I like my iPod, but I’ve always detested the wired earbuds, partly because I dislike things inside my ears, but mostly because the wires are constantly tangled and in the way. Yes, I know the white wires are almost as iconic as the iPod itself these days, but they still bug me. And I’d bet they bother Steve Jobs, with his notorious dislike for wires on Macs.
Nevertheless, when I asked Phil Schiller about the possibility of a Bluetooth-enabled iPod back at Macworld Expo San Francisco in January of 2004, he basically laughed at me. Now, thanks to the i-Phono from Bluetake, I can laugh right back at him.
At Macworld Expo Boston a few months ago, a guy named Clement Wen came up to me in the hallway and asked if I’d like to try his company’s Bluetooth dongle and headphones for the iPod. I of course said yes, and I listened to them for a few minutes there in the hall. They seemingly worked fine, but it was a terrible environment for serious testing, so I asked him to send me a set to review in more detail. I’ve now had a chance to use the i-Phono in a real-world environment.
Setting Up the Hardware — The i-Phono has two parts: a small audio dongle on a short cable that plugs into the iPod’s headphone port (it also works with any other standard headphone port) and a pair of sport-style headphones (i.e., they wrap across the back of your neck instead of over the top of your head) that also include a microphone for use with a Bluetooth-capable cell phone. The dongle is fairly awkward, as you’d expect, although Bluetake includes a velcro strip and some double-sided tape for securing it in place. A future version will reportedly fit neatly on top of the iPod. Charging the built-in batteries in both the dongle and the headphones was easy; Bluetake includes both a wall wart charger and a USB-based charger, along with a splitter cable that enables you to charge both devices simultaneously.
Once I had everything charged, I paired the devices following the instructions – it was trivially easy once I remembered to turn both devices on. Then it was merely a matter of plugging the audio dongle into the iPod and trying to figure out how to position the headphones on my head (they’re the first sport-style headphones I’ve tried).
Ear Check — The sound quality was decent, if not stunning, although I won’t pretend that I’m qualified to comment on audio quality. I did hear a few crackles for no apparent reason, even when I was sitting still with the iPod a few feet away on my desk. Walking around my office (with the iPod still on my desk) didn’t affect the sound quality at all, but going into the next room caused the sound to break up badly. Luckily, it’s easy to press a button on either the headphones or the dongle to turn off the audio quickly (though turning it back on from the headphones took longer than from the dongle, oddly enough). Volume control was good; I could easily increase it beyond my comfort level. The headphone also has a pair of volume buttons, but they have only a few settings.
Wearing the headphones for a few hours chafed at the skin on my head, just above my ears, but then again, with the exception of my headset phone, I’ve had trouble finding any headphones that don’t squish or irritate my ears in some uncomfortable way. These weren’t comfortable enough that I wore them outside of testing, though if I worked in an office environment where playing music through normal speakers was a problem, I might put more effort into becoming accustomed to the headphones. I have no idea if the headphones would be likely to stay on when exercising, and it probably depends on what you do. I’d never consider wearing them (or carrying an iPod, for that matter) for the kind of running I do.
Battery life is supposed to be about six hours of continuous play, though I wasn’t able to spend that much time in continuous play, nor was my iPod (and outlasting the iPod is all that’s really necessary).
Other Uses — After using the i-Phono with the iPod successfully, and proving to myself that it worked fine when I plugged the audio dongle into my Mac’s headphone jack as well, I wondered if I could use the headphones directly with my 12-inch PowerBook, which has Bluetooth built in. Pairing worked fine, but the Bluetooth preference pane never reported that the headphones were connected, and they never appeared in the Sound preference pane. While researching this article further, I found a note on one site that confirmed that the headphones aren’t directly compatible with the Mac, and said Bluetake is working on a fix that should be available soon.
Not having an appropriate cell phone, I wasn’t able to test Bluetake’s claim that you can pair the headphone with a cell phone as well and have it automatically turn off the music when you answer a call (some of the other reviews listed below comment on that feature). I briefly tried to plug the audio dongle into the headset jack on one of our cordless phones, but it’s a different size, and no doubt wouldn’t have worked with the microphone built into the headphones anyway.
Conclusions — There’s no question the i-Phono scores major points for cool technology. It was great being able to walk around with my iPod deep in a pocket without fussing with the wires. However, it isn’t cheap at $250 (street prices are more commonly between $200 and $230), and it’s a bit difficult to find, although I eventually tracked it down using price comparison services like Shopping.com and MySimon (check the sponsored matches at the latter).
If you’re not yet desperate to eliminate your iPod’s wires (or not so desperate that you’d spend more than $200 to do so), I recommend waiting a few months to see how Bluetake improves the i-Phono in future revisions. The awkward dongle should disappear in favor of a form factor that mimics the FM transmitters currently available for the iPod, and it sounds as though Bluetake may also improve the headphones so they’ll be directly compatible with the Mac for use with iChat audio chats, voice control, and voice-over-IP telephony software. Lastly, I’d like to see some additional form factors for the headphones, preferably ones that I could wear without any discomfort.
On the other hand, if you’re addicted to your iPod and dying for a pair of wireless headphones, give the i-Phono a look. I do encourage you to read additional reviews before you plunk down that much cash for a pair of headphones. Modtown and iPodlounge have both published detailed reviews, and Bluetake links to a number of other articles as well.