Review: 3 Bluetooth headphones for travel, work and play

These headphones from Audio-Technica, Bose and Plantronics offer private listening and calling for a reasonable price.

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Plantronics Voyager Focus UC

With their desktop charging stand and included USB Bluetooth dongle, the Plantronics Voyager Focus UC headphones are a good choice for business users, either in or away from the office.

Plantronics Voyager Focus UC Plantronics

Plantronics Voyager Focus UC

At 5.4-oz., the Voyager Focus UC headphones, $300 (vendor price), weigh less than the SoundLink II. The flexible headband can be twisted, but pops right back into shape. The on-the-ear headphones, which are covered with leatherette pads, were comfortable enough but felt loose on my head; if I bent over or sneezed, I felt as if they would fall off (and they actually did a couple of times).

The desktop stand makes charging much easier. Just slip the ear cup with the microphone into the stand and the device begins to charge, although the stand's blue light doesn't change. The headphones are road-ready as well, with a micro-USB port for charging.

The Voyager Focus UC headphones also come with a travel case and a USB Bluetooth adapter for use with an older PC. Because they come with the Bluetooth dongle, Plantronics apparently felt that a USB-to-audio-in cable (or port) was not necessary.

The basic black color scheme is interrupted by a flat orange cable that is visible on either side of the padded part of the headband. You can replace the leatherette ear cushions for $10. They're not marked for right and left because the Voyager Focus UC's microphone is on a boom that can rotate between right and left orientation. In other words, it's ambidextrous.

On the same side with the boom is the power switch: press it to power up the headphones and push it further in to start the pairing sequence. There's also a call button for going between music listening and phone use. In the middle of the outer ear cup, there is a series of LEDs that show the charge level and signals the headphones' readiness to pair.

The other ear cup has a volume dial and controls for play/pause and moving tracks forward and back. There's also a switch at the bottom for turning on the Voyager Focus UC's noise-reduction circuit.

A computer-generated voice tells you when the headphones are ready to pair as well as the charge level. It took about two minutes to pair the unit with each of my devices.

The Voyager Focus UC was the long distance champ of the three reviewed here -- I was able to stay connected 45 feet from the source. This can help while in the office where you can walk around and still listen to your tunes and stay on a call.

The headphones are able to reproduce audio between 20 and 20,000 hertz. However, to my ears, the sound wasn't quite as good as the SoundLink II, with an overall flat response that rang hollow at times. In some classical pieces, the percussion got lost and rarely did the midrange tones shine through.

On the other hand, they are good for phone conversations. With three microphones in the Voyager Focus UC's boom, they delivered good, accurate sound to the other end of the conversation, although it wasn't quite as loud as the SoundLink II, and several times the voice faded out. The boom's base has a handy mute button.

The Voyager Focus UC headphones can do more than transmit your voice -- they have what Plantronics calls OpenMic mode, where they pick up and send the area's ambient sounds to the speakers in case you need to hear what a co-worker is saying.

Also useful is Mute Alert, which senses that you're talking when you've muted the microphone and reminds you that the microphone is off. You set it up via the Plantronics Hub application for Windows or OS X.

The system's noise-reduction system is easy to turn on and off, but when I tried it, it had little effect on outside environmental noises. It did make the audio louder, though.

The Voyager Focus UC ran for 7 hours and 40 minutes on a charge, several hours less than either the QuietPoint or the SoundLink II.

Bottom line

The Voyager Focus UC headphones are (by a less-than-significant $20) the most expensive headphones of the three reviewed. However, their many useful features, long range and excellent microphone makes them a good companion for work.

Conclusions

Bluetooth headphones need to do double duty, delivering high-quality audio for listening to audio while being ready for the weekly conference call. All three headphones can fulfill this at home, at work and on the road, but in testing, I found that each had its compromises.

The Audio-Technica QuietPoint headphones are small, light and less expensive than the others. They can run for a full workday (or intercontinental flight) on a charge, but their range is relatively limited, so you'll need to keep your audio source close at hand. Their audio was flat and the microphone sounded the worst of the three.

By contrast, the Voyager Focus UC headphones have a lot of useful features and a boom with three microphone elements that can be adjusted for the best position. They sounded better for calls and come with a handy desktop charging stand. On the downside, the Voyager only lasted 7 hours and 40 minutes on a charge and the audio lacked the richness of the SoundLink II.

Despite being bulky and relatively heavy, Bose's SoundLink II headphones are standouts. They lasted for 10 hours on a charge and delivered the most vibrant and rich sound of the three units tested. In fact, the more I listened, the more I liked them.

3 Bluetooth headphones: Features

Audio-Technica ANTH-ANC40BT QuietPoint Bose SoundLink II Plantronics Voyager Focus UC
Type In-ear Over-ear On-ear
Mic location Neck band Right ear cup Adjustable boom
Weight 1.2 oz. 7.0 oz. 5.4 oz.
Controls Power, volume, play/pause/calls, noise cancellation Power, volume, play/pause/calls Power, volume, play/pause/calls, track forward/back, noise reduction, mute/OpenMic
Noise reduction Yes No Yes
NFC No Yes No
Cable connection to device Yes Yes No (includes Bluetooth dongle)
Battery life (hr:min)* 10:10 10:00 7:40
Price $185 (Amazon) $280 (vendor) $300 (vendor)
*Playing audio continuously plus one 10-min. call

How I tested

For more than a month, I lived, worked and traveled with these headphones, listening to music or the news, making calls and even watching the occasional movie. I tried them out with three difference devices: a Samsung Galaxy S6 smartphone, an Apple iPad Pro and a Microsoft Surface Pro 3.

I tried out the features and controls of each pair. I wore each for at least an hour and made notes as to their comfort, how loud they got and how easy the controls were to use.

I connected each to the Galaxy S6, made several business phone calls and left several messages on my office's voice mail system. Afterwards, I listened to the recordings for volume, background noise, static and the vocal tonal quality.

In addition to general listening, I cued up three specific segments for comparison. I started with the Surface Pro 3 playing the Grateful Dead's "Uncle John's Band" from a CD, due to its rich midrange tones and sharp percussion, especially the guiro playing in the background that some sound systems either muffle or miss. Along the way I listened for the headphones' dynamic range and spatial imaging.

Next, I connected to the iPad Pro and fired up the rendition of the Mars movement of Holst's "The Planets" symphony (the James Levine version with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra). Here, I listened for slow increase in volume at the start, followed by the surging orchestral strings and brass. About two-thirds of the way through, I paid particular attention to the imaging of the kettledrums.

Still using the iPad Pro, I watched the opening 15 minutes of Finding Fela, a film about the Afropop musician Fela Kuti that contains interviews and samples of his music. I watched for sound synchronization with the speakers as well as the tonal qualities of the saxophone playing and the sharp edge of the percussion.

To test the active noise control function, I used a recording of people talking in an office played through a pair of speakers nearby. I then turned the noise reduction circuit on and off to see if it had any effect.

Finally, I timed how long it took to drain the battery of each by playing music continually and making a 10-minute call every hour. I repeated this three times and averaged the results.

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