LG's top-end Tone around-the-neck stereo Bluetooth headset features a nifty design, good sound, and strong battery life for a little over $100.
Bluetooth headphones come in all shapes and sizes, including the around-the-neck design of LG's Tone stereo Bluetooth headsets, which have done shockingly well in the marketplace, topping NPD's bestselling wireless headphone lists (in terms of unit sales), according to a few different headphone manufacturers I've spoken to.
The LG Tone Infinim HBS-900, with audio by Harman Kardon, is the current top-end Tone, with a MSRP of $150 (£110 in the UK, AU$229 in Australia) , but it can be had online for a little over $100. Like other Tone models, it has the aforementioned around-the-neck design and is lightweight, making you forget at times that you're wearing it, particularly if you wear it around the collar of a button-down dress shirt. And that's why people like this type of Bluetooth headphone. You simply leave it on and stick the earbuds -- or often just a single bud if you're taking a call -- in your ears when you need to.
I can't say it will fit everyone equally well, however. I have a fairly average neck size (16), and the headset was big enough for me and didn't clamp down on my neck. On the other hand, if you have a bigger neck it might be less comfortable for you. I also though the earbuds fit comfortably and securely in my ears. I wouldn't run with this headset (it isn't water-resistant), but it would work fine in the gym for lighter exercise or lifting weights.
I found it a little sturdier built than some of the step-down Tone models, but some people prefer the less-rigid feel of the Tone Ultra HBS-800 , which is even lighter. I personally prefer the Infinim; it just feels a little swankier overall, though it is an all-plastic design.
The key new feature with this model is its retractable earbuds. Previous models offered earbuds that adhered magnetically to the front of the band when not in use. While the buds still attach magnetically, you probably won't notice at first that they do (I didn't) because you'll always use the automatic retraction feature. Each side the neckband has a button that, when pressed, reels the thin cable back in.
It's a pretty nifty feature, but those cables are very thin and I just don't know how well they'll hold up over time (I used the headset for two weeks and it worked fine). You won't want to snag them on anything.
There are additional buttons for pause and playing your music, volume control, answering and ending calls and skipping tracks forward and back. It's a lot of buttons so it takes a little time to get used to where everything is, but once I did, I thought the ergonomics of the headset and button placement were well thought out. It was easy to operate by feel alone.
As for extra features, you get AptX, which is supposed to make Bluetooth streaming sound better for devices that support it, though it's unclear how much of an impact it really has. I liked the vibrate feature, which is exactly what it sounds like: the Infinim vibrates when a call comes in or you stray too far from your Bluetooth device and are about to lose your connection. You can turn it off if you want.
Unlike the Tone Ultra, this model doesn't feature active noise-cancelling. I didn't find it all that effective with the Ultra, but it's supposed to help muffle ambient noise when you're using the headset to make calls (the integrated microphone is on the front of the headband on the left side).
Finally, if you're an Android user -- yes, LG makes Android smartphones -- you can download for free the Tone and Talk app in the Google Play Store, which supports SMS reading.
As for performance, this is another LG Tone that features sound by Harman Kardon. It sounds good for a Bluetooth headphone, but the key caveat is that you have to get a tight seal or you lose a lot bass which results in the headphone sounding thin. In fact, the sound is night-and-day if you don't get that tight seal (I went with the largest silicon eartip of the three sizes included).
I compared it to the Sol Republic Shadow Wireless , another around-the-neck headphone with a more flexible neckband. The Sol Republic played a little louder and offered a little bit bigger sound and bass in particular. That said, the Infinim offered reasonably good clarity and sounded fairly natural while managing to not sound harsh. I listened to a wide variety of music, including some hip hop and techno.
I thought it sounded good with tracks like Modest Mouse's "Strangers to Ourselves" and Laura Marling's "Strange." Some frequencies got clipped on Calvin Harris's "C.U.B.A.," but the bass line had some kick to it -- more than I thought it would anyway.
The Infinim probably isn't going to impress audiophiles, and like most Bluetooth headphones, when you throw some complicated music with lots of instruments at it, everything gets a little mushed together (Bluetooth cuts down on the dynamic range). But that doesn't mean it's a bad headphone. It's just a Bluetooth headphone.
Battery life is quite good, with up to 14 hours of music playback (a female voice tells you how full the battery is when you turn the headphone on), and callers said I sounded decent when I used the headphone as a headset. There is apparently some noise reduction, and I think it performs well as a headset, though I did have some trouble when the wind really kicked around me.
While you'll encounter the occasional Bluetooth hiccup, I managed to maintain a pretty consistent wireless connection. No major issues there.
In all, I liked this Tone Infinim -- and liked it better than some previous Tone models. The retractable earbuds are more than a gimmick -- they're actually a useful feature, and it's nice to keep all the cords out of the way when you're not using the headphone, whether you have it stowed around your neck or in a bag. Ideally, it would cost $99 or less, but at a little over $100, it's still recommendable, and for a lot of people the retractable earbuds will be worth the extra cost over less pricey Tone models, which start around $55.