A comparison & thorough compliance report of three stereo Bluetooth headphones: Nokia HS-12W, Plantronics Pulsar 590 and 260

UPDATE (06/05/2007): Great news & tips for WM6 users - a MUST read!

UPDATE (04/12/2007): Several new Pulsar 260 reviews

UPDATE (03/09/2007):

  1. while the previous beta(s) didn't work with the Nokia HS-12W (see this user report), JETware Hands-free Extension for Windows Mobile phones may receive real Nokia HS-12W support in the future, meaning you'll also see the caller name on your Bluetooth headphones, not only the number. Other users have reported success with Sony's HBH-DS970 (see for example this thread for more info).
  2. You can not upgrade the firmware (to, for example, fix the Microsoft BT stack-related, major issues of the Plantronics headphones or to add multiple source support to the Nokia) on any of the reviewed headphones. This is diametrically opposed to, say, Motorola's approach, who fixed the skipping problem present in early HT820 revisions with a firmware upgrade flashable to these models (see this thread for more info if interested).
  3. Another HS-12W thread here. I also highly recommend the thread Sony Ericsson HSD-DS970 vs Nokia HS-12W, especially that of FOSA.
  4. Reader feedback: 1, 2

UPDATE (03/18/2007): : MobilitySite frontpage

The original article is as follows:

Unfortunately, except for Mobileburn’s excellent Bluetooth Stereo Headset Roundup , PDAMania’s two related articles (English summary here), Fire Dragan‘s roundup and some other HowardForums and XDA-Developers threads (see for example this and this), there are no real one-to-one feature & compatibility & quality comparisons between current Bluetooth stereo headphones.

This is why I’ve set out and made some SERIOUS tests with three current and popular Bluetooth stereo headphones: the Nokia HS-12W, the Plantronics Pulsar 590A/590E and the brand new Plantronics Pulsar 260.

Unlike with most other tests ever published on Bluetooth headphones, I’ve tested all these three headphones with a heap of (mostly my) A2DP-enabled gadgets to get a clear picture of their compatibility and sound quality with each of them.

Why compliance testing is useful, in the first place? As you may know, A2DP (that is, stereo Bluetooth sound transfer) is pretty new. As with several other areas of Bluetooth, A2DP is still suffering from its infant illnesses; particularly, major compatibility problems. This means stereo headphones that otherwise sound excellent with one (set of) sound source(s) won’t necessarily produce the same results with other devices.

The major incompatibility issues also result in a lot of contradicting reviews and user opinions about current A2DP-capable headphones. For example, when a user "only" has A2DP sound sources of one set but not of alternative ones, he/she may find a given, otherwise not fully compatible set of headsets just great or plain awful and useless - all depending on what sound sources he/she has tested the headphones against. For example, if a particular user uses his or her stereo headphones with the Widcomm Bluetooth stack (see below), he or she most probably will never run into compatibility problems and may even consider the given model excellent. On the other hand, if he or she happens to test against the Microsoft Bluetooth stack and he/she happens to have an incompatible headset, he or she will probably find the headphones plain useless. This, unfortunately, makes most reviews & user opinions pretty one-sided or even plain unreliable.

This is why thorough, multi audio-source tests are extremely important when you test Bluetooth A2DP headphones.

The most important area of these incompatibility issues is the vast quality difference between the currently two major Windows Mobile Bluetooth (BT for short) implementations (so-called “stacks†) with some (not all!) stereo headphones models. For example, neither of the two currently available Plantronics headphones are able to play back anything coming from the Microsoft Bluetooth stack at a decent quality, unlike (some) other brands / models (for example, Nokia headphones) – if they are at all able to connect to these devices (for example, one - the 260 - of these models couldn’t even connect to two of my test Windows Mobile PDA’s). Additional compatibility issues like the built-in display not being compatible with, say, the caller name or the song title are just an icing on the cake.

This is why I’ve made sure I’ve tested these headphones with all the A2DP-enabled sound sources I could get hold of (there are MANY of them!): many Microsoft and Widcomm-based Windows Mobile devices and several non- Windows Mobile-based ones like Nokia's new, cheap (!) and pretty cool model 5300 XpressMusicor the even cooler and even flashier Samsung YP-T9J, in addition to major Palm OS-based models like the Tungsten 3 running Softick Audio Gateway, the great A2DP client for the Palm. That is, this test is not only written for Windows Mobile, but also for Palm users - or, for people just wanting to get a cheap (!) A2DP-capable music solution, let it be either based on the Nokia 5300 or on the Samsung YP-T9J, both being excellent choices for the price. As long as you use them with a fully compatible A2DP headphones, that is - as can clearly be seen, the Nokia 5300, A2DP-wise, is NOT really compatible with the two Pulsar headphones.

