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4 earpieces are put to the test

The Baltimore Sun

You have a decision to make when it comes to choosing a wireless earpiece: Do I want to look good or sound good?

Because in tests of four new Bluetooth earpieces, which allow for a wireless connection between your ear and your phone, the one with the highest geek factor also happened to have the best voice quality for the person at the other end of the call. And the one that looked best in the ear - also the most comfortable - sounded like I was talking in a tunnel.

Hence, it's a matter of how you look versus how you sound. Call it a quandary for your ego. But keep in mind the cops don't care about style - just that you keep your hands on the wheel.

First, some test caveats.

Phone coverage and service can vary widely, so to reduce that factor as much as possible, I used the same phone - a Sony Ericsson model with coverage by T-Mobile - and called the same person (my tortured brother-in-law), who listened to my incessant chatter on a land line to rate the call quality. But, depending on your phone, results may vary.

Also, a warning when it comes to buying a Bluetooth device: Keep your receipt. Bluetooth earpieces are designed to work with any Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone, but that is not always the case.

I tested four models, all of which are available online and priced from $30 to $130.

Each device gets two grades. The first I've called the "user grade," and it refers to sound in my ear, style of the earpiece, comfort and ease of use. The second grade is the "B-I-L grade," for how I sounded when talking to my brother-in-law.

You decide what's more important.

nX6000: Gennum Corp.'s nX6000, priced from $112, is a noise-canceling device that goes into your ear canal.

I like this type of fit, but many people find it uncomfortable. It's actually healthier for your ears, however, as you can listen at a lower volume because exterior noise has been minimized. It also uses a loop that goes around your ear to help keep it in place.

Outside of the Motorola product below, this one was the easiest to pair with my phone.

(In Bluetooth parlance, "pairing" refers to the wireless connection between the two devices; they are connected when paired. Once paired, the sound from your phone runs through the earpiece.)

It was comfortable and somewhat stylish - all black, and the telltale flashing blue light (indicating a connection) is hardly noticeable. But operating the device was the most challenging.

The other three units have a big button right in the middle of the earpiece that the user taps to answer a call. The nX6000 uses a button underneath the device. I often pushed a volume-control button instead of the call-answering button.

When walking around, the device stayed in my ear and didn't feel like it would fall out. In my ear, the sound was good.

To callers, though, there were occasional dropouts - such as skipped words - and it sounded very much like I was talking on a speakerphone.

User grade: B-

B-I-L grade: C-

Miniblue Bluetooth Headset H9: The great thing about Motorola's Miniblue Bluetooth Headset H9, priced from $87, is how easily it paired with the Sony Ericsson phone. In this regard, it was by far the best of the bunch, as the two devices recognized each other and paired almost instantly.

Another in-ear device that cancels exterior sound, the H9 was comfortable to wear, but I always felt it would fall out, even though it never did. You jam it into your ear and there is nothing else to hold it in place. Also, Motorola's bat-wing logo is too prominently displayed and flashes blue when the device is in use.

A flashing-blue logo doesn't look very stylish dangling from one's ear. But the center button, where the logo sits, was easy to use to answer calls, making the device functional.

In my ear, the sound was good, although not as clear as some of the other units. But to my caller, this unit sounded most like a speakerphone and he really had to pay attention to hear me clearly.

User grade: B-

B-I-L grade: C-

Scala 700 LX: The Cardo Systems Inc.'s Scala 700 LX, priced from $30, is the longest device of the bunch, which is probably why my listener found it to be the superior unit. Simply put, the speaker is closer to the mouth.

But to the user, it was by far the dorkiest. It has a prominent flashing blue light and an over-the-ear loop that can be hidden only by long hair. However, the loop made me feel confident it wouldn't fall off, since this earpiece doesn't go into your ear.

For pairing, it took a few minutes and repeated attempts to make it work the first time, making the process somewhat frustrating.

But once working, it was easy to operate and I could hear conversations well. Also, my test caller said the sound was very good - almost but not quite as good as using the mobile phone without the earpiece. There was minimal speakerphone effect.

User grade: C

B-I-L grade: B

SM100 EarModule:The in-ear SM100 EarModule, from Sound ID and priced from $130, is easily the most comfortable and stylish. The all-silver device does have a blue light, but it is so subtle that if someone was looking at you while it was in your ear, he wouldn't be able to see it.

The SM100 uses a rubber loop that sits inside your ear, but not in your ear canal, and that took a minute to figure out. Called a "real comfort ear loop," this clever design provided confidence the earpiece wouldn't fall out, even during some aggressive walking.

Pairing took a minute and was not as easy as the H9 or the nX6000.

The sound in my ear was simply outstanding - the best I've ever heard using an earpiece, let alone a wireless model. Unfortunately, though, my caller heard a bit of static while we talked and said the sound was a bit "tunnelly."

User grade: B+

B-I-L grade: C+

The bottom line: If what you're saying is more important than how you look, check out the Scala 700 LX. But if how you look matters most, pick the SM100.

And don't forget to keep the receipt.

Eric Benderoff writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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