Bluetrek Metal Bluetooth Headset
For the longest time I have been in hot pursuit for a Bluetooth headset that didn’t cause such a disruption in my conversations that the other party continuously asked me such questions as "are you in a tunnel?" or "do you have me on speakerphone?". I’m an engineer and frankly, it’s beyond me that this search has gone on for so long. Let’s think about where we’ve been since the first BT headsets first hit the market several years ago. Motorola was one of the first manufacturers shipping and they used BT 1.1, had obnoxious Christmas light-sized LEDs, and had no real noise cancellation technology to speak of. Back then, the Bluetooth standard was a pretty loosely define thing though one thing was constant – lousy performance and plenty of disconnections. Back then, Bluetooth headsets were already supporting transmission speeds of well beyond what it would take to stream a medium-quality MP3 (128 kb/s). Why, then, did these headsets deliver such poor fidelity?
I would imagine the first reason was immature chipsets, just like with anything else. It takes energy to convert analog audio to a digital stream and then pipe that signal over a wireless connection, all the while ensuring the battery life is reasonable and doing as much as possible to minimize dropped packets due to transmission errors. Furthermore, earlier BT specifications didn’t handle general interference although BT 1.2 made big strides in both throughput and hopping optimizations to minimize gaps in transmission. With BT 1.2 came several important headsets that finally made wireless talking a reality (once folks started to realize the SAR values should factor into your handset purchase decision). Two huge sellers launched in 2006 were the Aliph Jawbone Original and the the Plantronics Voyager 510 (which will be the baseline for this review). Neither came without weakness: some said the Jawbone was too big, had sound insulating technology that made voices become artificial, and wasn’t worth the price premium. And the 510 is quite large and bulky to carry.
Fast forward to late 2008: Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR (pushing BT 1.2’s 720 kb/s transmission to 2.1 mb/s, reduced power consumption, and better security) is out – well so is BT 2.1 but that largely addresses security issues – and we have the successor to the Jawbone, Voyager, and dozens of "me too" headsets that all claim to offer the most convenience, best sound quality, and of course, the sleekest, most modern look. Frankly, I think most headsets turn users into cyborg-wanna-be’s, a weird throwback to professionals’ Star Trek fantasies. BlueTrek contacted pocketnow about a brand new, style-conscious model called simply enough the "Metal" model, and since I was ready to stop using my Voyager for fear of being threatened should I not disconnect it, I figured I’d take a look at their offering.
The specifications list is pretty standard fare for a modern BT headset: 5 hour talk-time, 7 day standby time, 10 meter range, BT 2.0 compliance, and a nice design. Size-wise, the Metal is pretty extraordinary: 5.5 grams (without the ear hooks or gels), 4 millimeters thin, and a body that’s 50 mm by 16 mm. Now, I know what you’re thinking: there are smaller headsets out there like the Invision G5 or even the Japanese Adtec AD-HSM10, but they’re somewhat limited in convenience or looks (frankly, I think they’re both pretty unsightly). Physical beauty is a personal matter, and I was excited to see that lots of models wear the Metal, at least if the Bluetrek marketing material is to be believed. In truth, I’m always nervous about a product that hits you hard with marketing material and de-emphasizes engineering prowess of a product. Let’s see what this little guy is all about. Throughout my testing, I used a Samsung Epix WM 6.1 Professional device.
Talk Time | Standby (hours)
5 | 180
10 | 300
5.5 | 200
|Aliph Jawbone 2|
4 | 192
6 | 150
6 | 75
10 | 300
5 | 150
5.5 | 200
4 | 75
6 | 120
9 | 250
12 | 360
3 | 100
6 | 300
3.5-10 | 80
7 | 180
4 | 250
5 | 120
6 | 300
6 | 300
30 | 700
15 | 300
7 | 300
6 | 300
7 | 100
5 | 250
2 | 100
8 | 1000
4 | 200
(all images link to higher resolution)
Presentation is key – even the box looks metallic (it’s not the real deal, much like the interior of your American car)
The headset itself looks like a thick piece of chewing gum with an ear port
In the box, you’ll receive a USB charger/belt clip, extra ear gels (3 standard and 3 "stabilizing"), ear hooks, a USB car charger (very handy!), and a USB cable extender. The inclusion of the car charger is an option according to the website.
I like a simple button design on my headsets, but not one that combines all functions into one button like some smaller models seem to do these days. On the non-MIC end, you’ll see a volume up, volume down, and talk/power toggle button. Let’s be clear – you shouldn’t expect to use these buttons while the device is in your ear, though functions like call end, hold, and mute can be initiated from that middle button. This button is so darn small that you’re more likely to claw a chunk out of your ear than successfully engage that button. Yes, folks – miniaturization has its limits. I would much rather use my Epix’s screen to perform these functions and not mistakenly end the call.
