Bluetooth’s Strangled Promise
When Bluetooth was first introduced, it promised a world of wireless freedom. We, the computing public, were told that Bluetooth would be in everything and replace USB and other connections for low-speed data transfers and other light bandwidth demands. RS 232 connections would fade—replaced by fast, flexible BT connections. Home users would benefit from wireless printing, fast connections and more freedom.
But the computing and mobile phone public has been slow to adopt the technology thanks to the high prices compared to wired equivalents and the added complexity of pairing and connecting devices. Many people have mobile phones but only a small fraction is technically competent enough to pair and use bluetooth. Thus, high prices are as much a reflection of the niche demand as they are device manufacturers pricing devices based on perceived value of the technology. The devices themselves cost little to manufacture, but a lot to develop the software and hardware. This price premium for an “unproven killer technology” has resulted in strangling adoption rates. Who wants to pay $200 for a stereo headset or $99 for a mono-earpiece that delivers unknown benefits when a wired headsets costs only $20? Luckily, the standard has marched on to version 4.0, which offers higher throughput and lower power consumption. Finally, Bluetooth 2.0 A2DP & HFP device prices are coming down to a level that is more in line with the basic functionality of what they do.
Pairing has also been made simpler, in hopes that people will actually use that little “B” instead of bluetooth circuits — which are usually on by default — eating up battery life, and exposing a person to snooping and bluejacking.
I myself, knew the benefits or going wireless decades ago when I got an Amateur Radio License, long before mobile phones went digital. I was just waiting for the prices to come down to a point where I could justify ridding myself of wires. That point finally arrived about 2 years ago, when I found a bluetooth earpiece for less than $70.
When I plunked down the cash to buy a Bluetooth earpiece, I was very excited to have a hands-free device. I could leave my phone safely out of sight, stashed in my pocket or in a bag while taking calls, and not have to worry about someone seeing my iPhone and trying to steal it.
The earpiece was a stylish Aliph Jawbone, and I haven’t been so disappointed with an audio product since the Logitech USB headset I purchased for Ventrilo in 2006. The Aliph required installing special software which insisted on “phoning home” simply to change settings. It would update its firmware regularly which could take as much as 15 minutes thanks to bloated code. Add in a slow to respond web server and changing setting was a process of click and patiently wait for the button to update.
I could have lived with the glacial updates, and sluggish interface, except it had a bigger problem: at full volume, I could barely hear it in only moderately noisy environments. Sure everyone on the other end could hear me just fine thanks to the Noise Assassin technology that worked as advertised. However, the reverse was not true thanks to an underpowered speaker that was about medium loudness with the volume cranked all the way up.
In addition to that, no matter which earpiece I used or way I tried to get it to stay in my ear, it would continually fall out. Despite seating with the insert facing down and twist up technique, it would fall out of my ear because my ear canal would slightly change shape when opening my mouth to speak. After a minute or speaking, the earpiece would come unseated, and fall out. I then tried the loop option. The loop was also worthless and only saved the Jawbone from falling completely off. Instead it just dangled like an earring. Calls would often have the phrase, “hang on…” while I adjusted the earpiece. So, hands-free was only hands-free for a few seconds. In short, it was ill-suited for everyday use, and I wasted $70. After a few months it went in the tech graveyard drawer that all of us “technorati” have, never to return.
Earlier this year, I got a Rocketfish model RF-MAB2 for $40 at a Best Buy. Thanks to price-matching, I saved $20. The Rocketfish was loud enough and clear enough, but people told me I sounded muffled and could not understand me about half the time I used it. Even worse, pairing it with more than just my phone was a frustrating process of turning off my phones BT if I wanted to use it with my MacBook. The worse part was that half the time I tried to connect to it, it would fail, sometimes causing the Bluetooth audio agent to crash. I would have to figure out the “Magic Connection Sequence” reminiscent of Windows 95 hardware installs.
- Turn off iPhone BT.
- Turn off MacBook’s BT if on.
- Stop playing iTunes, if playing.
- Turn on MacBook BT.
- Turn on Rocketfish headphones.
- Play a song in iTunes.
- Select Rocketfish as Audio Out if it didn’t auto-connect.
- Pray it works.
I would have given up on Bluetooth, had it not been for Belkin’s rock solid Bluetooth receivers that plug into home stereos and have a small wall wart (power adapter). I knew there were quality Bluetooth A2DP receivers, but most Bluetooth headphones are well overpriced for what they actually are—often lousy audio quality speakers for the price—often a few hundred dollars for portable speakers or over $50 for $20 headsets married to $10 BT receivers. Rather than take another crapshoot, I decided to look for a bluetooth A2DP receiver with a built-in battery to adapt to my headphones.
