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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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The Good The LG Tone Ultra HBS-800 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.

7.0 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Sound 7
  • Value 6

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.

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.

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.

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