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Until recently, using a mobile phone through a wireless headset in public left people in danger of looking as if they were refugees from a call centre.
Large, ungainly headsets were most definitely not cool.
While new small, sleek models may not yet have attained the status of fashion accessory that has been acquired by many of the phones they support, you’re going to look more like a secret agent than a customer care consultant while wearing one.
But cool or not, the market for headsets is expanding.
We’ve become so attached to our mobile phones that many people confess that forgetting their handset is worse than leaving their wallet at home.
But wanting to have your phone to hand doesn’t mean that you want it in your hand, especially if you have a chunky personal digital assistant phone.
With a wireless headset, you can keep your phone in your pocket or your briefcase and answer calls without fumbling for the keypad.
In fact, you can get up to 30ft away from your phone and still be able to talk.
If you want to talk in the car, a wireless headset means you don’t have to take your hands off the wheel, get wires tangled round the gear stick – or break the law.
In many countries you are not allowed to hold a phone while driving but it’s OK to answer and make calls from a wireless headset.
The best wireless headsets give you the same audio quality as your mobile phone: Plantronics, Jabra, Logitech, Motorola and Nokia all have good models.
Cheap headsets tend to sound tinny or suffer from static and they’re more likely to lose the connection to your phone.
Check the volume for both ends of the call, especially if the microphone is closer to your ear than to your lips.
Noise-cancelling microphones try to cut out background noise.
Logitech’s WindStop feature is particularly good at dealing with wind noise, including in-car air conditioning.
Everyone’s ears vary, so you’ll need to try on headsets to find one that feels comfortable.
Look for an adjustable ear clip or one that swivels so that you can swap the headset from ear to ear.
If you get really comfortable using a headset, Plantronic’s Voyager 510 plugs into desktop phones as well, so you can use it for all your calls (including VOIP from a Bluetooth-equipped PC).
The lighter the headset the better, but some very small models fit into your ear rather than over it which is no more comfortable than a wired headset.
Smaller headsets usually have shorter battery life: four to six hours talk time, rather than six to eight for larger units, and four or five days standby rather than up to 10.
Any headset will last through a typical day’s calls.
Not all headsets come with a charger.
Models from mobile phone manufacturers often use the same charger as their phones, but even if you have the same make of phone, you can’t charge your phone and headset at the same time.
Smaller headsets also leave less room for the controls or a display. Nokia’s solution for that is the Wireless Image Headset with a separate display that you can hang round your neck.
It shows your address book, caller ID details or an image but the headset itself is an earbud on a wire.
Jabra’s BT800 puts a two-line screen on the headset instead, to give you caller ID and a list of recent calls. It even has a choice of five ringtones and vibrate mode.
If you can’t get comfortable with a headset in your ear and the speakerphone options don’t measure up, check out Bluetooth speakerphones such as the Jabra SP500.
You can’t have a conversation walking down the street but you can leave the speakerphone on your desk or clip it on to your steering wheel.
Alternatively, Motorola has a pendant-style headset to hang round your neck. You can even get a motor-cycle helmet or sunglasses with a headset built in.
But while small and hidden might be beautiful, if you’re not careful, you will look as though you’re talking to yourself.
■As adoption rates of Bluetooth headsets have accelerated prices have come down rapidly, making the technology accessible to all budgets.
Aldi, the European retailer, is currently marketing a Tevion headset at just under £20 (€30), although the great majority of headsets start at twice that price.
At the higher end of the market, the Plantronics Voyager 510 is available from Amazon.com for $55, while the same site lists the Jabra SP500 speakerphone for $80.
Spearheading the journey towards making headsets fashionable is Motorola’s pink H500 headset, which is available in the UK from Carphone Warehouse for £60 and for €60 in continental Europe at some outlets of the retailer’s The Phone House stores.
How to choose the best option
Wireless headsets work with Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones. Bluetooth gives the phone an extra radio, so you can connect to it without plugging in cables.
To keep things secure you have to “pair” your headset with your phone, so you don’t get calls coming through from anyone else’s phone. If your mobile doesn’t have Bluetooth you can plug in an adapter so you can use a wireless headset.
The two latest versions of Bluetooth (1.1 and 1.2) both work well. But even though Bluetooth is a standard, you can’t be certain that any headset will work with any phone because there are two different ways of connecting.
The Bluetooth headset profile is the simpler connection that many phones and most headsets use; it lets you start or end a call but nothing else and it doesn’t work with the Bluetooth connections built in to some cars.
Some Nokia phones don’t include the headset profile, but they do have the more powerful hands free profile. That was designed for use with car kits that give you a separate set of controls or even another screen, so it has more features. You can see who’s calling, reject the call if you choose, redial the last number or use voice dialling.
Newer headsets support the hands free profile; to avoid problems look for a model that has both.
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