I purchased the Kanex AirBlue from B&H photo for just under $30 to plug into my DJ quality headphones so I could replace the unreliable pair of Rocketfish headphones for casual listening. I went to bluetooth so I wouldn’t be “chained” to my laptop while working, and so I could pair it with other sources, such as the Sony BT Tx/Rx connected to my TV.
I found a few models but settled on the Kanex AirBlue because it didn’t have an attached cable, but instead a (3.5mm) 1/8-inch mini-phone TRS jack — perfect for my AKG K 181 DJ Headphones. The sound is just a Bluetooth A2DP Advertises, clean and hum free with a good BT transmitter.
I am very satisfied with the easy of connecting to the Kanex receiver. Unlike the flakey Rocketfish, the Kanex has never caused my computer’s Bluetooth agent to crash, and connecting has been error free the past 3 weeks I have had them. The sequence is as follows:
- Turn on Kanex AirBlue by holding down the button for ~4 seconds.
- Select AirBlue in Bluetooth Menubar pulldown
Pairing the AirBlue is just as easy:
- Click add Bluetooth device in the Bluetooth control pane.
- With the AirBlue off, hold down the power button for 6 seconds. The power light will flash rapidly if done properly. If the audio output is plugged into speakers, it will emit rapid beeps.
- Select the AirBlue in the control pane when it shows up. The computer should do the rest.
- To use it immediately, choose the AirBlue as the Audio Output in the bluetooth menu.
At full charge, at—or near—maximum volume & a constant stream they last about 3 hours which is plenty of time for an afternoon at a noisy café with the K 181s. The included USB-A to mini-USB connector is high enough quality as well (which you can tell by the great flexibility of the cable).
I had a bit of a problem reconnecting the first time after I paired it, but then again, I didn’t have time to read the manual before I took it on the road for a week. I chalk that up to not RTFMing. Even without the manual, the single button makes control and pairing easy.
I have dropped it a few times from about 3–4 feet on accident, but the device still works fine. It is very lightweight and the plastic has a nice cushiony (rubber-like) tactile feel, a fingerprint-proof matte finish, and doesn’t seem brittle or shabby. So, I am guessing this will be a durable piece of hardware.
The only thing I would add to these would be a volume control, but none of the other BT receivers that aren’t headphones have that feature from what I have seen. Also, The distance the AirBlue receives is the normal 10 meters. However, it occasionally drops out a lot sooner than other non-battery receivers if something passes between the transmitter and the AirBlue receiver. This is relatively infrequent though, so not a huge concern with my application as a laptop de-tetherer.
Unfortunately, I did get a ground loop when I plugged the USB charge cable into the AirBlue from an iPhone wall charger. When I checked the connection I noticed the mini-phone jack could not accommodate a slightly wide diameter sleeve. The socket itself is set under the edge of the device which does not allow wider sleeves to seat properly, and encourages hum in conjunction with an old amp of questionable quality (an older Sony 5.1 HT system). I found this out using a friend’s Radio Shack brand 1/8″ phone plug. All my connectors seat fine because they do not have that wide jacket, and charging from my laptop’s built in USB port does not induce hum either of course.
I really can’t ding the Kanex AirBlue for this, since the other equipment was probably at fault. However a more open connection could have helped alleviate much of the hum, as would an isolation transformer (which would make the device much bigger) or simple choke on the USB cable.
All in all after 3 weeks, I would definitely recommend the Kanex AirBlue Bluetooth A2DP receiver to anyone that has a quality pair of headphones and doesn’t want to be forced to buy a substandard audio quality headphone or headset just to be wireless. At $30 from B&H Photo, it is affordable enough to be on any person’s budget who already has a Bluetooth enabled device. Even a decent pair of Sony MDR-V6 headphones and the Kanex would beat most Bluetooth headphones one could get for the price of the a decent pair of headphones and the Kanex AirBlue.
I was unaware of Kanex as a company before I saw the AirBlue, but now I might return to try out a few of their other interesting products thanks to this good first impression.
I recently purchased a AluraTek SportClip, Bluetooth A2DP receiver, with a surprising feature. Read about it, in a mini-review, here. Also, I also reviewed Noisehush’s NS400: bluetooth stereo headset and found it blew away the price performance ratio.
FTC Statement (Full Disclosure):
I have received no financial compensation nor any other benefits for this review from any manufacturers listed for this review, either directly or indirectly. I do not think Kanex, Aliph, Belkin nor Best Buy (who owns the Rocketfish brand) even knows who I am or that I even exist. This review is independent of external positive and negative influenced factors, but may contain personal biases built up from years of interactions with various companies and types of products.