Walt Mossberg

New Earphone Devices Let You Go Cordless On iPods, Cellphones

Wireless earphones are becoming quite common. You often see cellphone users walking down the street with the alien-like appendages protruding from an ear. And even in the world of iPods, where the famous white earbud cord still rules, a half-dozen or more wireless headphones have been introduced.

But there are problems with going cord-free. In the case of cellphone wireless headsets, loud street and crowd noises make it hard to hear. And the wireless iPod headphones have been big, bulky units of unremarkable audio quality.

Now, some wireless earphones address those problems. For cellphones, a new wireless headset called Jawbone promises to filter out all that background noise. For iPods, new wireless earphones called Ety8 promise to bring small size and great sound quality to the wireless category. Both products use Bluetooth wireless technology to transmit audio from the device to the ear.

I’ve been testing these two new products and have found that each lives up to its claims. Both are advances that have real advantages over the more standard cord-free competitors. But each also has some drawbacks that might deter some folks from using them.

The wireless Jawbone is a sleek, futuristic-looking gadget made by a small San Francisco company called Aliph. It will be sold, starting Dec. 21, for $120 by Cingular Wireless. The earphone will work with any Bluetooth cellphone, not just those on Cingular’s network. Aliph will also sell the new Jawbone on its Web site, www.jawbone.com. The Cingular model will be silver colored. Aliph will offer it in red and black, too.

What makes jawbone special is its noise-cancellation feature, called Noise Shield. You can stand in front of a blaring boom box or a weed whacker with a Jawbone, and its technology, derived from military research, will almost entirely obliterate that background noise. You can also hear the other party better.

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This effect is achieved through multiple small, built-in microphones, including one that rests against your cheek, detecting the vibration of your voice through the bones in your face. The gadget uses that reading to help identify and cancel all other sound that isn’t your voice.

In my tests, on a Palm Treo from Verizon and a Samsung Blackjack from Cingular, the Jawbone worked well. On a downtown street, it silenced the sound of traffic and crowd noise. In an office, it blocked out loud music only a few inches away. The noise cancellation is far better than on any other cellphone headset I’ve tried. Battery life is up to a decent six hours.

But there are two downsides to the new Jawbone. First, it can’t defeat wind. Even a mild breeze made Jawbone calls noisy. Second, it has some user-interface problems. The same button that turns the Noise Shield on and off also raises and lowers the volume, and the beeps of the two are hard to distinguish. I also found it hard to get a comfortable fit, though the unit comes with multiple behind-the-ear loops and rubber earbuds.

If you’re an iPod lover, the Ety8 wireless earphones may be just the thing to replace those trademark white earbud cords. Unlike other cordless iPod earphones, the Ety8s aren’t large, over-the-ear headphones. They’re light, in-ear earbuds. They’re made by Etymotic Research of Elk Grove Village, Ill., a high-end audio company whose wired earphones are highly praised.

The Ety8 earphones cost $300 from the company’s site, www.etymotic.com. That includes the headphones and a small adapter that plugs into the iPod to give it wireless capability. You can also use the earphones with other devices with wireless capability built in. For that, you can buy earphones without the adapter for $200.

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Like some other high-end earphones, from Etymotic and from competitors like Shure, the Ety8s are meant to go deep into the ear, and come with rubber and foam tips for a snug fit.

The Ety8 also has tiny buttons on the right earpiece to wirelessly control the iPod. You can adjust the volume, play or pause music, or skip ahead or back — all without touching the iPod, which can be 20 or 30 feet away.

They work with the current full-size iPods, the previous generation of full-size iPods, and iPod Nano and Mini models. Battery life is six to nine hours. The adapter draws power from the iPod’s battery, so it will also reduce the battery life of the iPod itself.

In my tests, the Ety8 earphones worked great, both on a new full-size iPod and on an older iPod Mini. They produced excellent sound and were comfortable to wear, once I got used to a cloth-wrapped cord that connects the two earpieces and is meant to be draped behind your neck.

The big downside of the Ety8 is this: They are ugly. They are relatively large, black rectangles that look like matchbooks pasted onto your ears. If you can get over that, the Ety8 wireless earphones for the iPod are great.

Email me at mossberg@wsj.com.


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