Review: Bluetooth Headphones

Review: Bluetooth Headphones

What: Bluetooth Headphones

  • Motorola S9
  • Motorola S10
  • Sony DR-BT160
  • Motorola S11 Flex HD
  • Motorola S11 HD
  • Plantronics Backbeat GO 2

Also mentioned:

  • Motorola HT-820
  • Motorola S-805
  • Qak Thump

Where: All over. My choices: Amazon.com or Best Buy

Cost:

  • Motorola S9 – NA (reference only)
  • Motorola S10 – $40 (Amazon) $NA Best Buy
  • Sony DR-BT160 – $NA
  • Motorola S11 Flex HD – $70 (Amazon) $130 Best Buy – but they’re limited to stock on hand
  • Motorola S11 HD – $72 (Amazon)   $100 (Best Buy)
  • Plantronics Backbeat GO 2 – $68.11 (basic) $81.26 (w/charging case) (Amazon) $80 or $100 (Best Buy)

Also mentioned:

  • Motorola HT-820 – $NA
  • Motorola S-805 – $NA
  • Qak Thump – $NA

Rating: Varies

Let me start this review by saying that it is LOOONG past when I had planned on posting it, but that has worked out well because I’ve been able to use several models that weren’t released when I first decided to write this. Some of the models I originally intended to review are no longer even available, but they serve as good comparisons. I’ve also found out that my favorite headphone on this list may not be available for much longer, at least retail. I’m also talking about Bluetooth headphones here, not headsets which I could do an even longer review of (net it out, the Motorola Oasis is my favorite to date).

I started using Bluetooth headphones at home because I wanted to listen to music and TV while walking on the treadmill. To overcome the noise of the treadmill I had to crank the volume and the whole house had to listen to what I was watching, so I started looking for another way to enjoy my media while exercising.

I found the Motorola DC800 Bluetooth Home Stereo AdaMotorola DC800pter (which I still use today) that plugs into the headphone jack or RCA audio outputs of any device. You can pair any Bluetooth headphones to it and voila you have a Bluetooth TV or a Bluetooth audio receiver. The DC800 is still available used on Amazon for about $70. My first headphones were Motorola HT-820s. They wrap over the ear and behind the head, and at first I liked them, but they clamped too hard on my noggin. Maybe someone with a smaller head (my hat size is only 7 ¼) would like them, but I could only Mototola HT820wear them for about 20 minutes before I got a headache. I also used the Motorola S-805, an over-the-ear, DJ stylmotorola-s805-blue-stereo-heroe headphone. I still have and use this one – they work perfectly – though some of the cheaper plastic bits have broken off. No longer made, you can get them used for $120 on Amazon, which is actually more than I paid for them five years ago. There are several similar models available from Sony and other manufacturers, but these aren’t the focus of this review.

As I moved from walking to running, these two styles didn’t work. First, the HT820’s gave me headaches an the S805 would fall off too easily, and second, I sweat when I run. A lot. These two models are not designed to deal with that kind of environment, so I began the search for running headphones.

I had actually run off and on for a few years, and I used regular corded headphones. I hated them. Invariably at some point in my run they would adhere to my sweaty neck (did I mention I sweat a lot when I run?) and when I would turn my head one way or another one of the ear pieces would pull out. It drove me crazy. NOT listening to music (or Zombies, Run! – see here for info) is not an option for me. I must have the distraction, particularly on long runs. Having had a taste of the wireless life on the treadmill, I wanted more when I took my togs outside.

My first set of Bluetooth headphones designed for running was the Motorola S9. motorola-s9It had a battery life of about 3 hours – long enough for most runs I would go on. It fit over the ears and around the back of the head. The charging port was sealed with a rubber flap. The problem with them is that after about one month the left ear shorted out.

I upgraded to the Motorola S10 when they came out. Identical in look and feel to the S9, the S10 is still available on Amazon for about $35. It worked alright, but again, the left ear shorted out after a brief period, rendering them effectively useless for me.