Many will ask after reading the previous paragraph “Hey! Did you try to fine-tune your Microsoft BT stack parameters to make the Plantronics headphones sound better?†My answer is YES, I’ve tried very hard to enhance sound quality and have published many articles on this question (see for example this one) and stay assured: in no way can you get flawless music playback quality on incompatible (for example, the two tested Plantronics-manufactured in this test and a lot of other models from other manufacturers) headphones.

In addition to A2DP (stereo sound transfer), I’ve tested them in “standard” phone headset mode too (that is, using them to conduct a phone call with a / the connected BT-enabled phone). I’ve paid special attention to checking whether the music playback is correctly resumed after terminating the call; whether the Call button is working as it’s supposed to; whether the volume and quality of the speech of both speakers’ are sufficient at the other side of the line and so on. I’ve also thoroughly tested the screen display compatibility of the Nokia headset, as far as its advanced features (caller name, music title, new SMS messages / unanswered calls / clock display). As can clearly be seen, these features are only compatible with genuine Nokia A2DP phones, NOT with Windows Mobile-based ones – or, for that matter, Palm OS / third-party sources like the highly recommended Samsung player. This, unfortunately, also applies to many? most? other Bluetooth stereo headphones with a built-in display – currently, I don’t know of any that really would work with all kinds of clients (most importantly, Widcomm- and Microsoft BT stack-based WM phones).

Note that this review isn’t a full review of / introduction to the three stereo headphones. The reader is kindly referred to the reviews in the “Notable reviews” row of the Comparison & Feature Chart. It’s there that you will, for example, see some nice shots of these devices. I just wanted to spend my meager time on some real-world, insightful, objective compatibility tests instead of wasting many hours on taking shots you can also see in other, already-existing reviews. Sorry for that, guys and gals - I think, given the lack of time I have, the information I provide here is MUCH more useful and, what is even more important, unique and genuine than just some flashy shots I would have wasted a lot of time on taking and, then, post processing.

The comparison chart

As with most of my other roundups, the vast majority of the information is in the Comparison & Feature Chart (CLICK THE LINK!). Make sure you open it in another browser window / tab, preferably maximized.

Explanation for the chart

Compliance report group: it’s here that I’ve listed the compliance reports of all the reviewed headphones.

Microsoft Bluetooth Stack-based Windows Mobile devices subgroup: in here, I’ve listed the MS BT stack-compliance of the three headphones, tested on many (!) Windows Mobile versions, testing both the older AKU2 (the first introduction of A2DP to – some – Windows Mobile models) and the newer, as enhanced-advertised AKU3+ (also delivered with Windows Mobile 6). (Please see this article for more information on what AKU's mean when not sure.)

As can clearly be seen, the Nokia headphones had absolutely no problem with either the A2DP (stereo sound transfer) or the headset (abbreviated as HS) modes. Not so with the two Plantronics headphones. The Pulsar 590, while still compatible with the stack, delivered pretty bad sound quality without any hope for quality hacking. The newer (!) Pulsar 260 was even worse in this respect: it not only sounds even worse than the Pulsar 590, but also fully incompatible (it won’t even connect) with two (Wizard, Trinity) of the test Windows Mobile PDA’s. Strange this model is newer than the venerable 590A/E and is even more incompatible with the, now, leading Windows Mobile Bluetooth stack.

Note that you will need to thoroughly read the HTC Trinity (or, for that matter, any AKU3) -related remarks for more information on making the sound stereo and high-quality. Fortunately, it’s just a simple registry key deletion (or, alternatively, running a free (!) tweaker app).

Note that, in the headset (NOT in the stereo A2DP) mode, I’ve also tested whether the microphone (see for example “mike / non-stereo sound transfer only” with the N560) of the headphones can be used to input sound to any sound recorder or Voice over IP (VoIP) application like Pocket Skype or Microsoft Portrait. This may prove very useful in cases; please see this article for more information on this question.

Widcomm/Broadcom Bluetooth Stack-based Windows Mobile devices subgroup: the second (and, unfortunately, shrinking) group of Windows Mobile-based devices use the Widcomm/Broadcom Bluetooth stack, which is, in general, far superior to the Microsoft one. Unfortunately, currently, very few current (WM5+) Windows Mobile-based devices use this stack (and not that of Microsoft): for example, all the HP iPAQ’s (including the WM5 upgrades of the originally WM2003SE-based hx series), the Fujitsu-Siemens phones (but, unfortunately, not the C/N-series non-phone models) and Acers.

