Listen without wires

Since the day the first iPod was introduced, people have asked for a way to listen to their music without dangling, tangling headphone cables. Although many have speculated that Apple would eventually create an iPod with Bluetooth or some other wireless technology, those predictions haven’t yet come true. In the meantime, a number of vendors have released Bluetooth-based wireless headphone systems for the iPod. I tested three such systems: MacAlly’s $170 BlueWave , Logitech’s $150 Wireless Headphones for iPod , and Ten Technology’s $200 naviPlay . These systems are fully compatible with 3rd-generation and later full-size iPods, as well as iPod mini models—basically, any iPod with a dock connector port. (As noted below, the MacAlly and Logitech systems will also work with older iPods and other audio sources, but not without limitations.)

I tested the three systems with a variety of iPod and iPod mini models, both indoors and outside. All were easy to connect and use. All also offered similar range: Inside, in a Bluetooth-heavy environment, I was able to roam 20 to 25 feet away from the iPod/transmitter without any walls in between, or 10 to 15 feet away through 1 or 2 walls. Outdoors, without those pesky walls and Bluetooth devices nearby, I achieved distances of 30 to 32 feet, in line with the 30-foot theoretical range limit of this type of Bluetooth device. (Bluetooth connections tend to be reliable up until their distance limit is reached, at which point you’ll hear a bit of choppiness and then the signal will cut out completely; the range numbers provided here are for the maximum distance at which I was able to get an unbroken signal.)

However, apart from range and ease of use, these Bluetooth headphone systems differ significantly in both design and functionality.

Before I get to the products themselves, a side note about Bluetooth compatibility: All three systems tested here use the newer A2DP Bluetooth profile; this means that they can pair (connect) only with other Bluetooth devices that support this profile. Because few Bluetooth-equipped computers currently support the A2DP profile, you shouldn’t expect these systems to be able to function as headphones for your computer.

MacAlly BlueWave

MacAlly’s $170 BlueWave system includes a white plastic Bluetooth transmitter that plugs into your iPod’s headphone jack—similar to the receiver modules used by iPod remote controls—and a Bluetooth headset. (Note that although the BlueWave is compatible with iPod mini models, because the transmitter’s headphone plug is in the middle of the unit and the iPod mini’s headphone jack is on the right edge—rather than the middle, as with full-size iPods—the BlueWave transmitter hangs partially off the side of the iPod mini during use.) The transmitter and headset are each powered by two AAA batteries; MacAlly estimates battery life of 2 to 8 hours, depending on volume levels.

MacAlly BlueWave

As with all Bluetooth devices, you must “pair” (connect) the headset with the transmitter before you can use the system. To do so, you attach the transmitter to your iPod and then switch on the headset and the transmitter via their power switches; after a few seconds, the transmitter and headset will pair (the purple light on the transmitter changes to blue) and you can begin listening to your iPod through the headphones.

The BlueWave’s headset is a full-size, circumaural model, meaning it uses an over-the-head headband and large earpieces that surround each ear. The earpieces are covered in soft, “pleather” cushions and the two metal headband sections are covered in soft plastic. You can also move the earpieces up and down to fit different head sizes. Overall, I found the BlueWave’s headphones to be quite comfortable, and at approximately 6.5 ounces, fairly light for a full-size headset—I was able to wear it for a few hours at a time without much discomfort. The only exception is that the headband itself applies a bit of pressure to the crown of the head, leading me to shift it forward or back. But this is a common issue with full-size headphones, and thus not a major knock on the BlueWave. The headset also folds up for travel—although it’s definitely not earbud-size, at 4.5” in diameter and 3.25” thick, it’s small enough to fit in many bags.

The BlueWave’s headset provides a volume dial, but because the BlueWave uses the iPod’s headphone jack to get audio, the iPod’s volume control functions, as well—I ended up setting the iPod’s volume at around 2/3 and then using the BlueWave headset’s dial to adjust the volume. Unfortunately, unlike the other models I tested, you can’t otherwise control your iPod from the headset—to switch tracks or pause playback, you must use the iPod’s controls, making the BlueWave less convenient than competing products, especially if your iPod is on the other side of the room or buried in your bag or backpack.

In terms of sound quality, a commonly accepted rule in audio is that the headphones included in wireless headphone systems are rarely of high quality because most of the system’s cost is concentrated in the wireless components (and most people shopping for wireless headphone systems are more concerned with mobility and convenience than sound quality). The BlueWave’s headset doesn’t do anything to dispel this belief: Its sound quality is good but not great. Because of its larger drivers, it produces much more (and better) bass than Apple’s stock earbuds, as well as midrange that’s a bit more prominent—overall, the sound quality of the BlueWave system is much more “full” than Apple’s ’buds. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of treble, you’ll likely find yourself wanting when listening to the BlueWave headset, which is lacking a bit at higher frequencies.

