Tag: Bluetooth headset

Are noise-cancelling headphones relevant during the COVID-19 lockdowns

Sony WH-1000XM4 Bluetooth noise-cancelling headset press image courtesy of Sony

Sony WH-1000XM4 Bluetooth active-noise-cancelling headset – still relevant as we stay at home

When we see the likes of Bose and Sony launch new active-noise-cancelling headphones during the time of coronavirus-driven isolation, we may think that headphones like these are totally irrelevant now.

Such thoughts will come across our mind when it comes to portable technology like laptop computers where it is seen as an unnecessary expense. It is as we see these COVID-19 stay-at-home requirements as a time of slowing down and contemplating the need for any perceived flamboyance.

This is because we aren’t travelling at all or travelling very infrequently as a measu re to reduce virus infection. But these headphones are still very relevant nowadays in some way even during the short term.

If you have heating or air-conditioning at home that becomes noisy during active operation, they can come in very handy.This may also apply to those of us with older desktop computers that have noisy fans as well.

Here, the operating noise associated with these devices can become annoying and distracting and these headphones can mask it out just like they can when it comes to transport noise. If you find that your equipment changes its operating noise level during use, usually in order to answer actual heating or cooling needs, you may find that change of noise level distracting. Again, the noise-cancelling headsets can come in to play here.

Even though the cities are quieter now, you may find that there is some excess noise from remnant vehicles moving around the streets past your place. Add to this people using tools powered by small engines such as during the weekends when most households are maintaining their lawns and gardens. Here, these noises can be very distracting especially if you are listening to podcasts or engaging in videocalls.

Zoom (MacOS) multi-party video conference screenshot

They can come in very handy with those Zoom calls

Let’s not forget that most of these headsets excel as communications headsets which will be of benefit for those Zoom, Skype, or Microsoft Teams videoconferences. Here, the newer headsets are about improved intelligibility during these calls. The newer better noise-cancelling headsets even use microphone arrays to capture your voice more easily even while there is background noise around you.

Over-the-head-type noise-cancelling headsets do perform well with music thanks to larger drivers that allow for improved bass. This may also be of benefit with other content like video content you watch through Netflix or similar video-on-demand services, or whenever you play games and you want that bit of extra punch on those sound effects.

There is also the fact that the COVID-19 plague will be tamed through the use of vaccines and medical treatments that are proven to be effective. It is in addition to better knowledge gained through experience on how to deal with particular outbreaks.  Here, we may be then in a position to travel longer distances whether by land, sea or air. The noise-cancelling headphones will then come in to their own while you get back to travelling.

I would still consider active-noise-cancelling headphones very relevant for most people even through these uncertain times where we are at home more.

Sony releases the WH-1000XM4 headphones to put themselves ahead in the headphone battle

Article

Sony WH-1000XM4 Bluetooth noise-cancelling headset press image courtesy of Sony

Sony WH-1000XM4 Bluetooth active-noise-cancelling headset

Sony Has Practically Perfected Noise Cancelling Wireless Headphones | Gizmodo Australia

From the horse’s mouth

Sony Electronics

WH-1000XM4 active noise-cancelling Bluetooth headset

The best just got better – Sony announces WH-1000XM4 industry-leading wireless noise cancelling headphones (Press Release)

Product Page

Announcement Video – Click or tap to play on YouTube

Promotional Video – Click or tap to play on YouTube

Initial price: AUD$549

My Comments

Sony has now raised the bar when it comes to the ideal set of over-the-ear Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones. This is with the fight that is going on between Bose, themselves and Bang & Olufsen to achieve the ideal active noise-cancelling headphone experience with their entry being the WH-1000XM3 headset.

This successor, known as the WH-1000XM4, follows on with what the previous model offers like Bluetooth (Hands Free Profile, A2DP, AVRCP) and the optimised active-noise cancelling. But the Bluetooth audio functionality has support for Sony’s codecs that permit playback of high-resolution audio along with audio optimisation for lossy compressed-audio files.

The active-noise-cancelling has been improved to increased useability in real-world scenarios. This includes optimisation of its functionality for situation-specific requirements like hearing transport announcements or background music played over the vehicle’s or aircraft’s audio setup.

There is even the ability to set the Sony WH-1000XM4 cans up to pause your music and admit ambient sound whenever you want to engage in conversation with other people. This can be done fully automatically when you start speaking or semi-automatically when you cap your hand over one of the earcups.

As well, you have touch control for your device so that you swipe in particular directions to switch tracks or raise and lower the volume or tap the headset to start and stop the music or answer and end a call. There is also a button that can be mapped for use with voice assistants or to manage the active-noise-cancelling function.

But Sony has improved on the multipoint functionality that allows the headset to work with two Bluetooth devices concurrently. Here, it switches automatically between the devices based on whatever audio signal is being offered by the device.

But by following the review chatter, Sony has been able to refine the successor to the WH-1000XM3 Bluetooth noise-cancelling headset in order to create the ideal product in this class. Who knows what the competitors will have in store when they revise their products.