Note that several, originally, MS BT stack-based Windows Mobile devices can be upgraded to use the Widcomm BT stack. With standalone (non-phone) models like the WM5-upgraded Dell Axim x50’s or the x51’s, this works just great. Note that I’ve linked in the available Widcomm upgrades from the chart. Of them, you will want to special attention to this article if you have a current HTC Windows Mobile phone – there are several HTC models already supported (to some degree – unfortunately, the headset mode doesn’t work with most of them) by the Widcomm BT stack.

Redial and voice dialing group: not only "old-fashioned", "dumb" mono Bluetooth headsets are capable of initiating calls from the headset (you don't need to fish out your phone from your pocket / bag but can initiate the call right from your headset), but also most stereo headphones. In here, I've tested how these headphones fare, compatibility-wise. I've tested: the "dumber" "redial the last number you've called" functionality (which can be activated by a double short press of the call button / button on the wire) and the much more advanced (it lets you call anyone) voice dialing feature. The latter works with both Microsoft's well-known, highly recommended Voice Command and Cyberion's well-known (it comes with most HTC Windows Mobile phones built-in, while Voice Command only comes with very few; for example, the HTC Trinity Dopod ROMs) Cyberon Voice Speed Dial app (see this thread for more information on the differences of the two apps and, in addition, Cyberon’s Voice Commander (not to be mistaken for Microsoft's Voice Command!) if interested).

Battery, recharging group: with stereo headsets, it's also very important to have as good battery life as possible. An example: while at work and I'm, say, working on a report or an article, I, most of the time, just put on my Pulsar 590A headsets and stream some music into it so that I can really concentrate on what I'm writing and not let ambient noise / calls distract my attention. I sometimes do this for 6-8-10 hours, during which I prefer NOT having to put my Bluetooth headphones on the charger. With my 590A (assuming I put it on the charger every night), which has a real, practical battery life of at least 11 hours (with even an outdoors volume level), I've never run into problems like "Hey, no batteries left; now, I really must put the headphones on charger". Unfortunately, other headphones not necessarily fare this good; for example, neither of the two ear buds-based models are able to play music for more than 7-8 hours.

Note that I've made these tests with repeating music and street-level volume. Fortunately, all the three headsets are capable of playing back music even at this comparatively high volume without noticeable distortion as long as you don't do any kind of bass boosting, which could very easily result in distortion. This may also mean you will have slightly (but not much! Think of 5-10% at most!) better battery life indoors, where you will want to use lower volume levels.

I've also benchmarked the time it takes the factory-supplied charger to recharge the headphones.

Note that, with the battery life and recharge time data, I've also given the official specs of the manufacturer, along with stating whether the official battery life / recharge time is over- or underestimated by the manufacturer (the first is definitely a positive thing with recharging and the second with playback). As can clearly be seen, Nokia has generally given worse specs than their headphones, while Plantronics did the opposite. (See for example the recharge time benchmarks!) A thumbs-up to Nokia and a thumbs-down to Plantronics.

Also note that I've made sure the batteries of the tested devices had already been through several charge / discharge cycles, meaning they have delivered their maximal capacity (as you may know, Li-Ion batteries require some – not many: in general, 2-3 – recharge cycles to achieve their maximal capacity (see this for more info on Li-Ion charging if interested).

Separate A2DP source / HS support group: in here, I've elaborated on whether the given headphones are capable of connecting to separate A2DP (music) and a headset (phone) sources at the same time. This will be of little relevance to anyone wanting to play back music off a capable Windows Mobile phone.

A side remark: By capable phones you will probably want to stick to as an A2DP player, I mean for example the HTC Wizard, which has unbeatable battery life because it decreases by 7-8% an hour (!) while playing back WMA's and MP3's by the built-in Windows Media Player and transferring the music via the "hacked" Widcomm BT stack to an A2DP headset and NOT overclocked (that is, run at the default 195 MHz). Note that the battery life would be even more stellar with a multimedia player consuming even less CPU cycles; most importantly, 40th Floor's iPlay or TCPMP / CorePlayer; read this all-in-one article for more info. Note that if you overclock the Wizard to, say, 240 MHz, the battery life will, while continuously playing back music via A2DP, definitely decrease; it still remains pretty good (11-12% decrease an hour).

