November 04, 2008

Review: Plantronics Stereo Bluetooth Headsets

Richard Kuper
The Kuper Report

I evaluated two Bluetooth headsets from Plantronics: The Plantronics Voyager 855 Stereo Bluetooth Headset, and the Plantronics Pulsar 590A with Universal Bluetooth Adapter. Both have pros and cons, depending on your personal preferences and needs.

Neither the Voyager 855 nor the Pulsar 590A listed my current cell phone, a Samsung Juke (SCH-u470) that doubles as an mp3 player, as a compatible bluetooth phone. Samsung did not list either of these headsets as compatible. Despite those omissions by both companies, both headsets easily connected (the term used for connecting bluetooth devices is "paired") with my phone, and neither needed the indicated code to pair up.

For stereo listening, bluetooth devices must support the Bluetooth Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP). Devices that do not support the A2DP profile must use the Plantronics universal adapter to work wirelessly with these headsets. The adapter only comes with the Pulsar 590A. Also, bluetooth mobile phones with built-in MP3 must support the Bluetooth Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) for stereo listening.

Used as a cell phone headset

Voyager 855

The Voyager 855 works either as a standard mono bluetooth headset, or as a stereo bluetooth headset.

This is an in-ear headset. To use it as a standard mono headset, you can either insert the primary unit in your ear or, if you need an over-the-ear hook to hold it in place, attach the provided hook. To use it as a stereo headset, the in-ear add-on is attached to a thin cord connected to it's own over-the-ear hook. There are also three different sized earbud adapters. I've tried all three sizes and haven't quite found the right size for one of my ears that I personally find comfortable. And if I fully set the earbud in my ear to "seal out the noise", I find that I hear myself echoing in my ear when I talk, as when one simply holds their hand flat over their ear and talks. But that's just me. You may not have this experience.

To answer an incoming call, you either extend the sliding boom on the primary unit so that the mic is closer to your mouth, or tap a button. Since my phone is also an mp3 player, I was happy to find that when I answered a call it paused the music, and resumed it when the call ended. The
sound was clear on phone calls using the unit as a mono headset, and was even more so when using the unit in stereo mode (probably because I was now listening in both ears). One issue that folks at the other end of the calls mentioned was when I was outdoors in breezy or windy weather they had trouble hearing me, so I found myself cupping my hand over the mic to block the wind, which helped. I've had this issue with wired headsets in the past.

Plantronics claims up to 7 hours talk time, 6 hours stereo listening time, 160 hours standby time from a single charge. I don't make/receive a lot of calls and have mostly used the Voyager 855 to listen to music. In that mode, I estimate that the claim of 6 hours of listening time before needing
to recharge is reasonably accurate. Unfortunately, the only way to determine the battery status is either to somehow notice a blinking red (hard to do when the unit is on your ear), or else you suddenly hear a series of beeps when the battery is really low. At that point, the battery dies soon afterwards and needs to be recharged.

In addition to the items mentioned above, the Voyager 855 comes with an AC charger and a pouch to hold the headset. The Voyager 855 does not come with a USB cable to charge the unit via your pc. Such a cable is available, however, for an extra charge. In my opinion, this cable should be included with the headset.

I will address music listening, and what happens if I get a call while listening to music after a basic review of the Pulsar 590A.

Pulsar 590A

The Pulsar 590A is more than an over-the-head stereo bluetooth headset. It can also be used as a wired headset or wired headphones.

With the provided universal bluetooth adapter, it can also be used to listen wirelessly to iPods and virtually any device with a headset/headphone out jack. And if that's not enough versatility, it also comes with an in-flight cable so you can listen to the music or movie on a plane. It also comes with a desktop charging stand, an AC charger, a travel case, and a USB charging cable.

The mic on this unit is a small tube that looks like a small fuse. It seems to be a glass tube, so some care is needed. I found it a little difficult to extend it initially, but it loosened up a bit over time. Other than that, the test results were comparable to the 800, including when I answered a call it paused the music, and resumed it when the call ended. In the case of this headset, however, you need to press a button to answer a call.

Extending the tube does not engage the phone-answer action.

For the Pulsar 590A, Plantronics claims up to 12 hours talk time, 10 hours stereo listening time, 130 hours standby time from a single charge.

Listening to music

The main reason I was interested in stereo bluetooth headsets was to listen to music on the mp3 player part of my cell phone. Headsets are not stereo systems, and mp3 files are not the same as full-fledged audio recordings intended for play on a real stereo system, and so such comparisons would be unfair. Comparisons to a high-quality headphone connected by wire to such a stereo system would also be an unfair comparison to wireless listening. So the only reasonable comparison for most listeners would be to compare the sound to an iPod and it's provided earphones. Both the Voyager 855 and the Pulsar 590A provided comparable sound quality to iPod earphones, and also to the wired headset that came with the cell phone. The Voyager 855 sounds best when inserted in the ear in a manner that blocks out outside sound.

As mentioned earlier, though, the Pulsar 590A comes with some extra tricks. One is the ability to use it as a standard wired headphone. The provided cable comes with a 3.5mm plug - the size used on iPods and personal computers and such. With a separately purchased stereo phono-plug adapter from such stores as Radio Shack or amazon, it can also be used as a wired headphone on a real stereo system. I did connect it this way, and although it did not measure up to my high-end headphones, it provided very nice sound. I then tried out the Universal Bluetooth Adapter, attached to my stereo system. It was quite a treat to be able to walk around without wires and listen to my stereo, and the sound was very nice. I was able to set up my stereo to play both through the systems speakers and through the headphone jack that the adapter was connected to (via my 3.5mm to phono plug adapter) and discovered that there is a delay in getting the signal to the headset. It was like being in a stadium where the announcers voice echoes. I also connected the Universal Bluetooth Adapter to an iPod and enjoyed wireless listening that way too. I was also able to pair the Voyager 855 headset to the Universal Bluetooth Adapter.

Other features

With both headsets you can raise and lower volume. I was able to skip forward and back on the tracks on my mp3 phone and mute and pause with both headsets. I have not been on a plane in while, so I was unable to test the in-flight option with the Pulsar 590A.

In conclusion

All in all, I was impressed with both headsets. They both met my needs for stereo listening and making/receiving phone calls on my cell phone/mp3 player. The Pulsar 590A had many more options.

The Plantronics Voyager 855 Stereo Bluetooth Headset is an in-ear headset, and can be used either as a mono headset or a stereo headset.

The Pulsar 590A with Universal Bluetooth Adapter, is a stereo over-the-head headset.

The Voyager 855 lists for $149.95, while the Pulsar 590A lists for $249.95. Each can be found for about half those amounts at places like amazon.

More information about these and other Plantronics headsets can be found at the Plantronics website,