Major improvements expected to come to Bluetooth audio

Article

Creative Labs Stage Air desktop soundbar press picture courtesy of Creative Corporation

The Bluetooth connectivity that the Creative Labs Stage Air desktop soundbar benefits from will be improved in an evolutionary way

The future of Bluetooth audio: Major changes coming later this year | Android Authority

My Comments

One of Bluetooth’s killer applications, especially for smartphones and tablets, is a wireless link between a headset, speaker or sound system to reproduce audio content held on the host computing device.

At the moment, the high-end for this use case is being fought strongly by some very determined companies. Firstly, Bose, Sony and Bang & Olufsen are competing with each other for the best active-noise-cancelling over-the-ear Bluetooth headset that you can use while travelling. This is while Apple and Sony are vying for top place when it comes to the “true-wireless” in-ear Bluetooth headset. It is showing that the Bluetooth wireless-audio feature is infact part of a desirable feature set for headphones intended to be used with smartphones, tablets or laptops.

Let’s not forget that recently-built cars and recently-made aftermarket car-stereo head units are equipped with Bluetooth for communications and multimedia audio content. This is part of assuring drivers can concentrate on the road while they are driving.

JBL E45BT Bluetooth wireless headset

.. just like headsets like this JBL one

But this technology is to evolve over the second half of 2019 with products based on the improved technology expected to appear realistically by mid 2020. Like with Bluetooth Low Energy and similar technologies, the host and accessory devices will be dual-mode devices that support current-generation and next-generation Bluetooth Audio. This will lead to backward compatibility and “best-case” operation for both classes of device.

There is an expectation that they will be offered at a price premium for early adopters but the provision of a single chipset for both modes could lead towards more affordable devices. A question that can easily be raised is whether the improvements offered by next-generation Bluetooth audio can be provided to current-generation Bluetooth hosts or accessory devices through a software upgrade especially where a software-defined architecture is in place.

What will it offer?

USB-C connector on Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus smartphone

… like with the upcoming generation of smartphones

The first major feature to be offered by next-generation Bluetooth audio technology is a Bluetooth-designed high-quality audio codec to repackage the audio content for transmission between the host and accessory.

This is intended to replace the need for a smartphone or headset to implement third-party audio codecs like aptX or LDAC if the goal is to assure sound quality that is CD-grade or better. It means that the device designers don’t need to end up licensing these codecs from third parties which will lead to higher-quality products at affordable prices along with removing the balkanisation associated with implementing the different codecs at source and endpoint.

A question that will be raised is what will be the maximum audio quality standard available to the new codec – whether this will be CD-quality sound working up to 16-bit 48kHz sampling rate or master-quality sound working up to 24-bit 192kHz sampling rate. Similarly, could these technologies be implemented in communications audio especially where wide-bandwidth FM-grade audio is being added to voice and video communications technologies for better voice quality and intelligibility thanks to wider bandwidth being available for this purpose.

Another key improvement that will be expected is reduced latency to a point where it isn’t noticeable. This will appeal to the gaming headset market where latency is important because sound effects within games are very important as audio cues for what is happening in a game. It may also be of benefit if you are making or taking videocalls and use your Bluetooth headset to converse with the caller. Here, it will open up the market for Bluetooth-based wireless gaming headsets.

It will also open up Bluetooth audio towards the “many-endpoint” sound-reproduction applications where multiple endpoints like headsets or speakers receive the same audio stream from the same audio source. In these use cases, you can’t have any endpoint receiving the program material reproducing the material later than others receiving the same material.

A key application that will come about is to implement Bluetooth in a multiple-channel speaker setup including a surround-sound setup. This will be a very critical application due to the requirement to reproduce each channel of the audio content stream concurrently and in phase.

It will also legitimise Bluetooth as an alternative wireless link to Wi-Fi wireless networks for multiroom audio setups. As well, the support for “many-endpoint” sound-reproduction will appeal to headsets and hearing-aid applications where there is the desire to send content to many of these devices using a high-quality wireless digital approach rather than RF or induction-loop setups that may be limited in sound quality (in the case of induction-loop setups) or device compatibility (in the case of RF setups). There could even be the ability to support multiple audio-content channels in this setup such as supporting alternative languages or audio description. In some cases, it may open up a use case where transport announcements heard in an airport or rail station can “punch through” over music, video or game sound-effects heard over a Bluetooth headset in a similar way to European car radios can be set up to allow traffic bulletins to override other audio sources.

A question that can be raised with the “many-endpoint” approach that this next-generation Bluetooth-audio technology is to support is whether this can support different connection topologies. This includes “daisy-chaining” speakers so that they are paired to each other for, perhaps a multi-channel setup; using a “hub-and-spoke” approach with multiple headsets or speakers connected to the same source endpoint; or a combination of both topologies including exploiting mesh abilities being introduced to Bluetooth.

Conclusion

From next year, as the newer generations of smartphones, laptops, headsets and other Bluetooth-audio-capable equipment are released, there will be a gradual improvement in the quality and utility of these devices’ audio functions.

