Just as surely as video killed the radio star, the success of the smartphone caused standalone digital music players to take a nosedive. It's clear, however, that Sony can't quite let the MP3 device world of yesteryear go. Its $149.99 Smart Wireless Headset Pro, touted as a Bluetooth headset offering the convenience of cordless calling, sports a cable you can't ignore. That said, it's a truly flexible device that serves up pleasing audio quality, and does connect to handsets so you can conduct hands-free calls and receive basic mobile alerts.
When I first held the Sony Smart Wireless Headset Pro in my hands I immediately experienced a flashback of a bygone era. That's because the device looks suspiciously like a small MP3 player from days of old.
The gadget consists of two parts, a main rectangular unit about the size your average USB stick, and a pair of corded earbud headphones with an in-line microphone. Further reinforcing the music player motif is a small two-row OLED screen that sits on the front of the device. Next to the screen is relatively large circular Action Key that performs a range of functions depending on the situation.
Running along the top edge of the Smart Wireless Headset is a long bar that controls track playback (Next, Play/Pause, Previous) along with a Back button. The device's bottom edge holds a smaller volume rocker while on the left side is a standard 3.5mm headphone jack with a miniscule power button shoehorned in next to it.
I found most controls comfortable to operate even without looking, especially the rockers, which are thoughtfully contoured with peaks and valleys to help distinguish their separate buttons. That said, they're difficult to tell apart blindly since they have a similar feel. I also had trouble with the power key. My fingers barely had room to press it since the button sits so close to the headphone jack.
It was all too easy to hit the Action Key by accident, too, particularly when I wanted to press open the clip located on the product's back. The right side of the Smart Wireless Headset Pro features a cap covering a microSD Card slot (the device comes with a 2GB card) and a Micro-USB port for both charging and for transferring files.
For a product billed as wireless, the Sony Smart Wireless Headset Pro sure comes with a lot of cords. For starters, the included earbuds use a flat wide cable that annoyingly isn't long enough to let you stow the device in pants pockets or even clip it to a belt. The cord is copious enough, however, to become a nuisance.
Also, the cord's rubbery coating adds a premium feel but tends to grab onto itself and nearby objects like bag straps and buttons. Still, it doesn't knot as easily as thinner headphone wires I've used. Sadly this all adds up to a product that's unwieldy at best and at worst extremely frustrating to those with little patience.
Classifying the Sony Smart Wireless Headset Pro and what it can do can be a little tricky. Despite its headset title, this gadget is really a souped-up, hyper-networked digital-audio player. Like old-school portable music players such as the SanDisk Sansa Clip, the Smart Wireless Headset Pro functions both as a standalone audio device capable of playing tracks you transfer to it and as a wireless Bluetooth accessory.
For this purpose, the Headset comes with a 2GB microSD card to slide into its card slot. Sony says the slot accepts cards up to 32GB. Also in the box are a microSD Card reader (connects via USB), a Micro-USB AC adapter, and a short USB-to-Micro-USB cable. You have the option of loading the Headset Pro with tracks either by directly connecting it to a PC over USB (which mounts the device as a data drive), or by filling its microSD card with tunes using the provided card reader.
As a Bluetooth 3.0-capable gadget, the Smart Wireless Headset links to Bluetooth-equipped phones so you can place and receive calls and stream phone-based stereo audio to its earbuds. It supports Bluetooth Multipoint, too, which lets you pair with two Bluetooth devices at once, say two phones or even a phone and a laptop.
At a basic level, the Smart Wireless Headset operates as a standard stereo Bluetooth headset. Downloading and installing the LiveWare Manager Android app enables more features. Just like Sony's SmartWatch accessory, paired with the company's software, the device can perform neat tricks like displaying text messages, e-mail, and calendar reminders pulled from connected Android smartphones.
For instance, pressing the Action button once calls up a list of recent text messages. Holding down the Action button commands the Headset Pro to show your phone's call log. A more mundane feature is the FM tuner that will provide song and other programming information if the tuned station transmits it.
My experience with the Sony Smart Wireless Headset Pro was mostly pleasant. Setting up the device to operate with both a Sony Xperia S (unlocked, Android 4.0 ICS) and Samsung Galaxy Nexus (unlocked, Android 4.1 JB) went smoothly. I simply turned on the headset and held its power button until a rotating sync icon appeared on the device's screen. I then found the Headset Pro in each test phone's Bluetooth settings menu and tapped its listing to pair.
I then enjoyed podcasts and music streamed wirelessly from my test handset and was also able to pause, resume, and skip ahead or back tracks in my queue directly from the Headset Pro. Adding music to the device was breeze, too, a matter of connecting it to my Windows PC and dragging files over.
I found audio quality piped through the Smart Wireless Headset good as well, with my test tracks having a decent amount of bass. The earbuds' soft rubbery tips provided a high degree of sound isolation, more than the Samsung Refined Sound EHS71 earphones, for example. Unlike the EHS71s, which sounded too bright and brash to my ears, the Smart Wireless Headset produced rich sound, though the highs were somewhat muddy.
On calls, the in-line mic picked up my voice and even ambient sounds such as people talking nearby very well. Callers on the other end had trouble discerning that I was chatting from a headset and voices came through the earbuds loud and clear on my side.
The Headset Pro's fancy smartphone functions worked as advertised, which is surprising considering my experience with the Sony SmartWatch. Paired with my Samsung Galaxy Nexus running Sony's LiveWare app, I easily viewed texts and e-mail and browsed my call log from the headset.
Sony rates the Smart Wireless Headset with an 11-hour battery life, whether playing music or talking on the phone. This claimed battery life is in line with longevity I observed anecdotally. I used the device heavily for a full workday but had to charge it twice within 24 hours.
The Sony Smart Wireless Headset Pro feels to me like an aging MP3 player brought back to life from the heady days of 2004 and taught a few new Bluetooth tricks. Its $149.99 price is steep for a set of earbud headphones no matter how good they sound. If you view the product as a portable music device that also happens to link to Android smartphones to provide information at a glance and limited call handling, it makes more sense, but not by much.
Today we live in the age of the smartphone, which now serves as the ultimate personal digital audio player. I'd also rather view texts and other alerts on a screen designed to do it best, namely a smartphone screen. That's why I don't recommend toting multiple gadgets around that serve the same basic purpose, especially one that's wireless in name only and that's physically hard to handle. Unless you want to convert a favorite set of headphones into a Bluetooth-capable device, I say skip the Smart Wireless Headset Pro in favor of a truly wireless stereo headset or a pair of quality corded headphones.