Bluetooth headsets have always been problematic devices. In the early years (ie about ten years ago) they were ridiculously expensive, plagued with compatibility issues, and worked very poorly. The whole concept of Bluetooth was supposed to be a low-cost means of providing easy connectivity, and the early devices completely failed to deliver on either promise.
In the intervening years, there have been significant improvements in functionality, and the prices have plunged to the point where now you can find not just generic but even name-brand BT headsets for as little as $15. But the sound quality remains very uneven, and – astonishingly – some of the most expensive headsets perform very poorly.
For example, a friend recently decided to get a top of the line Motorola Elite Sliver headset, costing $130. But the sound quality on it is very poor – its digital noise processing technology seems to sometimes get confused as to what sounds should be kept and which should be filtered out, meaning it ends up magnifying background noises and filters out his voice. Ooops. There continues to be no correlation at all between headset price and headset quality.
Most Bluetooth headsets seem to have settled on a design paradigm that is dysfunctional right from the get-go. They have some sort of small object you stick in your ear, with the microphone that is intended to pick up your speech located way up by your ear, rather than down close to your mouth. Maybe this works for ventriloquists, but not for normal people.
This type of design might arguably might have some residual amount of ‘cool factor’ associated with it, but by having such a terribly inefficient location for the microphone, these headsets are unavoidably very sensitive to background noises and struggle to give prominence to your speech. Hence the need for massive digital signal processing which, as is clearly the case with the Motorola product mentioned above, doesn’t always work as well as hoped for.
So, with all this as lengthy preamble, I was curious to see an apparently new headset appear on the market that had a boom arm on it, moving the microphone much closer to one’s mouth, and thereby resolving the design challenge of most other headsets. Better still, it was available at a good price ($24.99 on Amazon) so I got one to try.
The Kinivo BTM440 Bluetooth Headset
The unit comes attractively packaged in an easy to open box. Inside is the headset itself, and a short (25″) connecting cable for charging. The unit has a standard mini-USB connector on it, and the cable replicates that with a standard USB connector at its other end, so as to accept power from any standard USB port or power supply. No power supply is included with the unit, but who these days doesn’t have multiple USB type power supplies (or simply ports on their computers) to use for charging purposes.
It was a surprising ‘blast from the past’ to see a mini USB port on the headset. It seems that almost every portable device with a USB connector these days uses the smaller micro port.
Also in the unit’s box is a small 16 page leaflet explaining the use of the headset. It was well written and easy to understand.
The headset measures almost five inches in length, has a loop to go around your ear, and weighs 0.6 ounces. This is somewhat heavier than some of the featherweight headsets out there, and unavoidable due to the longer boom stretching down towards one’s mouth. But even 0.6 ounces is still a very light and acceptable weight.
It doesn’t have a selection of different sized loops or earpieces, but seems to fit reasonably well and securely in my ear, as is. The loop can be flipped, allowing the headset to be mounted on whichever ear you prefer.
The fit is reasonably comfortable as well as reasonably secure.
The headset has a generous one year warranty.
Now for actually using the device.
The most important thing with any headset has to be how clearly your voice will be heard in normal conditions, and how well it filters out background sounds in noisy conditions.
Good news. The Kinivo BTM440 works very well in both scenarios. The normal sound quality, with little background noise, is excellent and almost indistinguishable from using the phone directly, and the same is also true in normal conditions.
Here are two .wav sound files that you can play to hear for yourself how well the headset sounds in quiet and noisy conditions (I alternate between using the headset and the phone directly). The reason I’m speaking slowly in the noisy sample is because I was literally having difficulty ‘hearing myself think’!
You might notice my voice sounds a bit muffled, but you’ll also notice it sounds similarly muffled when talking directly through my iPhone 5 later on in each of the two sound files; I think that is due to the quality of the sound recording process and because it is the same both ways, it is not a relevant issue.
Ease of Use
We have to give the Kinivo a massive fail for usability, alas, but to be fair to the Kinivo unit, the same is equally true of every other BT headset too.
The Kinivo has a single multi-function button that controls everything. You are expected to commit to memory the different lengths of time to push the button to command the headset to do different things, and the different things that pushing the button does depending on if you are in a call or not.
Sadly, no BT headset manufacturer takes a user-friendly approach and puts multiple buttons on their headset. That would be really easy to understand, if it had separate buttons for, eg, ‘Mute’, ‘Call Back’, ‘Redial’, and so on. But none of the manufacturers will do this, preferring what they think to be a slick ‘clean’ look to their headsets rather than creating a functional easy to use device. Maybe that’s part of the reason why you see so few BT headsets actually being used.
However, for the main things – answering a call and hanging up – there’s actually no need to memorize arcane sequences of button pushing at all. Just do it all from your phone’s keypad rather than from the BT headset. So maybe the hard to understand control functions isn’t as important an issue as it could be.
Happily, the headset does have two additional tiny buttons marked “+” and “-” that make adjusting the volume of the headset totally self-explanatory, and you can probably do this too from your phone if you prefer.
The headset will also flash blue and red lights, although these are of course invisible to you while you’re wearing the headset. Again, you’re expected to be able to decode the meaning of the different colors and flash speeds from memory – good luck with that. One has to wonder why any manufacturer couldn’t place two or three or however many LEDs that might be needed onto the unit, each indicating a different condition, rather than trying to code all the different status messages into a single multi-colored LED.
But this too is a universal limitation of all Bluetooth headsets. And again we wonder if their impossible to understand design might not be part of a reason they have not become universally adopted by everyone….
Connecting to a phone was very easy, and the headset uses a newer type of Bluetooth protocol that avoids the need to remember passwords when pairing. Even though most devices seem to use the password ‘0000’ there are always some that don’t, and so skipping this sometimes difficult step is a great plus.
Talking about Bluetooth, the headset uses an older version of Bluetooth – 2.1 + EDR. The current version, just now being rolled out, is version 4, and version 3 devices are out there in moderate quantities.
One of the things that newer versions of Bluetooth offer is longer battery life. The Kinivo headset is rated for up to 4.5 hours of talk time, and up to 150 hours of standby time. This is a bit behind the curve in terms of what the latest and greatest headsets offer, but it is also more than adequate for a day or two, or maybe even longer, between charges.
In my case, I don’t leave my headset on. I turn it on when I need to use it and turn it off after I’ve finished (it only takes a few seconds to do this); so for me the main factor in battery life is the talk time measure, rather than the standby measure. Few of us are likely to use our cell phones more than 4.5 hours a day, and most of us won’t use them that much in a week, so the Kinivo has sufficient battery life for most purposes.
One possible way of using up the battery life more quickly would be if you take advantage of the headset’s ability to play music from your phone, using its A2DP profile. In theory, this is a nice extra feature. But, in reality – puhleeze…. Who is going to want to play stereophonic music through a tiny mono speaker in one ear?
The Kinivo BTM440 Bluetooth headset has its microphone much closer to a user’s mouth that most other BT headsets. This, as much as any built-in digital cleverness, makes it easier for the headset to do a significantly better job of picking up its user’s voice and of screening out background noises.
In terms of audio quality, the headset excels. In most other respects, the headset is neither better nor worse than most other headsets. But, there is one other very positive side to this headset. Its price. At $24.99 on Amazon it is priced close to the very low-end of the market, while offering performance as good as most high-end headsets costing $100 more, and massively better than some.
For most of us, the most important aspect of choosing a Bluetooth headset is how well it sounds to the person on the other end of the phone. So, in such a case, this is clearly a very good choice, both in terms of performance and definitely in terms of value.