Pairing of this phone is as simple as on any other device – press the power button down for about seven seconds and Windows Mobile handles the rest after a simple PIN entry. Whenever you press the miniscule power button on the Metal, if WM doesn’t already recognize the headset connection, it will re-pair and send any phone call audio to the headset. This whole pairing process has gotten so much simpler thanks to the native Bluetooth stack introduced in full form in WM with Windows Mobile 5.0 (limited support existed in Pocket PC 2003, under which I never had success). Thanks, Microsoft!
This thing is thin. Really thin! 4 millimeters thin!
On the other end of the Metal is a tiny LED and the microphone itself (one microphone only unlike some of the larger headsets that have sophisticated noise cancellation technology). Some folks love the irradiating headset look, where for about 300 feet away, someone can be identified as a Bluetooth robot due to the pulsating "Bluetooth blue" LED on the side of their headset stuck into their ear. I find this hugely irritating and uncool. If you take pleasure in receiving attention in this sense, I recommend you first work on your hair style or choice of perfume/cologne. That being said, Bluetrek went a little too minimalist – the LED blinks during pairing, power toggle, and every 15 seconds or so when a call is being placed with the headset connected. I wish the LED would periodically blink when it’s connected to a partner. Since this device has fairly aggressive power saving features, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that you’ll walk away from your paired phone for an hour, receive a call, and realize the Metal had disconnected its pairing. The only way to tell this is from the Phone dialer application once the incoming call shows on your screen. This is a nuisance – I’d like an easier way to verify phone pairing status.
What I’m not annoyed by is the absolutely brilliant charging design incorporated into this headset. The USB charger is actually a cut-away USB connector that plugs into the headset and when it’s not being used as a charger, it fits snugly into the included belt clip (see below) so you’re, in effect. always carrying around the charge and safe carrying solution! I wish more vendors would use a similar idea (please pay Metaltrek their licensing fee!), as I hate carrying around an extra USB cable when I should just be able to plug my headset into a USB port. Bravo, Metaltrek – this feature is really something.
Here is a shot of the included carrying case – very minimalist, but very clever. The rubber-looking piece near my thumb is the USB connector section. The benefit, of course, is you’ll never lose the thing if kept attached to your belt. Unfortunately, the belt clip is somewhat tenuous and doesn’t lend itself to being worn along with a jacket (sports coat or outdoor jacket). Several times, I found the entire unit falling off my belt when I would get out of a car or sit down. I wish the belt clip were more robust. These facts keep me from suggesting that the clip be used under normal conditions – though I don’t see any issue with wearing it when modeling or walking down a catwalk.
Let’s talk about ergonomics for a bit, since there’s no point in discussing headsets without how it sits on/in your head. Most headsets I’ve come into contact with have supported an ear hook of some sort. Some ear hooks are "optional" and others are part of the design (like on my Voyager 510). Due to the slimming effect, all website pics of the Metal at Bluetrek.com show no earhook use. I’ll admit: this looks very sleek. However, it’s impractical. Unless standing perfectly still, regardless of the ear gels I selected, I felt like the Metal was slipping out of my ear. I experimented with the small and medium sized regular and "stabilizing" gels. While the stabilizing gels (they have a slight loop at the end for further bracing against your ear structure) were an improvement – especially when remaining stationary – I still felt like I had to constantly adjust the positioning such that the headset wasn’t pressed against my cheek. Especially when walking outside, I didn’t feel the fit was snug enough. So I resorted to using the ear hook, impacting the effect of the super slim aluminum design.
The ear hooks are very tiny, thin pieces of plastic. They are extremely fragile when used in conjunction with the carrying case – I ruined one clip by sitting down without a jacket, so I had to toss it out. If you’re forced to tote the Metal around without the component that makes the headset usable – the ear hook – then what’s the point of the carrying case? Regardless of portability with the ear hook, it allowed the Metal to sit on my ear much more comfortably.
Let’s talk charging (since I made a big deal about the great in-built USB connector piece). To charge this little guy, simply attach the USB connector to the Metal, and push it (carefully!) into a free USB port. Charging takes only a few hours and is done when the red light extinguishes. For a frequent traveler like me, having one less cord to bring along is quite fantastic.
I thought I’d do something different for the technical analysis section of this review. Instead of providing subjective explanations of the Metal performance in various environments, I will allow you – the reader – to judge the quality of this handset. To facilitate this, I merely used my Samsung Epix (with full signal strength in Midtown Atlanta, 3G service, and a full charge) to call a Vonage VoIP line. Vonage provides WAV-encoded voicemail to subscribers, so what I have included below is the result from a 10-second call attempt with the Epix without a headset, then with my Plantronics Voyager 510 (BT 1.2), and finally with the Bluetrek Metal (BT 2.0). My commentary provided below each sampling. With each device, I recorded sound from a near-silent environment and then with a loud noise in the background (I used an indoor box fan at high speed – very loud to my ears – while I was talking).