Most non-TI OMAP-based phones or standalone PDA's (the Wizard is a TI-based phone, as with, say, the GPS-enabled HTC Artemis), on the other hand, will have much worse battery life - think of 20-25-30% charge drop an hour with most Samsung- and Intel XScale-based phones (assuming you use the factory battery and not a thick, heavy extended one), which is even made worse on some models with an utterly buggy A2DP implementation; for example, the HTC Trinity / P3600 (see this). Compare all this to the much more stellar results of, say, the Nokia 5300 (I've listened to music for some two hours on it via A2DP and the phone didn't show any significant battery level drop) or, even better, the, in my opinion, absolutely the best standalone multimedia player of today, Samsung YP-T9J. The latter has some 23-24 hours of music playback via wired headphones and some 15 hours via A2DP. Excellent battery life, I'd say - even better than that of the non-overclocked HTC Wizard, let alone most other current Windows Mobile-based devices.

Unfortunately, the Nokia headphones are NOT capable of multiple connections. That is, you can only conduct calls via your headphones on the same device you're also listening to music on - and not on another device. This, unfortunately, also means that, should you device to go for the Samsung YP-T9J (I most definitely will as I'm really-really fed up with the Microsoft Bluetooth stack incompatibility of my expensive Pulsar 590A - and with the bugs and inherent problems of the Widcomm BT stack hack for the Wizard, my, because of the stellar battery life, main A2DP source. Do check it out if you see it some time, it's definitely worth giving it a try!), you won’t be able to listen to some music while also being connected to your (other) phone.

Volume group: with stereo headphones and Bluetooth headsets, it's also very important to know whether it's able to produce a volume that is significantly over the ambient noise level of even the loudest street. That is, you'll want to consult the results here before you buy the headset and find out it's just plain useless because, say, of the very low maximal volume.

As can clearly be seen, both the Nokia and the 590A excel at this area; the Pulsar 260 really doesn't.

I've also examined the granularity of volume setting. The Nokia has 10 volume levels and is, therefore, a bit less sophisticated than the two Pulsars with 16 volume levels each. However, in practice, I haven't really run into situations when the less volume levels would have caused any problems with the Nokia, particularly if you also consider the fact that, with the Microsoft Bluetooth stack, the system volume (the volume you set on the Windows Mobile device) has a direct impact on the Bluetooth volume too. (This isn't the case with Widcomm.)

Feedback, responsiveness group: some headphones (particularly the Pulsar 260) produce very annoying beeps when you press any hardware button. This is why I've added an Audible feedback: button sounds row in here, where I've also listed how the tested headphones behave in this respect. As can be seen, both the Pulsar 590 and the Nokia are far better in this regard.

Visible feedback: The Pulsar models are also well known for their strong, blinking LED (Light Emitting Diode), which, unlike with some other manufacturer's headphones, just can't be disabled. This may be a stumbling block for many - for example, the blinking LED on the 590A/E will make it almost impossible to be used at evening / in the night with all the lights shut down.

Finally, the Responsiveness: data rate change back to HQ mode after it switching to low-quality mode and, then, back. This only applies to better, fallback-capable BT stacks (in the test, I’ve used the Widcomm one); the MS BT stack doesn’t support “falling back” to lower bit speeds to extend range (which means the range with the MS BT stack is much more limited than with the Widcomm one). test tests how quickly the tested headphones switch back to the fastest (in general, 320 kbps) Bluetooth data rate (meaning the best sound quality) after a "fallback" to a slowest, still available (around 180 kbps) speed. This parameter can also be important if you, say, often walk around / leave your current room, leaving back your sound source, AND you’re using an advanced, fallback-capable A2DP sound source like a Widcomm-based Windows Mobile device. The less the recovery time (as is the case with the Pulsar 590 and the Nokia but not with the Pulsar 260), the better.

Note that it's only the Widcomm stack that uses speed fallback to greatly extend the operation range; the Microsoft BT stack is far-far worse in this respect (too). This is why, if you move a lot without your sound source (as is the case with MS BT stack-based Windows Mobile device), you will encounter skips even when you are only 15-25 feet away from your PDA in the same room, let alone in another room (where the sound transfer will almost surely completely stop). With the Widcomm BT stack, you won't encounter any skips (in general), because it will just "fall back" to a lower transfer speed to extend the range (and avoid skips).

