MWC: Bluetooth news: A2DP news & reviews (e.g. Voyager 855); a new BT access point; Nokia’s new DVB-H transmitter

In this part of my MWC report series, I show most of the (advanced – that is, I don’t show plain, “boring†Bluetooth headsets) advanced Bluetooth goodies I’ve seen in Barcelona. First, some A2DP news, together with a quick review & comparison of the Plantronics’ new Voyager 855.

A2DP (Stereo Bluetooth audio) news

There were tons of, in cases, brand new and/or forthcoming stereo (A2DP) Bluetooth headphones and/or speakers. Just to name a few:

Cresyn

Cresyn’s new headphones (I haven’t tested them); among others, the CS-BT713 and KS-Kleer (direct homepage of the BT800 is HERE; note that it’s Korean only and there aren’t pages on the two listed headphones at all, their being so new):


Gear4

The Gear4 folks showcased their BluPhones (official product page HERE):

Sennheiser

The Sennheiser folks, which run probably the most famous and popular audiophile headphone brand, were also present:

They have, at MWC, announced a brand new earbud model with a separate dongle (as opposed to, say, the Plantronics 855), the MM 200:


These headphones will only come out later his year. No pricing info is available; neither did the Sennheiser folks comment on the sound quality in comparison to their other earbud models. Note that they have nothing to do with the earlier announced (see THIS Engadget story, for example) MX W1 wireless earbuds. Also note that there isn’t any additional information available on this model; the Internet sites that, at all, mention it only verbatim copy the Sennheiser press release (see for example THIS, THIS and THIS.)

Parrot

They also showcased the SK4000, wireless hands-free mobile phone and music kit for motorcyclists, which was announced at CES 2008 (see the story HERE, HERE and HERE):


Supertooth

The Supertooth folks showcased their pretty impressive, battery-operated, loud A2DP stereo speakers, the Supertooth Disco:


It’s their first A2DP product; the previous ones were “only†BT handsfree kits and traditional (mono) headsets. Also see the official product page HERE.

Plantronics’ Voyager 855 - a quick review & comparison

This not very expensive (a quick Pricegrabber search comes up with prices starting at about 60 bucks), very light (the two earbuds weighing 14.5 grams together – I’ve tested this too) A2DP-capable pair of headphones is vastly different from the earlier A2DP models of Plantronics.

First, the design, which is pretty revolutionary. It’s pretty much similar in design to the somewhat older Jabra BT8010 (see for example THIS) with the removable second earbud / cable but weighs far less and is, consequently, far easier to wear. Note that the cable connecting the two earbuds seems to be pretty durable, albeit a little bit thinner than that of the brand new Nokia BH-903 (see below).

In addition, they have, at last, stopped using very bright and very distracting blue LEDs. Now, it doesn’t blink at all. This is great news: the 590 was next to useless in a dark room (unless you closed your eyes and/or used a black marker to greatly reduce the light) and the dongle of the 260 also needed to be hidden in, say, a pocket – or plain turned face down.

Also, it is 100% compatible (apart from the problems associated with the slow forward / backward tune skips) with Symbian phones – unlike with previous models.

They have also kept the nice feature of being able to paired (and connected to) with two devices at the same time, should your A2DP (music) source be different from your phone. I’ve also tested the call handover; it worked just great (and, of course, the music resumed on the A2DP source after terminating the call on the separate phone).

As far as its Windows Mobile compliance is concerned, I’ve, of course, tested it with both the Microsoft (MS) and the Widcomm (Broadcom) BT stacks. I had no problems with either. Of course, as Plantronics’ headphones have always had major sound quality problems with the MS BT stack, you’ll only get good sound quality with an official (read: some? several? “cooked†ROM versions still have the old, much lower-quality A2DP implementation) WM6 version and after deleting the two keys from the Registry as described HERE and restarting the phone. With the WM5 MS BT stack implementation (and/or improperly “cooked†WM6 ROM’s), you’ll get a pretty much unacceptable sound quality. The solution in this case is, as usual, either trying to use the Widcomm/Broadcom BT stack instead (when available as an add-on hack) or, whenever possible, upgrading to WM6 (when and if an upgrade is available).

Symbian compliance-wise, it’s pretty good. While both earlier models had major problems with controlling the Music Player application of S60v3 (and that of the S40, built into the, say, MusicXpress 5300), this one no longer has any kind of (major) incompatibility. For example, unlike with the 590, it can resume playback with the standard play/pause button.

Note that as the volume and the previous/next buttons are integrated (you access the latter with long-pressing the volume buttons), it’s a bit slower to skip tracks, particularly with Symbian phones, where it can take some 10 seconds to skip forward / backward. (With WinMo phones, you “only†need to keep the “volume down / back†button pressed for some 6-7 seconds for the player to, first, restart the current title and, then, step back with one – make sure you don’t release the button in between! Fortunately, forwaring is easier and faster.)

Sound quality-wise, while you can’t expect miracles from earbuds, it’s comparatively good-sounding once you manage to make the in-ear earbuds fit. Of course, they don’t deliver the same quality or volume as an over-the-ear model like the Pulsar 590 of the same manufacturer or Nokia’s BH-604/BH-503.

