5 new Bluetooth headsets: Not just for phone calls anymore

These small headsets offer style, features and their own apps. We look at five of the latest models.

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Jawbone ERA

Futuristic design that breaks away from the ubiquitous shiny plastic earpiece makes the Jawbone ERA stand out from the crowd. It may not be the smallest or lightest unit or have the longest battery life of this group, but the ERA is the most comfortable and has enough features to be a jack-of-all-trades.

Bluetooth headsets
Jawbone ERA

The Jawbone ERA's textured surface stands in stark contrast to the shiny black plastic of other headsets. At 2.0 x 0.6 x 1.0 in. and weighing 0.35 oz., it is midway between the chunky Plantronics Voyager Pro UC and the petite Jabra Stone2. Jawbone sells four styles: Silver Lining (the white model I reviewed), Midnight (black and red), Shadowbox (black and black) and Smokescreen (copper).

The headset includes a bag and eight silicone ear tips, the widest assortment of the five headsets I looked at. The AC adapter comes with a MicroUSB charging cable that's only 3 in. long, making it hard to use in tight places.

Of the five headsets, it was the most comfortable for me to wear and use; at times I barely noticed it was on my ear. It was stable and secure, the ear loop can be removed, and the device can be used in either ear.

Along with an on/off button, the headset has a versatile Talk button. To make a call, you press Talk or tap the headset's exterior twice; a built-in accelerometer relays the taps. Then tell the headset who you want to call. There's no way to accept or duck a call by talking only to the headset, as is possible with the Stone2; you need to tap it twice or press the Talk button.

Instead of a volume button, the ERA uses a sophisticated algorithm for keeping the volume at a constant level despite what's going on around you. You can also manually increase or decrease the volume by pressing the Talk button, which took a couple of seconds to kick in but worked well.

The ERA headset doesn't have a traditional battery gauge, either. Every time the device is turned on, a voice tells you the charge level; in addition, you can press the Talk button to hear a battery update. (Jawbone lets you pick from eight different voices that are available for download.) When the battery is nearly spent, a ring around the microphone blinks red as a warning, although it is hard to see while wearing the device.

Those who use the ERA with an iPhone or BlackBerry get a bonus: an app that shows a battery gauge for the headset next to the one for the phone.

Jawbone's MyTalk site offers a variety of downloadable phone apps. There are several for reading and replying to e-mails, text messages, etc., and for making calls using voice commands. Another, Directory Assistance 411, can help you find the number of, say, a restaurant you're looking for -- just say "Directory assistance" and the phone links with your carrier's operators. You can install only one app at a time on your ERA; if you want to try a different app, it will replace the first one.

The headset is smart enough to terminate its Bluetooth connection to save power when it's not in your ear. The ERA had a battery life of 4 hours, 57 minutes, twice as long as the i.Tech EasyChat 306's and the Stone2's, but it wasn't as long-lived as the Voyager Pro UC. Either way, it should be enough for a workday of on-and-off use.

The ERA headset's NoiseAssassin 3.0 technology effectively blocked out wind and crowd noise but occasionally broke up some words on both ends of the conversation. Overall, it had outstanding audio with a natural tone that was absent in the others, although at times it sounded slightly hollow to the other person on the call. Everything was easily understandable, regardless of whether I was sitting in my office or driving with the windows rolled down.

The device lost contact with my phone at 45 feet, the longest range of the five headsets reviewed here, allowing the most freedom of movement.

Bottom line

Small, light and reasonably priced, the ERA combines good looks with first-rate audio, long battery life and unmatched design in an earphone that's comfortable to wear all day.

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