Mics Matter

Sometimes you get what you pay for.

In this case, a good microphone in a bluetooth headset.

Specifically, the Bose Soundsport Wireless:

I’ve had these a day so far, and I love them. But not just because they sound good. Lots of earphones do that. I love them because the mic in the thing is good. This is surprisingly rare.

Let’s start with the humble Apple EarPods that are overpriced at $29 but come free with every new Apple i-thing and for that reason are probably the most widely used earphones on Earth:

No, their sound isn’t great. But get this: in conversation they sound good to ears at the other end. Better, in my judgement than the fancy new AirPods. (Though according to Phil Windley in the comments below, they are good at suppressing ambient noise.) The AirPods are also better than lots of other earphones I’ve used: ones from Beats, SkullCandy, Sennheiser and plenty of other brands. (I lose and destroy earphones and headphones constantly.) In all my experience, I have have not heard any earphones or headphones that sound better than plain old EarPods. In fact I sometimes ask, when somebody sounds especially good over a voice connection, if they’re using EarPods. Very often the answer is yes. “How’d you guess?” they ask. “Because you sound unusually good.”

So, when a refurbished iPhone 7 Plus arrived to replace my failing iPhone 5s two days ago, and it came with no headphone hole (bad, but I can live), I finally decided to get some wireless earphones. So I went to Consumer Reports on the Web, printed out their ratings for Wireless Portable Stereo Headphones (alas, behind a subscription wall), went to the local Staples, and picked up a JBL E25BT for $49 against a $60 list price. I chose that one because Consumer Reports gives it a rating of 71 out of 100 (which isn’t bad, considering that 76 is the top rating for any of the 50 models on the list)—and they called it a “best buy” as well.

I was satisfied until I talked to my wife over the JBL on my new phone. “You’re muffled,” she said. Then I called somebody else. “What?” they said. “I can’t hear you.” I adjusted the mic so it was closer to my mouth. “What?” they said again. I switched to the phone itself. “That’s better.” I then plugged the old EarPods into Apple’s Lightning dongle, which I also bought at Staples for $9. “Much better.”

So the next day I decided to visit an Apple Store to see what they had, and recommended. I mean, I figured they’d have a fair chance of knowing.

“I want a good mic more than I want good sound,” I said to the guy.  “Oh,” he replied. “I shouldn’t say this because we don’t sell them; but you need a Bose. They care about mics and theirs are the best. Go to the Best Buy down the street and see what they’ve got.” So I went.

At Best Buy the guy said, “The best mic is in the Bose Soundsport Wireless.” I pulled my six-page Consumer Reports list of rated earphones out of my back pocket. There at the top of the ratings was the Soundsport. So I bought a blue one. Today I was on two long calls and both parties at the other ends said “You sound great.” One added, “Yeah, really good.” So there ya go.

I’m sure there are other models with good mics; but I’m done looking, and I just want to share what I’ve found so far—and to implore all the outfits that rate earphones and headphones with mics to rate the mics too. It’s a kindness to the people at the other end of every call.

Remember: conversations are two-way, and the person speaking has almost no idea how good they’re sounding to the other person over a mobile phone. So give the mics some weight.

And thanks, Bose. Good product.

  1. Phil Windley’s avatar

    Interesting, I’ve been going through a similar process, but with a different driver. I’ve been using Airpods primarily because they’re very convenient to carry around, so I find myself using them much more than I did anything else I’ve owned. The lack of a cable and the charging case are game changers. I don’t disagree with your assessment of the mic in general, but I’ve been pleased that people have reported that they don’t get background noise, even when I’m in a noisy environment. That’s another test: how well do the earphones mute background noise for the person on the other end.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Good points, Phil. FWIW, Consumer Reports dings the AirPods with a just a 56 rating. They give Apple’s nameless $80 in-ear ‘phones a 51, and don’t rate the EarPods at all. In no ratings (that I found) do they give any weight to the microphone, or cool stuff like you describe for the AirPods.

    All this for me is a big disappointment, since I have a high regard for Consumer Reports, and I know how rigorously they test products.

    I’m curious to see how the Bose earphones do in noisy places. They isolate sound fairly well for the wearer, but how they do for the other party is a different test.

  3. Sameer Sahasrabuddhe’s avatar

    Did you mean “EarPods” in the following two sentences?

    “I’ve not heard any that sound better than plain old AirPods. In fact, I often ask, when somebody sounds especially good, if they’re using AirPods.”

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Sameer. I just changed the text.

    Interesting: until I wrote this, I didn’t know that the basic Apple earphones were called “EarPods,” or that the next model up—the $80 in-ear ones—had no name at all.

    I always called the basic ones “earbuds.” I just checked and I’m not alone at that.

  5. Rex’s avatar

    I’ve been influenced.

    You and Consumer Reports convinced me to go with the Bose Soundsport Wireless.

    When setting up the pod/pads, the user can name the pair.

    I named mine DocBud

    Rex

  6. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Cool!

    As it happens I’m listening to mine right now. (I’ll have to name mine RexBud.)

    We should talk soon and see if the mics are as good as I’ve been told they are.

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