Product Review–JBL E45BT On-Ear Bluetooth Headset

Introduction

I am reviewing the JBL E45BT Bluetooth headset which is a Bluetooth-equipped follow-on for the JBL E30 headset that I previously reviewed. It is my first effort at reviewing a Bluetooth headset that JBL is positioning as one that is fit for general-purpose applications.

JBL E45BT Bluetooth wireless headset

Price

RRP: AUD$149.95

Headset Type

Headphone Assembly Traditional over-the-ear
Driver Positioning Supra-aural (sits on the ear)
Driver Enclosure Closed back
Primary sound path Digital
Microphone position Microphone integrated in earcup

Functionality

Pitched for Commuting / street-use
Active Noise Cancellation No
Remote Control Music Transport (Bluetooth AVRCP)
Sound Volume
Call control (Wired / Bluetooth HFP)
Voice Assistant (Wired)

Connectivity

Connection for main operation Wired
Bluetooth 4.0 wireless
Wired path 2.5mm 4-pole analogue jack
Supplementary adaptors 3.5mm headset cord

The headset itself

The JBL E45BT On-Ear Bluetooth Headset is capable of being a wired headset using an included wired-headset cable that has a built-in microphone and control button. Or it can become a standalone Bluetooth wireless headset when linked to your smartphone or computer via Bluetooth.

As far a storage is concerned, both of the earcups can be swiveled flat and parallel with the headband. This makes for compact storage in your briefcase, laptop bag or other personal luggage.

Connectivity and Functionality

The JBL E45BT Bluetooth headset honours the Bluetooth Hands-Free and A2DP / AVRCP application profiles thus allowing it to work as a headset for a communications device or a music-playback device compliant to these standards.

The remote-control buttons for the volume and call-management functions are on the right-hand earcup, but JBL could make the middle button which serves as a play/pause or call answer/end button have a different tactile feel so it is easy to identify quickly. You have to hold the volume buttons down until you hear a beep to activate track-skip functionality.

JBL E45BT Bluetooth headset Bluetooth controls and wired-headset socket

Volume / media-transport controls for Bluetooth, wired headset socket, Bluetooth pairing button

This control arrangement doesn’t allow you to start redialling a missed call or busy number or instigate a session with Siri or the Google Assistant using Bluetooth. But it provides what is essential to start and stop music, take calls, change tracks or adjust the sound.

Users can connect the JBL E45BT to the host device in a wired manner using the supplied headset cord, something that can come in handy if the headset’s battery had died out or you have to operate your mobile device on “flight mode” where you can’t use its wireless functionality. But you can’t enable Bluetooth operation while you are using the wired connection, which puts aside the idea of connecting it to a Walkman, portable radio or iPod while having it monitor your smartphone for calls.

Multipoint support for two devices

There is multipoint support so you can use one pair of these headphones with two host devices. One situation that this can cater for would be if you use two phones such as a personal phone tied with your own account and a work-supplied phone tied to your employer’s account. Or it could cater towards you using a smartphone and a laptop or tablet at the same time with the laptop or tablet being used with video content, music or games while you have the smartphone ready to answer calls.

JBL E45BT Bluetooth headset MicroUSB charging port

MicroUSB charging port on left hand earcup

The setup procedure is relatively simple by you pressing the Bluetooth button on the headset’s right earcup to make it discoverable for the second source device then using the second device’s user interface to connect with the headset. In the case of a Windows-10-equipped laptop, you would use the Bluetooth menu in the Devices part of the Control Panel and click “Add A Device”. The headset will then be exclusively used by the second device.

Then your press the Bluetooth button again on the headset to make the headset discoverable and reconnect the original host device to the headset using that device’s user interface. Here, you have established a simple multipoint setup where whichever source device “comes on” plays through the headset. Phone calls or communications applications on each of the host devices that use the Bluetooth Hands Free Profile will always have priority over either device’s multimedia sources.

The multipoint functionality is destroyed if either device is disconnected but the JBL headset will normally re-establish this setup if you simply enable the connection again for both the same host devices.

Comfort

The user-comfort level for the JBL E45BT headset is very similar to most of the recent supra-aural headsets in that they don’t feel heavy or hard on your head even after a long time of use. The vinyl-covered earcups don’t even become sticky when you use this headset on a hot day.

Sound Quality

Music

The JBL E45BT Bluetooth headset can handle strong bass response but you need to use equalisation at the source device to ramp up the bass and treble. Other than than it does well with music and similar content.

As well, it conveys a sound quality that doesn’t cause listener fatigue during extended listening.

Video and game content

I have watched a foreign-language European TV crime drama and had found that the voices come through intelligibly and clearly with the full weight. As well, the sound effects came through clearly and naturally especially with gunshot or vehicle sounds which will also matter with the games played by “core” gamers.

Communications on phone or computer

The JBL E45BT Bluetooth headset even works well for communications applications with the ability to hear whom I talk to clearly while they can understand me. It doesn’t matter whether it is the regular mobile-telephony use or through one of the various VoIP services. As well, it can handle soft-spoken callers or those with a distinct accent as well as those who are on a difficult connection.

