Not everyone needs a Bluetooth headset. But if you’re hopping on and off the phone throughout the day, or if you’re typically talking on the phone while driving (despite the safety concerns), the Plantronics Voyager Edge is the best Bluetooth headset for most people. After putting in 50-plus hours of research and testing more than 15 models over the past three years—including 12 hours of testing and three new models for the latest update—the Voyager Edge continues to lead the pack with its combination of stellar sound quality, long battery life, excellent Bluetooth range, and comfortable fit.
The Voyager Edge hits all the right notes for a Bluetooth headset. In consecutive years of tests, a panel of Wirecutter writers and editors agreed that it offers the best overall audio quality in both quiet and noisy environments. Although it doesn’t have the absolute best battery life or range, its performance in those categories is also solid. And although no headset fits perfectly on everyone, our most-recent panel of testers said that the Voyager Edge was one of the most comfortable to wear. In other words, it’s an all-around solid performer. And with a current street price below $100—which includes a battery case that extends the Edge’s talk time to 10 hours—it’s an even better value now than in past years.
The Plantronics Voyager 5200 provides very good incoming and outgoing audio quality, along with the best Bluetooth range in our 2016 tests, averaging nearly 150 feet before streaming music started to drop out. However, some of our testers (especially those with long hair) found it to be awkward to put on, and its over-the-ear hook can be uncomfortable with eyeglasses.
If you want something that works especially well in a noisy environment and comes at a reasonable price, or if you just want to save money and aren’t concerned about having the absolute best voice quality, go with the Plantronics Explorer 500. It was a solid contender in a previous round of testing, and most of our panel said it had the best outgoing voice quality in a moving car with the windows down.
The original author of this guide, Nick Guy, was the accessories editor at iLounge for three years, where he reviewed more than 1,000 products, including numerous Bluetooth headsets. Marianne Schultz, the latest author, has been writing about and reviewing consumer technology products, including smartphones and a variety of accessories, for eight years.
If you don’t do much talking on your mobile phone, but you prefer to talk hands-free, you’re probably fine using the earbuds that came with it. And if you listen to a lot of music on that phone, with only the occasional call, you’re better off with a set of stereo Bluetooth headphones with a microphone—we have guides to full-size and earbud models.
But a good mono (one-ear) Bluetooth headset is a great accessory if you speak on the phone frequently and want the convenience of having your hands free—you don’t want to stay tethered to your handset by a wire, or to have to hold the phone with your shoulder while you talk, which is terrible for your neck and back. A headset is also appealing if you need to be sure that your voice sounds clear to the person on the other end, even when you’re talking in an environment with a lot of wind or other background noise.
If you have a new iPhone 7, which lacks a headphone jack and has only a single Lightning-connector port for headphones or charging, a Bluetooth headset lets you charge your iPhone while you take calls hands-free.
If you already have a working Bluetooth headset, you probably don’t need a new one, especially if you spent more than $80. But if you have an inexpensive headset that doesn’t perform as well as you’d like, or if you’re dissatisfied with its features, upgrading to one of our picks will likely get you better sound quality, improved noise cancelling, and voice or gesture controls. If other people complain that you sound like a robot during phone calls, or if you’re unable to trigger Siri or Google Now from your headset, it may be time to upgrade.
Unlike with many other electronics categories, spending more on a Bluetooth headset is easy to justify, because these are mature products that have slow update cycles. You can use the same one for several years and rest assured that you won’t be missing out on lots of new and exciting features or dramatically better performance: The latest generation of headsets we tested offers only marginal improvements over the previous models.
For our 2016 update, we looked for any newcomers to the market since the previous iteration of this guide. Consulting reviews on sites such as PCMag and ComputerWorld, and user reviews on Amazon, we narrowed the options down to two new models from major manufacturers that seemed worthy of hands-on testing: the Jabra Steel and Plantronics Voyager 5200. We put them to the test against our previous top pick, the Plantronics Voyager Edge, using the same criteria we used before: battery life, comfort, sound quality, and appearance.
