Hands-on with Aliph's Jawbone Bluetooth headset

What makes a Bluetooth headset great? Does it need to be so small as to be virtually invisible? Does it need to be a brilliantly-designed fashion accessory? Perhaps easy to use, easy to hear, and easy to be understood? Ultimately, of course, no model is perfect; every headset on the market is a compromise, a reflection of the manufacturer's (and the buyer's) priorities. So we basically went into the review of the Bluetooth variant of Aliph's lauded Jawbone with that same mentality, hoping that it'd prevent us from getting distracted by any miscellaneous shortfalls in the product -- the Jawbone's draw, after all, is its noise reduction circuitry, and that's what we really wanted to report on here. Instead, we came away with a shockingly positive impression of the Jawbone not just as a technological overachiever, but as a legit headset that we could see ourselves using day in and day out. Read on to find out why.

The Jawbone's packaging was about as elaborate as we've seen for any phone-related product. Ever. Fortunately, it didn't take too long to claw our way into its precious contents.

In an age where headsets often use quarters and paperclips as size benchmarks, the Jawbone is by no means "small." That being said, we were pleasantly surprised at how small it seemed on our ear -- we'd gotten the impression from pictures (and from holding it in our hand, for that matter) that it'd be far more conspicuous than it turned out to be. Add in its striking design -- without question one of the best we've seen on a Bluetooth headset -- and a choice of red, gray, and black shells, and we don't think most folks need to be concerned about drawing unwanted attention (unless they want to, in which case the red comes highly recommended).

Design aside, a headset is only good as our ability to wear it with two assurances: 1) that it won't fall off, and 2) that we can wear it for hours without suffering. The Jawbone passes both tests with flying colors. Its somewhat unusual earloop -- with metal outer and soft rubber inner sections -- can be tricky to master the very first time you use it, but slapping it on became second nature for us in no time. Once it's on, it ain't going nowhere (unless you want it to). We could tell after a few minutes of use that it wasn't going to cause any discomfort, either; in fact, we could barely tell it was on, even though the earbud was securely in the entrance of our ear canal. The earloop's design also does a bang-up job of keeping the vibration sensor (a little white nub on the headset's inner side) firmly against your cheek, which is where it needs to be to pick up sound and do its noise cancellation trickery.

So yeah, onto the real draw here: noise reduction. Despite being thoroughly impressed with the Jawbone as a plane ol' Bluetooth headset, we knew we had to put that key feature to the test before declaring an Aliph victory. By default, the circuitry is enabled for all calls (it can be disabled with a button press, though we're not sure why you'd want to do that). On a ten scale, we'd give the feature a six for it's ability to... well, do what it says it's supposed to. Aliph says that the technology works by mixing data from the vibration sensor with that from a traditional microphone to weed out everything but your voice, and callers could definitely tell that's what was going on, too, because loud noises around us would intermittently cut in and out. Sounds like construction equipment, trains, and cars seemed easier for the Jawbone to consistently discard, but strong winds were a major challenge. The good news is that we could almost always be heard even in the face of serious background noise -- the only problem is that callers would occasionally get some of that background noise mixed in. At any rate, we can say with certainty that the Jawbone fared better in every noise test than a traditional headset would have.

Clarity and volume were fantastic on our end as well. It's said that the Jawbone dynamically adjusts volume and tone based on ambient conditions, and seeing how we were able to walk around in a variety of situations without touching the volume even once, we tend to believe it.

Niggles were few and far between. The headset charges via USB -- always a bonus -- and includes an AC adapter with a USB port for those times when the PC is out of reach. One minor complaint was the button configuration; kudos to Aliph for integrating the Jawbone's two buttons in such a way that they're invisibly integrated with the overall design, but they lose some points for failing to include dedicated volume up / volume down buttons (instead, volume is cycled with repeated presses of the secondary button). Another gotcha that might bother some folks is that it can only be paired with one handset at a time, but hey, it just gives you an excuse to order all three colors, right?

So is the Jawbone a buy? Yeah, we'd say so. We think $120 is a pretty reasonable sum to pay for an attractive, ultra comfortable, and highly functional Bluetooth headset of any sort, but when you throw in some fairly functional noise reduction, you've got a winner on your hands.