Noise Reduction and handling of noisy environments

I assess headphones also to identify how they perform in noisy environments like on a bus or in an underground train. This is to assess how they would cope when being used to provide you with entertainment while travelling on public transport or whether they can even shut out a noisy environment so you can make that videocall or listen to some music.

The JBL E45BT Bluetooth headset doesn’t provide much in the way of noise reduction and you would have to make sure your program material or your phone’s call-volume setting was significantly loud if you want to have it compete in a noisy environment. This is something that would be expected for on-ear headphones.

Limitations and Points Of Improvement

One key feature that the JBL E45BT is mission out on is the ability to support a “press-and-hold” operation for the Play/Pause/Call button. This would provide access to voice-driven operation on smartphones that run a voice-driven personal assistant, or could allow the ability to use the headset’s buttons to redial the last call you made or a call you missed.

Personally, I would like to see the microUSB connection on a headset used not just for charging a Bluetooth wireless headset like the JBL E45BT. Here, I would like to see these devices implement the USB Audio Class and Human Interface Device classes so they can become a wired digital headset when connected to a host device using a USB or Apple Lightning connection. This could be seen as a way to provide high-quality digital audio from a laptop or newer smartphone especially where the 3.5mm audio jack is likely to be seen as being one the way out.

As for the battery, I would personally like to see it being user-replaceable so you can keep the headset going as a Bluetooth headset for a long time rather than throwing it away if the battery starts to die out.

JBL could provide support for concurrent “wired + wireless” operation so that the headset could work as a wireless headset for one device but as wired headphones for another device. A situation where this can come in handy is whenever you use a headset like this with a music player or portable radio for audio content and your smartphone for calls. This situation is underscored especially with portable FM or DAB radios that use the headphone cable as their antenna, but is also underscored if you are using legacy media like cassettes or CDs or are using a high-capacity digital audio player for your music.

Another issue still to be ironed out with the use of Bluetooth headsets is to allow you to manage calls from VoIP platform software like Facebook Messenger or Viber using the controls on these headsets. At least this should be about the call-control buttons to answer or end an incoming call, but it will be an issue that needs to be addressed by Apple and Google as part of developing their iOS and Android mobile operating systems.

Conclusion

The JBL E45BT represents what is feasible for a good-quality baseline “over-the-ear” Bluetooth headset. Here, I would recommend this headset as something to be after if you want a general-purpose headset to work with your smartphone, tablet or laptop.

Bose offers headphones optimised for Google Assistant

Article – From the horse’s mouth

Bose QuietComfort QC35 II noise-cancelling Bluetooth headset optimised for Google Assistant - Press picture courtesy of Bose Corporation

Bose QuietComfort QC35 II noise cancelling Bluetooth headset optimised for Google Assistant – a sign of things to come for mobile audio accessories

Google

Headphones optimized for the Google Assistant (Blog Post)

Bose

Redefines Sport Headphones with Truly Wireless SoundSport Free (Press Release)

QuietComfort QC35 II Wireless Headphones (Product Page – USA)

– Bluetooth circum-aural closed-back noise-cancelling headset

My Comments

A trend that will be surfacing with the voice-driven personal assistants is that the speaker or headset device doesn’t need to be directly connected to a home network to access the Internet.

Here, some of these devices will connect to a computer or mobile device via Bluetooth or a similar technology but work in an “app-cessory” manner with a vendor-supplied app. Here, this app will serve as a gateway to a voice-driven personal assistant platform which can be hosted natively or through an add-on app, with this function activated through a dedicated button on the audio accessory device.

The first example of these is the Bose QuietComfort QC35 II which is an active noise-cancelling over-the-ear headset, but this setup will also appear with more headphones products from Bose. In this case, the headset connects to the smartphone via Bluetooth and works with a Bose-supplied control app but works hand in glove with the Google Assistant app, available for Android and iOS.

But all audio accessories should be able to work with Siri, Google Now, Bixby and Cortana

There is a special button on the Bose QuietComfort headset that is mapped by the control app to trigger Google Assistant while messages that come in are read by Google Assistant in a text-to-voice manner. You will expect the Google Assistant to do what it can including providing voice-driven access to resources. This is while the headset is optimised to work at its best with voice recognition even when faced with noisy environments like public transport.

As I was highlighting in the last paragraph, such devices will be acoustically optimised for error-free voice recognition, preferably with the chosen platform. One method that will be commonly used would be to implement a microphone array that uses the multiple microphones to focus on the user’s voice.

This will be augmented with dynamic sound enhancement for the voice-driven personal assistant platform so that you can hear the personal assistant clearly when it replies.

But could these headphones and speakers be seen as a gimmick when any wired or Bluetooth headset can work with your mobile platform’s integral voice assistant without the need for any extra software? This is where you can, for example, dwell on the “call” button on your headset to invoke Siri or Google Now, then interact with that assistant to make a call or send a message for example.