In addition to using the BlueWave as headphones, you can also use the system to “broadcast” music from your iPod to your home stereo or to a set of computer speakers. This feature is provided via a line-level audio output minijack on the headset itself. You simply use the included 1/8"-stereo-to-left/right-RCA cable to connect the headset to your home stereo (or purchase a 1/8"-to-1/8” minijack cable to connect the headset to a set of computer speakers); your iPod’s audio is sent to the headset as expected, but the headset then passes it on to your stereo. You can then use the iPod itself, complete with screen, as your remote control—a significantly better setup, in terms of playback control and interface, than connecting your iPod to your stereo and then using one of the iPod remote controls on the market. (This feature is also available via the naviPlay, below.) When using the BlueWave in this manner, the headset’s volume dial doesn’t affect the output going to your stereo; however, the iPod’s volume control does affect output, which allows you to adjust the volume directly from your iPod. Unfortunately, there are a few minor quirks with this functionality. The most significant is that the line-out minijack on the headset is recessed a bit, so some cables—including several I tested—can’t plug in completely; I had to find a cable with a smaller plug. Second, the headphones themselves continue to play, so you’ll want to turn the headset’s volume control all the way down. And third, because the audio signal is coming from the iPod’s headphone jack, then broadcast over Bluetooth, then sent through the headset’s own circuitry, the audio quality from the headset’s output jack isn’t as good as if you’d connected your stereo directly to the line-level output of the iPod’s dock port (using a third-party adapter or Apple’s dock base), or even to the iPod’s headphone jack directly. That being said, I’m admittedly picky about sound quality, so many users may never notice the difference.

Finally, the BlueWave can also be used with older iPods and other portable players (basically, any device with a 1/8" audio output minijack) by plugging the transmitter into the player’s headphone jack. Unfortunately, a small plastic “nub” on the transmitter—which fits into the remote jack on newer iPods to keep the transmitter from rotating freely—prevents a solid connection on many players. To work around this, you need to buy a 1/8” minijack extension cable.

Logitech Wireless Headphones for iPod

Like the BlueWave, Logitech’s Wireless Headphones for iPod system consists of a white plastic Bluetooth transmitter and a stereo headset. (If you’ve seen HP’s Bluetooth Stereo Headphones, the Logitech headset will look very familiar—Logitech makes the same headset in black for HP.) However, in form and functionality the two are quite different. For starters, instead of using standard batteries, the Logitech system is powered by internal rechargeable batteries: The included AC adapter terminates in two small connectors, one that plugs into the headset and the other into the transmitter. After a few hours of charging, you should get approximately 8 hours of battery life from each component, according to Logitech.

Logitech Wireless Headphones image

To pair the headset with the transmitter you first turn the headset on by holding down the large center button on the right earpiece until the blue light turns on. (If you’re currently wearing the headset, you’ll hear a series of tones to let you know you’ve turned it on.) You then plug the transmitter into the iPod and press play on the iPod. (If the transmitter is already plugged in, you press the button on the transmitter for two seconds to wake it up.) After several seconds the two components will be paired. The Logitech transmitter is a bit taller than the BlueWave version, but if you’ve got an iPod mini, the Logitech model has two significant advantages that make it a better fit. First, it’s thinner than the MacAlly transmitter. But more importantly, the transmitter’s headphone plug is movable: It slides from the middle position to the right-hand side to better accommodate an iPod mini. (A plastic spacer is included that can be used to hold the sliding plug in place if you’ve only got one type of iPod.) This is a nice touch that I’d like to see more makers of top-mounted accessories adopt.

However, the most significant way in which the Logitech system differs from the MacAlly offering is the headset. Logitech’s iPod-inspired white and gray headset is much smaller and lighter (3 ounces) and uses a “street style” design: The earpieces are much smaller—they sit on your ears instead of surrounding them—and are connected via a hard plastic band that goes behind the head. This type of design is especially popular for exercising—it tends to be quite stable even when running—or for people who want better sound quality than that provided by earbuds but who don’t like over-the-head headbands. However, in my experience, behind-the-head headphones are a love/hate thing—some people swear by them, whereas others can’t wear them at all because of comfort issues. The Logitech headset is no exception. I tested the Logitech headset myself and also had a few other people wear it for a few hours each; although some people had no problems wearing it for extended periods, others found it to be quite uncomfortable. On some listeners, the hard plastic headband irritated the skin where the headband passes over the tops of the ears. Others found the convex curve of the earpieces themselves to be uncomfortable against the ears. I personally have mixed feelings about the comfort level: On some occasions I was able to wear the headset for a couple hours, but other times it felt quite uncomfortable; I also had trouble wearing them with glasses. If you plan to purchase the Logitech system, you should do so from a store with a good return policy so you can evaluate the comfort yourself. (As a side note, the Logitech headset doesn’t fold up for travel; however, the headband is flexible enough that you can twist the earpieces roughly flat for sticking the headset in a bag or backpack.)

