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November 04, 2008

Review: Plantronics Stereo Bluetooth Headsets

Richard Kuper
The Kuper Report

I evaluated two Bluetooth headsets from Plantronics: The Plantronics Voyager 855 Stereo Bluetooth Headset, and the Plantronics Pulsar 590A with Universal Bluetooth Adapter. Both have pros and cons, depending on your personal preferences and needs.

Neither the Voyager 855 nor the Pulsar 590A listed my current cell phone, a Samsung Juke (SCH-u470) that doubles as an mp3 player, as a compatible bluetooth phone. Samsung did not list either of these headsets as compatible. Despite those omissions by both companies, both headsets easily connected (the term used for connecting bluetooth devices is "paired") with my phone, and neither needed the indicated code to pair up.

For stereo listening, bluetooth devices must support the Bluetooth Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP). Devices that do not support the A2DP profile must use the Plantronics universal adapter to work wirelessly with these headsets. The adapter only comes with the Pulsar 590A. Also, bluetooth mobile phones with built-in MP3 must support the Bluetooth Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) for stereo listening.

Used as a cell phone headset

Voyager 855

The Voyager 855 works either as a standard mono bluetooth headset, or as a stereo bluetooth headset.

This is an in-ear headset. To use it as a standard mono headset, you can either insert the primary unit in your ear or, if you need an over-the-ear hook to hold it in place, attach the provided hook. To use it as a stereo headset, the in-ear add-on is attached to a thin cord connected to it's own over-the-ear hook. There are also three different sized earbud adapters. I've tried all three sizes and haven't quite found the right size for one of my ears that I personally find comfortable. And if I fully set the earbud in my ear to "seal out the noise", I find that I hear myself echoing in my ear when I talk, as when one simply holds their hand flat over their ear and talks. But that's just me. You may not have this experience.

To answer an incoming call, you either extend the sliding boom on the primary unit so that the mic is closer to your mouth, or tap a button. Since my phone is also an mp3 player, I was happy to find that when I answered a call it paused the music, and resumed it when the call ended. The
sound was clear on phone calls using the unit as a mono headset, and was even more so when using the unit in stereo mode (probably because I was now listening in both ears). One issue that folks at the other end of the calls mentioned was when I was outdoors in breezy or windy weather they had trouble hearing me, so I found myself cupping my hand over the mic to block the wind, which helped. I've had this issue with wired headsets in the past.

Plantronics claims up to 7 hours talk time, 6 hours stereo listening time, 160 hours standby time from a single charge. I don't make/receive a lot of calls and have mostly used the Voyager 855 to listen to music. In that mode, I estimate that the claim of 6 hours of listening time before needing
to recharge is reasonably accurate. Unfortunately, the only way to determine the battery status is either to somehow notice a blinking red (hard to do when the unit is on your ear), or else you suddenly hear a series of beeps when the battery is really low. At that point, the battery dies soon afterwards and needs to be recharged.

In addition to the items mentioned above, the Voyager 855 comes with an AC charger and a pouch to hold the headset. The Voyager 855 does not come with a USB cable to charge the unit via your pc. Such a cable is available, however, for an extra charge. In my opinion, this cable should be included with the headset.

I will address music listening, and what happens if I get a call while listening to music after a basic review of the Pulsar 590A.

Pulsar 590A

The Pulsar 590A is more than an over-the-head stereo bluetooth headset. It can also be used as a wired headset or wired headphones.

With the provided universal bluetooth adapter, it can also be used to listen wirelessly to iPods and virtually any device with a headset/headphone out jack. And if that's not enough versatility, it also comes with an in-flight cable so you can listen to the music or movie on a plane. It also comes with a desktop charging stand, an AC charger, a travel case, and a USB charging cable.

The mic on this unit is a small tube that looks like a small fuse. It seems to be a glass tube, so some care is needed. I found it a little difficult to extend it initially, but it loosened up a bit over time. Other than that, the test results were comparable to the 800, including when I answered a call it paused the music, and resumed it when the call ended. In the case of this headset, however, you need to press a button to answer a call.

Extending the tube does not engage the phone-answer action.

For the Pulsar 590A, Plantronics claims up to 12 hours talk time, 10 hours stereo listening time, 130 hours standby time from a single charge.

Listening to music

The main reason I was interested in stereo bluetooth headsets was to listen to music on the mp3 player part of my cell phone. Headsets are not stereo systems, and mp3 files are not the same as full-fledged audio recordings intended for play on a real stereo system, and so such comparisons would be unfair. Comparisons to a high-quality headphone connected by wire to such a stereo system would also be an unfair comparison to wireless listening. So the only reasonable comparison for most listeners would be to compare the sound to an iPod and it's provided earphones. Both the Voyager 855 and the Pulsar 590A provided comparable sound quality to iPod earphones, and also to the wired headset that came with the cell phone. The Voyager 855 sounds best when inserted in the ear in a manner that blocks out outside sound.

As mentioned earlier, though, the Pulsar 590A comes with some extra tricks. One is the ability to use it as a standard wired headphone. The provided cable comes with a 3.5mm plug - the size used on iPods and personal computers and such. With a separately purchased stereo phono-plug adapter from such stores as Radio Shack or amazon, it can also be used as a wired headphone on a real stereo system. I did connect it this way, and although it did not measure up to my high-end headphones, it provided very nice sound. I then tried out the Universal Bluetooth Adapter, attached to my stereo system. It was quite a treat to be able to walk around without wires and listen to my stereo, and the sound was very nice. I was able to set up my stereo to play both through the systems speakers and through the headphone jack that the adapter was connected to (via my 3.5mm to phono plug adapter) and discovered that there is a delay in getting the signal to the headset. It was like being in a stadium where the announcers voice echoes. I also connected the Universal Bluetooth Adapter to an iPod and enjoyed wireless listening that way too. I was also able to pair the Voyager 855 headset to the Universal Bluetooth Adapter.