Personally, I would just like to see the voice-recognition abilities of an audio accessory improved so that they can work with whichever voice-driven personal assistant you use. This would be in the form of something like microphone arrays or something similar, along with a standard function mapping for voice-assistant buttons. Similarly, audio adaptors and wearables like smartwatches and fitness bands could be focused towards supporting the “visual component” of voice-driven personal-assistant platforms by showing visual information on their displays that augment the voice-driven experience.

Mixing audio and Bluetooth Low Energy–what is happening

Article

Sony SBH-52 Bluetooth Headphone Audio Adaptor

Audio over Bluetooth Low Energy could make these devices last for a long time on a single battery charge

Apple Used Bluetooth Low Energy Audio for Cochlear Implant iPhone Accessory | MacRumors

My Comments

Any of you who have used Bluetooth headsets with your smartphones may have come across situations where the headset ceases to function or sounds the “low battery” signal when you use these devices a lot. This can happen more so if you are listening to music then make or take a long phone call using the headset and is something I had experienced many times with the Sony SBH-52 audio adaptor. But the audio protocol is being worked on to avoiding consuming too much battery runtime.

Plantronics BackBeat Pro Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones

.. as it could with Bluetooth headsets

Apple and Cochlear, who are behind the Australian-invented Cochlear Implant hearing-assistance technology, have developed Bluetooth Low Energy Audio to provide a high-quality audio link between mobile devices and headsets but make very little demands on the battery. As well, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group are working on a similar protocol to achieve these same gains, with the goal to have it part of Bluetooth 5.0. But this has to be supported in a vendor-independent manner in the same context as the current Bluetooth audio technologies that are in circulation.

But why is there an imperative to develop a low-energy audio profile for Bluetooth?

One key usage class is to integrate Bluetooth audio functionality in to hearing aids and similar hearing-assistance devices that are expected to run for a very long time. Here, we are also talking about very small intra-aural devices that may sit in or on your ear or be integrated in a set of eyeglasses. The goal is to allow not just for audio access to your smartphone during calls or multimedia activity but even to have an audio pathway from the phone’s microphone to the hearing-assistance device as well as the phone being a control surface for that device.

Similarly, there is a usage goal to improve battery runtime for Bluetooth headsets and audio adaptors such as to avoid the situation I have described above. It can also cater towards improved intra-aural Bluetooth headset designs or lightweight designs that can, again, run for a long time.

Let’s not forget the fact that smartwatches are being given audio abilities, typically to allow for use with a voice-activated personal assistant. But devices of this ilk could be set up to serve full time as a Bluetooth headphone audio adaptor with the full hands-free operation. The expectation here as well could even be to have the display on the wearable active while in use, whether to show the time, steps taken or metadata about the call in progress or whatever you are listening to.

Once audio over Bluetooth Low Energy technology is standardised, it could be a major improvement path for Bluetooth-based audio applications.

Bone-conductivity technology rises in the common space once again

Article

Check out these cool sunglasses with built-in bone conducting headphones | Android Authority

From the horse’s mouth

Zungle

Kickstarter campaign

Video – click or tap to play

My Comments

In the early 1980s, an electronics company tried out a common application for bone-conductivity personal audio technology by selling to a mail-order gadget-supply company and to Radio Shack (Tandy) an AM/FM stereo headphone radio that implemented this technology. This radio, known as the “Bone Fone” and powered by 4 AA batteries, dropped around your neck like a shawl and used bone-conductivity technology to bring your favourite broadcast’s audio to your ears.  You were able to hear your music privately through the sound being transduced through your neck clavicle bone to your ears.

It was found to be heavy but the technology has resurfaced in another application that would be seen to be popular. This time it is a pair of sunglasses that use an integrated Bluetooth headset that exploits this technology. These Zungle Panther sunglasses, modelled on the Oakley Frogskins, don’t require you to wear headphones or an earbud to hear your music or caller due to this technology. Rather they use your skull bone as the transducing surface.

These glasses link to your smartphone using Bluetooth 4.1 technology as a way to save battery runtime for both devices. They also implement a jog wheel to allow you to control audio playback as well as implementing a noise-cancelling microphone when you make and take calls or ask something of Siri, Google Now or Cortana.

For their power, the bone-conducting Zungle Panther glasses implement a 300mAh battery that uses the same microUSB charging connectivity as most of the current Bluetooth headsets.

Because of what they do, they may be considered to be bulky like a set of 3D glasses used for watching a 3D movie at the cinema but they weigh in at 45g. They were found to earn their keep for cyclists and other road users who want to keep their ears open to hear for traffic.

There is actually a Kickstarter campaign to get the bone-conductivity glasses idea off the ground with a starting price of US$99.

Using Bluetooth audio devices with your laptop computer

Braven BRV-X outdoor Bluetooth speaker

Braven BRV-X outdoor Bluetooth speaker – another of many Bluetooth speakers with speakerphone functionality

There is an increasing number of Bluetooth-connected wireless audio devices available for  use with smartphones and similar devices. But you may want to use these headsets, audio adaptors, Bluetooth speakers or Bluetooth-integrated audio devices with your laptop instead of those tiny speakers that are the norm for these computers. The best example for the speakers would be the Bose SoundDock speakers, especially the SoundDock 10, due to its good bass response, when used with the Bluetooth adaptor. As well, I ran a test setup with the Motorola DC800 Bluetooth adaptor connected to an older Sony boombox and had the review-sample Fujitsu LH772 laptop being fed through this Bluetooth adaptor.