As can clearly be seen, the Nokia and the 590A switch back to the highest transfer speed (and, conversely, best audio quality) very fast, unlike the 260. In addition, I've found a small annoyance with both Plantronics models (but not the Nokia): if you play with volume changing too much (you, for example, turn the volume up entirely from being next to silent), the BT transfer speed will be reduced (meaning lower sound quality). Of course, this will, thanks to the gradual transfer speed (and, conversely, quality) increase, only temporarily have a bad effect on the sound quality. Again, don't forget you will only run into the consequences caused by the bug with the Widcomm BT stack - the much "dumber" Microsoft BT stack doesn't support speed fallback.

Finally, the Misc group lists a lot of unrelated information; for example, physical dimensions, the existence of a dongle shipped with the unit, the presence of a built-in FM radio, the charger type (in which, the 260 is the best), how good the supplied / online manual is (one of the stumbling blocks of the 260) and the reviews available on all these three headphones. This is closed by the Cons and Pros sections, which just recap the major problems and advantages of each model.

Verdict

If you have the Microsoft Bluetooth stack and won’t / can’t “hack” the Widcomm BT stack on your Windows Mobile device, then, forget the two Plantronics headphones at once. For you MS BT stack users, the Nokia headphones, which are of the few ones that are compatible with the stack, are pretty good when it comes to sound quality, even with pre-AKU3 devices. It’s, however, a bit overpriced and starts to become outdated – after all, it’s a one-year-old product. Also, it lacks some high-end features like support for two concurrent devices. As I'm not really sure you won't want to get for example the new Samsung YP-T9J to get rid of the low battery life of most Windows Mobile devices in A2DP mode, I'm not really convinced you should go for the Nokia either: should you ever get another A2DP sound source without a built-in phone, you won't be able to use it together with your cell phone while listening to music.

This also means none of these headphones are future-proof. As BT stereo headphones are still pretty expensive, I bet you won't be very happy when you purchase your next gadget, let it be a MS-based (without any chance to "hack" the Widcomm BT stack on it) Windows Mobile phone (which the Plantronics headphones have severe incompatibility problems with) or a non-phone-enabled A2DP music player like the Samsung YP-T9J (which the Nokia won't support in multiple device mode).

This means you should only get ANY of the tested headphones for your existing setup if you're absolutely sure you won't switch A2DP source platforms in the near future (you won't get another MS BT stack-based phone if you go for any Plantronics headsets OR won't get a separate, non-phone-enabled A2DP source, which you'd still like to use concurrently with your phone, if you go for the Nokia), which could easily render your expensive headphones useless.

Of course, I'll report on newer headsets and their compatibility issues in the future too; I really hope I'll be able to find some without major compatibility issues and with a far higher level of future proof than the three reviewed headphones. Keep reading my articles!

Recommended links

Highly recommended HTC Trinity-related thread (also see this for the Trinity + HBH-DS970 combo)

Wizard + A2DP

Jack Cook’s excellent BlueAnt X5 review (brand new & highly recommended!)

Fire Dragan’s roundup

Official BT Profile Overview - recommended if you'd like to know what Hands-Free Profile (HFP) or Headset Profile (HSP) are.

Mobileburn’s Bluetooth Stereo Headset Roundup (also linked from here)

Which Bluetooth Stereo Headset are you using?

Logitech Releases Next Generation Bluetooth Stereo Headphones (over a year old! If you’d like to know what Logitech will release in the near future, check out for example this). There is also Logitech FreePulse Bluetooth Headphones Review by The Register.

Bluetake's i-PHONO mini Bluetooth Headphone Kit Reviewed (over a year old!)

Lubix NC1 Review (new & recommended!);

Ubixon's Lubix Bluetooth stereo headsets: the magnets make the magic (a VERY short overview)

Tech Digest’s brand new Motorola S805 review

Motorola S9 Bluetooth Headphones - news only

Southwing SA505 Headphones

Etymotic ety.8 Bluetooth earphones reviews from both CNET and iLounge

Motorola HT820 review by IGN

Review: Koss Cobalt Bluetooth headphones are lousy, wireless

A Comprehensive list of A2DP Phones & Headsets

Sony DRBT10CX-stereo Bluetooth earbuds - another, highly recommended, new thread on the new Sony earbuds. It also compares these earbuds to the HBH-DS970 (related thread here), which has decidedly lower battery life (as opposed to the whopping 11 hours of the DRBT10CX) but is also less bulkier. As far as Sony’s future BT models are concerned, the DR-BT21G and the DR-BT50 need to be mentioned.

VERY short Pulsar 590 review.

Cross-posted to: PPCT, MobilitySite, HowardForums, AximSite, XDA-Developers, BrightHand, PocketGaming.de, PocketGamer.org, FirstLoox.

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