It’s been a tough week. On top of that, several of my electronics decided to quit working all at the same time. My first thought was gremlins or maybe something in the air. Could be, except for my Blackjack phone; I’m pretty sure dropping it on the concrete twice in the same day had something to do with its demise. After settling on the BlackJack II (that’s another story), I was lured into buying the new Aliph Jawbone Bluetooth headset.

I’m one of those unfortunate few who can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. That’s why those who know me understand why I really need to use Bluetooth headsets. Remember my poor Blackjack?

I didn’t realize that finding a good Bluetooth headset was going to be my quest for the Holy Grail, though. Over the years, I’ve tried them all and have been disappointed by almost every headset. To prove my point, as I was purchasing my new Jawbone, the AT&T store manager (who knows me quite well) was already asking when I’d be back to return it. Real funny, I thought.

Good news

Good news indeed, I’m happy to report that my list of acceptable Bluetooth headsets has now grown to two. I’d like to discuss both of the headsets as, in my opinion, they’re light-years ahead of the competition. I think they are the only two good enough for me to recommend to serious road warriors.

Motorola Motopure H12

The H12 has survived many attempts to unseat it as the best headset in my world. It was love from the very first day I tried it. It’s compact and lightweight, and it sports Motorola’s CrystalTalk technology. CrystalTalk consists of noise-reduction algorithms and adaptive speaker applications that provide optimal audio conditioning. You can find additional features at the Motopure H12 Web site. Some of the H12 features that I find especially useful are:

H12’s features

  • The H12 is very easy to use; just turn it on and follow the pairing instructions for your specific phone.
  • The H12 has a magnetic charging cradle that’s simple to use. I especially like this convenience since I don’t have to figure out which way the power adapter plug fits into the headset.
  • The H12 controls are simply the best out there. The large multi-function button and the volume toggle are self-explanatory, and what I find especially nice is the sliding on/off switch. That eliminates the guessing of how long I need to hold the switch down to turn on the headset without starting the pairing process. Very nice.
  • This next feature is one I really appreciate: Set the H12 into the charging cradle, it breaks the pairing; remove the H12 from the cradle, it automatically powers up and resumes the pairing. I find this very useful if I’m already on a phone call and want to start using the headset. It eliminates trying to figure out which button to push and how long to push it.

H12’s one drawback

  • The one area where the H12 disappoints is outgoing sound quality. With two microphones and CrystalTalk, I thought this would’ve been exceptional. It’s not bad compared to many other less costly headsets. Still for the price and CrystalTalk’s claims, it just seems to fall short.

Aliph Jawbone

Yves Behar (chief designer and CCO of Aliph) is gaining the same distinction that Steve Jobs garners for Apple products. Both come up with innovative designs that work well. For example, the Jawbone’s appearance is very different from any other Bluetooth headset on the market. Even the Jawbone’s packaging oozes of class. More importantly, and not unlike Apple, Aliph listens to customers. All the problems I had with the first version of Jawbone are no longer an issue in the new model.

The new Jawbone (I did not see a name distinction between the two models) is almost 50 percent smaller and lighter. It also has a redesigned ear hook, which I really appreciate. Aliph also improved their noise-canceling technology, even changing the name to “NoiseAssassin.” The following excerpt is from the Aliph Web site:

Patented VAS: Jawbone’s Voice Activity Sensor (VAS) is able to detect very accurately when the person is talking and capture the frequencies of his or her speech even in the presence of noise.
DSP Algorithms: The NoiseAssassin algorithms were developed over a number of years for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). These required powerful noise suppression algorithms for use in the most extreme acoustic noise environments including battlefields and helicopters. The algorithms use Jawbone’s two microphones and the VAS to accurately model the noise environment.

Jawbone detects when and how a person is speaking, models the noise, and aggressively eliminates it.

Conventional “noise eliminating” headsets do not have the VAS and can only estimate when speech is occurring with software-based Voice Activation Detection (VAD) systems. For these systems to work, the speech must be significantly louder or spectrally different from the noise. These systems fail in loud environments or in the presence of other people’s speech. Furthermore, because they can’t accurately identify the speech signals, they distort the speech in the process of attempting to eliminate the noise. The result of this distortion is a significant degradation in intelligibility and quality in order to achieve a perceptual reduction in noise.

As I understand the technology, the VAS “Activity Sensor” must touch the user’s cheek. Doing so allows the Jawbone to know when the user is talking. This avoids the false positive issues created by other voices or loud environmental noise. Actual details and information on the Jawbone can be found at the Aliph Web site. If you sense that I’m a bit excited about the Jawbone, you’re correct and here’s why:

Jawbone’s features

  • The Jawbone also has a magnetic charging cradle that is simple to use, and the charging cradle is smaller than the H12’s, making it easier to travel with.
  • The Jawbone is solid electronically. What I mean is that most Bluetooth headsets have static pops and connection noises that are very irritating. Even the H12 on occasion requires me to adjust the phone’s location to eliminate the problem. Not so with the Jawbone, it performs well, even in a RF-rich environment.
  • It’s very subjective on my part, but the Jawbone’s audio is very crisp and sounds great. I’ve also yet to hear any complaints from people I’ve talked to who are using it.

Jawbone’s drawbacks

  • The Jawbone doesn’t have the automatic power up and pairing feature that the H12 has. So when you’re first powering it up or removing it from the battery charger you need to press the Talk button.
  • Aliph really missed on this one annoying feature: The Talk button is located in the same area as the indicator LED, making it hard to see the LED and determine the headset’s mode.
  • The design-versus-functionality debate comes into play with the Jawbone as well. Many people, including me, really like the H12’s function buttons, as they’re easy to use. Jawbone takes the other path, trying to look very cool, but that elegance creates function buttons that are not intuitive or easy to use.

Final thoughts

I thought it would be a difficult choice deciding which Bluetooth headset would be my daily workhorse. It was actually quite easy. Functionality and physical design take second place in my world. I want the headset to work well, period. Which means no complaints from clients with whom I’m having important conversations — even when I’m in a noisy data center environment. When this is the only consideration, the Jawbone easily out-performs the H12 and is my Bluetooth headset of choice.

Note: My son (who edits my work) demanded I qualify that somewhat bold statement with the following disclaimer: “At least until the next new Bluetooth headset design or innovation comes out.” It appears that my son knows me all too well.