Similarly, there are those of us who may want to use a Bluetooth headset like the Plantronics BackBeat Pro with a laptop computer so you can roam around the office or home listening to your favourite tunes or podcast or as a contingency measure to avoid missing that important VoIP call.

How a Bluetooth audio setup would function for a laptop

You can achieve these setups with Bluetooth-equipped laptops that run Windows 7, MacOS X Snow Leopard and Linux and newer versions of these operating systems. This is due to the supply of a class driver for the Bluetooth A2DP audio profile  and Hands Free Profile as part of the operating system distributions.

Initial setup

First, you have to set up the Bluetooth A2DP-capable audio device to become discoverable. The method for this is explained in the instructions that come with the device but you typically may have to hold down a setup button to achieve this goal.

Plantronics BackBeat Pro Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones

Headphones you can treat your laptop to

Then you have to put the computer in to a “Bluetooth setup” mode in order to annex the device to the operating system. In WIndows 7, you would have to click on “Devices and Printers”, then click “Add Device”.

After you complete these procedures, both the device and the computer start to pair up and identify themselves to each other. The computer would then find and install the A2DP audio-device class drivers that are part of the operating system. In some cases, the class driver may be fetched from Microsoft’s or Apple’s Website. The same thing will also happen with the Bluetooth Hands-Free Profile or Bluetooth Headset Profile when you initially connect a Bluetooth headset, headphone audio adaptor or other device equipped for communications functionality.

Now the Bluetooth audio device is defined as a sound device and some Windows setups may have it run as the default audio device for all of the laptop’s sound output.

Which sound device

Bluetooth device listed alongside default audio device

List of audio playback devices including the Bluetooth audio device

But you may want to have a split setup so that music and video sound go to the Bluetooth speakers and all of the notification sounds come via the laptop speakers. Here, you would have to set the integrated sound subsystem as the default audio device. Then you would have to set iTunes, Windows Media Player or other media-management software to use the Bluetooth A2DP audio device.

This latter setup may not work well with software like games, the Spotify desktop program or Web browsers where there isn’t an option to specify the sound output device for that application. Here, you would have to specify the Bluetooth audio device as your default audio device to have the soundtrack from video on demand including YouTube videos, or your Spotify playlist coming through that device.

Bluetooth headsets and speakers with speakerphone functionality will cause Windows to purpose the Bluetooth Hands-Free Profile or Headset Profile as a Communications Device and may cause Windows 7 to determine it as a Default Communications Device.

Sound devices that you can send an app’s sound output through

Windows 10 has improved on this problem by allowing you to use the operating system’s user interface to determine which audio output device a program uses. But if you are using a Web browser, the same audio device will be used for all sessions of that browser, whether they appear as separate tabs or separate windows. In this situation, you would have to have the audio output device associated with your laptop’s inbuilt speakers as the default audio device while you set Spotify or a similar multimedia program to play through the Bluetooth device. This is available for the Windows 10 April Update (Build 1803) available since May 2018 and newer versions of that operating system.

The controls on these Bluetooth devices should map through to the applications’ controls courtesy of operating system support for Bluetooth AVRCP control profile for media navigation and the call-control functionality of the Hands-Free and Headset Profiles. This will apply to applications that currently have the focus for media playback or communications.

Multipoint Operation

The Sony SBH-52 Bluetooth Headphone Adaptor - supports multipoint operation for two devices

The Sony SBH-52 Bluetooth Headphone Adaptor – supports multipoint operation for two devices

An increasing number of communications-capable Bluetooth devices have support for “multipoint” operation where they can work with two different source devices. This function is typically to support people who use two mobile phones such as a “personal” one and a “work” one.

As I discovered when reviewing the Sony SBH-52 Bluetooth headphone adaptor, I found that this function can also work with a computer. This can be of use if you are maintaining a playlist or listening to Web content on your laptop.

Here, you have to determine which device is your “priority” device which allows the headset to primarily control that device. This is something you would do either through the device’s setup menu, a desktop or mobile control program or a certain keypress sequence depending on the device. But some devices like the JBL E45BT headphones may implement a simplified “priority-device” setup which is dependent on the device that you are currently using rather than you having to determine that role.

You may be able to at least use the call-control button to answer and end calls when you are using your secondary device. It is a good idea to set the laptop as the priority device when you are playing content from it or are wanting to use a VoIP app that may come across as being rickety.

Conclusion

Once you know what your Bluetooth-capable laptop can do with those Bluetooth audio accessories, you can then let it perform at its best with these devices and they don’t need juhst to be considered for mobile phones anymore.

Updates

This article is subject to regular updates based on my experience with newer Bluetooth hardware that I have reviewed along with highlighting the Bluetooth Hands-Free Profile used for communications purposes and multipoint operation offered by an increasing number of Bluetooth devices. It will also be updated as desktop operating systems are being refined for Bluetooth-device operation like what has happened with Windows 10’s April Update.

