background noise to make your voice much easier to understand on the other end. If your calls are usually made from quiet indoor spots, this isn't a high priority. When calling from a moving car, bus or train, or on a noisy city street, though, buying a higher-end headset with premium noise cancellation performance is a sound investment.

Multipoint

If you'd like to use the same headset with more than one phone, or with a Bluetooth-equipped computer to make calls or listen to audio, then you want a headset with multipoint capability.

Battery Life

The trick with battery life generally isn't whether you'll have enough power to get through the day — any name-brand headset will deliver on that score — but how often you'll have to recharge. That makes standby time a key consideration.

Mono or Stereo?

If you've started using your cell phone to listen to music (whether via MP3s or online radio) or as a GPS device, then it's worth considering a stereo Bluetooth headset. When a call comes in, these headsets automatically cut audio playback, then resume when you hang up. You do give up some convenience in the portability department, and you're more cut off from the outside world while wearing a stereo headset (a real consideration while driving). However, that very isolation is a plus if you're strolling through the park enjoying your favorite tunes.

There is an alternative here: a mono headset that's compatible with a stereo Bluetooth signal. The Bluetooth system that supports stereo is called A2DP. Look for this capability if you're interested in music playback in a mono headset.

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