cheapism

Can you hear me now? Best budget Bluetooth headsets

April 4, 2012 at 11:43 AM ET

Motorola /
The Motorola HX550 weighs only 9 grams, but has powerful sound.

Chapel Hill, N.C., has become the first town in the U.S. to forbid drivers to use hands-free devices. In many other places, however, Bluetooth headsets remain the only way to legally talk on a cell phone while driving. A high-end headset from Bose can cost around $150, but brands such as Sony, Motorola, and Samsung sell these must-have mobile accessories for less than $50.

Below are Cheapism’s top picks for affordable Bluetooth headsets.

  • The Motorola HX550 (starting at $39) impresses consumers and expert reviewers with the clarity of the sound on both ends of the line. It weighs only 9 grams, and users find it comfortable enough to wear continuously on long drives. It promises 9 hours of talk time and 16 days of standby time. (Where to buy)
  • The LG Tone HBS-700 (starting at $45) is a stereo headset, with buds for both ears, that circles around behind the user’s neck and vibrates when a call comes in. Consumers and experts admire the design, as well as the battery life: 10 hours of talk time and 15 days on standby. (Where to buy)
  • The Jabra Wave (starting at $42) has a long microphone that perches closer to the user’s mouth than the mikes on most other headsets, which might help account for the good sound quality reported in reviews. The advertised battery life is 6 hours of talk time and 8
  • days on standby. (Where to buy)
  • The Jawbone Icon (starting at $50) comes in different finishes that make it look less like a Bluetooth earpiece and more like a fashion accessory. More than its appearance, users posting reviews appreciate its performance. It boasts a Voice Activity Sensor intended to detect the vibrations of your speech and transmit the sound more clearly. (Where to buy)

All our picks employ some sort of noise canceling or noise reduction intended to minimize sounds other than the user’s voice. Manufacturers tout proprietary features with names like CrystalTalk and NoiseAssassin, but in general the technology seems to be adequate, if not excellent, at this price level.

The Bluetooth headsets on our list can all be paired with more than one device -- both your work phone and your personal cell phone, for example -- at the same time. They also support A2DP (advanced audio distribution profile), for streaming music and podcasts. The LG Tone is the only stereo headset in the bunch; the rest are more typical monaural designs that go on or in one ear. They come with various sizes of earbud covers for a precise fit.

Choose a Bluetooth headset with a battery life at least as long as your phone’s, so the device doesn’t frustrate you by dying in the middle of a call. Our picks feature audio alerts that let users know how much battery remains. The Motorola and LG models offer Android users the potential to listen to text messages by downloading an app for their phones. After all, the cell phone bans encompass texting, too.

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