Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Bluetooth, headphones and getting the best portable sound possible

It seems like every two years or so I go through a search to find the best possible portable sound solution.  I keep expecting the technology to improve to the point where the perfect solution will finally exist.  I can report that it's getting better, but still far from perfect.

For the go-around this time I ordered seven different ear "devices" to test out.  There are four basic ear designs you can wear for personal listening.

1. Over The Ear headphones.  These fit completely over the ear, as described, and provide one of the best and easiest sonic isolation you can get.  They are by their very nature bulky and not nearly as portable as you would want, though, so for the purposes of my own explorations I did not try out any that fit this description.

2. On The Ear headphones.  These sit on the ear but do not completely surround it.  Because of this there is little, if any, noise isolation but the upside is they can be much smaller than the first type.  They can differ within the class by how they fit on the head -- some go over the head, some go behind the head (fitting around the ear like glasses).  The phones I tried in this category were the Sennheiser PX210, the NeoJdx Aktiv, and the Jabra Revo Wireless.

3. Earbuds.  These sit in the ear but do not seal it off.  The example most everyone is familiar with are the Apple supplied ones that come with their devices.  I tried the Bose Soundtrue and Bose SoundSport models (neither bluetooth although we'll get to that in a moment).

4. In The Ear earphones.  These are the most isolated and tightest fitting ones you can buy.  They fit in the ears like earplugs, and act in the same manner, shutting out all other sound.  I tried the Jaybird Bluebuds Xs and Sonix XFit.

There are three basic considerations for portable sound.  First, how comfortable is it to wear?  The best sounding phones in the world won't do you any good if you can't wear them, or wear them for long.  Second, the actual sound they produce.  Even something that's incredibly comfortable won't be worth using if it sounds like crap.  And the third is how easy it is to use and manage -- if it's difficult to use you won't, not matter how comfortable and good it sounds.

While everyone's mileage may vary, I found that In The Ear earphones were unacceptable to me in terms of comfort.  Getting a good seal requires a lot of things, including testing various ear pieces to find the right fit, but in my own experience even when I had the right size for my ears, and even when I was using what was rated the absolute best ear tip (you can buy different tips for your in the ear earphones) achieving a reliable seal was not easy, and never comfortable to me.

And using one of these types without a good seal degrades the sound considerably.  Even the top-rated Jaybirds sounded like crap without a good seal.  Which is too bad, because otherwise they were terrific, having great operating characteristics (the third criteria -- they had great battery life and the controls were easy to use) and fantastic sound when a good seal was made.  If you have the right type of ear, I could highly recommend them.

However -- you should be aware of this.  Even with a good seal I had issues with the Jaybirds because of cord noise.  You have to wear the cord either below the chin or behind the head, and in either position the cord moves when you move (naturally).  With headphones that don't isolate you as much this isn't an issue, because the noise they produce isn't at all off-putting.  But with a seal the noise is very loud and any movement of my head was pretty bad.  Even if I could have gotten a comfortable and easy to achieve seal I think this would have been a deal breaker.

The On the Ear headphones had different issues.  They were all comfortable, but each had a defect that kept it from being usable (at least to me).  The Sennheisers had terrible sound, even when used with an equalizer app (and more on this in a minute).  The Jabra had terrific sound, even without such an app (although it comes with one) but the operating characteristics were unacceptable (controls were difficult to manage and the weight and heft of the phones made them far less portable than they should have been).  The Aktiv with an app would have been good had it not been for the completely distracting blue flashing light on the ear piece (note that nearly all bluetooth devices have such a light which tells you when it's on and receiving data, but the better devices allow you to turn it off, or at least have it positioned so it isn't right in your face).

That left no bluetooth devices for me to use but on a whim I had also ordered the Bose Earbuds due to the comfort ratings that folks had posted on Amazon.  Bose has done an interesting thing with these -- they are sort of a cross between a regular earbud and the kind of in-ear earphone I can't wear.  But the result is truly amazing -- a comfortable in-ear device that doesn't block out all sound but will fit almost everyone and stays in place without effort.

The sound is also very, very good, and absolutely perfect when used with an equalizer app.  Which brings me to that aspect.  Other than the Jaybirds and Jabra, all of these phones have less than ideal sound.  But you can improve nearly any headphone with a decent equalizer app.  The iPhone has pretty crappy and limited EQ, but running an app that handles this makes all the difference in the world, and for iOS devices there is none better than Equalizer, which runs $3 and makes even cheap headphones sound like they cost hundreds (and expensive ones sound like they are worth millions).  I would highly recommend anyone looking for portable sound to consider this app, or something similar for Android.  It will change your view on what a headphone can do for you.

Of the two I liked the Bose SoundSport slightly better -- they are more expensive ($150 versus $130) but they are waterproof and fit my ear just a tiny bit easier (although they use the same earpiece each fits over the hardware just a bit differently).  The carrying case is also better -- it's round and easier to zip up than the rectangular one that comes with the SoundTrue.

But what about bluetooth?  Well, I could have just plugged the Bose into my phone but I did want bluetooth, so I bought the Abco Tech BlueTooth Receiver.  This is a tiny bluetooth receiver that allows you to turn any headphone with a 1/8" jack into a bluetooth one.  I simply wrap the excess cord up and clip it to my shirt and I'm good to go.

The controls are easy to use but the only drawback is battery life -- I rarely get more than two or three hours of use out of it.  However, it's so cheap I just bought two and have the ability to switch when one runs out.

Is it perfect?  No, the perfect solution, I think, would be the Bose with a built-in bluetooth receiver.  It would have to hang down below or behind the neck, though (I wouldn't want the BT receiver to be built-in to the buds, as it is with the Jaybirds, because that would weigh them down and ruin the perfect comfort they have).  This particular design isn't something anyone has, though, and so I doubt whether anyone will ever make it.  In the meantime, I'll enjoy the solution I have (and check again in two years to see if any advances have been made).