LG Tone Ultra (HBS-800) review: A favorite Bluetooth stereo headset gets better, but its price goes up

LG changed the design of the buttons for the better. Sarah Tew/CNET

The noise-canceling button is pretty small but if you let your right finger drift toward along the right side of the neckband you'll feel it. Switch it on and a voice tells you noise-canceling is engaged. The only problem is it doesn't seem to change anything. I put on a fan a few feet from my ear and flipped the switch and noticed no difference. I also tried it outside in the streets of New York and didn't notice a change. Perhaps it's pretty light active noise-cancellation, but the fact is if you jam the tips into your ears and get a tight seal, you'll block a lot ambient noise out without any active noise-cancellation.

As with all these types of Bluetooth stereo headsets, there's a built-in microphone, and call quality was decent enough (the microphone is in the front of the neckband). But it's not up to the level of a good mono Bluetooth headset.

The eartips adhere magnetically to the headphones when not in use. Sarah Tew/CNET

Performance The HBS-700 and HBS-730 didn't necessarily offer stellar sound, but they sounded good for their price, particularly with plenty of Bluetooth headphones costing well over $100 and often more than $200 for more premium full-size headphones. What you're looking for in a modestly priced Bluetooth headphone is decent clarity because a lot of "budget" Bluetooth headphones have a dull edge to them.

The HBS-800 has AptX support for devices that include that feature (Samsung's Galaxy S4, for example). AptX is supposed to make Bluetooth connections sound more like wired connections, but I think it's hard to notice a difference unless you're listening to a high-performance headphone (or speaker). I wouldn't describe the Tone Ultra HBD-800 as a high-performance headphone.

Still, it's an improvement over previous LG Tone models. The bass is fuller and you get a bit more clarity. It's in line with Plantronics BackBeat Go 2 Bluetooth in-ear headphone, which retails for $79 or $99 with a charging case.

To put everything in perspective, you can get wired headphones that sound as good for $30 (the Moshi Mythro, for example) and even the $8 Panasonic Ergo Fit HJE-120s measures up pretty well. But what you're paying for is the convenience of wireless audio streaming and the the LG Tone Ultra compares favorably with the in-ear competition from Plantronics and JayBird, which offer sweat-resistant products (the Tone Ultra is not sweat-resistant, so it's hard to recommend as a sports headphone, though you could probably use it for lighter workouts without any trouble).

The headphones charge via Micro-USB and deliver up to 15 hours of battery life with noise-canceling off. David Carnoy/CNET

The one area where the LG does trump its competitors is in the battery life department. With the noise-canceling off, you can get up to 15 hours, but it will take a hit if you do turn the noise canceling on (it's closer to 10 hours). I used the headset regularly on my commutes to work and a little bit during the day and found I had to recharge about every third day. But I didn't use the noise-canceling.

Conclusion At its current price tag, I have mixed feelings about the Tone Ultra HBS-800. In terms of both design and sound quality, it's an improvement over its predecessors, so it deserves kudos. But the build quality, sound quality, and feature set aren't such a leap forward that I could call this a good value, particularly when the existing HBS-730 sells for around $50 (in essence, this new LG Tone is competing with the old LG Tones). It also doesn't help that I wasn't impressed by the noise-canceling feature.

The long and short of it is the LG Tone Ultra would ideally be priced somewhere in the $79-$99 range. Unfortunately, retailers like Best Buy and others take such a large cut on sales that manufacturers are forced to put elevated price tags on products when they make their initial retail runs (or the manufacturers risk making no money).

Later in its life cycle, the Tone Ultra will undoubtedly come down in price, and when it does, we'll raise our value score. But until then, some of its pluses won't be viewed as positively as they might be.

What you'll pay

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    Where to Buy

    LG Tone Ultra Bluetooth Stereo Headset (White)

    Part Number: HBS-800.ACUSWPK Released: 7 Dec 2013
    Pricing is currently unavailable.

    Quick Specifications

    • Regional specs shown for US. UK specs are unavailable.

    • Release date 7 Dec 2013