Given the diminutive size of most headsets, you shouldn’t expect exceptionally long battery life, but you at least want your headset to last through a workday. We consider five hours of actual talk time to be the minimum. Some headsets, including our top pick, come with a charging case—a battery-equipped storage case that charges the headset when you put it inside—to extend battery life significantly, but the headset itself should still be able to last a good while alone.
To test battery life, we streamed stereo audio from an iPhone to each headset, recording how long we could do so before the headset’s battery gave out. Because stereo audio and mono phone conversations use different Bluetooth protocols, this test doesn’t correlate perfectly to talk time, but because the difference should be roughly proportional for each headset, this approach let us directly compare battery performance without maintaining phone calls for hours at a time.
Comfort is another must. If you’re going to be wearing this thing for long phone calls, or for extended stretches in the car or at the office in case you need to take a call, it should be comfortable enough for you to forget you’re even wearing it. Because everyone has different ears (see Plantronics’s infamous wall of ears at the company’s industrial design labs), we look for headsets with multiple sizes of eartips and earloops, as well as other accessories for getting the right fit. To test fit, we gave four friends all three headsets and their respective accessory kits, and we asked each person to rank the comfort of each headset. While not an exhaustive survey, this at least gave us an idea of how each model fit an assortment of people.
Most decent headsets provide solid incoming sound quality; we quickly distinguished between the good and the not-so-good models with simple listening tests. Clear outgoing sound, on the other hand, varies—it’s the one feature that separates the superior headsets from the rest. It’s also a really important feature, because you don’t want people asking you to repeat yourself. An excellent headset will not only transmit your voice clearly under normal conditions, but will also cancel out wind and other background noise without making your voice sound robotic.
To test for outgoing audio quality, we pitted our two new contenders this year against one another and our top pick from the previous version of this guide. We called a designated voicemail number using each headset, leaving the same message with each. We repeated this test in three environments: a quiet office, a moving car with the windows down, and a coffee shop with lots of background noise. We then distributed the resulting audio files to five Wirecutter editors and writers, who each ranked his or her favorite for each environment. (We identified the headsets as #1, #2, #3 so staffers never knew which recording was from which headset.)
We also tested Bluetooth range—how far we could separate each model from its paired phone before the wireless connection started to suffer. After marking off 1-foot intervals in a private outdoor space, we called a prerecorded airport directions line and then walked away from the phone until the headset’s audio started to sound robotic and choppy. We did this test three times for each headset and averaged the results. We then repeated the test while streaming music from our phone to each headset. (In this test, instead of listening for robotic sounds, we noted for distinct audio dropouts as the signal got weaker.) Related to this, although you shouldn’t have to pair your headset with your phone often, the process for doing so should be painless.
We looked for headsets with excellent controls that allow you to answer calls and adjust the volume easily and intuitively. We gave bonus points to models that allow you to perform some of these functions hands-free, using just your voice.
In terms of functional design, you want a headset that charges via Micro-USB rather than with a proprietary cord or charger. You probably already have at least one or two other gadgets that use Micro-USB cables, so it’s nice to be able to use the same cable and charger for everything. (And you don’t want to have to worry about forgetting a proprietary cord when you’re on the road, or having to pay a lot to replace it if you lose it.)
Finally, there’s no getting around the fact that a headset makes you look a bit like a cyborg. But a good headset will be diminutive and understated enough to avoid drawing too much attention or making you look like you’re working at a call center.
The Plantronics Voyager Edge remains our pick for most people because it’s a solid all-around performer. As in the past two years, it came out on top in our latest batch of audio-quality and comfort tests. In terms of battery life, it came in second out of the three headsets we tested this year, with a talk time of 6 hours; however, its included charging case gives it a total of 16 hours of talk time, the longest of the bunch. (The more-expensive Plantronics Voyager 5200 promises 21 hours with its optional charging pack, but without that $35 accessory, the Voyager 5200 lasts only 7 hours.) The Voyager 5200 bested the Edge in Bluetooth range, but the Edge’s range is more than sufficient for most people. The Edge also has simple pairing, easy-to-use controls, and a smartphone companion app that makes it easy to adjust the headset’s settings.
