Jawbone’s Headset Is Like Xbox for Your Ear: Rich Jaroslovsky

If I could, I’d completely banish buttons from wireless headsets. Nothing makes me feel clumsier than trying to answer or redial a call on a 2-inch piece of plastic with my fat fingers.

The Jawbone people seem to have heard my plea. Their latest headset, the Era, introduces a new control system that reduces the fumble factor considerably.

Jawbone has long been known for its ability to isolate your voice from ambient noise, resulting in some of the clearest- sounding calls you can make with a headset. The new Era packs in a bunch of additional features and a remarkable amount of technology for such a small package, helping justify its premium $129.99 price.

The most important of these, and what sets the Era apart, is an accelerometer. That’s the same motion-sensing technology that knows when your Samsung smartphone or Apple iPad is turned from vertical to horizontal, and reorients the screen accordingly.

The Era uses its accelerometer and built-in software to help it execute tasks based on how you handle it. Jawbone calls these actions ShakeShake and TapTap. To pair the Era to your Bluetooth-enabled smartphone, for example, you shake it four times. Two shakes answers a call when you aren’t wearing the Era. When you do have it on, tapping it twice answers and ends calls, or switches between them.

It’s sort of like a Wii or Xbox Kinect controller for your ear.

Obvious Concern

The obvious concern with a motion-sensing interface is that the device will misinterpret accidental movements as purposeful, and do things you don’t want it to do. In this case, I didn’t have a problem; the Era’s software was smart enough to tell when I was issuing a command, and when I was just brushing up against or adjusting the earpiece. Jawbone hasn’t completely banished physical controls -- there’s still a talk button -- but you’ll have less need to use it.

I never have an easy time getting a headset to fit right, but the Era comes with enough options -- four standard-type earbuds, three that include a u-shaped tab to enhance fit, and an optional hook that fits over the ear -- that I eventually found a workable configuration. Besides comfort, the key is to position the headset so it actually touches your cheek and points at your mouth, which results in the cleanest sound for whomever you’re talking to.

Loud and Clear

Things sound pretty good on your end, too. Calls were generally loud and clear, and the Era marks a significant improvement from previous Jawbone models for music and game sound effects. Using it with the Pandora Internet radio app on my smartphone, Linda Ronstadt’s version of “Tumbling Dice” sounded terrific, while I heard every engine roar in Electronic Arts Inc.’s “Need for Speed Shift” as I finished in second place on my iPad.

As with the $99 Jawbone Icon, introduced last year, you can download additional features and functions in the form of apps from the company’s MyTalk website. Among other options, you can choose the voice that greets you with information on battery life and that announces incoming calls; lately I’ve been using “The Hero,” a laid-back dude who likes to drop his “g”s. Or install an app that lets you record memos via the headset to use with Jawbone’s “Thoughts” service, which lets you send voice messages to groups of contacts.

The process of downloading these features can be a little tedious. You have to plug the headset into a computer via USB, then log into the MyTalk website, choose your apps and wait as long as five minutes while they install.

Still, those with the patience can make the Era do some neat tricks. For instance, on the website, you can enter the names and numbers of as many as 20 contacts, most of whom will then be announced in your ear when they call not by a synthesized robotic voice, but by a natural, human one. That’s because Jawbone hired an actress to record thousands of the most common names, which are then mixed and matched on the fly.

So if Sally Smith calls, she’ll get a natural-sounding introduction. There are, of course, limits; if you get a call from me, expect the robot.

Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Rich Jaroslovsky in San Francisco at rjaroslovsky@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.

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