Some observations here. Although I’ve never been a fan of voice transmitted over cellular networks (including UMTS, which is quite optimized for voice traffic), I find that introducing a Bluetooth headset generally further degrades the quality of a conversation due to added compression and conversion. While some of the added lag issues of the past have been minimized thanks to advances in Bluetooth frequency hopping, there’s still a bit of "tunnel sound" even with the latest crop of devices. Now that I’ve gotten my bias against Bluetooth headsets out on the table, I will say that I was quite impressed with the noise reduction technology (WindSmart on the Plantronics, no specific branding applied to the Metal). I barely could hear myself talk in any of the loud tests; however, in all cases, the sound quality is pretty decent on the other end. The sound quality speaking directly into the handset was best, followed by the Metal, followed by the Voyager. I felt the Voyager had too much choppiness, likely caused by frequency renegotiation. The Metal wasn’t perfect, either: the microphone was so far from my mouth that the audio wasn’t as amplified as it should be.
In sync with the ultra-contemporary styling embedded in the Metal marketing campaign is minimalist packaging. I’m a big fan of cutting down on throwaways. Included in the box is a tiny quick-start guide and a helpful printout that explains if you don’t position the headset away from the cheek, the other party isn’t going to be able to hear you. Well, duh! An expanded user manual can be found on the Bluetrek website. As is usually the case, if you can’t figure out how to enable call-waiting, call muting, voice recognition, and even basic pairing, you should be sent back to grammar school. Bluetooth has become so commonplace that even my car has easy-to-master Bluetooth integration, so you should have no problems getting started with this thing. If for some reason you do, Bluetrek has a toll-free support line (quite surprising for a boutique vendor such as Bluetrek): (877) 927-BLUE.
BUGS AND WISHES
At the risk of sounding like a spoiled reviewer: the Metal is a bit too small for my liking. It’s gorgeous – don’t get me wrong. I’m blown away by the technology that permits the shrinking of what once was a 1.2 monster (like the Sony Ericsson HBH-15) into a 5 gram, 5 mm-thin sheet of aluminum. There’s a limit to the usefulness of shrinking innards, especially when a device is required to interact with the physical world. I have two form factor demands for the Metal – make it bigger and make it more robust. I envision a "Metal Brute" model from Bluetrek, which weighs 15 grams and is 8 mm thick. It will have a microphone that extends closer to the user’s mouth, have buttons that can be used during a call session, and have a belt clip that won’t fall off so easily. I think if the size were a little bigger, perhaps the rubber ear gels will become more suitable for usage during movement. I will forever remember the Saturday Night Live sketch where Will Ferrell, dressed as a fashionista, pulls out a cell phone the size of his thumb and struggles to place a call. We’re not quite there with the Metal, but I see a need for a more durable model that is a close relative to the smaller product.
Beyond the overall size of the headset and the need for a stronger belt clip that can sustain a walk outside, I’d like to see better use of the LED so that I know when the headset is powered on. Furthermore, the ear hooks are so flimsy that they cannot be worn with the belt clip, and the ear gel system is temperamental and challenging to find a perfect fit.
You can purchase the Bluetrek Metal from Amazon for $52.95.
- Arguably the thinnest (though not lightest) Bluetooth headset at time
- Very fashionable design – minimalist like the iPhone BT headset
- Supported latest Bluetooth 2.0 for good interference minimization
- Innovative charge/belt system minimizes need to carry any cords
- Sound quality up to par for small size
- Volume and action buttons too small for in-call use
- Belt clip needs improvement
- Ear gels are hard to fit perfectly
- Needs to make better use of LED
The headline defining this review is really just a jab at the slightly over-the-top marketing campaign behind the Metal headset – in reviewing the press kit, it would appear as though Bluetrek is targeting New York supermodels and not the common folk who sit behind a desk 8 hours a day and barely have time to shuffle to McDonalds for lunch. A little bit of fashion can’t hurt us normal people though, right? Cell phone accessories have become fashion statements now that the tech has matured to the point where it’s form over function with little tradeoff in performance. Perhaps Bluetrek went a little far with the size of the Metal, but like I said – I see a strong market demand for a headset that is about 50% larger and better suited to traveling executives. This should be sold alongside the existing Metal, not in lieu of.
Form factor niggles aside, the technology in this little gem is quite good and the USB/carrying design is fantastic. I’m hoping to see more products from Bluetrek (such as slim stereo earphones taking advantage of A2DP) that use a similar charge/carry implementation. I’m thinking Bluetrek will sell a heavy volume of this model due to its chic design and very reasonable price. I look forward to seeing what’s next from Bluetrek.