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We see so many Bluetooth headsets here at CNET that most of them seem the same after awhile. That's why we sit up and notice when a unique one comes along. Last year, for example, we were awed at the stellar audio quality of the Plantronics Discovery 975 and praised the design of the Aliph Jawbone Prime. Aliph, in particular, has been bullish in pushing innovation in its Bluetooth headsets, consistently making it on our top Bluetooth headsets list year after year.
This year, however, it appears that Aliph has outdone itself with quite possibly the most innovative Bluetooth headset yet. It's called the Aliph Jawbone Icon and not only does it come in an array of designs that look as if they belong in an art museum, but it is one of the first headsets in the world to have a built-in "operating system." This internal chip can be programmed to provide a far richer experience than other headsets can; for example, this lets it have a visual battery meter right next to the one on the iPhone. Also, this is the first headset we can think of to have its own line of Audio or Dial "apps" that you can install via Jawbone's own MyTalk Web site.
We do have a few issues with its design, but its outstanding features and improved quality definitely makes the Jawbone Icon the best headset of the year so far--and it's very competitively priced at $99.
Similar to its predecessors, the Aliph Jawbone Icon is unquestionably the most fashionable Bluetooth headset in the market today. The Icon comes in six fashion-forward designs, in different jewel and metallic tones and shapes. All of them have different names: the Ace, the Rogue, the Bombshell, the Hero, the Thinker, and the Catch. The one we looked at was the Ace, which has a clear lens and a mirror finish, resulting in a very jewellike look. In fact, it looks like a piece of costume jewelry when worn on the ear. These names also correspond to different voice "personalities," which we'll get to later in the review.
The overall headset is quite petite in size. Measuring only 1.77 inches long by 0.95 inch wide by 0.72 inch thick, the Jawbone Icon is lightweight as well, about 0.3 ounce. It is slightly curved to sit gently on the side of the face. On the top of the headset is the multifunction talk button. It's a horizontal bar that's wide enough to almost span the width of the headset, plus it is raised above the surface so it's easy to find and press. Next to the talk button is the charger jack.
Flip the headset around and you'll find a power slider switch. This makes it much easier to turn the headset on and off, which also helps conserve its battery life. Below it is a tiny nub that acts as the Voice Activity Sensor. It is best to wear the headset so the sensor touches your cheek to ensure that your voice comes through clearly to your listeners. The audio quality won't be harmed if you don't have it touching your cheek (thanks to Jawbone's new fail-safe acoustic voice detector), but it'll be much better if it is. Surrounding the sensor is a round LED indicator.
Also on the back of the headset is the ear piece. You can either wear it with a special looped ear bud that fits in your ear without a hook, or you can fit in a nonlooped ear bud, plus a hook for added security. You have a choice of ear bud sizes, so you can mix and match until you get your best fit. For us, we found the default looped ear bud works fine for the most part, though we did have to go through quite a bit of practice to get it to fit right. To do so, you have to place it in your ear pointing down, and then twist it upward so the mic points toward the mouth. We did wish the fit was more comfortable; we feel it leads to a bit of ear fatigue after hours of wear.
The Icon is also noticeably missing a volume rocker of any kind. Aliph's justification is the headset already has automatic volume normalization so it is unnecessary. Still, it would be nice to have a manual option.
Of course, the Jawbone Icon has many of the features on today's Bluetooth's headsets. It can answer, reject, and end calls, plus it has last number redial, voice-dialing support, and multipoint technology that lets it connect up to two devices simultaneously. But the Icon has more than just those features in store. It now has spoken alerts and custom audio tones for certain functions. For example, it'll read out incoming caller ID, and when you press the Talk button while not on a call it'll tell you the estimated remaining battery life. It will also speak when you pair and connect your phone, and let you know when you're redialing or voice dialing.
Perhaps the most exciting feature of the Jawbone Icon is its new "mini computer on a chip" that lets Aliph build custom applications and features for the headset. One benefit of having an operating system on the headset is that when you pair the Icon to an Apple iPhone, you can actually see the headset's battery meter located right next to the iPhone's battery icon. This way, iPhone owners can easily tell when their headset needs charging. Even though it seems like a small thing, we think this is a very cool feature that makes the Jawbone Icon almost a must-have headset for iPhone owners.
Another big benefit of having this advanced chipset is that you can customize the Icon with Audio or Dial "apps." You can do this via Jawbone's own MyTalk Web site. Simply log in to the site, attach the headset to your computer via a USB cable, and the MyTalk Web site will automatically recognize your headset. You can then select which Audio or Dial application you wish to associate with your headset. The Audio applications are basically just custom audio profiles with different voices, and they are named after the six shield designs we named above. They range from a deep baritone male voice (the Hero), to that of a sultry female (the Bombshell). You can also choose a language; right now Aliph offers English, French, German, and Spanish.
As for the Dial applications, you can essentially map a speed-dial number to a particular service, which you can then access simply by holding down the Talk button. Currently supported services include Voice Dial, Directory Assistance, Jott Assistant (a service that lets you dictate notes, reminders, text, e-mail, and even Twitter messages), 1-800-FREE-411 (free directory assistance), and Dial2Do, which is a service similar to Jott. Both Jott and Dial2Do do require you to have an existing account with them. Though it's a bit of a stretch to call these things "apps," we do appreciate this level of customization that almost no other headset can match.
Another benefit of being able to sync and customize the headset in this way is that Aliph can easily send out firmware updates to the Icon. If Aliph decides to add A2DP functionality in the future, for example, it says it can do so via this method. We're really very impressed with the MyTalk service overall.
We paired the Aliph Jawbone Icon with the Apple iPhone 3G. Its call quality was excellent. We tested the calls in a variety of situations: in a quiet home environment, a moving vehicle with the radio at full blast, a busy city sidewalk during rush hour, a crowded cafe, and in front of an indoor fan. We were very impressed with the call quality in almost all situations. The Jawbone Icon does a good job at minimizing background noise and emphasizing the voice, which was a great help in a noisy environment. In the busy sidewalk for example, our callers could still hear the rushing traffic a bit, but it wasn't a distraction, thanks to how clear and natural our voice sounded. We did detect some crackling and static at times, but that could be contributed to the iPhone and AT&T instead of the headset.
Surprisingly, the Icon also performs quite well in windy conditions. When we reviewed the Plantronics Voyager Pro (and the Discovery 975), we mentioned our callers could hear us perfectly even though we were talking in front of a fan. They could still hear the wind, but it sounded more like heavy rain. With the Jawbone Icon, callers could hardly hear anything aside from us. They did hear some swooshes of wind in the background, but it was not a big deal. Our voice sounded loud, clear, and natural. It seems that Jawbone has done a very good job with its NoiseAssassin noise-reduction technology.
On our end, callers sounded great, with good volume, natural voices, and clear audio. We did complain about the lack of a volume rocker, but it does seem as if we didn't need it. According to Aliph, this volume normalization is especially helpful in conference call situations, where all callers will have the same volume levels.
The Aliph Jawbone Icon has a rated battery life of up to 4.5 hours of talk time, and up to 10 days of standby time.