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

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Stereo Bluetooth headphones are still a rarity compared with wireless single-ear headsets, but the Tone HBS-700 and subsequent Tone+ HBS-730 models from LG have been longstanding favorites. Their neckband/integrated earbud design is comfortable to wear and you get decent sound -- for Bluetooth, anyway -- for around $50.

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7.0

LG Tone Ultra (HBS-800)

Pricing Not Available

The Good

The <b>LG Tone Ultra HBS-800</b> is a Bluetooth stereo headset that improves on the design of the previous Tone models and is comfortable to wear. It also offers better sound (more bass, better clarity) and decent battery life, particularly when you turn the noise-canceling off.

The Bad

Expensive compared with previous LG Tone stereo headsets; noise-canceling feature didn't seem to make a difference.

The Bottom Line

With a little help from JBL, the LG Tone Ultra wireless stereo headset gets a design and sound quality upgrade -- along with an unwelcome price bump.

I was excited then to learn that LG had partnered up with JBL to bring out a step-up model, the Tone Ultra HBS-800, which offers "JBL's signature sound," active noise-canceling technology, and Google Voice Actions Integration to the feature set found in the HBS-730. The design has also been modified for the better.

That's all well and good -- and the Tone Ultra HBS-800 is a mostly very good product. The only problem is it lists for $130 and, at least at launch, is selling for close to that online. That's more than double what the still-available HBS-730 costs, and while the HBS-800's sound and design are better, for some people those improvements may not be significant enough to justify spending the extra dough. It also doesn't help that it's hard to tell whether the noise-canceling actually does anything.

Design and features
I've always liked the design of LG's Tone headsets. The neckband wraps around your neck loosely, with the the controls resting near the start of your clavicles, and it's light enough that you don't really notice it's there after a while. When you're not using the earbuds, you store them in the tips of the neckband (the earbuds adhere magnetically to the neckband).

The Tone Ultra HBS-800 comes in white or black and incorporates an updated design and feature set Sarah Tew/CNET

In moving from the Tone to Tone +, LG only made very minor changes to the design. But with the Tone Ultra, it definitely listened to some of the complaints that users had. For instance, a lot of people didn't like how bright the blue light was that let you know the device was paired wirelessly with your device (it pulsated). In this model, that light is now a tiny LED and it's been moved to the inside edge of the neckband so it's less visible.

The neckband itself also has a little curve to it, which doesn't make much of a difference, but the headset rests slightly better on top of your shoulders. More importantly, both the headphone cords and the clips that attach the cords to the neckband have been thickened up, which keeps the cords from detaching and makes them more tangle-resistant.

Last but not least, the designers also changed the shape of some of the most used buttons, so you can more easily operate them by feel. For example, the call answer/end button is shaped like a phone, not a circle.

LG Tone Ultra Bluetooth Stereo Headset (pictures)

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Like typical in-ear headphones, these come with a few different sized eartips. To maximize bass response, you'll want to pick the size that gets you the tightest seal (I tend to go with large tips but in the case of the HBS-800, I found I was able to jam the medium-size tips better into my ear canal).

It's worth noting that the plastic driver housings appear to be slightly larger on this model. It's also worth mentioning that despite the higher price tag, the HBS-800's build quality, aside from the aforementioned thicker cords and fasteners, isn't any swankier or sturdier than the step-down models.

Once I established a pairing with my iPhone 5S (I also tried it with a Samsung Galaxy S4 and Google Moto X), I fiddled around with the controls, which are generally well-placed and, as I said, can be operated by feel. You have volume control on the left edge of the headband and a call answer/end button (as well voice control) on the top left. The right edge is where you'll find the track skip/forward back controls and the right top has pause and play buttons.

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.

LG_Tone_Ultra_headphones_35834976_35834977_20.jpg
7.0

LG Tone Ultra (HBS-800)

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Sound 7Value 6