The Voyager Edge supports Bluetooth 4.0, plus NFC pairing with compatible smartphones. We found pairing with an Apple iPhone 7 Plus to be quick and easy, and using the headset is just as simple. In addition to voice control, the Voyager Edge has sensors to determine whether you’re wearing it. To answer a call, you can say “Answer” if the headset is already on, or, if you’re not currently wearing it, just put the earpiece in your ear—in either situation, the call is answered and sent to the headset. The headset has physical buttons for on/off, volume level, call answer, and voice command, each of which are easy to find and press.
Call quality is the most important aspect of any Bluetooth headset, and the Voyager Edge excels here. In our tests of call audio quality, it was edged out slightly by the more-expensive Plantronics Voyager 5200 in a quiet office environment, but performed better than the 5200 in a busy coffee shop and a windy car—the Edge was a solid, all-around performer, particularly given its compact size. The Voyager Edge is usually around $30 cheaper than the Voyager 5200, so the minor differences we heard in audio quality makes the Edge a better overall value.
In our comfort tests, the smaller, more-discreet Voyager Edge came out ahead of the Jabra Steel and Voyager 5200. The combination of included earpieces and an optional earhook fit all of our panelists the best, and the Edge was the easiest to put on quickly with just one hand—the bulkier 5200, which uses an over-the-ear design, took two hands for people with long hair or eyeglasses. All testers preferred Edge without the optional, included earhook, saying it felt secure enough without it.
The Voyager Edge also has great battery life. Plantronics promises 6 hours of actual talk time, which is extended to 16 hours using the included charger case. (The Voyager Edge offers seven days of standby time on a charge, not including the extra standby time the charging case provides.) In PCMag’s tests, the Voyager Edge lasted 5 hours, 55 minutes, and our own streaming-audio tests produced almost identical results: The headset was able to stream music for 5 hours, 58 minutes. We also like that the Voyager Edge gives a low-battery warning about 50 minutes before shutting off. Some headsets wait until they have only about 10 minutes of battery life remaining, which can be a problem if you’re in the middle of a call that’s going to last longer than that.
In our latest tests for Bluetooth range, the Voyager Edge remained a solid performer. For voice calls, we were able to get a little more than 50 feet away from a paired phone before we noticed degradation of audio quality. That number put the Edge behind the Voyager 5200 but ahead of the Jabra. When it came to A2DP streaming, the Voyager Edge’s range was greater: We had to move about 65 feet away from the phone before audio started to cut out significantly.
In addition to the charging case, the Voyager Edge ships with a Micro-USB cable for charging; a USB car charger for the headset; small, medium, and large eartips; and a clip-on earloop for a more-secure fit on ears that don’t get a good fit with the standard eartips.
Although the Voyager Edge has good battery life, and the included battery case extends use time, the Edge can’t operate as long (without the battery case) as some of the other headsets we’ve tested. In 2016, the Jabra Steel beat it out by 20 minutes. In a previous round, seven of the 12 models we tested offered more battery life, including two that had a talk time four hours longer.
One very minor complaint is that the Voyager Edge doesn’t support volume mirroring, which synchronizes the headset’s volume level with that of the paired phone. On a headset that supports volume mirroring, pressing a volume button on the headset is exactly the same as pressing the corresponding volume button on the phone. With the Voyager Edge, in contrast, the headset and phone volume buttons work independently: You can turn the volume all the way up on your phone and then make it even louder using the buttons on the headset. We prefer mirroring because it leads to less confusion, but the lack of this feature isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things.
While our panel of testers found the Edge to be the most comfortable and easiest to fit, as with any kind of in-ear accessory it won’t work for everyone. For example, one Wirecutter staffer was never able to get the Edge to sit securely in his ear without using the included earloop.
