Part of my job requires me to move about town a lot. To calm my mind from the pressures of interviews, deadlines, planning and dreaming up the future, I listen to music or watch my favorite videos either on my iPod Touch or, more recently, on my BlackBerry Torch 9800. What I’ve observed over the years is that it is difficult to mask ambient noise whether this is people chattering nearby or the sound of engine planes or a train screaming along at 100 KPH. I’ve come to depend a lot on my headsets to drown out the noise. In-ear headsets are my preferred solution to the noise as they are very portable (pocketable is more accurate) but the tangles is a constant nuisance. Wireless headsets are an option but there aren’t any versions with in-built noise canceling features. Still I found myself looking at Bluetooth headsets recently. My criteria were ease of use, can connect to most of my portable music and video devices and mobile phones, comfort after prolonged use, and longevity.

Ease of use means I can switch the headset on, connect it to my target device or devices, and get on with my life. You also want to be able to control the volume, and maybe program selection.

Most Bluetooth headsets assume you’re device has a built-in Bluetooth transmitter. Alas my iPod touch (first generation) wasn’t gifted with this feature (thank you Steve Jobs). Finding a Bluetooth transmitter is like looking for a unicorn… people keep telling me they don’t exist.

The ability to connect to pair Bluetooth devices is something most people take for granted. Yes, you can pair most of them but when you are walking about you want the pairing to take effect seamlessly, no mess, and no fuzz.

Bluetooth devices consume power. Let me be clear if my mobile phone’s Bluetooth is on, I have to charge it every day, whether I am using it or not.

The lack of a Bluetooth transmitter literally threw out every available Bluetooth headset in the market except for one: the Altec Lansing Back Beat 906. It is the only headset in the market that comes with a small Bluetooth transmitter out of the box.

The transmitter is a black plastic cartridge about half the thickness of a match box. with about 3cm of wire coming out on one end and a 3.5 inch stereo mini jack. This meant it could connect to my iPod touch and any device for that matter, including my laptop.

The Back Beat 906 (let’s just call it 906) headset itself is of the in-ear variation meaning there is a bit of noise isolation. Each earpiece loops over the back of your ear and once inserted into the ear canal, you are ready to go. The left earpiece has the controls for taking calls while the right earpiece is for adjusting volume and program selection. Each earpiece is connected to the other via a short 21cm of cable.

If, like me, you want to pair a non-Bluetooth ready device to the 906, press the power button on the 906 headset for about six (6) seconds and wait until the indicator light flash red and blue. Then press the tiny button on the transmitter for, also, about six seconds until the indicator light on the transmitter starts flashing red and blue. It takes another five or more seconds before the two are paired together. Once paired, plug the transmitter to the 3.5mm audio jack of your device (in this example, my iPod Touch). Now you can listen or watch your favorite program with being strapped to your player like two peas in a pod.

If your media player or phone has Bluetooth, you will need to pair it to the 906. First thing is to press the same power button on the 906 until the light starts flashing, power up the Bluetooth of your device, pair the two together, and you are in business.

WHAT I LIKE
Surprisingly the headset wasn’t as uncomfortable as I expected it to be. It took a few seconds to figure out how to put it on (no I didn’t have to read the manual) and even less to figure out how the thing works. Most headsets that loop over the ears are not designed for people with glasses. I found the 906 to be comfortable to use with my glasses most times.

I also found that I could connect the 906 to two devices at the same time – my iPod touch via Bluetooth transmitter and my BlackBerry phone. Any incoming call will automatically mute the music coming from the iPod in favor of the voice call coming from the BlackBerry.

One important thing to note is that the Transmitter has no control over the device is plugged into. So I can’t really control – as in skip a track or stop the music altogether – from the 906 headset. I guess you can’t have your cake and eat it to – at least in this instance.

WHAT I DONT LIKE
My single biggest gripe with the 906 is power consumption. The headset and transmitters are rated at 7 hours on playback mode and YY on standby mode. I don’t know what I am doing but I find myself being forced to charge both of these devices every chance I get. Why? I found myself losing power if I power on and power off the device often (don’t know why). The longest use in between charge for me is about five hours of playback. Can I have it last at least a full day? Is it too much to ask?

The other complain I have is the hissing sound that comes from using the transmitter. When paired with the Transmitter you can hear intermittent hissing sound consistently regardless of the volume setting of the headset. This hissing sound doesn’t happen if you don’t pair the headset with the transmitter. I can’t find any reference on the Net as to why this is so.

THINGS TO NOTE
I mentioned briefly about the cable that connects the left and right ear piece. The cable is maybe about 2mm in diameter, thick enough to be hard. Since the cable runs in the back of the neck it can at times be uncomfortable if you flex your head back a bit but it’s a minor discomfort not really worth paying attention to (I just thought I’d be thorough here).

When the 906 is paired to my iPod Touch via transmitter and my BlackBerry, I noticed that I can only use my BlackBerry to make and receive calls. Just to clarify, I can still play my music or video on the BlackBerry phone but just that I can’t hear the music through the 906. Never really figured out why this is so.

Despite these limitations I actually find myself using the 906 more frequently that my wired headset. The first time I tried it I was on a plane ride from Singapore to Hong Kong. I paired the 906 to my iPad and had, at one instance, needed to go to the washroom. I left iGor (my iPad) on my seat, did my thing in the washroom, and got back to my seat without missing a beat. How cool is that?

Do I still use my wired headsets? Yeah I do, mostly when the 906 runs out of juice. Other than that, the Altec Lansing Back Beat 906 has grown on me. Unless you are an audiophile, the 906 offers a useful alternative to traditional wired headsets if you want to get out of the tangle and mess of wired headsets.

OTHER REVIEWS

CNET

PC World

PHOTOS

Altec Lansing Back Beat 906

Altec Lansing Back Beat 906

Altec Lansing Back Beat 906 left earpiece

Altec Lansing Back Beat 906 left earpiece

Altec Lansing Back Beat 906 left earpiece when worn

Altec Lansing Back Beat 906 left earpiece when worn

Altec Lansing Back Beat 906 right earpiece

Altec Lansing Back Beat 906 right earpiece

Altec Lansing Back Beat 906 right earpiece when worn

Altec Lansing Back Beat 906 right earpiece when worn

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