I also found BT headphones at a marathon expo that looked exactly like the S10, but they were made by QAK and were called the ‘Thump.’ I believe (but am not certain) that they were reverse engineered S10s made in China. But, they were $30 less than the S10, so I bought a pair. They advertised a 5 hour battery life and indeed they lasted the duration of my 4 hour 54 minute marathon the next day. But they crapped out after a week. QAK sent a new one to me with pre-paid shipping to return the defective headphones. The new pair shorted out in less than two weeks. They sent me a third pair which lasted almost a week. At that point I gave up.

I moved on to the Sony DR-BT160. They cost about $130 from the Sony store in the Cherry Creek Mall in Denver. To their credit, more than three yearsony-dr-bt160as-bluetooth-headsets later they still work. The ear buds adjust up and down and the design effectively moves sweat away from the ear bud. The drawback is that the arm the earbud is attached to is not under any tension so they don’t stay in the ear. I still use them sometimes in the winter when I wear a beanie while running because the beanie holds the earbuds in place. Other than that, I find them not very effective for running under normal conditions.

Next came the Motorola S-11. There are a couple of models. I have used the S-11 Flex HD, S11-FLEX-HD-Wireless-Stereo-Headphones-from-Motorola-Debut-2which has articulated earbuds that move up and down and rotate forward and backward, allowing you to find the perfect fit for your head shape and ear canal angle. There’s even an optional adjustable rubberized strap (included in the box) that you can use to secure the fit to the back of your head. I initially didn’t use it, but later found that it makes them more stable for running. They use silicon seals, which means they repel water and sweat. That’s important for me because, if you haven’t gotten the picture, I sweat a lot when I run.

Understanding that I am pretty hard on these things, after my experiences with the other BT headphones, I spent the extra money and bought them at Best Buy, and bought their replacement warranty which allows you to go in to any Best Buy store and swap them out if there’s any defect. You don’t have to wait for them to ship a new pair to you, you don’t have to ship the old ones back. It’s very, very convenient, but does cost more money. If you’re not as abusive to your headphones as I am, you could skip the replacement plan, but knowing how I am, it’s a must for me. In the end, I replaced the first pair after four months because they quit charging; the second pair after six months because the left earbud started popping intermittently, and the third pair lasted 10 months until I just replaced it with the S11 HD because the S11 Flex is no longer sold through Best Buy (you can get it elsewhere though). With more than 200 runs and 1400 miles on these three pairs of headphones, they’ve lasted longer and worked better than any others I’ve had.

As for the S-11 HD, they look very similar to the Flex, but lack the adjustable height of the earbuds that helps make Flex so, well, Flexible. However, the buds still rotate for a custom fit. Motorola S11 HDI honestly don’t miss the vertical adjustment option, though for some people it might still be nice to have. The S11 Flex advertised 5 hours of playback and I found that to be very accurate, so I have no reason to doubt the 6 hours advertised for the S11 HD. They charge fast – 5 minutes gives you an hour’s worth of playback time, and they fully charge in less than an hour. One week and 20 miles later, the S11 HD seems to have picked up right where the S11 Flex left off. Oh – they also cost less than the Flex (unless you get the Flex from Amazon, which I personally wouldn’t because it’s too cumbersome to do the replacement WHEN they give up the ghost).

The last set of Bluetooth headphones I’ve tried is the Plantronics Backbeat Go 2 mobile-phone-tablet-accessories_847317_160235_2_mwhich I also bought at Best Buy. They are more like regular earbuds – no fixed wrap-around for the back of the head, no over-the-ear fit to adjust. They have a small rubber loop on each earbud that secures them inside the ear and three sizes of buds to fit different ear canals. The Backbeat Go 2 advertises 5 hours of playback but mine announce low battery and power off after just over three hours. Maybe they’re defective, and since I have the replacement warranty from Best Buy I can swap them with no trouble. They’re sold in two models – one that costs $20 more that comes with a storage case and battery pack to recharge them on the go, and one that is just the headphones and charger. Honestly, I say skip the case/battery option. I’ve never gotten it to work right and I seldom put them in the case. Save the $20 and use it to buy the replacement warranty.