Product Review–Plantronics Backbeat Pro Bluetooth noise-cancelling headset

Introduction

I am reviewing the Plantronics Backbeat Pro Bluetooth noise-cancelling headset which is my first attempt at reviewing a headset equipped with two key features: Bluetooth wireless connectivity and active noise cancelling.

The former feature links to mobile devices and laptop computers via Bluetooth wireless technology while the latter detects noise associated with transport or fans using microphones and applies a “counter-noise” to this noise through the headset’s speakers. When you listen to program content or take a call, the sound from the external device such as the music or your caller’s voice is mixed in with the aforementioned “counter-noise” so you can hear that sound more clearly.

Plantronics BackBeat Pro Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones

Price

RRP:  AUD$349 (Street price AUD$299)

Type

Headphone Assembly Traditional over-the-head
Driver Positioning Circum-aural (over the ear with sound-containing foam wall)
Driver Enclosure Closed Back
Microphone Position Integrated microphone
Connectivity
Headset 3.5mm headset socket wired for Apple (CTIA)
Bluetooth
– A2DP audio with aptX
– Headset Profile
– Handsfree Profile with HD Voice
– Multipoint for 2 devices
Adaptors 3.5mm four-conductor headset cable

The headset itself

Connectivity and Usability

I was able to pair the Plantronics BackBeat Pro headset with my Samsung Galaxy Note 4 smartphone very quickly – this supported NFC-based pairing which is currently implemented in Android only. But with devices that don’t support it, you can start the pairing process without needing to hold down a button on the headset.  There is support for multipoint use with a simplified call-handling experience where you just touch one button to answer calls from any phone.

Plantronics BackBeat Pro Bluetooth noise-cancelling headset - right side earcup

Right side earcup with volume control and call handling button on earpiece

There is a 3.5mm four-conductor headset jack which connects to your device via a supplied cord that is wired for CTIA / Apple setups. This overrides the Bluetooth headset functionality so you can use the Backbeat in an airliner.

It is powered via an integrated rechargeable battery that lasts a long time – you could get a day or more out of the headset’s battery life when you are using it as a Bluetooth headset or as an active-noise-reduction headset with another device.

Plantronics BackBeat Pro Bluetooth noise-cancelling headset - right earcup

Left-side earcup with track navigation toggle, play-pause button on earcup and noise-cancellation switch

The controls are easy to discover with a large ring on the right earpiece to adjust the sound volume, a large ring on the left earpiece to move between tracks, a large button on the left earpiece for playing and pausing music and a large button on the right earpiece for handling calls. The power and noise-cancel slide switches are easy to discover and locate with the former on the right earpiece and the latter on the left earpiece.

Plantronics BackBeat Pro headset - sockets

Connectivity options – USB charging socket and 3.5mm headset input jack (wired for Apple / CTIA)

There is a motion sensor that starts and stops your music device when you put the headphones on and take them off. But this can be very erratic in some situations such as a rough road or rail ride or sometimes even putting them on a table and subsequently picking them up has me find that they start playing too early. A supplied configuration program can be used to adjust this function but I would prefer a hardware switch to enable and disable this function.

Comfort and Durability

The Plantronics Backbeat Pro has the same kind of comfort level expected for most circum-aural headsets and could be worn for a significant amount of time. You could feel that they were there without it feeling as though they are crushing on your head and the padded headband provided that feeling as if they were just there.

Plantronics BackBeat Pro Bluetooth noise-cancelling headset

Cloth speaker grilles assure comfortable long-time use

The ear surrounds even didn’t come across as something that could end up being sweaty. As well, your ears rest on foam cushioning with cloth lining the earpiece areas so as to allow for increased comfort. Here you even have the sides that each earcup represents written on the cloth lining itself. The only comfort tradeoff you may find with the Plantronics BackBeat Pro and its peers is that due to their hard construction, they may feel uncomfortable to use when you are sleeping if you sleep with your head on your side.

As for build quality, I would expect them to last a long time. This is through the use of durable design practices like thicker plastic and placing a plastic conduit which houses the cabling between the earpieces against an aluminium strip.

Sound

I was able to run the Plantronics Backbeat Pro headset at lower volumes while the sound is still audible which makes for a headset that is designed with efficient drivers. This would then allow for the headset to run on its own batteries for a long time yet be useable.

Music

The music came through loud and clear and with that desirable amount of bass response. I even disabled any equalisation curves in my media player and any in my phone to identify whether the bass response was there without the need for added equalisation and found that these headphones still delivered the punch in the music.

Video and Games

The Plantronics Backbeat Pro has come up trumps with video content in that it was able to yield clear dialogue and give punch to those effects. I was even keeping an ear out for effects like gunshots or vehicle moment while watching Kurt Wallander because they are the kind of effects used in some of the games liked by “core” gamers and they came through with that desirable punch.