A good alternative to the Voyager Edge is another Plantronics model, the Voyager 5200, which is a beefier headset with more features. It has an additional microphone for noise-cancelling (for a total of four, compared with three on the Voyager Edge), and its Bluetooth range is the most impressive of the bunch. Plantronics says the 5200 can reach 98 feet without audio dropping out; in our tests we noticed drop-outs in voice calls at just over 70 feet, but streamed music didn’t get choppy until around 150 feet.
Our testing panel ranked the Voyager 5200’s audio quality above that of the Voyager Edge in a quiet office setting—audio sounded clearer to every one of our testers. However, the Voyager Edge came out slightly ahead of the 5200 in a windy car and a noisy coffee shop.
The 5200’s battery life is good, as well, with 5 hours, 45 minutes of talk time in our test—just 13 minutes shorter than that of the Voyager Edge. However, while the Edge includes a battery case and a USB car charger, both are extra expenses with the 5200. The 5200’s charging case gives you an extra 14 hours of talk time while keeping the headset safe inside a sturdy and protective carrying container, but adding it bumps the total price of the 5200 up over $145. (You could also get the official Plantronics car charger, but any USB charger will work fine.)
For some of our testers with long hair or eyeglasses, comfort was the biggest thing that held the Voyager 5200 back. The 5200’s large earpiece is bulky enough to get in the way of glasses, and our testers with long hair consistently needed two hands to put the 5200 on: one to hold hair out of the way, and the other to slide the earpiece over the ear. Once the 5200 was on, all but one of our glasses-wearing testers found it to be comfortable, but the hassle of getting it on was enough to put it behind the Voyager Edge for most of our testers.
The Plantronics Explorer 500 is a good choice for people who don’t want to spend a ton and are willing to give up some audio quality. The Explorer 500 is smaller than the Voyager Edge, but its battery lasts about an hour longer. It also has great Bluetooth range: In our tests, audio didn’t drop out until around 54 feet for voice and 95 feet for music.
Those are important factors, but most people will care about voice quality. Incoming audio sounded good on the Explorer 500; we’d be plenty happy to take calls on it. In our quiet-office and coffee-shop tests, however, our listening panel didn’t love the audio the 500 transmitted. One panelist in an earlier test described voice as sounding “blobby” in the office, while in another test the Explorer picked up more background noise than other units did. In the coffee-shop test, it lost some audio whenever plates clinked in the background. None of those problems were huge offenses, but taken together they showed that the Explorer can’t compete with the Voyager Edge in terms of audio quality.
On the other hand, the Explorer 500 outperformed the Edge and previous competitors in our car test. In a moving car with the windows down, one panelist described the Edge as “the best of a terrible bunch”—it produced generally clear sound and cut out less often in that environment.
Among Bluetooth headsets, it’s tough to get the whole package—audio quality, aesthetics, and comfort—just right. Most of the many headsets on the market fall short on at least one of these fronts.
The Steel is a new model from Jabra that boasts dust, water, and shock resistance, along with a much-better-than-average five-year warranty. Its battery life and Bluetooth range are comparable to those of the Voyager Edge, but the Steel came out last in our 2016 audio tests, sounding indistinct and clipping the caller’s words. Our testers said it felt more secure with the included earhook than without, though that hook can interfere with eyeglasses. Oddly, the Steel lacks volume buttons, so you have to pull out your phone to make any volume adjustments—since much of the point of using a Bluetooth headset is to be able to talk without holding your phone, this feels pretty limiting. The Steel feels sturdy, but if you’re not making calls in challenging outdoor environments, there are better choices in this price range.
The Sennheiser Presence Basic was a runner-up to the Voyager Edge in an earlier version of this guide because of its audio performance in a quiet office environment and its 10-plus hours of battery life. However, it doesn’t offer the value of the Voyager Edge now that the Edge’s street price is less than $100 and the Edge includes its charging case. If you don’t want to have to recharge after 6 hours, and you’re willing to spend quite a bit more than on the Voyager Edge, then the Presence Basic could be a good option.