I’ve only taken the Backbeat Go 2 out for a run once. The rubber loop held them fast and I had no problems with them at all on the run. The issue I had was that they seat in the ear a little TOO well. They perform almost like noise cancelling headphones and that can be dangerous out on the road. They blocked road noise from traffic quite well, but that also means you can’t hear if a car is about to hit you. You can’t hear bicyclists calling out ‘on your left’ as they pass. I found the complete blockage of outside noise disturbing. I use them all the time indoors and at the office, but for running outdoors they’re a little too effective for my comfort. With the S-11 being over the ear, you can rotate the earbud out of your ear and not have it dangle like the Plantronics would. I also keep one earbud out when I run with someone who likes to talk, and again, the Plantronics doesn’t work the same way.

So what do I recommend? From personal experience, I’ve seen a huge evolution in the fit and function of the Bluetooth headphone. The early athletic versions (Motorola’s S9, S10, and the Qak Thump) were not well fitting and had virtually no durability. The Sony DR-BT 160 was a step in the right direction, but ultimately not good enough for regular running use. With the S11 Flex HD and the S11 HD, I think Motorola finally got it right. The customizable fit is superior to the Sony, the durability is far superior to the previous Motorola models and the knock-off Qak Thump. Because you are exposing a piece of electronic equipment to sweat, water (rain, snow, sprinklers) and lots of jarring from the constant impact of running, I recommend spending the extra money and getting them at Best Buy (or any reputable retailer) with a replacement warranty. Yes, you’ll pay more than you would via Amazon, but for me the convenience of having a defective headphone replaced same day in any Best Buy store in the country is worth the price.

Top pick for running: S11-HD – (4.1 zombie heads) or Motorola S11-Flex HD (4 zombie heads)

Rating factors:

  • Playback: 5 hours (as advertised!) (5 zombie heads)
  • Fit: Customizable (4 zombie heads)
  • Water/sweat resistant: Yes (5 zombie heads)
  • Charging: Under 1 hour (5 zombie heads)
  • Durability: Better than most (3 zombie heads)
  • Use as phone headset: Yes (3 zombie heads)
  • Cost: $99 (S11HD – 4 zombie heads) – $130 (S11 Flex – 3 zombie heads)

Top pick for general use: Plantronics Backbeat Go 2 – 4.2 zombie heads

Rating factors:

  • Playback: 3 hours (5 is advertised) (3 zombie heads)
  • Fit: Customizable, extremely portable (5 zombie heads)
  • Water/sweat resistant: Yes (5 zombie heads)
  • Charging: Under 1 hour (5 zombie heads)
  • Durability: unknown – going on 6 months without replacement
  • Use as phone headset: Yes (3 zombie heads)
  • Cost: $79 (5 zombie heads) or $99 (w/case) (4 zombie heads)

After trying multiple brands and models over the last five years, I feel confident that I can quickly ascertain how useful Bluetooth headphones will be. For my day to day general use – walking from the bus depot up the pedestrian mall to the office, around the house, while my wife watches Downton Abbey, etc. – I use the Plantronics Backbeat Go 2 almost daily. Again, I don’t like them for running because of how well they isolate the noise. They’d be good for a race where traffic, bicycles, etc are not a factor, but with the limited playback time I personally could not use them for anything longer than a half marathon. They’re so small and light I can see using them using them as a backup or secondary pair for long races though.

For running, the Motorola S11 family is the best I’ve used. I’ve used the Flex in three marathons and for more than 1400 miles of running. Again, due to the nature of what I expose them to when I go out, I expect to have to replace them periodically, but they have delivered much more service per pair than any other model I’ve used.

There are more options on the market than I have the funds to test. Jaybird’s BlueBuds ($170), JBLs Reflect BT ($90), Plantronics Backbeat FIT ($130) all look like prospective candidates. With the exception of the FIT they look like they’d be better for general use for the same reason as the Backbeat Go 2, and for the price I see no reason to make a change to another brand when my two picks have performed so well for less money.

I hope you’ve found this to be helpful. Are there brands/models you’ve used that match up against these? Sound off in the comments and let me know!

 

 

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2 Responses to “Review: Bluetooth Headphones”

  1. David Setton says:

    Great review. Thanks for the summary. It sounds like you have put the headphones through the paces (no pun intended). I was considering the Plantronics Backbeat Go 2 also.

    • ZEDSWORLD says:

      I’ve really grown to like the Backbeats a lot. They’re so easy to carry compared to the others. My only complaint is that I never get more than 3 – 3.5 hours of use before I have to recharge them.

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