The world we live in is increasingly wireless. We surf the Web over wireless networks, make calls on our mobile phones, and have a dozen remote controls for all the devices in our house. The iSkin Cerulean F1+TX
combo brings the wireless world to your iPod by cutting the cord between your headphones and your music player; it also functions as a wireless headset for your mobile phone’s handsfree-calling features. But, as with every new technology, there are tradeoffs to be made.
As the name suggests, there are two parts to the F1+TX combo: the F1 part is the actual headphones; the TX is a small dongle, about the width and thickness of a second-generation iPod nano, that attaches to your iPod’s dock-connector port. In addition, the package contains a USB cable for charging the F1; one end hosts a standard USB A connector, the other a connector iSkin calls “Mini-A 4 pin” (though I believe it’s actually a USB Micro-A). Also in the box are an alternate pair of plastic ear hooks, some foam earphone covers, and an extra pair of rubber rings for the earphones to allow for a variety of different fits. Finally, iSkin’s thrown in a USB adapter for the TX so that you can stream sound from your computer to the F1 earphones, as well.
The F1 headset resembles two Bluetooth earpieces strung together with a thin cable. All of the controls are on the right earpiece: a large multi-function button with a status LED on the outside; next- and previous-track controls on the top; volume-up and -down buttons and a charging port on the bottom; and the on/off power switch on the back. A small microphone is hidden in the front part of the right earpiece. Even though these two earpieces aren’t any larger than your average Bluetooth headset, the fact that you’re wearing one on each ear does make you look, for better or worse, like Lobot from The Empire Strikes Back.
Using the F1 and TX together is pretty straightforward. You’ll want to charge the F1 first, which you do by plugging it into a computer’s USB port (unless you want to spend an extra $25 for iSkin’s AC adapter). iSkin says the initial charge should take about six hours, whereas subsequent charges will take only 2 to 3 hours. I let it charge overnight and everything was ready to go by the morning. Although I didn’t subject the F1 to in-depth battery testing, I found that the batteries lasted several days of moderate listening—as long as you remember to turn the earphones off when you’re not using them, something that’s easy to forget to do. The few times I forgot, I dug the headphones out later only to find them dead. It would be nice if iSkin built in an auto-shutoff or sleep function, though I can see that being problematic for those who also use the system’s phone functions.
Once the F1 is charged, you need to pair it with the TX, which you do by turning the headphones on while holding down the multi-function button. Then you plug the TX into the dock-connector port of your iPod; it ought to work with any unit with Apple’s standard 30-pin connector, though iSkin promises compatibility only as far back as the first-generation iPod mini. I tested the system with a number of units and it worked fine with pretty much all of them, including an iPhone. The iPhone offered to switch into airplane mode to reduce interference; I did find that I got slightly less static in the audio when I did so.
One difference between iPhone and iPod use: When using the Cerulean system to listen to music with the iPhone, I had to adjust the volume using the controls on the earphones; changing it on the iPhone had no effect. With an iPod, I could adjust both volume levels. And the volume of the music streaming from the iPhone was a little quieter than I’d have liked, even if I turned up the F1’s volume all the way.
The TX draws power from the iPod’s battery, so expect your player’s juice to drain at a slightly faster rate than usual. You can plug in the included USB cable to power the TX, which has the same 4-pin connector as the F1, but, again, you’ll need to plug it into a USB port on your computer unless you shell out for the extra adapter.
In addition to listening to music, you can also use the F1 as a Bluetooth headset for your mobile phone. Once you’ve paired it with your phone, you can use the controls on the F1 to answer calls, redial, adjust the volume, or put calls on hold or mute, all of which worked well in my tests.
You can even use the F1 with both a phone and an iPod simultaneously, though this feature didn’t always behave as expected. The procedure for pairing with both is somewhat finicky, requiring that you follow the steps in the manual in the precise order given, pairing first with the phone, then with the TX, then reminding it to re-pair with the phone. Even then, I found my iPhone wouldn’t always recognize the F1 when I tried to make calls unless I unplugged the TX from my iPod. And if you have the F1 paired with both your phone and the TX, the controls on the F1 default to their iPod functions until you receive a call.
On the other hand, such a situation is one where the system’s integration shines: If a call comes in when listening to music, the F1 fades out the audio volume and then pauses playback, replacing your audio with a phone ringer and letting you answer the call if you like. Once you hang up, or if you ignore the call, music playback resumes and the audio fades in again. When you get everything set up correctly, this feature is a great example of convergence.
The included dock-connector-to-USB adapter lets you use the TX to listen to your computer’s audio. Just pop the TX into the 30-pin receptor on the adapter and plug it into a USB port, and the TX will appear in the Output tab of the Sound preference pane. You’ll be able to stream stereo audio directly from your Mac to your headphones, without any need for additional drivers.
(Since Leopard supports the A2DP Bluetooth protocol, those using Mac OS X 10.5 can instead pair the F1 directly to their Mac without using the adapter. However, the A2DP support in Leopard is a bit shaky; I found that I frequently experienced interference and static. Using the TX and USB adapter proved a far better experience. Tiger users can also pair the F1 with their Mac, but it will function only as a mono headset.)
Besides using the F1 with your computer as Bluetooth headphones, you can also opt to use it as a headset for programs such as Skype or iChat. I’ve run into trouble pairing Bluetooth headsets with my Mac in the past, especially under Tiger (Mac OS X 10.4), but the process was reasonably smooth with the F1 and Leopard. After running the Bluetooth Setup Assistant, both headset and headphone profiles appeared in Sound preferences’ Output screen, and an entry for the headset appeared in the Input screen.
The F1’s sound quality for music listening is frankly disappointing. Music—whether transmitted by the TX attached to an iPod or my computer, or with the F1 paired directly with my MacBook—sounded tinny and there was a definite lack of bass. I don’t consider myself much of an audiophile, but I much preferred the sound from a sub-$20 pair of Sony MDR-G42s to that of the F1 headphones. There’s also the matter of wireless interference, which in my testing caused occasional static and choppy sound. In terms of using the F1 for phone conversations, the sound quality ranked as average.
Controls on the F1 are easy to use once you remember which set of rocker switches is responsible for volume adjustments and which controls audio playback. In addition, some buttons do different things depending on the device to which the system is connected. For example, when connected to a mobile phone as a headset, the big, multi-function button on the side of the F1 is used to answer a call (press once) or ignore a call (hold until you hear a beep). However, when connected to an iPod, the same button plays or pauses audio playback. (When paired with an iPhone for both headset and music-listening functions, the button acts as Play/Pause until a call comes in, at which point it lets you answer or ignore the call.) The system’s instruction manual offers a table of functions, but you probably won’t want to have to dig it out every time you need to refer to it.
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At the end of the day, the F1+TX is not quite the many-devices, one-headphone gadget of the future, but some of that is the fault of the Bluetooth protocol. The multi-device functionality is very cool when it works, but it may take more fiddling than you want to do, especially when you’re concerned with the practicalities of making and taking phone calls while on the go. The F1+TX is also an expensive proposition, even given its versatility. But if your primary concern is freedom from the tyranny of wired headphones, then the F1+TX combo may be acceptable, as long as you can excuse the disappointing audio quality.
Associate editor Dan Moren is co-editor of the MacUser blog.