Motorola’s Moto Hint seemed quite promising when it debuted in September 2014. Smaller than any other Bluetooth headset we’ve seen, it disappears into the ear—picture an earbud minus the cables. It works with any phone, but it’s made to pair with the Moto X. When synced with that handset, it responds to voice commands, so it will dial and answer calls, read your texts, provide driving directions, and more. Unfortunately, the reviews for the Hint were pretty disappointing. The biggest complaints were about the sound quality, volume, and price. We also tested the Hint ourselves, and although the size wowed us, we agreed with the majority of reviewers. The battery life was also disappointing—we got only about 3 hours before having to recharge.
In July 2015, Motorola quietly rolled out an updated version of the Moto Hint with the promise of enhanced audio and greater talk time. While those claims may be true, the improvements still aren’t enough to make the Hint worth recommending for its price. In our testing of the 2015 Hint, we got the same three hours of audio playback, so the extra battery life presumably comes from the included charging case.
As for audio quality, in 2015 four Wirecutter writers and editors compared the Hint to the Voyager Edge in a blind listening test across our three listening scenarios: a quiet office, a moving car with the windows down, and a loud coffee shop. The Hint was picked as sounding better by only a single panelist, and in just one of those 12 tests. As one tester put it, “The Edge’s noise cancellation can be a bit too aggressive, making a few words sound clipped, but everything is still easy to understand. The Hint’s noise cancellation isn’t nearly as effective—it leaves enough noise that it’s more difficult to understand.” We really do like the Hint’s size and comfort, but it requires too many compromises.
A number of readers asked us to test the Bose Bluetooth Headset Series 2 after we initially declined due to the high price. Unfortunately, Bose told us that the Bluetooth Headset Series 2 is no longer available. (Although Amazon still lists this model, it’s no longer offered on Bose’s website.)
The Sennheiser Over-the-Ear VMX 200-II performed pretty well in all our tests, but didn’t excel enough in any one area, or overall, to make it one of our picks. (It’s also out of stock on Sennheiser’s website, and the headset’s listing on Amazon states that it has been discontinued.)
Jabra’s Storm and Stealth both showed promise, but neither model ended up being great. In our listening tests, the highest praise the Storm got was “pretty good.” It’s also bigger than a lot of the other headsets, which limits its appeal. As for the Stealth, though we really liked the way the headset sounded for incoming calls, it didn’t rank highly for outgoing audio. In addition, it had the worst range of the headsets we tested: 37 feet for voice, and just 40 feet for A2DP music. Its battery life was about 7 hours in our tests.
Samsung’s HM1350 and Nokia’s Luna are both inexpensive headsets that lack A2DP streaming audio. (This means that you can use them for phone calls, but you can’t use them to listen to music or podcasts in between calls.) We found their incoming audio quality to be lacking. The Luna is kind of neat in that it’s tiny—a bit bigger than the Hint—and comes with a charging dock for extra battery life, but neither headset impressed us enough to warrant a recommendation.
Also from Samsung, the MG900 and MN910 are affordable options with long battery life. Their big problem is incoming audio quality. The MN910 was pretty mediocre; we weren’t upset about it, but we also weren’t thrilled. The first word that came to mind when we listened to the MG900, on the other hand, was harsh. It simply wasn’t pleasant to listen to.
Although the Jabra Supreme offers good audio quality and wind reduction, it falls short on comfort. Many reviewers also complain about loose fit.
The Jabra Style suffers from the same loose fit as the Jabra Supreme, and some reviewers note connectivity issues.
Jabra’s Eclipse is yet another headset with very short battery life but a carry-along battery case for longer periods of use. In our tests, the Eclipse lasted for three hours and 34 minutes on its own battery (after turning off once, about two hours in, for no apparent reason). The company claims that the charging case adds seven more hours of talk time, but we didn’t test this, since we saw nothing else compelling about the headset.
While the Samsung HM3300 has some neat NFC-pairing capabilities, it isn’t particularly comfortable.
Originally published: November 9, 2016