All in all, if you aren’t afraid of the earbuds' (somewhat) reduced sound quality when compared to over-the-ear models, you might want to give this model a try. While I don’t particularly like earbuds-based A2DP headphones myself (because of the reduced sound quality), this pair of headphones have turned out to be pretty nice, particularly if you consider the lack of the dongle. Recommended, particularly at the current price tag (~$60).

The official homepage is HERE.

Other reviews:

CNET
Laptop Mag
ZDNet
PCMag

These reviews are somewhat older; note that they tested the headphones while it was considerably more expensive and, therefore, their price / performance ratio may be worse than that of mine.

Nokia

They have also showcased their (later) A2DP models.


Along with their somewhat older, but still pretty good, over-the-ear models, the BH-604 and the BH-503, they have showcased their, last Autumn announced pair of headphones, the BH-903 (official homepage HERE; specs HERE; Engadget story HERE). It’s far ligher than the two-year-old HS-12W I’ve reviewed and compared to the alternatives HERE; yet, the Nokia rep (and the specs) mention almost twice as big a battery life (11 hours).

The device is incomparably better than the HS-12W in (almost?) every respect:

  1. It’s able to dynamically switch between two sources (an A2DP source and a phone, should they be separate) – just like, for example, Plantronics’ all BT stereo headphones and unlike Nokia’s all(!) the other models.

    Speaking of supporting two (A2DP + phone) sources at the same time, the Nokia folks didn’t comment on whether future non-earbud models will also receive this kind of functionality.

  2. Its main controller & receiver is REALLY tiny and weighs very little – still, Nokia promises far better battery life: about 12 hours (but you know the saying about the pudding…).
  3. The volume is controlled in a far better way than on most (if not all!) other headphones (including the HS-12W, of course): via a touch-sensitive secsor circle, exactly like that of iPod. This means you can much faster in/decrease the volume when needed than with any other, button-based solution. Also, there are far more volume levels at your disposal than with the HS-12W (or, with, say, Plantronics’ models).
  4. While the construction of the HS-12W was already pretty well done (meaning the easily breakable, fragile wires run inside the neckstrap for the most part) compared to, say, the much cheaper (also reflected in its plastic body and easily cuttable wires) and, unfortunately, much, there was still a danger of the wires being cut. The new model has much sturdier cables – pretty much comparable (or even better?) to those of the wired headphones coming with the HTC Wizard. Unlike with some other earbud models (most importantly, the Plantronics 260, which uses an (almost?) standard 2.5mm socket), there isn’t a socket in the dongle to let for easily changing earbuds.

(Note that I’m not sure whether the FM station annoyance has been fixed. Having no documentation on how the stations need to be programmed, I couldn’t test this myself.)




(as can be seen, it’s, unlike with, say, the Plantronics Voyager 855, isn’t an in-ear earbud, just a traditional one. This MAY also mean it'll have worse sound quality than in-the-ear ones. Time will tell... I'll try to come up with a comparative (!) review if and when I get a review copy.)

Of course, to put it mildly, it won’t be cheap. The Nokia folks predicted a price of about 200 euros (now, 320 US$) + VAT. Very-very expensive for an earbud-based A2DP pair of headphones, if you ask me... If its sound quality matches those of external headphones (like Nokia’s own over-the-ear headphones such as the above-mentioned BH-604 and BH-503), it would indeed be a great buy, but, for now, I can only recommend is waiting to see what Sennheiser brings out and whether its sound quality is excellent. (I bet they will produce a, sound quality-wise, superior pair of earbud-based headphones, albeit, I'm seriously afraid of the price tag. We'll see.)

Samsung


They have shown, among other things (most importantly, their everywhere-advertised Soul), the SBH-700, which was announced on this year’s CES:

They have also showcased another pair of A2DP headphones, the SBH-500, which was also described as the SBH-700, as can also be seen in the following shot:

The Samsung folks must have messed up the descriptions of the headphones, giving this pair of headphones the same label as that of the SBH-700. Fortunately, it was correctly labeled on the Accessories full showcase:

(clicking the image takes you to the relevant crop; sorry for the low-res image: I had to crop a very small area of an originally 12 Mpixel shot; hence the bad resolution. But, at least, the label is readable.)

The controls are like this:

LG

LG showcased the HBS-250, which was approved by FCC last December:

Also, some of their other A2DP gadgets have been showcased; for example, the MSB-100 Bluetooth stereo speakerphone:


(Of course, I’m a bit skeptic about the wideness of the stereo it’s able to produce – unless they use a technology like that of SRS, Dolby or Nokia used in the N95.)

Sony-Ericsson

As far as A2DP is concerned, Sony-Ericsson has showcased their MBS-100 uniquely shaped stereo (!) speaker:

The official product page is HERE). It’s already being sold and isn’t particularly expensive (about 60 bucks). Also see for example THIS and THIS for more info.

Unfortunately, they didn’t have any new other A2DP or advanced Bluetooth-related product – the MBS-100 isn’t exactly new either.

