Which One Should You Stick in Your Ear?

Cell-phone headphones vary widely in comfort, sound quality, and price

Which One Should You Stick in Your Ear?

It's nearly 1 p.m., and I'm late for my power lunch. Traffic is snaking through the streets of Beverly Hills, and I'm frantically working the stick shift of my aging BMW while juggling my Nokia (NOK ) cell phone. The two Hollywood agents I'm meeting are no doubt already shuffling into Wolfgang Puck's new and improved Spago. I'm on my way, I tell the woman answering Spago's phone--don't let them give away our table to Denzel or J.Lo.

My ride to Beverly Hills makes me an accident waiting to happen, a commercial for a hands-free accessory--specifically, one of those earpieces you see dangling from folks at Starbucks who look like so many fools talking into their lattes. Perhaps those people are simply being safe, especially if they intend to jump into their own Beemers.

Many local governments as well as some European countries already ban holding a cell phone while driving. Several states also are contemplating bans. Starting on Nov. 1, New York State will allow drivers to talk only while using speakerphones, "earbuds," or some other hands-free gadget. It's a tough sell for most people, Hollywood moguls or no. But try arguing the point with supermodel Niki Taylor, who only recently recovered from injuries she suffered in a car accident in May when a friend fumbled with his cell phone while driving.

I'm a believer now. After a couple of weeks of trying out a variety of ways to keep my hands on the wheel, I see the payoff in better driving--and more interruption-free conversations. Choosing the right gizmo to free your hands, however, depends on how long you can take having something sticking in your ear. If you can't stand it at all, you might try the $22 Plantronics M130, an over-the-ear headset that rests a soft pad against your ear. Its boom mike is great, but it's not my top pick. Like most ear sets that aren't anchored in the ear, it sometimes jiggled free in mid-conversation.

My favorite is another Plantronics (PLT ) design, the $19 M206-N2. It's an earbud--the in-the-ear type--that comes with a felt covering to ease the fit. Its best feature is an on-off button that dangles mid-stomach on the wire that runs to the phone. The on-off switch keeps you from fumbling with your phone to answer calls. Other models come with on-off switches, but the M206 is one of the few that also has a volume control, a great help in drowning out street noise.

Getting the right fit is key, even if you're not a power player who's addicted to your phone. I tried the $25 Jabra EarBoom, named for a tiny boom mike that sticks out about cheek level. The sound quality is better than on the Plantronics models. The problem is comfort. Jabra's ear sets come with colorful plastic inserts to fit small, medium, and large ears, yet I couldn't find one that was comfortable for long periods of time. Neither could my 17-year-old daughter.

Another Jabra model, the $40 EarSet, mounts the mike in the earpiece itself instead of at the end of a boom or on the cord. It's a clever idea, and it works just fine. But beware: If you adjust the earpiece for comfort, the person on the other end may yelp in pain from the noise.

The downside of earpieces and headsets is that your front seat can soon fill up with wires. You might try a speakerphone instead. Radio-Shack Corp. (RSH ) makes a $60 speakerphone that plugs into your cigarette lighter and connects to the phone with a cord. The speakerphone comes with a clip to pin the microphone on your visor, but I found the speaker a little weak even when I held it in front of my face. You may want to try some of the newer cell phones that come with built-in speakerphones. They work as well, if not better.

HOLD OFF. In my movietown circles, Bluetooth phones are the big buzz. So I tried one. Motorola Inc. (MOT ) will soon begin selling a wireless Bluetooth earbud that communicates over a radio link to any Bluetooth phone. (I used Motorola's Timeport 760c.) A neat idea, but it still needs work. It's light, yet curiously bulky, and the over-the-ear clip doesn't always stay in place when you move your head. The microphone quality was spotty, too--listeners said it was like I was talking in a tunnel. And its cost is mogul-like: At $149, I'd wait for the price to drop and quality to improve.

The best price I found for an earbud was free (plus $7.95 shipping) at www.yourcellular.com, a retail site for phone batteries and other accessories launched by Jeff Nazar, a 23-year-old entrepreneur-turned-safety-advocate after his own near-miss car accident while on his cell phone. AT&T Wireless (AWE ) also gives a free, stripped-down earbud to new and existing customers. That's great public policy--and good business. Power calls from my Beemer have increased my phone bill 20% since I started talking hands-free.

By Ronald Grover in Beverly Hills, Calif.

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