Wayne Thorp will speak at the 2015 AAII Investor Conference this fall; go to www.aaii.com/conference for more details.
Wireless “half in-ear” noise cancelling headphones for audio and hands-free calling.
Last September, I reviewed the Phiaton PS 20 BT Bluetooth Stereo Headphones With Mic. While I was impressed with the audio quality, I was put off by the execution, with the headphones attached to a “ball” that needs to be put in a pocket or clipped to prevent it from swinging about. Shortly thereafter, and perhaps before their PR firm read my review, I received the latest model from Phiaton—the PS 210 BTNC noise-cancelling headphones. While I was intrigued by the noise-cancelling element, I was dismayed to see that the dangling control unit remained.
Similar to the PS 20 BTs, the 210 BTNCs have a “half in-ear” design that uses a nub that fits into your ear and a larger assembly that rests outside of it. The earphones are connected to a control unit by an 18-inch cord. Unlike the PS 20 BTs, where the control unit was a black plastic pod or egg, the control unit on the 210 BTNCs is rectangular, with a silver front and black back and clip. While I don’t usually pay too much attention to this, I did find the 210 BTNCs to be more stylish.
Along with the physical earphone unit, you get a USB-to-micro-USB charging cable, a lanyard and four sets of ear buds of differing sizes. You will probably need to charge the earphones before using them, so you will need to plug them into a powered USB port on a computer or use a third-party USB charger. Unfortunately, Phiaton chooses not to provide a dedicated charger. You also get a cloth pouch for carrying your earphones.
The control “pod” is set up very similar to that of the PS 20 BT, with a mini-joystick in the middle that controls the volume, pause/play and track forward and reverse. I found it to be a little stiff when I first started using it, as it was unresponsive. Eventually, as things loosened up, it became easier to operate. I find the joystick to be highly unintuitive, however, and it is very easy to jump or reverse a track when you are simply trying to adjust the volume.
Below the joystick is the call button for answering and ending calls, which will automatically stop and resume audio playback.
On the side of the control unit is a locking switch that, when in the lock position, prevents you from accidentally changing tracks or the volume. To turn the headset on and off, you slide the lock switch up and hold it until the unit turns on or off. On the same side is a switch to turn the noise cancelling on and off (more on that later). On the bottom of the control unit is a covered micro-USB port.
On the back of the controller is a clip that you can attach to your clothing or a bag to keep the pod from swinging about. Or, if you choose, you can wear it around your neck using the provided lanyard.
To use the PS 210 BTNCs with your mobile device, you must pair them. You do this by first enabling Bluetooth on your device and then putting the PS 210 BTNCs in pairing mode by holding the unlock switch in the “on” position until the blue LED light on the call button starts flashing. Then, from your mobile device, you select PS 210 BTNC from the list of available Bluetooth devices to finish the pairing process.
As with most other Bluetooth devices I have tested lately, line-of-sight is key in order for optimal Bluetooth performance. Whenever I put my iPhone in a bag or pocket that is right next to the control unit, I often experience static and spotty audio performance. Some research has led me to believe this is an iOS issue with my iPhone 5 and perhaps not the fault of the hardware I am testing. However, if you have an iPhone, this is something to keep in mind.
As I expected after using the Phiaton PS 20 BTs, the audio quality with the 210 BTNC was superb. There is no distortion at high volume, even when listening to audio with heavy bass. As someone who appreciates a good bass rhythm, I would have preferred a bit more out of the 210 BTNCs. At normal levels, the sound is crisp and clear. On instrumental music, the 210 BTNC didn’t deliver the brightness I have experienced with some wired headphones.
With the noise cancellation activated, I did not notice any degradation in sound quality. However, when it is activated, it does an admirable job of eliminating ambient background noise. With that said, there is a noticeable hiss when you are not listening to any music, similar to an old cassette tape.
As with the audio quality with music, the sound quality for phone calls is very good when using the PS 210 BTNCs. I was able to hear calls clearly and the people with whom I was speaking could all hear me without any problems.
Phiaton claims that the PS 210 BTNCs will give you 12 hours of talk time and 14 hours of audio playback, which is twice that of the PS 20 BTs. In addition, they offer 600 hours of standby time (with Noise-Blocker noise cancellation turned off). I did find that it is easy to forget to turn off the earphones, as more than once I found myself with a dead battery.
Just like with the PS 20 BTs, the half-in-ear design is very comfortable. Many people who find in-ear ear buds to be uncomfortable do not have problems with this type of earphone. With multiple ear bud sizes, you are able to find a comfortable fit.
The fatal flaw of the Phiaton PS 210 BTNC (and PS 20 BT for that matter) is the dangling control unit. The cord is too short to clip to your pants, but the controller is heavy enough that it needs to be clipped to something. However, if you aren’t wearing a button-down shirt or short sleeves, your options are limited. And wearing it around your neck with the lanyard is an imperfect solution. The second go-around with Phiaton was even more frustrating; given that the 210 BTNCs are even better with the extended battery life and noise cancellation than the PS 20 BTs, I feel those features are rendered useless by poor design. This was magnified after trying out the LG TONE+ Bluetooth Headset with its “yoke” design.
From a sound quality standpoint, the Phiaton PS 210 BTNC is the best Bluetooth stereo headset I have tried out. The sound is crisp and clear with little if any distortion at high volumes. My only complaint was that I felt the bass was a little thin, but that is more of a personal preference. The noise cancellation is an attractive and effective feature as well.
However, it all falls apart with the design. The dangling control unit is a deal breaker for me. Ideally, the cord would be a little longer, so you could clip it to your pants. However, LG and MEElectronics have shown, you can make a Bluetooth stereo headset that truly cuts the cord.
The sound quality and noise cancellation more than justifies the $159 retail price. However, the frustrating design prevents me from recommending these earphones.
$159 (currently $129 from Amazon.com)