Review: Bluetooth headsets have come a long way

The Cardo Scala 700 is top-notch; Plantronics model has great sound but fit disappoints

For the past several days, I've been testing two new Bluetooth headsets. At this point in the maturity of the Bluetooth headset market I expected there would not be much innovation or difference between the models, but surprisingly, the units are very different in their approach, comfort and ultimately usability.

The Cardo Wireless Scala 700

The Cardo Scala 700

The Scala 700 is excellent for the executive on the go and my personal choice for Bluetooth headset. The first unit I tested was the Scala 700 from Cardo Wireless. The 700 is an update of Cardo's popular Scala 500 Bluetooth headset, and Cardo has, once again, delivered a top-notch unit. The list price is $69.95, $40 or so at

Measuring around 1.5 inches, the Scala 700 is about 30% smaller than the 500 and fits comfortably on the ear using their incredibly moldable ear loop. Enough cannot be said of this often-overlooked item. For someone who wears a Bluetooth headset all day, the ear loop has to be comfortable and flexible, yet the material has to remain sturdy over time. I found that the 700 earpiece fits comfortably in the outer ear canal, which brings the sound closer and seals out ambient noise. The headset volume adjustment/mute on the back is easy to operate, and the attach/answer/drop button on the side is just as convenient.

The headset system is limited to five parts -- Bluetooth headset, ear loop, charger, USB charging cable and a carrying case that also has a belt loop. Both the charger or charging cable plug directly into the headset, eliminating the hardware failure that has plagued most headset charging stands. After the initial five-hour charge, the Scala 700 yields six hours of talk time and at least three days of idle. In the event that the tiny device is misplaced, it can be "paged" from your handset and will beep until you locate the unit and turn off the pager.

It's great that the Scala 700 is comfortable, uncomplicated and easy to operate, but the clarity of sound is the most important factor in a headset and here the Scala does not disappoint. Subjective calling tests to using my cell and VoIP chat application yielded excellent results for both sender and receiver. The wind filter on the Scala 700 is even better than the previous model, and I was able to chat next to a blowing air conditioner without noticeable interference.

The above features are evolutionary from the 500 series, and distinguishing from the competition, but what really sets this model apart is the ability to pair with multiple devices. I know of many people who have a headset for their computer at work, at home, and for their cell phone. Cardo recognizes that you may have this issue and may want to use the same Bluetooth headset as you move from location to location. The Scala 700 supports up to 10 pairings and allows active swapping between the last two used devices. I found the multiple pairing very handy when switching from my cell phone to a video chat program. All I did was disconnect the set from my cell, and request a connection from my computer; it was seamless and simple, which is how technology should be. I highly recommend this unit to anyone who uses more than one Bluetooth device or just wants the most comfortable ear loop available.

The Plantronics Discovery 655

The Plantronics Discovery 655

For years, I have used Plantronics headsets at my office in both wired and wireless models. The sound quality is always excellent. and while the headsets are a wee bit pricey, I have found them to be worth the money. Unfortunately, that is not the case with the Discovery 655. Available on the Plantronics Web site with a list price of $149.95, $84.99 at Amazon. This unit is a great idea that somehow did not quite make it in execution.

To be fair, there are some very good things about this Bluetooth headset. The sound quality is worthy of the Plantronics name, and the design of the headset itself is quite appealing. The inner-ear bud that holds the unit in place is a good idea and quite comfortable, but I could not get the unit to sit securely. If you use the headset in a car or other location where you are physically stationary, the unit remains secured, but in my subjective walking tests, I found it came loose and if I didn't pay attention, it would fall to the ground. Putting this thing back into my ear after hitting the New York City sidewalk was not appealing. There is an optional ear loop attachment, but it was not the main design focus and the hard plastic loop belies that fact.

The Discovery 655 yields only 3.5 hours of talk time, though there is an optional battery attachment to the carrying case that can charge the headset three times on one AAA battery. Plantronics says you can use this to get 10 hours out of one charge, in other words, before you have to reconnect to the wall charger. But you still have to recharge the unit in the battery. The carrying case/charger has four pieces to it: the charge holder, battery attachment, USB attachment and disc that you can plug the wall charger into.

The entire charger/carry stand is designed like a large pen with the idea that you would attach it to your shirt pocket for storage. It vibrates to let you know that a call is coming in, but of course, that too drains the battery. As I said, the pen is large, about the diameter of a nickel, and is not something I would carry around in my shirt pocket. My biggest issue is that it seems like there are too many parts, and I tend to lose things with too many parts.

In short, the Discovery 655 Bluetooth headset is good if you don't move around a lot, only need a few hours of talk time, and absolutely hate ear loops.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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