Communications use

I have made and taken a few phone calls using the Plantronics Backbeat Pro Bluetooth headset and have noticed that the conversation came through clearly for both myself and the caller. I also tried the headset a few times with Google Now and the voice assistant could parse what I was saying easily. The headset call button worked as expected with the ability to tap twice to call the last number or tap and hold to invoke Google Now or Siri depending on your mobile device.

Noise reduction and handling in noisy environments

I used the Plantronics Backbeat Pro headset in the back of a transit bus and had noticed some level of noise reduction when the bus was at speed and was able to hear my music content more clearly.

Active Noise Cancelling

The Active Noise Cancelling function is available when the headset is switched on and can work either with a wired connection or the Bluetooth connection. Here, you then enable it using a slide switch on the left earpiece and can notice the difference.

Here, the rumbling associated with trains and the like is cancelled out using so-called anti-noise. There was a noticeable difference when I used it on the train in Melbourne’s City Loop because I heard very little of the rumbling associated with through-tunnel train travel but could have my music at a decent volume. The experience was also the same when I used this headset in a few different transit buses and the noise from the engine was significantly reduced. As well the noise-cancelling function had no effect on the BackBeat Pro’s bass response. In some situations, I could hear the destination announcements that were called over the train’s intercom or a radio station played over a rail-replacement charter bus’s sound system more clearly and intelligibly even if I had my music going.

The only problem with using Active Noise Cancelling is that if you want to simply just run that functionality without the headset working with another audio device, you have to plug something in to the 3.5mm jack to override the Bluetooth transceiver. This may be of annoyance for those of you who are trying to sleep on the overnight train or that night flight or use the Active Noise Cancelling to effectively mute out the air-conditioner’s noise while trying to go to sleep..

Limitations

The active noise cancelling function  could be set up to run independent of Bluetooth operation or having the headphone cable plugged in. This could be handy when you are in a noisy environment without needing to deal with a cable that can entangle you. An example of this could be to claw some sleep when you are in the plane or in a motel room where there is a noisy old air-conditioner.

The microUSB charging socket on this headset could be set up to work as a way to connect the headset to a computer and have it serve as a USB audio sound device for that computer. The controls could also be mapped through as USB Human Interface Device controls for multimedia and telephony use. This would earn its keep when you are on the plane and using a laptop which is set up for “flight mode”, or are using the headset with a desktop computer for online communications and gaming, especially as traditional “three-piece” desktop computers don’t necessarily support Bluetooth.

The Plantronics Backbeat Pro could benefit from a hardware switch to enable or disable the sensors that allow it to play or stop the music source if you take the headset off. This can be of importance where the ride is bumpy and this function could be susceptible to false triggering.

As well, the headphone cord could benefit from a switch which selects between OMTP / Apple (CTIA) headset wiring mode. This is because not all mobile phones and communications devices are wired for CTIA (Apple) mode and you may want to make sure that your BackBeat Pro could work with anything your present to.

As for adaptors, the Plantronics Backbeat Pro Bluetooth headset missed out on an inflight-entertainment adaptor which is considered abnormal for a noise-cancelling headset that would be typically used in an aeroplane.

Conclusion

I would recommend the Plantronics BackBeat Pro for those of you who value a Bluetooth noise-cancelling travel headset that excels on usability especially when you use your smartphone as a music player when you are travelling on public transport. As well, it would earn its keep with those of you who aren’t necessarily after the fashionable headset brands but are really after something that does the job.

If you do need to use this headset as an active-noise-reduction headset without the use of any program-source device, you could use a 3.5mm plug which you could purchase from an electronics store and plug this in to the audio jack on the headset.

Integrating a Bluetooth headset in to a beanie

Article

Get Your Hipster On with Bluetooth Beanie | Bluetooth Blog

From the horse’s mouth

TRNDLabs

Bluetooth Beanie

Product Page

Video

My Comments

I was surprised to come across a beanie-style hat that doubles as a Bluetooth headset for your smartphone. The copy in the Bluetooth SIG article highlighted it as being part of the hipster’s image including being able to shift around that trendy inner-urban area like San Fran, Newtown or Fitzroy on a bicycle.

But what was interesting was how the headset was integrated in to something that would normally be knitted. Here, the Bluetooth receiver module had one of the speakers and the microphone along with a group of buttons as its control surface and was connected to a secondary speaker which served as the other speaker for the stereo headset. These were inserted in to pockets knitted in to the beanie so as to allow one to remove them when they wash the hat – avoiding any damage to the electronics while it is being soaked in water and Wool-mix.

This device, which can be charged by a USB charger, can run for six hours on talk / music activities and works according to Bluetooth 3.0 with Handsfree (communications) profile and A2DP / AVRCP (music playback) profiles. It has an operating range of around 10 metres (33 feet), effectively ticking the boxes for essential Bluetooth headset functionality.

It is an example of how one can design mobile electronics for integration into clothing and footwear but making sure you can remove it when you want to wash the clothing. The Bluetooth receiver and speaker could be offered as a separate “short-form” accessory for those of us making our own headgear to convey our own identity or for those of us making and selling such headgear.