Other features

With both headsets you can raise and lower volume. I was able to skip forward and back on the tracks on my mp3 phone and mute and pause with both headsets. I have not been on a plane in while, so I was unable to test the in-flight option with the Pulsar 590A.

In conclusion

All in all, I was impressed with both headsets. They both met my needs for stereo listening and making/receiving phone calls on my cell phone/mp3 player. The Pulsar 590A had many more options.

The Plantronics Voyager 855 Stereo Bluetooth Headset is an in-ear headset, and can be used either as a mono headset or a stereo headset.

The Pulsar 590A with Universal Bluetooth Adapter, is a stereo over-the-head headset.

The Voyager 855 lists for $149.95, while the Pulsar 590A lists for $249.95. Each can be found for about half those amounts at places like amazon.

More information about these and other Plantronics headsets can be found at the Plantronics website, http://plantronics.com.

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August 30, 2008

Safe Computing Tips

Richard Kuper
The Kuper Report

This article was originally posted August 8, 2007 but is still relevant,
and so we are reposting it now.

If someone is truly determined to hack into your computer or your emails and they have the tools and knowhow, then they will probably succeed. But you can make it harder for them to do so. Unless it is the government. On Monday, President George W. Bush signed into law an expansion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), giving government expanded rights to intercept phone calls and e-mails without warrants.

You can protect your computer by installing a suite of protection products. One such product, Grisoft's AVG Internet Security Suite has previously been reviewed. (See the original review here and the follow-up here.)

Such suites provide protection from spyware and viruses and a variety of other malware. That would be an excellent first step. And of course be sure to keep it up to date and proactive.

Be very careful what emails you choose to open, and set your email to hide graphics by default. If you are confident that a particular email is from a trusted source, you can always activate the graphics for that individual email as you are viewing it. Turning off graphics in email is a simple way to prevent a lot of the newer means of introducing malware to your computer that just might start capturing everything you do, including all your passwords.

Be very careful about clicking on links, especially in emails that look like they came from your financial institution. The safest way to deal with your financial institution online is to not click on links in emails, but instead go to their website by entering their web address directly into your browser. Otherwise you may end up at a very good copy that looks like your financial institution's website but is instead a rogue site that will collect all the information you type and then will use it to potentially steal your identity, or at least order lots of stuff in your name billed to you but shipped somewhere else.

When connecting to the internet, never do so from a computer id that has administrative rights except when absolutely necessary (e.g., to download and install new software that you purchase online from a reputable source). Being connected to the internet with administrative rights is akin to leaving your front door open while you are not at home and expecting no one will walk in andpotentially walk out with many of your valuables.

When creating passwords, try to use a combination of letters and numbers, and the longer the password the better. Of course, don't write it down and leave it by the computer or where someone could find it.

And if you really want secure communication in email, you need to be sending encrypted email. That's not as easy as all of the other suggestions above. It requires a means for encrypting by the sender and decrypting by the receiver, and the encryption/decryption codes can only be known by just those parties for it to truly be of value.

Does your cell phone have internet access? Then it can be hacked just as easily as your desktop or notebook computer.

One more thing. It does not matter what brand computer or cell phone you have. All are vulnerable.

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July 05, 2007

Is the iPhone hype leaving out some important details?

Richard Kuper
The Kuper Report

I've been randomly monitoring several different groups, some containing absolute early adopters, others containing a wider cross-section of business-minded folks. The early adopters love it, but still have some gripes, similar to those expressed by the major technology columnists in the print media. Others already have some issues. I am on a different cell network and am also no longer an early hardware adopter, having spent big bucks for things that either were replaced within a short period of time or disappeared entirely from the marketplace.

In any event, the most interesting detail I've learned so far is that, like the iPod, the battery in the iPhone is not consumer replaceable. You cannot get a spare battery or change it yourself. If the battery needs replacing, you need to send the iPhone to Apple for a replacement, leaving you without a phone/pda for an unknown period of time, unless you opt to rent one in the meantime or, perhaps in time, pay extra for some kind of coverage that will provide a loaner phone in the interim.

As far as I know, with iPods, you don't get back the same one you sent in, you get a refurbished replacement. I wonder if that will be the same model for the iPhone. I suspect that will cause some issues for folks who will first need to remember to back up everything on their iPhone before the battery dies, such as phone numbers and music and any customized preferences and whatever else they've chosen to store on it, and then when the replacement arrives reverse the process before being able to use the iPhone in the manner to which they have become accustomed.

It also seems that, except for the cool looking interface, most of the touted features are already available on other similar devices, and the software choices for other pda-type devices are extensive, while there are few or none for the iPhone.

I think I'll wait and see what the competition comes up with. And, hopefully, they won't follow the Apple model and make phones with non-replaceable batteries and then charge a small fortune for the phone and the battery replacement and leave you without a phone in the meantime.

The other unknown at the moment, if indeed you would get back a different iPhone than the one you sent in for a battery replacement, is what happens to the iPhone you send in for replacement and all of your data that is on it?

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