Comfort debates aside, the Logitech headset easily bests the MacAlly offering in terms of playback control. Integrated into the right earpiece are five buttons: a large, circular play/pause button in the middle, surrounded by forward, back, volume up, and volume down buttons. Although the volume up and down buttons simply adjust the headset’s volume—as with the BlueWave, the iPod’s volume level is not affected—the forward, back, and play/pause buttons actually control your iPod. For example, pressing the forward button skips to the next track, and the play/pause button works just like your iPod’s play/pause button. Intuitively, the forward button points toward the front of your head and the back button backward; the volume up and down buttons are on the top and bottom, respectively. (The volume up and down buttons also have small indentations to differentiate them from the forward and back buttons.) I found the headset’s controls reliable and very easy to use, making the Logitech system my favorite in terms of convenience. On the other hand, one area in which the Logitech headset falls short of the BlueWave version in terms of functionality is that the Logitech model doesn't provide an audio output jack on the headset itself.

In terms of audio quality, the Logitech system suffers from the same fate as the BlueWave covered above—good sound quality for a wireless system but not as good as a quality set of wired headphones. Compared to the BlueWave, the Logitech’s headset provides better detail and a more “open” sound and should thus appeal to fans of treble. However, it doesn’t have the same bass extension and “fullness” found in the BlueWave headset. In addition, since the Logitech headset’s earpieces don’t cover your ears, they don’t block any outside noise. However, I still preferred the sound quality of the Logitech headset—ever so slightly—to that of the BlueWave, thanks mainly to the more open/airy presentation.

Finally, like the BlueWave, the Logitech system can also be used with older iPods and other audio sources by plugging into the player’s headphone jack. However, also like the BlueWave, the “nub” that fits in the iPod’s remote jack prevents a complete connection. Thankfully, Logitech includes a short (8-inch) extension cable. Of course, when used with a non-iPod audio source, the headset’s playback controls will not function, although you’ll still be able to use the volume buttons to adjust the headset’s volume.

Ten Technology naviPlay

Ten Technology’s naviPlay system, which our sister publication, Macworld, awarded a Best of Show award at January’s Macworld Expo in San Francisco, is notable for not including a Bluetooth headset or a small, top-mounted transmitter. Instead, it includes a cradle/transmitter (which Ten calls the iPod Adapter) and a receiver (which Ten calls the Stereo Remote). The iPod Adapter looks much like an iPod battery pack: A base, approximately 1 inch thick, provides a dock connector and the Bluetooth transmitter. A .25-inch thick “back,” which is 1.75" wide and 2.5" tall, is connected to the base and contains the Adapter’s battery while providing support for the iPod itself. Five snap-on clips—sized to fit any iPod with a dock connector—are included; you attach the appropriate clip and then slide your iPod into the clip until it connects to the dock connector. A built-in, flip-down stand keeps your iPod and the Adapter upright when used on a desk or table. Finally, the rear of the Adapter provides a dock connector port—connecting the naviPlay to your iPod’s dock connector cable charges its internal rechargeable battery and, if your iPod is seated in the Adapter, charges your iPod and syncs it with your computer. Ten’s philosophy seems to be that you should simply leave your iPod in the Adapter all the time, as there’s no need to remove it.

Ten Technology naviPlay image

Instead of a Bluetooth headset, the Stereo Remote—1.9" wide, 2.5" tall, and .6" thick—acts as the system’s receiver and provides a standard 1/8" stereo minijack that allows you to use your favorite headphones. And as its name implies, the Remote also provides the system’s controls via a small, flat “joystick” control (which Ten calls the navi button), much like the ones found on some mobile phones. By pushing the navi button up or down, you can skip tracks forward or back, respectively, on your iPod; by pushing the button left or right, you raise or lower the volume; and by pushing the button inward, you play/pause playback. Unlike the Logitech headset’s controls, which only skip tracks, the naviPlay’s Remote also allows you to scan within tracks by holding the button in the forward or back position. Overall I found the naviPlay Remote to be easy to use; my only complaint is that when trying to skip tracks or adjust the volume, it’s easy to accidentally press play/pause. (Note that because the naviPlay gets audio from your iPod’s dock connector, which provides a line-level signal, the iPod’s volume control has no effect on your iPod’s output; you use only the Remote to adjust listening volume.)

