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G-sat BTH-820 / BTA-830 Bluetooth audio hands-on review

We had the chance recently to review the GlobalSat Bluetooth Entertainment Pack. And for kicks, we took 'em up on the offer to see just how well this thing delivered on the promise of bringing CD quality stereo audio to any media device with a standard 1/8-inch minijack. The pack consists of two devices: the BTH-820 stereo headset which attaches to your uh, head and the BTA-830 Stereo Audio Gateway which attaches to your device. Both are Bluetooth 1.2.

First, get to know your Bluetooth profiles ‘cause that little bit of info tucked away in your noggin could save you a bit of trouble and dough too, someday. Afterall, we're just crossing a digital divide whereby most new musicphones will feature everything you need to enjoy Bluetooth stereo sound while remaining fully in control of the music; pause, skip, volume, and the like, without ever touching the handset. Problem is, vendors just aren’t making it easy to figure out what their wares are packin’. So listen up kids, if you want in on stereo audio and wireless control of your device then both the Bluetooth headphones and device must support...

the A2DP and AVRCP profiles. A2DP, or Advanced Audio Distribution Profile, brings the stereo love while AVRCP, or Audio / Video Remote Control Profile gives you the device control. If all you want is stereo audio, then A2DP is all you need.

So as you probably guessed, the BTH-820 headset supports both AVRCP and A2DP. However, the BTA-830 gateway goes A2DP, only. Those of you paying attention go get yourselves a cookie since you already realized that the headphone remote won't allow you to control your media player no matter how hard you push the buttons. That is, unless the device supports AVRCP natively, dig? Regardless, the BTH-820 will still control the volume which isn’t all bad, right?

Initial Thoughts
Mmm, bubble wrap.

Hey, that audio gateway looks a bit like a Griffin PowerMate, and it's almost the same size!

Hey, we likey this Y-charger. Messy, but effective.

Let’s start with audio quality which is largely down to personal preference once it exceeds some unwritten, but generally agreed threshold of crap. Some of us found the quality achieved by the included earbuds to be comparable to that of the buds shipped with one's portable audio player. Especially when used outside the Engadget Mansion’s sound studio where ambient noise is an issue (unlike where we record the Podcast). Others found the slight, but audible baseline fuzz to be unacceptable. Your mileage, as they say, will vary. Most found the audio quality acceptable and simply enjoyed the novelty and freedom of untethered stereo audio.

As expected, the devices paired easily via a 6-second press-and-hold on each unit’s power button. They could then be used to enable stereo audio on any device which could muster a 3.5mm jack. It should work with any stereo audio device with good results, with one (discovered) caveat -- inexplicably, there was a very slight but very noticeable delay in the transmission of the audio when connected to a Mac. No problem if you are just listening to music, however once we started a movie the delay was quite obvious with lips and audio clearly out of sync. No problems from a XP laptop however.

While on the topic of using the device with a Macintosh we should also note that we simply could not get the BTH-820 headset to pair with the D-link DBT-120 Rev. 3 adapter on our G5 PowerMac running the latest OS, updates, and firmware. No problem on the XP laptop. GlobalSat was not able to sort the issue although they still claim the headset is Mac compatible.

And as you can tell, GlobalSat’s headphones aren’t completely wireless, which has its advantages and disadvantages. On the plus, you don’t have to wear big cans or thick droopy cable behind the neck since the Bluetooth radio is in the remote which clips onto your kit. Besides, you want that remote anyway, right? The disadvantage of course is wires and the occasional fashion conundrum of where to clip the remote since the cable is not long enough to reach both your cuffs and ears without turning you into a gimp.

Not to knock GlobalSat too much for the following, since it seems that all Bluetooth headset manufactures suffer from the same deluded idea -- let’s be clear, we're not huge fans of our Bluetooth headsets flashing. We already feel goofy enough having lumps of plastic bolted to our heads, we don’t need yet another badge-o-geekdom drawing even more attention to (y)our wares. The GlobalSat lights blink 4 times in rapid succession every 2 seconds until death by battery or harikiri. The incessant flashing of the two devices reached such an annoying pitch that we finally had to cover the units with tape before we could peaceably enjoy a film in a dimly lit home theater. Seriously, not good.

While the range does indeed extend to 10-meters and occasionally beyond, the signal is easily interfered with by the human form. For example, when adjusting the volume on the remote, the mere presence of the hand in front of the unit while adjusting decibels was enough to cause the sound to drop completely, regardless of whether we were 10-meters or 10-centimeters from the Gateway. So no dancing, ok folks?

The battery operated as advertised giving us about 5.5 hours on average of good strong music playback. The biggest problem was keeping all three devices (headset, gateway, and media player) charged once we started using these for day-to-day listening. That might not be a problem for you Mr. Order-n-Sunshine but in our chaotic life of battery drudge it sometimes seemed to be a bit, say, over-the-top.

While our main goal was to review the stereo audio capability of these units, it should be noted that the BTH-820 headset also supports the Bluetooth Headset and Handsfree profiles. So we went and paired the headset with our cellphone and indeed, music was muted (not paused -- no AVRCP remember?) and the headset switched over to the call. However, we received regular complaints about the quality of our mic like, "Dude, you eating tin foil?" Seriously.

As an interesting side-note, GlobalSat also dropped in their little $19 BTA-806 Bluetooth 2.0 dongle, which gave us a chance to test the BTH-820 headset on a laptop. Now even though XP supports Bluetooth natively, additional software from Widcomm or IVT BlueSoleil (included) is required to add the required Bluetooth AV profile. The software worked fine on the PC, but it’s far from intuitive. However, we did finally manage to get the BTH-820 recognized as the default Windows audio source, resulting in stereo audio with the fine bonus of controlling Windows Media Player to skip tracks, pause, etc. Nice. And when installed in the Mac (without additional software) it paired with every Bluetooth device we could find including a Bluetrek G2 (mono) headset but we just couldn’t get the damned thing to pair with the BTH-820 headset. Go figure, this thing hates our Mac.

While the system works and provides good stereo sound free of wires you have to consider the cost. We don’t mean the $115 for the pair of devices, rather this solution means that instead of just one device to obsess over regarding fingerprints, scratches, storing, and keeping charged, you’ve now got three -- with one of those swingin' like a wrecking ball from your MP3 player. Can you deal with that? Ultimately this setup just proved too cumbersome for us on a day to day basis -- but we’re minimalists and a bit freaky too.

Bottom Line
If you absolutely, positively must have 10-meters of Bluetooth stereo audio for your legacy, non-Mac device then the GlobalSat BTH-820 Bluetooth Headset and BTA-830 Audio Gateway makes for an acceptable solution.

However, if you have the funds and patience, then you’d be wise to hold out for both a media player and headphones / remote that support A2DP and AVRCP natively. Think Sony Ericsson W950i Walkman phone and HBH-DS970 stereo Bluetooth headset -- that's how we'd roll given our druthers.