Katherine Boehret

No Hands, All Ears for Sound in Cars

Bluetooth headsets, which wirelessly connect an earpiece with a cellphone to allow hands-free conversations, are particularly useful in cars — especially since, in many states, drivers can be ticketed for using a cellphone without one of these headsets.

To make Bluetooth even easier to use in cars, most new luxury cars and some standard cars are sold with optional built-in Bluetooth speakerphone technology which doesn’t even require an earpiece. Some cars also come with built-in iPod integration, displaying song titles on the dashboard and controlling the iPod using buttons on the steering wheel, again to minimize distractions. One new built-in product, SYNC, the voice-activated system created by Ford Motor Co. and Microsoft Corp., lets users do both things hands-free: play music or make phone calls using simple voice commands.

The $120 Parrot PMK5800 uses voice recognition for a more hands-free experience.

This week, I tested two devices that bring Bluetooth technology to older cars in hopes of integrating hands-free phone calls and music with a car’s stereo system. I tried the $130 Venturi Mini from NextGen Venturi Ltd. (www.myventuri.com) and $120 Parrot PMK5800 from Parrot Inc. (www.parrot.com) on three cars made in 2000 and 2005.

Neither device offers a surefire solution; each is limited by your particular car and cellphone. But the Parrot sails ahead of the Venturi Mini by using voice activation for phone calls, something the Venturi Mini can’t do. Venturi’s version of “hands-free calling” requires initiating a call on the cellphone itself or by looking down at a tiny, grayscale screen and painstakingly scrolling through names of contacts. Furthermore, the Parrot worked after only a few steps, while the Venturi took much longer to set up and get going.

Both of these are one-piece black gadgets that plug into your car’s cigarette lighter and use FM transmitters to play on unused FM radio stations. Each has a tiny screen, though the Parrot screen is used solely to display the current station so as to match it with the radio. The idea is that after initially “pairing” a Bluetooth cellphone with one of these devices, the phone and device will automatically find each other whenever both are in the car and on, making calls easier and music a bit more hands-free.

The Parrot and Venturi Mini will only play music via Bluetooth using cellphones that have a technology called A2DP, which enables music streaming. More and more new cellphones have this technology, such as the Nokia 6555 that I used, but many — including Apple’s iPhone — don’t. Most people will play music by attaching an iPod or other portable music player to these devices using cables that come with them.

The $130 Venturi Mini doesn’t work with voice commands.

Neither the Venturi Mini nor the Parrot PMK5800 enable voice commands with music: songs streamed via Bluetooth are controlled using buttons on the devices, and music coming from a wired-attached player can only be operated using buttons on that player.

The Parrot isn’t as compact or as stylish as the Venturi Mini, but its best feature is unseen: built-in voice recognition software that guides you while using this device. If your cellphone has built-in voice-recognition software, which many do, you can plug in the Parrot and get started. Otherwise, contacts must be loaded on to the Parrot and assigned a voice tag. Large green and red buttons initiate or end phone calls, but speaking commands also works. A knob turns to different stations or can be pressed and turned for audible descriptions of menus. Three glowing Play/Pause, Skip Ahead and Skip Back buttons are easy to find without looking down so as to navigate through music.

While I was listening to music coming from one paired cellphone, my sister called me on another paired cellphone that I had forgotten I had in my purse. The music automatically paused, and the sound of a ringing phone came from the car speakers until I answered it by pressing the Parrot’s green button (speaking the word “phone” also works).

If voice tags are assigned to contacts in your phone, the name of the person calling can be announced over the speakers, like caller ID. Music automatically re-starts after a call ends.

I made calls on the Parrot by pressing its green button and speaking directions like “Call Allison Mobile” to call the correct number from my phone’s contact list. The voice recognition sounded a bit robotic, but almost always found the right number.

Most voice calls sounded rather clear to the people with whom I spoke, but in the car, calls suffered when stations were interrupted with static as I drove around the Washington, D.C., area. One major issue with relying on FM transmitters in major cities is the small number of unused radio stations. Static also affected streamed music, making it sound scratchy at times. Music playing from a cord-connected iPod had no trouble.

The same static problems arose with Bluetooth calls and music on the Venturi Mini. This device’s rectangular face has a scroll button in its center, which seems like it would be a useful addition. But this can’t be pressed down to select anything on the screen, which is maddening. Instead, selecting anything from the Venturi screen must be done using a separate button, as if it wasn’t even designed to be a hands-free device.

To set up the Mini, a paired phone’s contacts must be copied from the phone onto the device. Once these contacts are added, calls can be initiated through the device by finding the correct name on the screen using the scroll wheel and pressing more buttons to select that name and place the call. None of this involves voice recognition, and it’s all supposed to be done while you’re driving.

For all its faults, the Venturi does have a few features that the Parrot doesn’t, including the ability to display Bluetooth data — like the name or number of an incoming caller and a song title and artist — on your radio display if your car has this ability. But most older cars don’t allow this, and I couldn’t quickly figure out how it worked even while driving in a 2005 car. You can also charge devices through the Mini using a built-in USB port.

The position of a car’s cigarette lighter matters to the Venturi Mini and the Parrot. This plug is often positioned near the gear shift, and in my manual car, it would’ve been difficult to operate these gadgets while in fifth gear (I didn’t try). The location of this plug also determines how loud or soft your voice sound to callers. So as to not sound so far away during calls I tried to lean closer to the devices, but this isn’t safe while driving.

The Venturi Mini looks like a hip device, but without voice recognition software and a smart interface, it’s frustrating and dangerous to use. Parrot’s PMK5800 plugs in and works and its voice-recognition software makes it a true hands-free device that will improve the way you use Bluetooth in your car. Just look out for static, especially in big cities.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

Email mossbergsolution@wsj.com

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