The Remote also has a hold switch that locks the controls during use, as well as a hole for connecting the included lanyard (for wearing the Remote around your neck). In addition, the system includes a removable plastic holder with a clip for attaching the Remote to a belt or strap or to the included armband; the clip also provides two small hooks for headphone cable management. You charge the Remote via the included AC adapter, which plugs into a small power jack on the bottom of the Remote. The AC adapter also has a power-only FireWire jack, which allows you to use the included FireWire-to-dock-connector cable to charge the Adapter simultaneously (as an alternative to connecting it to your computer). Ten Technology estimates 8 hours of playback when the Adapter and Remote are fully charged.

You pair the Adapter and Stereo Remote by simply turning them on—each has a small power button with a surrounding status light that indicates when each unit is turned on and successfully paired with the other (or when it is having problems or running low on battery power).

Ten Technology’s decision to use a wireless controller instead of a Bluetooth headset has some advantages. The most significant benefit is the ability to use your own headphones, meaning sound quality is as good (or as bad) as you make it—the system’s design and technology mean that the sound provided by the Stereo Remote’s headphone jack is nearly as good as the sound of the iPod’s own headphone jack. This feature alone has made the naviPlay the Bluetooth system of choice for many discerning listeners, since the headphones included in most wireless systems (Bluetooth, RF, or Infrared) have a reputation for poor sound quality—any of the better headphones we’ve reviewed should provide better sound quality when paired with the naviPlay than that provided by the MacAlly or Logitech systems. The Remote approach also means that, as with the BlueWave, you can broadcast your iPod’s audio to your stereo or speakers and use the iPod itself as the remote control: You simply connect the Remote to your stereo and then use the iPod in the Adapter to control your tunes. (Although, since your iPod’s volume control doesn’t affect the naviPlay’s output, you don’t have remote control over the volume, as you do with the BlueWave.) Finally, Ten’s design allows the company to do interesting things with other Bluetooth devices. For example, with the appropriate firmware update, you can pair the naviPlay Remote with your Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone. Once you’ve done so, you can receive calls through the Remote—when you answer a call, your iPod is automatically paused and your phone’s audio plays through your headphones; a microphone hidden on the side of the Remote captures your voice. (Playlist will be publishing a separate article about this feature of the naviPlay in the near future.)

On the other hand, the naviPlay’s approach also has some drawbacks. The biggest is that, because you use your own— wired —headphones, you’re only truly wireless in the sense that your headphones aren’t connected to your iPod; you’ve still got cables dangling around. The second is that you still have to carry or clip the Remote; for some people, this won’t be much better than carrying an iPod, especially if your iPod is a mini. (Although, to be fair, the Remote is still significantly smaller and lighter, and it’s less likely to break if you accidentally drop it.) Finally, because the naviPlay requires an iPod with a dock connector port, it won’t work with older iPods or other audio sources.

Note: The naviPlay iPod Adapter is also available as a separate component for $140 from HP; you can then pair it with HP’s $100 Bluetooth Stereo Headphones, which is actually the same headset as the one included in Logitech’s system, above. So if you like Logitech’s headset better than the naviPlay’s Stereo Remote, but you want the naviPlay’s iPod Adapter, you can have your cake and eat it, too.

The Lowdown

Unlike some product categories, where one or two products are clearly the best in their class, each of these three Bluetooth headphone systems has something to offer (and each has limitations). For example, the naviPlay and Logitech systems let you control your iPod’s playback from the headset/receiver; the BlueWave and naviPlay systems allow you to broadcast your iPod’s music to your home stereo or speakers, using the iPod itself as the remote control; the BlueWave and Logitech systems can be used with non-iPod audio sources. So how do you choose one? Consider what you actually want out of a Bluetooth headphone system.

If you’re a stickler for audio quality, you’ll want to go with the naviPlay (

Playlist 4-Play rating
) and BYOH (Bring Your Own Headphones)—with a good set of headphones, you’ll get significantly better sound quality via the naviPlay than you’ll get with the other two systems. The naviPlay is also the most versatile in that you can use it as a headset with many Bluetooth mobile phones and you can charge and sync your iPod while charging the system’s cradle (the iPod Adapter). It’s biggest drawback is that it’s not truly “wireless"—you still have to deal with your headphones’ cables.

The Logitech system (

Playlist 3-Play rating
) is my favorite in terms of portability: It offers the most compact system with excellent on-headset controls, and is great for exercising. Unfortunately, the headset’s uncomfortable (for some people) design prevents it from getting a higher rating. If you’re interested in this system, I recommend buying it from a store with a good return policy so you can test its comfort at home over an extended period of time.

The BlueWave (

Playlist 3-Play rating
) is a good system for those who want a truly wireless design and a comfortable headset, but don’t need the extra features of the naviPlay or the on-headset controls of the Logitech system. It also provides a bit of isolation from external noise.

 

(For more on headphones, visit the Headphones section of the Playlist Product Guide.)

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