I recently needed to upgrade my Bluetooth headset for my phone. I’ve been using an old Sony Ericsson set that came with the Aino phone back in the day, and whilst they’ve been great as a set of wireless headphones, the fact that they require charging using a very specific connection has become quite annoying (first world problems, eh?). I figured that after 6 years it was time to upgrade and go for a new pair, and I chose the SBH50′s by Sony.
I was initially torn between this and the SBH52, until I realised the 52 was actually a separate handset as well as headset/headphones, and pretty big to boot. Plus, I cannot see the point of a Bluetooth handset for a mobile phone. It only works within 10 metres, so you’re always going to be able to pick your phone up. Weird. I saved the money and went for the set that I thought would serve me best.
It’s a fairly compact design, only a couple of centimetres across, and a few high; very lightweight but feel sturdily made; has an inbuilt monochrome OLED screen; a chunky clip on the back; and solid, firm buttons on nearly each edge. The whole unit is water and dust resistant with the charging slot (micro-USB) hidden behind a rubber flap on the base. If you own one of the Xperia Z range of phones you probably know what to expect because it complements them nicely, and you can see the same design ethic in them.
What struck me first was the total lack of instructions. Only the warranty leaflet and button diagram were in the box, and nothing printed on the outside, which left me puzzled for a couple of minutes. Then I remembered NFC, and hey presto, instant connection and setup. I’m really liking the use of this function to pair accessories! Much like the Smartwatch 2, this headset auto installs all the software it needs and sets itself up with a couple of quick screen taps. It’s at this point that you realise that there’s much more to the SBH50 than just receiving calls.
Also like the Smartwatch, the screen on the front of the unit displays text, email and call information, as well as any other information you want to come from the phone. It uses a lot of the same apps as the watch so you can really customise what you want sending to the display, which you’ll need to think about because it’s going to be visible to anyone who comes close because it scrolls the text across. It’s a nice idea that actually works reasonably discreetly: you get a beep telling you a message has come through, the screen says from what app and then you select it to view. Some have to be read in the phone (like Tweetcaster) but most will put the whole thing up for you. There’s even a message count in the menu that lets you know how many you have unread and need to scroll through to clear. And ever wanted to save your eyes and not read messages? You now can by having the text-to-voice option switched on – text messages will be delivered directly to your ears!
Whilst you’re in the menu you’ll spot the radio function, which is quite a smart addition. Wired headphones provide the antenna for the majority of phone radio apps. With Bluetooth you don’t have this, so Sony have built an FM radio into the headset, complete with RDS. Works nicely too. You can also make calls from anyone stored in the call log which is also accessed from the menu, and gives you a nice shortcut to your favourite/most used contacts.
Forgetting the additional features though, the main thing most people want to know is how does it sound? Well, simply put it’s sound good for both phone calls and music. The headset features the HD voice option so you can improve the clarity of what you transmit to the person on the other end, and nicely demonstrated when I phoned Andy whilst he was driving. According to him, both close up and with the microphone being around 1 metre away, I sounded clear (if slightly loud/quiet), and the audio coming in was good too. So it works as it should – no surprises there. For music, I’ve ended up spending more time listening to my phones tunes than I have anything else this week. I am very impressed at how well the bass, mid and high tones are conveyed to my lugs. I’m not saying these are in the same league as the Sennheiser or Bose options, but it is very pleasant. Come With Us by The Chemical Brothers is a “go to” album for me on new audio equipment, has been since the days of my first minidisc player, and I swear I was hearing new things in the music this time round. That could be my mind playing tricks, but for it to be doing that then there has to be some improvement over what I was using before. The Soulwax remix of DJ Shadow’s Six Days is on whilst I’m writing this and it sounds lovely. What’s equally lovely is that the volume doesn’t need cranking to hear it either, just make sure you fit the right size earbuds to the headphones and they’ll block a good amount of ambient noise.
When it comes to battery life I’ve not had to charge it up since the initial boost, and it’s sat comfortably at a quarter discharged after about 90 minutes of phone calls and decent amount of audio listening to. The marketing spiel says it’ll do 8 hours talk or stream time and 400 hours in standby, which I think that’s conservative considering how I’ve used it. It definitely performs better than my phone battery! Bluetooth range is a bit disappointing but not the end of the world, it starts to crackle and fade at about 10 metres, where my old one went about half that again, though it doesn’t really matter. When you can leave your phone in your pocket and not get tangled in headphone wires to listen to music and take calls, it’s a bonus.
Are there any downsides? Yes. I was looking forward to the multi-point options that let you connect two devices at the same time, so I could link up my tablet for Netflix and still use the phone features if someone rang. Both devices connect independently but one will always disconnect if I use multi-point, and it’s usually the tablet. This could be something to do with the Android Ice Cream Sandwich vs Jelly Bean systems, but the same headset software is on both with no problems so I can’t quite figure out what the conflict is (unless it’s just the same thing that plagues the Smartwatch 2). I’ll have to keep tinkering.
If you’re looking for a Bluetooth headset or headphones that work well and have a lasting battery, then I recommend it. The added features are a bonus that you’ll either love or not bother with, but will never complain that they’re built in. If I had to change anything it would be that a colour display would be nice, though that’s being really picky. I can’t give them full marks because if I could spare the cash I’ve have been looking at the high end audio providers for a solution, but these are an inexpensive and very capable alternative.