Now, let's see what digital TV receivers I've seen, paying particular attention to E-Ten (Glofiish) and Gigabyte (Windows Mobile) and Nokia (Symbian, Linux).

DVB-H, digital television – Nokia’s external receiver / transmitter

Watching digital TV is seriously pushed by all major device manufacturers. Unfortunately, on Windows Mobile, only the less-known E-Ten / Glofiish (which have a pretty bad reputation regarding the build quality of their handsets) and Gigabyte manufactures (or will manufacture) devices with digital TV receivers.

From E-Ten, the just-announced (predicted release date: April, 2008) Glofiish V900

Speaking of E-Ten, I did pay them a visit, but everything I found (around 2PM on Thursday) was an abandoned booth (But, at least, you can see they used a big ad of their new V900). That is, I couldn’t check out their latest offerings by hand.

From Gigabyte, the

  1. just-announced, high-end and VERY nice & appealing (all the goodies one can expect: VGA, Xscale PXA310 (!!!), 128M RAM, HSDPA/HSUPA; it’s only at the camera department that it severely lacks compared to, say, the Nokia N95, N96 or N82 or some of the better S-E camera phones) GSmart MS808 (predicted release date: August, 2008)
  2. the older GSmart MW700,
  3. GSmart t600 and
  4. GSmart q60

(note that the earlier g-Smart i128 (also sold as i-teq X-Bond), g-Smart i and the original g-Smart – that is, the Gigabyte phones supporting analogue TV – don’t support digital broadcasts at all).

I REALLY wish E-Ten also distributed their stuff in the US and both E-Ten and Gigabyte in both the US and Europe. (Currently, they concentrate on mostly on the Far-East market and it's only E-ten's products that are sold in Europe; in the States, neither of them.)

With "dumb" / Symbian phones, all major players support receiving digital TV (and, in cases, radio): Samsung, LG, Nokia (with the brand new N96 too), Motorola – you name it. As far as “plain†DVB-H is concerned, also see thee compatible device list HERE at the bottom of the Wiki page; note that, currently, it still doesn’t list the latest Gigabyte models)

Nokia

Nokia has also come out with an external digital TV receiver which can further transmit the video signal to a compatible smart phone over Bluetooth. It’s EDR (Enhanced Data Rate)-capable, meaning not to be (that) restricted by the reduced data rate (~400 kbps in practice) of the non-EDR Bluetooth.

Now, the bad news.

  1. They only plan to release Symbian and Linux (Nokia Internet Table) drivers – Windows Mobile is not planned. (Of course, I’ve tried very hard explaining them how nice it would be to have such a thing on Windows Mobile and how many of us WinMo geeks would purchase it, but – pretty much understandably – they (at least the girl I’ve spoken to) have refused to think of a WinMo client.)
  2. Currently, they only support the N73 – not even the high-end N95 is supported. This is certainly bad news for all us N95 lovers. They don’t have any info on when support for higher-end models like the N95 or N82 is added.
  3. I wouldn’t use it on the N73 to watch TV because the video was pretty jerky – I’d say it was between 18 and 20 frames per second (as opposed to 25). The Nokia rep explained this isn’t the inherent speed problem of Bluetooth (we’re, again, speaking of EDR speeds – that is, about 2 Mbps) but that of the slow CPU of the N73, and, on higher-spec’ed Nokia phones, it’d surely be much better.
  4. As you may already have guessed (all mobile receivers suffer from the same problem), the TV receiver has a pretty bad battery life – namely, 1...2 hours (according to the Nokia folks).

A new Bluetooth access point – with a lot of goodies

The Bluegiga folks have showcased a new Bluetooth access point, the Bluegiga Access Server 229x (see official homepage HERE and THIS for the capabilities of the different submodels). This device is WAY better than the other, well-known Bluetooth Access Point available: Belkin’s Bluetooth Access Point with USB Print Server; for example, it’s programmable, can accept a PCMCIA-based GSM card or external USB (mobile phone) modems etc. If you, for some reason (for example, reducing power consumption and/or you don’t need high speeds), plan to base your networking over Bluetooth instead of Wi-Fi, this should be the device you go for at first.

I’ve also asked them whether it’s possible to provide the same functionality over BT DUN (as opposed to BT PAN) so that, for example, the MS BT stack-based Windows Mobile devices can also connect, not only the Widcomm/Broadcom ones (see THIS for more info on this problem). Unfortunately, the answer is no. That is, if you – again, for some specific reason (in most cases, you should just prefer Wi-Fi over BT) – must go for BT instead of Wi-Fi for Internet access on Windows Mobile platform, only go for this device if you have Widcomm-based (or, at least, “hackableâ€) devices. (And, needless to say, it won’t work with Symbian / Blackberry phones either, they in no way supporting BT PAN.)

More to come!

Yes, you’ve guessed: I’ve still plenty of information I’ll, over the course of the next week(s), publish. Just an example of what you can expect: a comparative shot of i-mate’s new Ultimate 9502:

That is, stay tuned - I'll try to publish the next part as early as tomorrow.

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