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Bluetooth Headsets Buying Guide

If you're in the market for a cheap Bluetooth headset, companies offering entry-level devices include Samsung, Jabra, Plantronics, Motorola, and BlueAnt. The Samsung HM3300 (starting at $30) is our top pick on the strength of its excellent audio quality, above-average noise cancellation, and the inclusion of three soft gel eartips.

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In the runner-up bucket for best cheap Bluetooth headsets we placed the tiny Plantronics M55 (starting at $30), which is a good choice for consumers who want to use a headset without looking like they're using one and who spend more time talking indoors than out. The Jabra Style (starting $45), another second-place pick, boasts excellent battery life and decent call quality but includes just one eartip and earhook, neither of which may prove comfortable for some users. By contrast, subpar audio performance relegates the Plantronics Marque 2 M165 (starting at $30) to the bottom of the pile despite good battery life and attractive features, including multiple eartips. We also identified several other Bluetooth headsets, mentioned throughout this buying guide, that didn't make our list but may suit your needs regardless.

Note: When choosing a cheap Bluetooth headset, make sure it's compatible with your phone. Most headsets are backward-compatible with older versions of Bluetooth software -- that is, they support older technology in your phone. But if the Bluetooth software on your phone is a newer version than what your headset uses, you won't be able to do some of the cool stuff the phone could do with a newer model.

What We Looked For in the Specs

Noise-Canceling Technology.

Any Bluetooth headset worth buying should include some kind of noise cancellation feature to filter out sounds from the surrounding environment. Brands have their own proprietary technology for doing this, but those in the entry-level segment of the market seem to manage this feat less well than upmarket models like the Jawbone Era (starting at $100). Still, experts say relatively kind things about the noise cancellation performance of the Samsung HM3300.

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Headsets with two or more microphones also tend to provide better audio quality and noise cancellation than single-mic headsets. Among the models we researched, the Plantronics Marque 2 M165, Jabra Extreme2 (starting at $45), and Jawbone Era are dual-mic headsets.

Multiple Eartips.

You'll need an eartip (also called an earbud) that rests in your ear and/or a hook that wraps around the back of the ear to hear anything. Many headsets come with a selection of eartips so you can choose one that fits snugly and comfortably. A good fit in the ear is also essential to maximizing the sound. It's easier to find just the right fit if the headset package includes a variety of eartips.

Some of the best entry-level Bluetooth headsets, including the Plantronics M55 and Jabra Style, come with only one or two sizes and if one or both don't fit, you're out of luck. We prefer models that come with at least three, as do the Samsung HM3300, Samsung HM1900 (starting at $20), and Plantronics Marque 2 M165, but relaxed this criteria when making our picks because other factors, such as call quality, size, and battery life, matter at least as much.

Useful Connection Options.

There are various ways that cheap Bluetooth headsets can connect to other devices, and most support a handful of the popular technologies. Bluetooth headsets with A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile) technology can be paired with devices other than phones to stream music or other audio from a music player, navigation system, or computer to your headset. All the models we researched feature A2DP technology. Multipoint support, a feature found on all our picks, lets you connect your headset to two devices at the same time -- a work phone and a personal phone, say -- so you can take calls from either one.

NFC (Near Field Communication) is another useful technology. If both your smartphone and your headset support NFC, you can just tap the two devices together to pair them; the Samsung HM3300 and Jabra Style both provide NFC support. AVRCP (Audio/Video Remote Control Profile) lets you control the streamed audio through the headset (assuming the host device also supports AVRCP); none of the best cheap Bluetooth headsets we researched support AVRCP, although the pricey Jawbone Era does.

Convenient Controls.

Bluetooth headsets perform a variety of functions controlled with recessed or raised buttons. Some Bluetooth headsets have cut back on the buttons in favor of a multifunction button that typically covers some combination of call answering and redialing, call mute, call hold, and call transfer from the headset to the phone or vice versa. Among the models we researched, only the Jabra Style and Jawbone Era sport multifunction buttons.

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These days, most Bluetooth headsets, including the cheap models on our list, convey voice prompts that tell you when the battery is running low, when you're connected to a device, and/or who is calling. In the budget segment, only a handful, including the Plantronics M55 and Plantronics Marque 2 M165, also respond to basic voice commands -- take a call simply by saying "answer," for example -- which eliminates the need to tap a button. Some low-cost headsets, such as the Samsung HM3300 and Jabra Extreme2, come with audible "help" guides.

Bluetooth headsets commonly feature an LED that shows connection status, battery life, and call connection status. A power switch to turn the device on and off is useful for preserving battery life, and is present on the models we researched.

by Michael Sweet (Google+ Profile)

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